The prejudgment of a person or group due to their cultural background. These can be both good or bad, as in "Black people are lazy" or "Japanese people are really smart". Either way, it's just plain wrong.

Racism is a difficult attitude to avoid. Very few people can claim to have no prejudgements about people of other races, although many people work hard to eliminate their personal prejudices and many others do their best to keep their racist thoughts limited and private. Sometimes, people act on their racist thoughts, either through violence or through hateful speech--this is called bigotry. A racist is not necessarily a bigot.

It is impossible not to be a racist. No matter how hard they try to avoid it, all humans have the natural tendency to subconsciously think that their way is right until proven otherwise... This applies to race as well. I am (unfortunately) racist myself, but I don't act on it. I go to Little Rock Central High, and I'm in the white minority. I've (inexplicably) been called a nigga before (in the derogatory sense of the word, not the friendly), and on one of the first days of Junior High, I sat down by some black people at lunch and one of them told me to go sit with my "own kind..." Fortunately, one of them stood up for me, but I was still in the scared-quiet phase of Junior High, so I just sat there and looked confused.

Perhaps racism is even partially justified... I moved to Little Rock from Branson, Missouri and I'd hardly seen five black people in my life. I couldn't understand how they spoke or how they acted - they constituted a whole alien culture for me. By now I've learned to like people of all races, no thanks to constant bombardment by Martin Luther King, Jr. videos, but thanks to pure experience and tolerance.

Technically, racism is belief of one human 'race' (the term itself being a bit over) being superior to other. The idea itself is not as Bad Thing as it is considered today; it is not beyond reason to theorize that one race, having separate gene pool, could not be somehow superior or inferior to other. Actually, it might even be foolish to think all would be exactly as 'superior'.

The problem is, 'superior' is hardly a scalar value. Like different species, human races could be specialized to their environments, making others superior in some areas and other races in other areas. Note that I'm not saying "making all to be good at something"; that comment has no base. It is no certainty. It's like saying all computer software is good at something.

But, the logic above doesn't apply in the light of recent studies; it appears that the differences between human races are, except for looks, pretty much negligible. Or so I heard. I think the analogy was, "humans from separate continents have less difference than gorillas from separate parts of woods". The statement above sounds a bit strange, but now that Apartheid has eased up a bit it seems it is correct. Therefore, racism is, now, basically a dead theory.

Fourth, the racism's innocent ideas were, as usual, applied wrong by people who didn't realize, or didn't want to realize, what it was all about. It was only theory, not a justification to kill people before they could prove themselves. That is what made it so wrong that now people are action on racists like racists were acting on other races. Both are theoretically wrong, but since we're not Free World, and people here are inherently irrational, persecuting racists is fine.

Racism is probably one of the saddest products of our society, and anybody can be a victim or a persecutor.

I heard a radio program here in the UK detailing the story of a young man who returned to his ancestral home of West Africa; his family were originally slaves shipped over to England hundreds of years ago.

He traveled around the coastal towns, looking at the history of the slave trade; the fortified towers where the slaves were kept for weeks or months until the next boat turned up...Told how the women were raped; other stories of how evil people could really be. His travelling companion, an American woman said 'I don't think I'll ever be able to look at another white person in the same way again...'

Having listened to the previous depravities I could well understand why; but me coming from a rural part of East Anglia, far away in time and space from this; I'm thinking 'Shit, what can I say, or do in light of this, damned for the sins of my ancestors' Aside from not committing the same acts, or thinking the same thoughts, perhaps not a lot.

The guy travelled around a bit more, and in one of these towns found a statue erected by tribal elders, by way of apology for some of their tribes past crimes. He asked his guide 'Why the statue was there, what crimes did they have to apologise for?', his guide explained that it was a slave trade. Tribes or nations would prey on others, and sell to the slave ships.

One of the most moving stories I've ever heard; there is such a thing as monsters, and they're us.

The previous writeup gives an excellent broad definition of racism, and addresses interesting scientific and philosophical issues. The word racism itself however, is quite a loaded term in American society today. When asking ourselves the question "what is racism?", we have to take into account the connotation of the word and how it is used. As in the previous writeup, this is also an America-centric discussion of racism. In other parts of the world, the concept of race is quite different, and a discussion of the difference between American and Eastern European racism would be a quite interesting topic.

Most reasonable people agree that racism is a bad thing, but many people who are accused of being racist vehemently deny having any racist thoughts. Personally I like the term prejudice to describe the unavoidable generalization and stereotyping that everyone is subjected to. I say unavoidable, because it is a consequence of the human brain's function that we generalize and experience immediate impressions of everything we see. Without this mechanism, it would be impossible to function (and survive in nature).

In the fight against racism, the exact details of what type of prejudgement are based exclusively on race is a tedious and unnecessary detail. The important thing is, of course, how racism affects people, and from that how we can personally avoid racist comments and actions.

Politically one of the most commonly discussed aspect of racism is exclusion from the American power structure. Intiatives such as Affirmative Action have been proposed and implemented in an attempt to compensate for the past injustices that were systematically inflicted on minorities in America. Minority advocates differ on their assessment effectiveness of such measures. I am not prepared to judge such a contentious issue. What I will say is that Affirmative Action alone can do little to help society permanently banish racism.

I mention this to hilight the fact that superficial rules and legislation don't solve the current problem America has with racism. After all, we already have plenty of anti-racist legislation. To really solve this problem and all the subsequent problems of cultural isolationism, people must make a concerted effort to understand each other. This starts by pushing your prejudices to the back of your mind. When you meet a person, respond to what they say, and not what you think of them based on how they look. Ask open-ended questions that don't make assumptions. Almost all racist statements boil down to either a generalization about a group of people, or an assumption about an individual based on something other than concrete knowledge about them.

For the vehement anti-racist, a high level of tolerance is necessary. Ironically, condemning racists outright is against the spirit of anti-racism. Because our personalities are shaped by our experiences, and because we all have unique experiences, judging someone else can never be logically justified. The best thing we can do to fight racism is turn a cheek to racism and prejudice which we ourselves experience. Responding in anger only increases the negative emotions and may reinforce negative attitudes. By exuding understanding and refusing to instinctively retaliate, we create the best possible outcome from a bad situation.

Finally, just as important as not reacting negatively to racism, is positive education of those near you when they propagate racist ideas. If you have a friend who is racist, the only way they will change is if they realize the negativity of what they are doing. Who else besides a friend would they actually listen to?

The drive down to Georgia was thankfully uneventful. The lady, a co-worker of my Mom's whom I was helping move, was good company, the rental truck was well-behaved (even though it lacked cruise control or a tape player for the CD adapter I borrowed from my girlfriend,) and we never got lost. I had to drive the whole way, but it wasn't bad; I was able to put myself into that special Driving Trance where the hours just seem to fly by, and we made it to Atlanta in about 11 hours.

The really bad part about the whole thing was the lady's daughter and her family. They were really nice to me, and the most entreprenurial people I've ever met. It's a whole family of people all bent on the accumulation of wealth through wheeling and dealing. And the most racist people I've ever met.

I guess I shouldn't be suprised, this being The South, and this lady's entire family being well on the redneck side, but these people weren't your standard mulleted, trailer-park, 1981 Trans-Am driving, unfortunate facial-hair types like you think of when you think of rednecks. They had a nice house and nice stuff, a respectable business (or 2 or 3 of them, actually) and they had all kinds of nice pickup-truck-type vehicles. They even owned their own Bobcat.

But it seems like half the things out of their mouths were about black people and their lack of positive qualities, to put it kindly. It was awful. The first thing out of the husband's mouth when I got there was about how he had some nigger drivers and how cocky they were. There wasn't even any reason for him to talk about it, but he got to rag on black people, so why not? He was the only one in the family that used the n-word in front of me, and he was more redneck than the rest of them, so I guess it was to be expected. Right?

We went to Olive Garden for dinner, and the daughter told me how they had just opened the place up, and it was always busy. "You can't hardly get in because of all the black people." I don't believe I've ever heard anyone speak in italics before, but she managed it. Quite a lot, actually. Out in public, there was always a furtive look, a close-in lean, and then the italics would begin.

They live in a predominantly black neighborhood. It's tough for me to understand who else would be at the Olive Garden, given the demographics. And it's not like this is a ghetto. The place had nice homes, a busy commercial district with lots of new development, and it seemed to be full of honest, hard-working, normal, everyday people.

They complained about how the state flag didn't really include the confederate one, because the black people didn't want people to be able to vote on the issue. (I can't imagine why not.) They had had some tile work done recently in their house, and it was of low quality, "and it was even white boys that did it!" Suprise and shock, I'm sure, because we all know there are no idiot white people. There was the tired "the blacks moved in so the whites moved out" story about the area. They complained endlessly about affirmative action. It just went on and on, and by the time I was ready to go to bed, I was so worked up I couldn't get to sleep.

I guess anybody who knows about this kind of thing is thinking about now "Yeah, racists. So what? Get over it." I think my problem is that I've lived in such a happy little bubble that I had completely convinced myself that racism was a thing of the past, relegated to people who were so low on the social totem pole that the only way they could feel good about themselves was to convince themselves that somebody else was lower. But here I had nice, successful southern people, who had nothing to fear and everything to be thankful for and no reason to hate, but they hate all the same.

So now that my illusion is shattered, I kind of worry about everyone. I don't worry about my friends or family, but these people hid their feelings pretty well in public. As a black person, how would you ever really know about someone? If there are these people who talk complete shit when it's just "us whites" around, how many are there? Does everybody do it? They'd never admit it to you (assuming you are a minority) if they did, and their non-racist friends probably wouldn't say anything so as not to lose them as friends. Everybody knows that racists are by definition closed-minded, so what's the point of arguing with them about it?

That's what really got to me: my own unwillingness to say anything contrary to their beliefs. I felt filthy just sitting there and taking that stuff. I never nodded or gave any positive sign of agreement, but I never openly disagreed with them, either, and that, I feel, is as good as agreement. I get the feeling they didn't have any idea that I might not feel the same way as they do. I certainly never did anything to let them know otherwise. Well, I take that back; when they were talking about affirmative action and how dispicable it was, I said, blandly, "I get the impression that a lot of things around here are determined by race." That was my one little backhanded stab at all that disgusting stuff, and I don't know if they even caught it. I think they did, because it kind of shut them up. But this wasn't until the next day when we were driving back to the airport, and the entire night before I felt absolutely filthy.

I understand that I don't understand anything about racism. I probably never will. I can only talk to black people about it and find out what they've experienced, but it's not the kind of thing you like to bring up with someone you don't know very well. I wish I had more black friends; as it is, I know one guy, a close friend's roommate, and he's always out with a girlfriend or being in plays or whatever, so I don't usually get to see him. There're probably all kinds of horrors out there that I'll never know anything about. But I've finally glimpsed an ugly, ugly side of humanity, and it really kind of scared me.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Alec Baldwin knows.

A 'Bad Thing'

The terms 'racist' and 'racism' are perhaps two of the most provocative words in the English language. They are representative of the destructive and vicious capacities that are inherent to the human condition. As a concept, 'racism' is bound to the darker side of human nature: the desire to be superior, to exploit, to segregate or even to behave violently.

Racism has a broad range of influences, with particular communities, whole countries or even entire continents able to suffer from its effects. 'Racism' can take varying forms, from subtle acts of exclusion to determined and premeditated acts of violence. It can affect people because of how they look, what they believe, where they come from, or who their parents happened to be. There does not appear to be a distinct and universally accepted definition of 'racism'. No one group practises it or suffers from it, no one action constitutes it. Nevertheless, whatever 'racism' is, it is generally recognised as being a bad thing.

Aside from being a 'bad thing' that lacks a precise definition, 'racism' is an emotionally involved idea. The term cannot be used dispassionately. It involves making a moral judgement, and making an accusation. Anyone else involved in this judgement or accusation is then also going to be forced to make their own moral judgement and choices. 'Racism' carries very definite ideas, even if it lacks a definition itself.

If 'racism' — whatever it might be — is so tightly bound to the human condition and takes on so many different forms in different situations, the question arises as to its origin. Is it ingrained into the human being, or it is something that has evolved? Without trying to impose our ideals onto those who have gone before us, can we see if they have exhibited 'racist' tendencies?

Origins of the term

The term 'racism' was first used in the 1930s. A word was needed to describe the Nazi attitude towards Jewish people. So here, it would refer to the abuse and oppression of a particular group of people based on no more than who their parents were. It's a good starting point, but it does not take into account 'racism' based on creed, or on colour, or on origin. The 1989 Oxford English Dictionary defines 'racism' as: 'the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race.' But then we run into another problem: what do we mean by 'race'?

Colonialism, Race and Racism

Along with the growth of eighteenth and nineteenth century colonialism, the concept of 'race' began to flourish. By 1850 Robert Knox had offered his The Races of Men as the perceived definition of the divisions that existed between human groups and their inherent qualities and characteristics. The so-called characteristics and qualities that were associated with 'race' (and more often than not based on nothing more than somatic features, with blackness coming to symbolise this inferiority) were then used to categorise humankind into some form of hierarchy. Of course, it has since been proved that the idea of 'race' as discrete divisions amongst the human population which carry with them inherent characteristics, qualities and flaws is false.

However, the errors of Knox and his contemporaries served them well. Unsurprisingly, it was white Europeans who were placed at the head of the totem pole of humankind. Knox and his contemporaries had developed their theories from their experiments, from their experiences and from the events that were surrounding them in contemporary society. Colonialism was not the product of the development of racial theory, ideas of difference and superiority already existed. It was colonialism that galvanised these ideas into a theory and placed it on the world stage, complete with conquest and exploitation. Any pre-existing ideologies of superiority and difference that fed into the picture of 'race' would have arisen through internal politics and social situations.

Nationalism and Racism

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were times of great political and social change throughout Europe. Wars, revolutions and scientific progress combined to create a world where people were looking at new possibilities and searching for new definitions. It was only around this time that the idea of the nation state was really born. Along with the idea of belonging to a country came the notion of the outsider. Territorial borders meant institutions and systems, and that meant inhabitants who were a part of the system, and those beyond it who were not.

But where does nationalism fit in with ideas of 'racism'? On the one hand, it can be argued that nationalism is an internal issue, focussing on a shared aim or destiny; whereas racism is based on class, and purity of identity. Alternatively, racism can be linked to the nationalistic idea of boundaries, of insiders and outsiders, of those who belong, and those who do not belong. If racism is about boundaries and definitions, it means that there is an argument for racism being transported into the colonial context, and being applied to skin colour, rather than being generated in colonialism.

In the post-Enlightenment world, the idea of community was something that became popular. But community also means exclusion: it is about insiders and outsiders. This combined with the new idea of the nation state and the idea of white European superiority over the supposedly inferior black African evolved. But the point is, racism did not begin here; perceptions of difference, of inferiority, ideas of insiders and outsiders, means that it had much earlier roots. For the empire-builders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the ancient world — and particularly the Roman Empire — offered them a justification for their colonial activities and use of slave-labour. For them, the ancient world had perceptions of superiority that they in turn were able to manipulate for their own purposes. Even if Roman society was one devoid of ideas of 'racism', its potential to be seen that way has fed into later ideas of 'racism'.

Belonging and Not Belonging

The concept that some people belong and others do not belong seems to be something that has existed as long as human kind. Humans have always established communities, or belonged to a particular tribe. Along with these communities come boundaries. 'Racism' could be interpreted as a consequence of these boundaries.

From here, it is important to understand that although theories pertaining to 'racism' were developed in the light of colonialism and post-colonial attitudes, they were not based purely on the situation of imperial dominance. In other words, racism did not arise from the development of the false idea of 'race'. The concept of racism was something that existed before anyone had tried to categorise human beings as Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid or anything else, but it took on those elements as it evolved. 'Racism' is a socially constructed ideology and it is based on ideas of difference between groups of people.

Towards a Definition

That 'racism' can be construed as a socially constructed ideology is integral to its evolution, and to the application of the idea of 'racism' throughout history. It means that the subject of 'racist' treatment is not necessarily going to be the same group of people over time, and neither is the form of 'racist' abuse that they suffer going to be the same, either. Furthermore, the group who define (either deliberately or subconsciously) and practise 'racism' will alter, too. The dynamics of those who suffer and those who practise 'racism' is dependent on the contemporary political and social circumstances.

So, it seems that racism has three key points, and a following, closely linked, fourth point. The first point is that racism is a socially constructed system, which also makes it open to change. The second point is that there have to be two groups: one perceived as 'normal', which is the aggressor, one perceived as the 'Other', which suffers. Thirdly, the 'Other' is judged as intrinsically inferior in some way compared to the 'normal' group. The fourth related point is that the aggressor suppresses, oppresses or abuses the 'Other' on account of these perceived inadequacies. Hence, racism does not have to be associated with an action (although it can be, and frequently is) to be classified as racism.

A Slippery Thing

Part of the appeal of the racist ideology to those who wish to use it — and part of the nightmare for those who wish to fight it — is the illogical nature of racism. It is a malleable and constantly evolving idea. The positive qualities of a particular group of people (perhaps that they are hardworking or successful) can be turned against them into a negative argument (they fill all of the jobs and are greedy). That group of people need not be the same group of people from one day to the next; it is whoever society wants it to be.


Based on chapter 1 of my dissertation: Inside-out: Racism and the Early Imperial Roman Cultural Ideal.



Bibliography:

  • Anderson, B: Imagined Communities, CUP, 1983.
  • Fenton, S: Ethnicity: Race, Class and Culture, MacMillan, London, 1999.
  • Malik, K: The Meaning of Race: Race History and Culture in a Western Society, MacMillan, London, 1996.
  • Miles, R: Racism, Routledge, London, 1990.

Historical

The most brutal and unforgiving aspect of racism is the way that, for the suffering victim, the cause of suffering can never be erased. Hate me because I am a criminal and I can reform; hate me because of my wealth and I can give it away; but hate me because of the blood in my veins and there is nothing I can do but vainly hope that you will change. This creates horrific psychological circumstances for the victim because even if racism is only tacit or only exists at the margins of society, it is forever there as a dividing line between potential sufferers of it and perpetrators. Racism is as ineradicable as other human evils.

Man - if not all, then certainly some - has a tendency towards racism as part of his in-built nature, but he also has the ability to shed his racism through reason. If you do not believe the former assertion, I present as evidence the entirety of human history and your contemporary surroundings. Do not let your own beliefs, however true, blind you to the delusions of others. Like all things that rest on reason and against people's in-built prejudices, opposition to racism is fragile. This is not to excuse racism, but merely to recognize that it will always exist and always be prone to come to the fore at times of societal stress. As an analogy, one does not condone murder, but one would be a downright fool to deny that murderers exist and always will exist.

Perched in their comfortable homes in Western Europe, my ancestors knew nothing of the diversity of life in the rest of the world and were shocked to discover that men lived in such inhospitable conditions in Africa that they had been burned black by the sun. The mere fact of different skin colour was a profound shock, just as it was a shock to those encountering white people for the first time. But the disparity of power gave whites something extra - it gave them an enormous feeling of superiority. A "civilized" European had not the mental apparatus to realize his common humanity with other races, who lived so differently from him and in what appeared to him to be retrograde conditions.

Europeans were much more likely to retreat into their prejudice than to suddenly invent the doctrine of human rights out of the ether. They did not know that the world was a huge globe filled with an enormous variety of ways of living and that they were not the centre of it - they shared these misconceptions with every other civilization that has existed. What was tragic was that they became the first people to be able to extend their power on a global level and allow their prejudices to lead to injustice on such a titanic scale. They were horribly wrong and we do not excuse them - but any of you who thinks you would have immediately penned the Declaration of the Rights of Man upon encountering an African tribe in 1650 is deluding yourself.

Modern

Thankfully change came and the theoretical and scientific basis for racism was thoroughly eradicated. Europeans invented the Rights of Man out of parochial self-interest - as an assertion by the lower classes against the aristocracy, who practiced a racism of their own - and then finally they recognized, at least in theory, that these rights extended to all of the people on the globe. These gains were hard won in ambiguous circumstances, and they are threatened. Social racism remains as a plague in the West, operating in ways too numerous to count - from the subtle tyranny of low expectations to downright discrimination.

Even our theoretical acceptance of everyone's equality has not eradicated prejudice, and in a sense it can cover it up. It is very hard for someone who has not suffered racism to understand what it feels like, and sufferers often feel an inability to communicate their feelings except to fellow sufferers. An atmosphere of theoretical acceptance can actually create shame in suffering racism, as if one is letting the side down by highlighting prejudice and drawing attention to an unwelcome and uneasy fact. No-one knew this better than European Jews during the nineteenth century, where in certain cities the collective identity of the Jews broke down and they all sought an individual escape into society via assimilation and a denial of their Jewish birth.

One such person was Rahel Varnhagen, a Jew from Berlin who was born towards the end of the eighteenth century. Rahel lived at a time when Jewish emancipation was proceeding but the most horrible social prejudices remained; and she lived with them all her life, a woman destroyed and driven to melancholy brooding by her complete alienation from the world around her. Society would not accept her in Berlin, no matter how much she wished to join in - she was marked out by what she called her "infamous birth" for ever.

All this intelligent, vivacious woman wanted her whole life was to be accepted and given a place in the world of her own. Any place would have been better than none. Unable to find acceptance, she poured her heart into diaries and letters, trying with all her might to prevent her own passage from history in silent death - Rahel wanted to leave a testimony to the ages, in the hope that even though those around her could not understand, that someone in the future would do so. I do not understand you, Rahel - I never can. I am not the first man to be captivated by this woman across the centuries and I will not be the last, but even I will close these books soon and they will drift from my memory and it will be again like she never existed.

When this happens, there is one thing I want to remember for ever. It is this dream of Rahel's, which she related in conversation to two different men in an attempt to gain their understanding. It is the most eloquent and yet the simplest expression of what it means to suffer racism - to never be freed from one's birth in a society that sees that birth as a disgrace - that I know of. It must also be one of the earliest written accounts of what it was like to suffer racism in modern Europe. I'd like you to remember it as well.

Rahel dreamed that she was up in Heaven with Bettina Brentano - a writer and social outcast, but not a Jew - and the Mother of God. They were looking back on their lives and discussing their misfortunes in a "kind of confessional".

"Do you know mortification?" we asked each other, for instance. And if we had felt this particular form of suffering in our lives, we said: "Yes that I know", with a loud cry of grief, and the particular form of suffering we were speaking of was rent from the heart, the pain multiplied a hundredfold: but then we were rid of it forever and felt wholly sound and light. The Mother of God was quiet all the while, only said Yes! to each question, and also wept.

Bettina asked: "Do you know the suffering of love?" Whimpering and almost howling, I exclaimed, while the tears streamed and I held a handkerchief over my face, a long, long Yes! "Do you know mortification?" Yes! again yes. "Do you know enduring wrong, injustice?" Yes! "Do you know murdered youth?" Yes! I whimper again in a long-drawn-out tone, dissolving in tears.

We are finished, our hearts pure, but mine was still filled with the heavy burden of earth; I sit up, look excitedly at the other women, and want my burden taken from me; in words spoken thickly, but with extreme distinctness, because I want to receive the answer Yes to this question too, I ask: "Do you two know — disgrace?" Both shrink away from me as if in horror, though with still something of pity in their gesture; they glance rapidly at one another and try, in spite of the confined space, to move away from me.

In a state bordering on madness I scream: "I have not done anything. It's nothing I have done. I have not done anything. I am innocent!" The women believe me; I see that by the rigid way they lie still, no longer unwillingly, but they no longer understand me. "Woe," I cry out, weeping as if my heart were threatening to melt away, "they do not understand me either. Never, then! This burden I must keep; I knew that. Forever! Merciful God! Woe!" Utterly beside myself, I hastened my awakening."

Rahel dreamed this dream for many years and she never found anyone - from Berlin to Paris to Prague - who would understand it or not recoil from the attempt to do so. She died in 1833, married to a man who could never understand the "disgrace" she felt at her own birth - and yet was her only friend in the world. Her tragedy has been repeated hundreds of millions of times and will be again.

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