14 April, 2024


‘Nice Racism‘ By Robin DiAngelo, 2021

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan –

Prof Charles Sarvan

What follows is not a review of this book but, rather, a sharing of some thoughts that arose from reading it: DiAngelo is white and her focus is on the United States. Besides, the so-called ‘race problem’ in the USA, and in some other countries, translates into one of skin colour: (in an article, ‘The term racism and discourse’, I suggested, tongue in cheek, that this kind of racism more accurately be termed ‘colourism’.) The phrase ‘nice racism’ appears to be an oxymoron because racism can never be nice. On the contrary, racism is nasty, and inflicts great pain and suffering on its victims. To the shame of our species, there’s no dearth of examples of racism, and of the cruelty it unleashes: the instances are as many as they are horrible.  Racism has been present in all ages and in all parts of the world. To cite just one example at random, here’s Tom Fletcher in ‘Prospect Magazine’, July 23, 2018. I’m sorry, I don’t know in which country and when: “What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk? And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by security forces?” I recall a student objecting to the word “inhumane”, arguing it implied the opposite, namely, that humans are generally humane. One of the most horrific and distressing accounts of cruelty I have read is by Bartolome De Las Casas, 1484-1576, a Spanish monk. The work is translated into English as A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and is available in the Penguin Classics series.

As I pointed out in the article alluded to above, there’s no race but racism flourishes. There are no scientific grounds for believing in race. Race is a human construct or, if one prefers, there’s only one race: the human race. Admittedly, to think on the lines of the human species can lead to another avatar of racism known as ‘speciesism’, and to the cruel exploitation of all other species. As Genesis 1: 26 of the Bible expresses it, we “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth”. We have used this dominion to the detriment of other species and, finally, to ourselves. It must be acknowledged that some so-called ‘primitive’ folk did not think of domination but of living in cooperation and harmony with nature and all other beings. Darwin showed us that, rather than being separate and superior to nature, we are very much a part of it. Consequently, if we damage nature, we injure ourselves.

Shlomo Sand, Professor of History at Tel Aviv University, wrote a book titled ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’. The term “invention” conveys his main contention. “It is as if a Sinhalese professor, teaching at a Sri Lankan university, were to write a book – not in English but in Sinhala – which questioned the fundamental assumptions of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism”: Sarvan, ‘Groundviews’, Colombo, 07. March 2013. In what immediately follows, I draw from this article. Sand argues that there is no biological basis for Jewishness, and that belief in a Jewish race is nothing but “racist pseudoscience” (page 257). No Jewish gene has been found. The UNESCO document, ‘The Race Concept’, completely rejects any connection between biology and national culture. Race is a social myth and not a scientific fact, but “Zionist pedagogy produced generations […] who believed wholeheartedly in the ethnic uniqueness of their nation” (page 273).  ‘Jew”’ referred to a religious affiliation, and not to an ethnic, group. (Somewhat similarly, “Arya” meant “noble” and did not refer to all Sinhalese. Tamil kings described themselves as “Arya”: see Professor R. A. L. H. Gunawardana’s article in ‘Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict’, edited by Jonathan Spencer.) Ta-Nehisi Coates in his ‘Between the World and Me’ states that race is not the father of racism but its child. To express it differently, it’s those who think on lines of race who create, believe in and practice racism.

It has been said that while a patriot loves her or his own, a nationalist hates all others. (Racists almost invariably describe themselves as nationalists.) While religious doctrine is of a divine or semi-divine origin, religion being a human construct, can be co-opted in the service of racism. Yet another book by Professor Sand, ‘How I Stopped Being a Jew’, repeats the now familiar claim that it is we, human beings, who created God or the gods. If so, ethnoreligious nationalism is not surprising. Religion (contrary to religious doctrine) can serve to sanctify discrimination and even cruelty. Perhaps, Sand’s title should have been ‘Why I stopped being a Jew’. I quote from pages 26 to 27:  “My own place is among those who try to discern and root out, or at least reduce, the excessive injustices of the here and now. The persecuted and victimized of yesterday seem to me less a matter of priority than the persecuted of today or the victimized of tomorrow.”

Digressing to thoughts on identity, Bernard-Henri Levy (incidentally, also of Jewish ethnicity) writes in ‘The New Statesman’ (22-28 October 2021, page 36): “You are a free woman or man if you rebel against your identity, not if you are cocooned in your identity”. Our legal name signals a single and singular identity, but in reality our identity is not simple but multiple. Among the many aspects of his identity that Professor Amartya Sen, Nobel-Prize winner, lists in his book, ‘Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny’ are: Asian, Bengali, an American and British resident, an economist, a believer in secularism and democracy, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, a non-believer in an after-life, as in an earlier life or lives. It follows that if, for example, someone says, “He’s a Sinhalese” or “He’s a Tamil” then the speaker has chosen to prioritise one element out of a multi-faceted identity. It may tell us more about the speaker than the person spoken about. Flannery O’Connor has a short story titled ‘The Artificial Nigger’. (The word “artificial” indicates that the concept of “Nigger” is not natural but a human creation. In a train, a white grandfather asks his little grandson, Nelson, who was the man who just walked down. The innocent boy (and innocence can mean ignorance) answers that it was a man, but the grandfather is not satisfied. Nelson then offers other answers such as an old man, a fat man until the grandfather triumphantly ‘educates’ him: That was a nigger. It’s the only feature that matters to the old man. Often, those infected with racism infect others. Children are not born racist..

Professor Sen admits that a sense of group-identity can strengthen and warm our relations within the collective – even as it leads to exclusion which, in turn, can result in the mal-treatment of the ‘Other’. Indeed, this sense of belonging can be so strong that the group seems to be an extension of one’s own self. (Perhaps, we could here turn to Erich Fromm’s ‘Escape from Freedom’.) Reinhold Niebuhr in his ’Moral Man and Immoral Society’ argues that when we are in a group, ‘other-than-self’ attributes are vitiated, if not entirely destroyed. There is then little of reason to guide our conduct, less check on our impulses; less capacity for transcending our individual self. Accepting generalisations (and myths) which, though an oversimplification, are very potent, our behaviour as a group is often a shame to our morality as individuals. In other words, as members of a group, we are ready to act in ways in which we, as individuals, would not.

Returning to DiAngelo, leaving aside a racism that is overt and proud, she concerns herself with more subtle forms of the disease, unrecognized or unacknowledged by the infected. When ‘nice racists’ are confronted with evidence of racism in them, rather than pause and undertake self-scrutiny, they react with denial and dismissal; with hurt and indignation, even with anger. We do not like to think badly of ourselves: it damages our self-image.  A frequent proof adduced by ‘nice racists’ is: “I have friends from the under privileged group. Therefore, I am not a racist.” But proximity, superficial contact, even social interaction, don’t mean, ipso facto, freedom from prejudice. Going back in time to London and the 1960s I, as a young man, was friendly with a middle-aged English couple. One day, I asked them whether they ever came to the West End and received the emphatic reply: “Oh no. There are far too many foreigners there”. Having become a friend, I had also become an individual, and was no longer seen and reacted to as one of their foreign (coloured) group. Consciously or unconsciously, the racial minded make exceptions of certain individuals known to them, and so keep their group prejudice intact.

DiAngelo argues that racism more than being personal and of the individual is a system. Racism being a system, members of the dominant group profit from it in several aspects of their daily lives. To believe there’s no racism in them leads ‘nice racists’ to think they are outside the problem; have nothing to do with it and, therefore, need do nothing about it. The cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker, in his book ‘Rationality’, takes up the argument that even reason, truth and objectivity are social constructs that justify the privilege of dominant groups. The ringing, and often cited, assertion of the American Declaration of Independence that all are equal was signed by men holding a pen in one hand while with the other hand they brandished a whip over their cowering slaves. We human beings have a remarkable ability to live with contradictions, and so lofty words can go with sordid practice; pious religiosity accompany, even justify, cruelty.

During the years I taught at the University of Zambia, the exile headquarters of the ANC was in Lusaka, and I knew several of their cadres. I noticed that then, as used by them, the phrase “a liberal” meant a person who was aware of the cruel injustice of apartheid, were sympathetic but did nothing at all to help combat it. So it is elsewhere. “Liberal” was a reproachful, regretful, term. It certainly wasn’t a compliment: adapting words from T. S. Eliot, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”  As Martin Luther King wrote from prison, more than the words of those who hate us, what hurts us most is the silence of our friends. And as Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, if in a situation of oppression you remain silent then, in effect, you have sided with the oppressors.

But we are creatures of our place and time, and often are unaware of our own contradictions and failures. Marcus Aurelius is far better known as a Stoic philosopher (there are significant similarities between Buddhist doctrine and Stoicism) and as the author of the world famous and perennial ‘Meditations’ (written for himself, and not meant for publication) than as a Roman emperor. The words of Marcus Aurelius have been of great help to me and, to adopt what Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare, I honour his memory on this side of idolatry as much as any. With Aurelius, it was not a case of high living and commonplace thinking but of simple living and lofty thought. He was strict on himself while being tolerant of the failures and failings of others. He constantly monitored his thoughts, words and actions to see if they accorded with his notions of justice and morality. When told by his physicians that death was near, rather than desperately and futilely trying to prolong the inevitable, the Emperor thereafter declined food and drink so as to sooner free himself from existence. He died true and faithful to his beliefs. Noli timere. Yet being a man of his times, this ‘philosopher emperor’ did his best to preserve and extend the Roman Empire. To express it bluntly, building or maintaining an empire meant attacking other lands and peoples; taking away by force from those less able to defend themselves. It involved killing and destruction, occupation and exploitation – all for the glory and benefit of Rome. Rather than stay in the comfort and safety of Rome, Marcus Aurelius went with his troops and camped with them. Pax Romana was a “peace” enforced by brutal military might. Despite noble protestations and pretensions, empires go against morality; against humanity and justice. It seems to me that, doing his duty as a Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius betrayed his Stoic principles and ideals.

DiAngelo addresses those who complacently assume they are free of negative group assumptions and of racism. She urges a more honest and rigorous self-examination; a moving away from the easy and ‘easing’ assumption that we have cleansed ourselves of all taint of racism.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    I was drawn to, ‘I recall a student objecting to the word “inhumane”, arguing it implied the opposite, namely, that humans are generally humane’.
    That ‘objection’ could be a topic by itself!
    I remember making a comment elsewhere that ‘humanity’ ought to be the yardstick of Civilisation. (I feel vindicated, rightly and rightfully.)
    There are many such snippets in the article.
    (Here is one piece from Prof Charles Sarvan that I read fully and enjoyed greatly.)

  • 2

    Prof Charles Sarvan,

    I finally had the time to read this ……. what a beautiful piece!

    All through, I was thinking of these lines from Don McLean’s song Vincent. ……. And I would’ve supplanted Sarvan for Vincent ……..:))

    But I could have told you, Sarvan
    This world was never meant for one
    As beautiful as you

    Some ……… from the rest

    Now, I think I know what you tried to say to me
    How you suffered for your sanity
    How you tried to set them free
    They would not listen, they’re not listening still
    Perhaps they never will

  • 1

    Tamils have no moral right to talk about racism because they are the biggest racists themselves.
    During colonial rule they loved decimating the Sinhalese. Thank god this forum has some discipline and strict posting guidelines otherwise if you let loose some of them they would go beserk with bad language and name calling targeting the Sinhalese.

    I don’t know if any of you have noticed but they chirp endlessly like the famous bird in Sri Lanka saying Tamil tamil tamil tamil all the time. Who else would do that other than ethnocentric people?

    In another internet forum, the now defunct lankanewspapers.com, a Tamil was outlining a plan to manufacture an artificial Tsunami so that it would completely wipe out the Sinhalese from the face of this earth. While it’s clear the ignoramus is surely talking nonsense, his intentions to commit mass murder would make even Adolf Hitler and Idi Ameen look a bit saintly.

  • 4

    Yes, your message is timely in these times when there is confusion created by attaching labels. As much as “Jewish” does not describe a race but a follower of Judaism, so “Muslim” does not describe a race but just a follower of Islam and it is remarkable that one of the longest standing rivalries as yet, is between these two concepts.
    Yes ….. “ Children are not born racist”…. Nor with any idea or knowledge on these various other divisions, created by the elders. They are gradually fed with the petty ideas of the elders around them. A few use their minds to get over these as they get older – may be by moving together as youngsters without the pressure of adults, and meeting competition fairly to get ahead in studies or play, without ethnic or religious bias.
    All these creations are from the Mind of Man and ….The word “artificial” indicates that the concept of “Nigger” is not natural but a human creation…..and so are all divisions.
    But then there should be more intellectual capacity in the majority of the population, to realise and assimilate the follies of our own creations.

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