Further Thoughts on Racism
The best ideas are at the edge of reason, always pushing at accepted practice, redefining the unspoken hypotheses by which we live. Definitions should be of the moment, often unsettled because new ideas push out old and explain life in more precise, more realistic ways. In a recent post on racism I upheld the Wikipedia definition as the best we would get, given that it encompassed race and discrimination in a manner that reflected us, humankind, in all our bitterness and complexity. But I’ve been thinking more about this stain on our self-consciousness lately and there could well be definition still to add. Not incidentally, the many editors working on the Wikipeda article think so too, but they’ve confused detail with explanation in a retreat from the way things are.
First, let’s consider the changes made to the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia article, which is the touchstone for the ideas contained therein. The original paragraph read as follows:
Racism has many definitions, the most common being that members of one racial group consider themselves intrinsically superior to members of other racial groups. Racism inherently starts with the assumption that there are taxonomic differences between different groups of people. Without this assumption, prejudices against different peoples would be categorized as being prejudices related to national or regional origin, religion, occupation, social status or some other distinction.
As I mentioned in my initial post, this is by no means a precise definition, but it settles on racism not as a matter of fact but as a matter of opinion. In other words, racism is a contestable act of judgement.
Yet the new definition struggles to remove the inherent choice in such a position. It claims that:
Racism, by its simplest definition, is discrimination based on the racial groups people belong to. People with racist beliefs might hate certain groups of people according to their racial groups, or in the case of institutional racism, certain racial groups may be denied rights or benefits. Racism typically points out taxonomic differences between different groups of people, even though anybody can be racialised, independently of their somatic differences. According to the United Nations conventions, there is no distinction between the term racial discrimination and ethnic discrimination.
The first sentence is clearly just a clumsy re-write, seeking to add ‘discrimination’ where it really isn’t needed, which allows ‘hate’ to slip into the sentence that follows. Clearly this is a more emotional definition, and it offers examples such as institutional racism and the United Nations definition to limit the scope of what people might imagine racism could be. But most interesting is the third sentence, which has been shifted from a discussion of presumed taxonomic difference (a difference of type underlying racist beliefs) to merely ‘pointing out’ inherent somatic differences, whether or not those differences in physical appearance make any difference at all.
What these changes obscure is that the new definition staggers towards indecision – what once described complexity is now ruled by equivocation. The anonymous ‘220.127.116.11’ points out similar problems with the definition in the discussion page attached to the article. I’m left with the feeling that someone has wanted, but not quite managed, to write that all observation of difference between people of varying physical appearance is racist. That would be as ludicrous as claiming races are strictly definable when inter-relations between ethnic groups have been inherent in the very expansion of humanity.
But one thing that the new definition does make clear is that people tend not to be happy with how racism is defined, and that they’re prepared to proselytise in their tinkering. Yet this can only happen because nothing much of substance has been changed – read the two definitions together and you’ll see the ghost of the first beneath the second. What’s missing in both is a brief consideration of what makes racism possible.
‘Hate’ is never a terribly good answer to that particular question.
In my original post I mentioned the work of
Adrianna Jenkins, C. Neil Macrae and Jason Mitchell, who have published the results of experiments on activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex of the brain. They show that we use the front of the cortex when thinking of ourselves and those somehow like us, but use the back when thinking of identifiable strangers. So we might just have an in-built perceptual bias, but that’s not racism in itself.
What drags this sort of thing closer to racism is a consideration of it in an historical context. The archaeologist Steven Mithen has argued that the human mind as we know it emerged about 100,000 years ago when Homo sapiens sapiens developed what we could call multiple modes of intelligence. Mithen labels this “cognitive fluidity”, and argues that the separate “domains” of intelligence developed by earlier hominids such as Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals – covering social interaction, technical knowledge and an understanding of natural history – merged as language emerged.
The point is not that this created racism, but that it created the possibility for humans – a single race – to mix or confuse items that could only once be considered discretely as people, things or animals. Mithen argues that this is:
the key to racism, when we start to think of other human groups or individuals as if they were animals or objects to manipulate and exploit without giving them any human attributes, emotions or rights.
We now have a credible mechanism, an historically catalogued shift in thinking that made racism possible. This, I should add, occurred before the first known civilisation and was not inherent to a single group. It is part of our common ancestry. The passing of time has shaped it in certain directions, made it more obvious in certain epochs amongst certain people, but we all carry it in our possession.
So allow me to return to the Wikipedia definitions of racism and suggest yet another revision. Clearly I favour the definition I first encountered, for its general applicability if nothing else. How, then, does Mithen’s consideration of mental change fit in? With sufficient modification to the presumption that there is more than one race, like this:
Racism is most commonly manifest as discrimination against others to whom one feels intrinsically superior based on physical difference and presumed intellectual and emotional deficiencies. Racism starts with the uniquely human conflation of mental domains in which the characteristics of humans, animals and things are interchangeable. It is our common heritage and our greatest failing as thinking individuals.
This particular definition might not appeal to everyone, least of all to me at some stage in the future, but it does point to just how mixed up racism really is. Racism is not an ‘unthinking’ reaction as some people might have it. Neither is it an illness as others claim. Rather, it’s a side effect of our most valuable possession – the modern mind.
And that makes it all the more dangerous.