Where Does Racism Come From?

Can identity exist without a racial component? What is racism at its core, and why is race such a fundamental part of our identities? 

These are the questions that are worth pondering over once the march has ended, and you’re lying in bed staring at the ceiling. The rest of the battle is won at home, when you realize that the idea of race isn’t as obvious as it seems. 

Racism begins by identifying with your mental stream — that little voice inside your head that is constantly identifying objects, labeling them, and placing them into categories.

This is my mind, this is my body and I am this colour. And over there is someone that is different than me.

The idea of race is only possible because you perceive a segment of the people around you as belonging to a different one.

Identity depends on the existence of the ‘Other’ in order to survive.

When everyone has the same skin colour and prays to the same God, there is no need for race, culture or religious affiliation…Simply because when there is no one to compare your identity to, there’s no need to defend it.

“If everyone had a body exactly like yours, you wouldn’t identify with it.” —Ekhart Tolle

The existence of the Other shows us that truth is not a given. On the contrary, truth is just another version of reality that must be defended by whatever means if it is to survive.

Take White nationalism as an example. It’s grounded on the belief that white Anglo-Saxon culture is superior to others. Even though this belief has been discredited by science it still exists structurally and in people’s imagination. White nationalists are not defending anything tangible, what they’re really fighting for is a perception of themselves in which they hold privileges in relation to others. 

Old assumption: Race is inherent and entirely based on physical differences.

Reframe: Race is a mental construct. It is only created once we encounter the ‘Other’. For example — you are only white because you are aware of the existence of a group of people who are not white.

Institutionalizing Otherness

Who came first, the chicken or the egg? Do racist institutions create the racist, or does the racist create the institutions?  The process through which repression is imposed is called structural violence. It refers to the way in which a dominant group imposes its version of reality on a dominated one via institutions. It kind of goes like this: 

  1. The encounter with ‘‘otherness’’ creates the need to defend an identity that didn’t previously exist. 

  2. Institutions are then designed by the dominant group in order to impose their vision of reality on the dominated group. 

The individual delusion of a separate self becomes a mass delusion of separate groups that is made into a reality through institutions. ‘Me versus you’ becomes ‘Us versus them’ and this snowballs into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Old assumption: Racism is imposed by political institutions.

Reframe: First comes the illusion of a separate identity, then come the institutions. 

Digging for The Roots of Systemic Racism

Western political orders have their roots in Christopher Columbus’ chance encounter with the ‘ new world Indians’ in 1492. When Columbus arrived back in Spain a year later, he wrote a letter announcing his discoveries to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

His ultimate judgement about the Indian’s character was that they would make ‘fine servants’ and that given their naiveté they could easily become Christians and inclined to love our King and Queen and all the people of Spain.

The construction of the primitive Indian — a being so lost in his wildness that he possesses no morality and whose sole purpose is survival — gave way to an entire order built on the insider-other dichotomy. (Taussig 1986) Debt-peonage was a common measure of subjugation that relied on violence to prevent dissent. These practices were justified by the myth of the Indian savage and normalized the use of violence as part of the European mission to ‘civilize the Indian’.

 “The dichotomy between the insider and the other used by Colonialists to justify slavery was already fundamentally operative in European consciousness” —George Yancy 

This insider-other dichotomy created by colonial structures did not depend on any particular physical traits only found among ‘new world Indians’. It already existed as a frame of mind.

Racism doesn’t target a specific skin colour, it’s a mental framework through which we see the world. 

Think of it as a camera lens that turns high definition images into sepia. No matter who you point the camera to all you can see is their ‘Sepianess’ in contrast to your ‘technicolourness’ .  This boils down to the belief that European identity is superior to others — that’s the camera lens at work. Regardless of who comes into your range of vision, you only perceive them through your filter — your belief that technicolor is better than sepia.But the image that the camera captures of the ‘other’ doesn’t reflect who they really are, it merely reflects your biases back to you.

  Old assumption: Racism depends on tangible and objective physical traits. 

Reframe: Racism is like a camera lens, it transplants the image of ‘the other’ onto different groups over time.

From Colonization to Mass Incarceration

Just like the camera was once pointed at the Indian savages, it can also be pointed at new groups as political realities shift. This is how the Colonization paradigm opposing the civilized European to the savage Indian gave way to the ‘War on drugs’ — opposing white Americans to minorities. The latter justified the mass incarceration of Latino and Black populations on the grounds of a public morality defined by White bureaucrats. Hence the ironically named ‘correctional system’. 

(Who exactly needs correcting and who gets to decide what is correct?)

In 1971, Nixon launched a “War on Drugs,” which heavily criminalized the use of recreational drugs like Marijuana and Heroin. In an interview published by Harper Magazine, Nixon’s domestic policy chief Ehrlichman was quoted as saying: 
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did. (1994)

Just like Colonialists justified slavery on the grounds of a ‘civilizing-mission’, the Federal Government justified the mass-incarceration of minorities on the grounds of public health. Proponents of this view, including civil rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), believe that the desire for monetary gain through prison privatization has led to the fast increase of minority inmates compared to white inmates since 1971. According to a report published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of 2001 black men were 6 times were likely than white men to be imprisoned throughout their lives. 

Interestingly enough, the prison-industrial complex seems to have replaced the source of free labour that used to come from slavery.

It has effectively created a new billion dollar industry that profits from the caging of human beings. To ensure compliance, prisoners are exploited through labor programs that charge inmates exorbitant rates for basic telephone and internet services.

How is this any different from colonial style debt-peonage? I wonder…

"History repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce." —Karl Marx

Getting Rid of Our Inner Racist

We all have a sense of identity and a sense of culture. The question isn’t how to get rid of it, but how to honour that legacy without undermining someone else’s. it might be about time to recognize that we are all — as liberal as you may think you are — slightly racist. This is simply because of the fact that (unless you’re enlightened) we can’t conceive of human existence without a physical identity. And identity is always defined through an opposite — Male versus female, White versus black, Christian versus Muslim, me versus you.  Instead of denying your biases — a better way to honestly keep your racist impulses at bay is by recognizing that the thoughts and emotions that constitute your perceived ‘self’… are not actually who you are.

Fighting racism means realizing that identity is an illusion. 

We all have a role to play in recognizing how our beliefs perpetuate racist structures. This begins by realizing that you are not the physical identity that you have created for yourself. Underneath all your perceptions and all your thoughts, there is a consciousness without which we wouldn’t be able to even perceive a ‘self’ or think any racist thoughts. A person who is totally in the grips of identity cannot meet you. They can only relate to their own mental image of you based on which category you fall into on their insider-other spectrum. You’re only meeting the constructs of your own mind instead of real human beings. We impose identities on others, based on how we perceive ourselves in relation to them.   We can acknowledge and honour our physical identity without becoming its victim. We can honour our culture, our race and our skin, as long as we know that’s not all that we are. That’s just scratching the surface of our true identity —universal consciousness.

Old assumption: Fighting racism means fighting the racist structures that perpetuate it.

Reframe: Fighting racism starts with looking at ourselves. Recognizing that we have identities and mental frameworks that keep us from having real interactions — instead we keep on interacting with pre-conceived mental images of the people we meet. 

“If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are, a pattern that others made may prevail in the world” — William E. Stafford

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