Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Are you racist?

In this post, I want to examine what racism is. Followers of my blog will know this is one of a series of posts in response to Mona Eltahawy's post: The Arab World's Dirty Secret: Racism. (You may be interested to read my earlier post on why I started writing on racism in Egypt.)

UN definition

Let's start off with the UN's definition of racism:
According to UN International Conventions, "the term "racial discrimination" shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life."
[UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, NEW YORK, 7 March 1966]

My understanding of the above definition is that a country or organisation practises racial discrimination if it tries to diminish someone else's rights based on their race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin.

It would seem the easiest way you can nail racism down is if you show the existence of written laws or rules to that effect. For example, the apartheid regime in pre-1990 South Africa.

Practically, a judge or court can deem someone as racist if there is verifiable evidence of discrimination.

The cornerstone of the racism definition is the phrase: "race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin". Let's use one word to summarise this: "background".

Note that "background" excludes other things that people are prejudiced about: gender, height, wealth, obesity, status, age, religion, etc.

"Racism" is a political, past-orientated view based on current definitions of "colour", "race", "ethnic origin", and "nationality origin". I mean, in determining someone's background we typically rely on present-day convention.

Explicit and implicit racism

Imagine Mr X, a person in a position of relative power; he works in a company inhabited mostly by people of his background. Someone of a different background has interviewed for a job in his company. Because the applicant is qualified, Mr X hires her without hesitation.

At home, Mr X has a maid of a different background to his, and he has no issues with that. Mr X sits in the same bus as people of other backgrounds. He chats with them everywhere - at the newsagents, while waiting for the doctor, in a restaurant, etc. Mr X has no problems submitting himself to their professional judgment as doctors, judges, or driving-test administrators.

Mr X is not a racist, clearly.

But there is another side to Mr X. His wife is of a certain background and he never imagined her otherwise. If someone of a different background annoyed Mr X while driving, he factors their background into his voiced disapproval. He would not share a hotel room with people of certain backgrounds; nor would Mr X imagine his daughter marrying people of certain backgrounds. When he is surrounded by people of other backgrounds, Mr X feels suffocated. He cannot help but think certain things when he starts conversations with people of other backgrounds. After a few minutes of chatting with people of other backgrounds, Mr X thinks it is time to move on.

Is Mr X racist? Where is the threshold?

Trust and familiarity

To my mind, racist attitudes reflect "implied trust". If I trust people of a certain background (typically of my same background), and implicitly mistrust "others", I am taking a step in the direction of racism. Racists put trust, familiarity, relatability above everything else, including other people's rights and freedoms.

The everyday way of looking at racism is that: We assume those who look like us went through what went we went through and, so, we would relate to them easily. We feel closer to those we can understand, or those we think we can understand. Of course, we are often wrong about this assumption.

Academic research on prejudice is huge; it is impossible to do it justice here.

There is evidence to show that us-against-them thinking _is_ hardwired in the brain - mainly for self-protection. And often, racism is explained as an aspect of the mechanisms of instinctive us-versus-them. However, this theory is gradually getting discredited.

There is evidence to show that racist attitudes come about as justification after an event has caused some people to be cast as "others". For example, the US white settlers came up with their racist attitudes and laws because they were exploiting the black slaves and needed "good reason" to do so.

This is a powerful point: events cause separation of people into groups, and then one group begins to justify its superiority with "reasons" that connect directly to the other group's traits. Not only are people from our background relatable, familiar, and trustworthy, people of other backgrounds are nasty, ignorant, backward, hell-bent on destruction, primitive, unworthy, etc. And this is why it is good that we are superior.

Concentric circles of racism

Returning to my example above, was Mr X racist? Clearly not, he does not exhibit classic signs of _explicit_ racism. In fact, according to the UN definition, he is not racist. He has not diminished other people's rights or freedoms. Clearly then, he is not.

And yet, isn't he? Surely, his _implicit_ prejudices will eventually manifest themselves one way or another in a racist decision that affects other people's rights. Surely, he will unwittingly expose himself, every now and then, as suspicious and uncomfortable with people of certain backgrounds?

In fact, there is a very interesting phenomenon called institutional racism: when an entire organisation does not have a single person in it who publicises racist views, and yet as an institution, they pick up each other's unsaid prejudices and act as a thoroughly racist organisation. London's Metropolitan Police was famously found to be institutionally racist by Lord Macpherson in 1999. Five white men (very likely) got away with murdering a black teenager because the police refused to think the teenager was anything but a lowly drug dealer.

It seems to me there is a series of concentric circles. At the outside, lie things like slavery, segregation, apartheid. Then, as the circles get smaller, we get things like discrimination in employment and in education, and then as the circles get even smaller, we get subtle things like a waft of prejudice, a hint of disrespect (things like not taking a black candidate seriously because you expect him to break into a hip-hop dance routine, and so on). The circles get so small and so personal and so intertwined with other types of prejudice like, e.g., religious prejudice, or status prejudice, or careerist prejudice, that it is almost impossible to separate as distinct racism.

Intra-race prejudice

How often have I disrespected other Egyptians and Arabs, by refusing to hang out where they hang out, by avoiding to rent accommodation from them, and even by making fun of them with disrespectful, racist words.

I remember a white friend, who was driving us around town, criticising two elderly ladies who were a little slow in taking a turn as: "aaah, white women!"

I have a friend who is Asian (from the Indian sub-continent) who recently confided in me that he is prejudiced against his own race. Once he was in a bar, and as soon as two Asian men walked in, he told his friends to leave. On another occasion, he told me he hated the suburb in which his parents live because "there are too many Asians around". His comment was an almost word-for-word quote from a white English acquaintance of mine about the same suburb!

We all know about the Chris Rock routine about intra-black racism.

Can we put an end to racism?

It seems clear that we can only keep trying to limit racist behaviour in so far as it is visible and verifiable. But once it mixes with subtle forms of prejudice and limits itself to the personal domain, it becomes very difficult to confront.

One wonders if bi-racial couples and mixed-race people will eventually render this phenomenon one of the quirks of human history.

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