I clearly remember those first few weeks in college when I went to my classes with a feeling of enthusiasm. Occasionally we would engage in a discussion about our multicultural society. I was one of the few in the group with a migration background. It wasn’t unusual for some of my fellow students to open the discussion with “I’m not a racist, but…” Inevitably a racist remark would follow the ‘but’ with the student in the clear about being a racist for the simple reason he or she had said so and had stated it as fact, “it is a fact that… I am not a racist,…”
Since then I’ve heard that phrase so many times I’ve lost count. When reflecting on it two things stick out. First, many people seem to have exchanged the good old “I’m not a racist, but…” for “I’m a racist and so what?” Second, these days a lot of self-proclaimed progressive, leftwing citizens of the world think it is perfectly normal and acceptable to open their argument with “I’m not a racist, but…”
The opinion pieces I wrote on racism are numerous and even more numerous are the conversations I’ve had about it. And yet, racism still exists and is even increasing. Explicit or latent racism, it has permeated all layers of society and lives in all groups, from the so called white world citizens, black Africans, moderate or non-moderate Muslims, to Moroccans, Albanians and many more. The list is infinite. To deny this is to deny reality.
It is worth noting that while all racism is reprehensible and harmful to society, not all racism is equal. Let me take the example of Belgium, the country where I live. People of Moroccan origin could be commenting on Turks in a racist way, or Turks on Polish people, Polish people on the Roma and so on. However, at the same time these groups are also being confronted with the racism of white Belgians and here the racism is not limited to racial slurs and epithets such as “makak” or “monkey”. In the predominantly white society that is Belgium non-whites are also subjected to structural racism in areas such as the labor market, housing and education. Obviously all forms of racism are a huge problem for society but structural racism is by far the worst because it structurally deprives people of the chance to improve their lives.
The goal for this article is to make as many people as possible think about what racism actually is, where it comes from and how we can deal with it. It is impossible to become consciously aware of the problem of racism if we keep denying it exists or fail to put it in perspective as is the case with of the minister of Equal Opportunities in Belgium, oh irony, although ‘tragedy’ might be a better word here.
Purity of blood
In order to understand the roots of racism we have to go back into history and take into account the spirit of the times we are investigating. Racism is much older than we often realize. Even in ancient times racism existed. Both the Greeks and the Romans looked down on other people, which they usually referred to as ‘Barbarians’. People from the East were considered to be natural slaves by the Romans and many stereotypes existed about black people. According to the Greeks Ethiopians were black because they had been “burned by the sun”. These kinds of prejudices were strongly anchored and had to do with descent. It is unclear how big the problem of racism was in those days and many historians hold different opinions. It might therefore be better to start with the Crusades to get a historical understanding of the phenomenon of racism.
Between the years 1095 and 1272 A.D. nine crusades took place. About 200,000 people from the West traveled to the Middle East, a demographic shift that proved to be significant in many ways. People had the opportunity to come in touch with different cultures, traditions and religions but in times of war and with little knowledge of each other it was mainly the negative prejudices and stereotypes that dominated. Westerners traveled to Jerusalem in the name of God. The church leaders in the West were convinced they had every right to expand their imperium and to convert the region in the Middle East to Christianity. Jerusalem became an important symbol for Christians and needed to be conquered. The Crusades not only brought war, exploitation and persecution but also religious and ethnic classifications.
This doesn’t mean only Western people were racist. The Arabs of that time had their own stereotypes about other people, as was the case in their negative thinking about Africans. The black people from Africa were seen as ‘savages’ and as less intelligent than the rest of humanity.
The hierarchy was typical of the Middle Ages and would remain like this for centuries. Not only were the Muslims seen as inferior but also the Jews. Muslims and Jews were persecuted because they were not part of those with “pure blood.” Christians in Spain and Portugal who had converted to Islam or Muslims who would later convert to Christianity were persecuted and ridiculed. The Decretals of Pope Gregory IX (year 1234) are a clear example. According to this canon law the Crusades became justified as a defensive war. Christians weren’t allowed to serve Muslims or Jews nor marry them. Jews and Muslims had to live in certain neighborhoods and wear a clear badge and distinguishing clothes. They were also not allowed to appear in public during Holy Week. These are just a couple of examples of many to demonstrate how people were structurally discriminated against and segregated on the basis of religion and ethnicity.
Besides the hierarchy of people there was also one of continents. In 1570 the Flemish citizen Abraham Ortelius published a world atlas, one of the first, which became a bestseller. In 42 years no less than 41 editions were published, which was very impressive at the time. The cover of the atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, shows the four continents symbolized as women. Europe is at the top adorned with an imperial crown. She is the only one of the four women who is dressed in a dignified manner and even wears shoes. Her position is that of a ruler. Asia is next. Her dress is elegant but she is barefoot. Across from Asia stands Africa, a nearly naked woman with only a piece of cloth draped around her hips. Her head shows sunrays, which are supposed to explain why she is black. All the way at the bottom is America. She is dressed even scarcer while holding the head of a victim in her hands. This is a reference to the cannibalism amongst the Indigenous Peoples in America. The symbolism in this picture is obvious and the core message is that Europe dominates while the other continents are at her feet. The fact that Europe dominates is no coincidence because, judging by the symbols in the picture, Europe is presented as wise, just and hardworking.
In 1588 the Jesuit José de Acosta wrote an influential ethnographic work on the peoples of the world. Whoever was not Christian was categorized as ‘barbarian’. We have seen this before. New to Acosta is that he differentiates between the ‘barbarians’. Some of those barbarians are rational and have their own laws, cities and so on whereby he is referring to the Chinese and the Japanese for instance. A second category would be those people who do have an army, cities and a religion but not their own script such as the Mexicans or the Peruvians. The third category was one he regarded as savages, similar to beasts, who have no laws, kings or governments. All kinds of displaced peoples, especially in the Americas, belonged to this latter category.
Infinite examples exist of religious figures, military leaders and thinkers spreading stories about the people with whom they came in contact, from the first colonization in Africa to the one in America. These peoples were invariably depicted as barbaric and often even as cannibals. The stereotypes not only served to colonize and exploit but also to justify the whole slave trade with Europeans as well as with Arabs as we will see later.
Christopher Columbus, perhaps the most famous explorer, was the first to speak about cannibalism. In 1494 he sent a letter to various Catholic kings in which he suggested the Europeans should turn the ‘cannibals’ into slaves because their number was infinite and, according to Columbus, each of them was worth three black Africans, which of course was very interesting economically. Furthermore, it would benefit these people to become slaves because it would relieve them from their ‘inhumanity’. The following year he again wrote to the kings, this time with the idea to turn all of the American Indigenous Peoples into slaves even though he wasn’t convinced of the value of their women as house slaves.
Even the most humane and progressive people of that time were convinced of the superiority of whites and considered all others retarded. Another example close to home will illustrate this. The Fleming Nicolaes Cleynaerts was a humanist who aimed to bring Christians and Muslims closer. While staying in Portugal he brought three black boys to Europe whom he taught Latin and used as his assistants. And yet, in his correspondence Cleynaerts referred to them as “monkeys” because, according to him, black people were only able to imitate but not to create.
Lifestyle was another reason to discriminate against people besides skin color and religion as we can see in the case of the Roma. Once they had been perceived as hardworking people but in time this changed and the Roma became persecuted throughout Europe and discriminated against. They were looked upon as some kind of vermin and stripped of their humanity. Their nomadic lifestyle was presented as equal to a life of theft and fortune telling. The Roma, together with Muslims and Jews, were not allowed to leave for the new continent, America. To this day those stereotypes are still present with the Roma being the most discriminated group in Europe.
“God made the white man, the devil the Mulatto”
“God made the white man, the devil the Mulatto” is a well-known saying from the eighteenth century. Most people will undoubtedly recognize the words ‘Creole’ or ‘mulatto’ but what most of us don’t know is the origin of these words. They are, actually, a reference to animals. One can find most of these kinds of words in South America, which has a lot of people of mixed-race heritage. Coyote, lobo, cambujo, and albarzado are all words that refer to certain mixed animals.
The Portuguese used to word ‘crioulo’ (Creole), which is used for slaves who were born in the house of their master. The comparison was that of a chicken that hadn’t been bought outside on the market but was born at home. The word ‘Creole’ derives from the Latin ‘Creare’, and one of the meanings of this word is ‘brooding’. Also ‘Cabrito’ -the mix of a white man with a mulatto- is a reference to an animal, namely a young goat. ‘Mulatto’ comes from the word ‘mule’, which is a descendant of a horse and a donkey. In most European countries mulattos were seen as blacks and they had limited rights. In France, for example, they were not allowed to serve in court or in the army and they were excluded from practicing medicine. In the Dutch colonies in Asia non-white people were not allowed to travel to Europe.
“Races of Man”, a book written by Robert Knox and published in 1850, serves as one of the first publications about race. Knox describes the mulattos as a ‘worthless race’ without a future. He thought Brazil, a place where you can still find most people of mixed race, to be horrifying and a complete downfall. The Roma he described as a mix of barbarians and savages. It is this kind of racist work, which could be categorized as ‘scientific’ racism, that still influences our thinking today.
Racism has produced millions of slaves who were not only deported to America but also to the Arab world. Approximately 18 million slaves were brought from Africa to the Middle East through the trans-Sahara trade and by way of the transatlantic route 12.5 million Africans were transported to the Americas and the surrounding islands. According to calculations, 2.5 million slaves died on the way to those destinations. Besides slavery racism has led to the massacre of indigenous people. Most historians agree that continental America had a population of about 60 million people by the time Europeans showed up. Two centuries later, less than 5 million people had survived the European presence. In the Carribean 3 million people disappeared over the course of two generations.
It was inevitable that the racist stereotypes, which had been built and promoted over the centuries by the church, the intellectuals and politicians, would have serious consequences. The situation became especially explosive after the rise of nationalism. All sorts of nationalist politicians used stereotypes and ‘scientific’ racism, which had gone mainstream, to attack certain peoples and minorities. In the case of the Armenians and Jews it even led to genocide.
Genocide in Europe
The Armenian genocide is another example, which shows that racism is not just a matter of the white West. The Young Turks, a Turkish nationalist movement, would forever change the political landscape in Turkey. They saw Anatolia as the core of the Ottoman Empire and thus the people who lived there had to be Turks. Previously, the Ottoman Empire had mostly made distinctions based on religion but with the rise of nationalism the focus became the different races. Armenians were presented as profiteers and agents of Russia who wanted to divide Anatolia. Between 1894 and 1896, approximately 250,000 Armenians were killed, but the worst was yet to come. Between 1915 and 1916, about 1 million Armenians were killed. A large number was able to escape by fleeing to Russia or to continue to emigrate to France and the US.
The Armenian genocide is very sensitive to the Turks, and yet it is important to talk about it because it is considered the first genocide in Europe. It’s the first time we can observe how a minority group is being hunted down and persecuted by a state. The central Turkish government, together with local authorities, was involved in both the deportations and the massacres. One of the main people responsible for this genocide was Talât Pasha, the leader of the Young Turks and the Grand Vizier between 1917 and 1918. He was very proud of what he had ‘accomplished’ and told the Western ambassadors that in three months he had done more to ‘solve’ the Armenian issue than Sultan Abdul Hamid II in thirty years. It is no coincidence Talât Pasha was eventually shot by an Armenian in 1921.
The Armenian genocide would not be the last. Germany would follow suit with a genocide that is considered to be one of the lowest points in human history. Many stereotypes about Jews were circulating in Germany. They were perceived to be rich and to control the financial system and industry, but mostly the state and supposedly they were out to exploit people. Wilhelm Marr was one of the first authors who openly defended such stereotypes and even went so far as to found the Anti-Semitic League. Another author was Houston Stewart Chamberlain who wrote anti-Jewish propaganda. Chamberlain was a Brit who had obtained the German nationality upon which he became a member of German nationalist circles. His books were very popular in Germany and Adolf Hitler was one of his biggest fans. Hitler heavily leaned on Chamberlain’s work for his ideas in “Mein Kampf” and met with him on several occasions eventually even making him a member of the Nazi party.
Both were convinced of white superiority and more specifically of the Aryan race. Just as Knox hated Brazil because of its abundance of people with mixed-racial background, Hitler railed against Vienna because he considered it a Babylon of mixed races. What followed later, when Hitler came to power, is known as the Holocaust, in which millions of Jews were murdered. If Hitler would have gotten the chance even more would have been killed because, according to the plans of the Nazis, all 11 million Jews in Europe had to be eradicated to make way for white Germans. It wasn’t just the Jews who were targeted. Here we see again how it became prohibited for people to marry ‘alien races’ or ‘inferior minorities’. In addition to Jews, the Roma and black people became hunted. The Nazis murdered at least half a million Roma and, as was the case during the Crusades, it was all about purity. While during the Middle Ages ‘pure blood’ was all the hype, at the beginning of the twentieth century it shifted to ‘pure races’.
To become conscious of racism
In the 21st century we clearly have not learned much when it comes to racism. Racism still exists and in even more different forms. Flanders and the whole of Belgium suffer from racism with dozens of examples in the police departments, in politics, on the labor market and so on. For example, 22% of the highly skilled immigrant youth are unemployed, while only 6% amongst the native white Belgians. Racism in education is institutionalized, which can be observed in the low number of young immigrants transferring to universities. On no level, be it local or federal, have we seen tough measures against racism.
The situation is no better on the European level. As stated earlier, in the 21st century the situation of the Roma in Europe is unacceptable. In Greece, several people have been murdered because of their skin color. The European Union regularly opens a hunt on immigrants as is currently the case with the police operation Mos Maiorum.
But also outside of Europe racism remains a problem. In Arab countries such as the UAE and Qatar, a high level of racism exists towards Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians working in these countries. It is one of the most striking examples of modern slavery. Different minorities are confronted daily with racism in the Arab world. Racism against black Africans is a persistent problem. In countries such as Libya and Morocco several black Africans were killed only because they happened to be black. The same is happening in India where black people are being targeted and persecuted.
Racism is by far not a problem of the past and has deep roots, which I have attempted to show here. It is therefore important to become informed and to know history in order to gain a better understanding of racism. We can only fight racism when we become aware of the racism that occurs in every society. Only when we become conscious of the prejudices, stereotypes, discrimination and racism that exist and know its roots will we be less likely to hear: “I’m not a racist, but …”.
Bleri Lleshi is a political philosopher and author of “De neoliberale strafstaat”, EP0, 2014
Translated from Dutch to English by Oriana P.
Also published on The Rawr Report http://ur1.ca/ig6zr