By Charles Sarvan –
“Racism” in discourse is a palimpsest written differently to suit varying emotions and agenda. For example, Caryl Phillips’ novel Cambridge and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children are said to deal, inter alia, with the issue of “racism”. But the “racism” in these novels is different, one based on colour, and the other primarily on religious affiliation, and secondly/secondarily, on notions of “race”. In the West, the phrase “race problem” or “race conflict” invariably signals one based on skin-colour, as if the world consisted of just two “races”: the (so-called) white, and the non-white. I have suggested, tongue-in-cheek, “colourism” for this variety of “racism” as being more precise. Here and in what follows, I draw from an article included in my anthology, ‘Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches’ (pages 182 – 193).
Benedict Anderson states that though nations exist, there is no scientific definition of a nation. A nation is a cultural artefact with emotional legitimacy; an imagined political community – imagined because not even those who go to make up the smallest of nations will ever know most of their fellow-members, yet in the consciousness of each lives the image of their communion. Six pages on in the same work (‘Imagined Communities’) Anderson cites Ernest Gellner’s argument that nationalism does not awake nations to self-consciousness: rather, it is a certain kind of consciousness which invents nations. To belong to a state (a legal status implying citizenship, obedience to a particular set of laws etc.) may not have emotional connotations, while a sense of belonging to a nation usually does. An individual living in exile may be a citizen of one country, and yet feel that s/he belongs to, and is a part of, a nation geographically far away. The Kurds, fragmented in different countries, scattered in many European and U.S. centres, are a case in point: emotionally, they belong to a “nation” which they are struggling to bring into existence, to give it an internationally recognized, legal, reality. Much of the foregoing comments on “nation” can be applied to “race”, and the latter term substituted for the former. A certain kind of consciousness invents and thinks in terms of “race”.
The first paragraph of Noel Ignatiev’s How The Irish Became White states that no biologist has ever been able to provide a satisfactory definition of “race”, a definition that includes all members of a given “race” and excludes all others; and that attempts to give ‘race’ a scientific foundation have led but to absurdities. David Lowenthal in his ‘Possessed by the Past’ argues that race is a social artefact. Eric Foner, in a review titled “How a Desire for Profit Led to the Invention of Race” (‘London Review of Books’) comments that it is “now almost a cliché that race is invented or socially constructed.” Shlomo Sand, himself a Jew, Professor of History at Tel Aviv University, argues in his ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’ that there is no biological basis for a belief in Jewishness. The book was written in Hebrew and translated into English by the author. (It is as if a Sinhalese professor teaching at a Sri Lankan university were to write a book in Sinhala, not in English, which questioned a fundamental and much-cherished myth of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism.) A Jewish “race” is pseudoscience yet Zionist pedagogy has produced generations who believe wholeheartedly in the racial uniqueness of their nation (Shlomo Sand).
To discriminate because of one’s colour or on some other “racial” ground is as irrational as discriminating against someone because s/he was born on a Friday or is left-handed. And yet a considerable part of human suffering and pain arises from the seemingly ineradicable impulse we have to divide, to categorize on grounds of colour, “race” or religion, and then either to exclude or, worse, to subordinate and maltreat. Racism belongs with murder and genocide, and is a crime against humanity (Karen and Barbara Fields, ‘Racecraft’, 2012). Sadly, while we welcome diversity in nature, difference within our own species triggers suspicion and hostility. Undoubtedly, we ourselves are our own most cruel enemy.
Yet, though science has totally done away with ‘race’; though belief in ‘race’ is troglodyte, still many subscribe to it, far more than, say, those who believe in astrology (‘Racecraft’). “Racism is a hardy virus that mutates to adapt to the body politic in which it is embedded” (Gary Younge, ‘The Guardian’, 19 May 2014). Propagating the findings of science on ‘race’; repeatedly repeating the fact of fundamental human likeness has not brought about the end of racism. A symptom of this failure is the frequency with which one encounters the word “race”. Does it point to a deep conviction, a conviction that is impervious to reason? Is it a habit of thought and language; of mental laziness?
Testifying to its resilience and mutability is the disguise of “ethnicity” that racism can adopt. Ethnicity is an aspect of relations between groups where at least one party sees itself as being culturally distinctive, if not unique. This sense of difference influences the perception and treatment of others. Though there are similarities and differences, the former are glossed over, and much made of difference. However, the boundary delimited by one cultural criterion – system of government, language, religion, social customs and practices – does not coincide with those established by other criteria. In short, “ethnicity” may be a Trojan horse bringing back disgraced racism. Ethnicity is a term to be used after careful thought. To quote from ‘Racecraft’, the term culture can now denote something essential, now something acquired; now something bounded, now something without boundaries; now something experienced, now something ascribed. Race as culture is only biological race in polite language.
It has been observed that words and verbal habits condition, consciously or unconsciously, the thinking of most of us; only a minority pause to control their words by thought. Though not paused over or reflected upon, words are important, serving not only to convey meaning but to conceal or distort significance. For example, I come across reference to the Native Americans as “Indians”. This lexical item, apart from perpetuating Columbus’ mistake, hides the fact of the cruel dispossession and near extermination of the autochthonous. Sadly, even if ‘race’ doesn’t exist, racists continue to exist and, therefore, ‘racism’ flourishes. Banning the word ‘race’ will not extirpate and banish racism. One is reminded of Professor John Gray’s argument in his ‘The Silence of Animals’: the idea that history is a story of increasing rationality, decency and ethical progress is a myth. However deeply entrenched and obdurate racism is, there is no option but to return to fray, again and again. An awareness of our common and shared humanity; a realization that ‘race’ does not exist may help towards eradicating the evil, and resulting tragedy, of racism. That would indeed be “a consummation devoutly to be wished” (Shakespeare, ‘Hamlet’).