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.
- 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.