Foreword: The following was published in Res Publica a student magazine on the 18th of Feb, 2021. It was removed due to complaints on the 19th of Feb,2021. The magazine also made a public apology for the "controversy" that the article had caused. The article attempts to shed light on why arbitrary classifications such as blackness and whiteness can do more harm than good. This seems not to have sat well with my critics and I quote:
Critic :"This piece is one of the most egregious examples of weak academic scholarship and malpractice I have ever come across."
Response: Large but mostly emotive words of opinion.
Critic : An "incoherent attempt to cloak an argument in favour of ignoring race and minimising the impact of racism in a litany of unsupported claims and boilerplate historical whataboutery, wrapped in a shell of bad-faith concern-trolling. The primary target of this shoddy diatribe is seemingly the actually fairly small tranche of academics who, the author insinuates, as usual without evidence, corruptly "keep racialisation alive" in return for "financial incentives". It is flatly unconscionable that a university magazine would publish such a baseless attack on the integrity of a section of the academic population that is (1) disproportionately drawn from BIPOC scholars and (2) currently in the front line of funding cuts being imposed on non-STEM subjects."
Considering history of both sides and comparing these is not historically whataboutery, but rather a consideration of history, as inconvenient as that may be. Making observations of a self evident reality is not diatribe, but an observation. The article never denies racism or the impact of it, the very opposite in fact, which makes one wonder if the critic can understand what was written at all. The university magazine claims to publish numerous points of view and a response piece was published alongside the article, hence it was designed as two perspectives of one discussion. The idea that the piece attacks BIPOC scholars seems to be a heavy projection on the part of the critic who is discontent with a loss of funding for non-STEM subjects. In reality, was not specifically concerned with BIPOC scholars at all but was poking at the work of individuals such as DiAngelo who DO make money off of the anxiety and pain of others. I offer no apology for stating reality.
Critic : "In truth, the worst aspect of the piece is that it takes up space that could have been used to platform an actually insightful, nuanced, and accessible introduction to the controversies in the study of race and racism by someone with expertise on the subject. Or, even more valuably, it could have platformed someone with lived experience of racism: someone who currently does not have any platform at all because of (e.g.) their youth or professional juniority. That is where student journalism is at its best; not in peddling tired misinformation that reinforces the prejudices of those who are already empowered."
Response: An online magazine, as far as I am aware, does not have a limit on space unless I am mistaken and their server is of low capacity. The critic makes two assumptions, that I have no expertise in the subject, and that I have never experience racism. Both of which are untrue and fairly lazy method of creating doubt without presenting a factual argument. The magazine also has articles from numerous other professors, should they also be removed to make space for "student journalism" or are they permitted because they follow the Orthodoxy the critics described views? It is interesting to how the critic is capable of intellectual contortionism based on personal opinion.
Foreword Continued: I make historical observations on issues with terminology and practice and call for personal accountability for biases as a method for self-improvement and empowerment regardless of ethnicity. Interestingly, direct feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from people of numerous ethnic backgrounds, this is food for thought. I will let the reader decide as to the validity of the critics statements.
And now the actual Article...
When viewing history from afar, there is a strong danger that events can be simplified, misconstrued or even misread. Attempting to understand history therefore requires a rounded view and an understanding of both sides of the story. One should aim to understand the motivation and the applicable factors that led to certain events. If this is not done, it is likely that history will be interpreted through a modern lens, thus devoid of the context in which it happened. This does not mean that the terrible events that took place in the past can be condoned, nor does it detract in any way from the horror that people have experienced, however, understanding why these events happened and the motivations that led to these events happening, can give us a deeper understanding of where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going. Considering the immense pain and anguish that many people have suffered throughout history, it is understandable that there can be a degree of resentment. Be that as it may, while empathy is an admirable quality to display in daily life, it serves to constrain our understanding of history which should be methodological and devoid of emotional interpretation. This brings us, to the very sensitive subject of race and ethnicity.
Firstly, it should clearly be understood that race does not exist, it is a scientifically debunked and obsolete term in the same manner the definitions “Mongoloid, Negro or Caucasian” are now obsolete. Historically speaking ethnic hatred of which racism is a part has also not been the monopoly of any single group, but to a certain extent has been practiced in some form, at some time in history, by almost every ethnic group on the planet. The common faux pas in the Western world is that racism and the concept race are both seen as recent historical developments. This is only true for places where different races have not interacted until recent history. At the crossroads so to speak of civilizations, there are many historical records of racist sentiments being displayed on both sides. Contemplate for a moment the ancient Egyptian context. Egypt had various dynasties throughout its very long history, some of these dynasties belong to the more fair-skinned Egyptians, while others belonged to the darker-skinned Nubians after their conquest of Egypt. In ancient writings the fair skinned Egyptians refer to the barbarians with white skin from the north and the barbarians with black skin from the south. The Nubian Dynasty refers to the Egyptians as barbarians and also to the other fair skinned people of other lands. The idea of racial superiority, therefore depended mostly on who was in power at any particular time. When considering the writings of 3rd Century Generals in China, one General referred to the northern barbarians as strongly resembling the Apes from which they descended. There was also no love lost between the peoples of Europe and the Arabs and the Turks during the Crusades. So racial categorization is far from a modern invention, however, the modern system of classification went further by attempting to create a scientific understanding of races and therefore give a scientific reason or justification for the treating of others as inferior. Thus, the field of eugenics was born and was used as a strong justification for some of the most abhorrent events in human history. American eugenicists saw this “racial science” as the promised Holy Grail for the creation of a superior white race, the breeding of the perfect slave race but also the eradication of “inferior” bloodlines of the white race. Margaret Sanger knew that Eugenics could be a powerful tool in reducing the Black and Hispanic populations but she also wished to remove the lower class white population so as to “purify” the genetics of the upper class. It is little wonder that American eugenicists had strong connections to eugenicist working in the Nazi party. Recall that Hitler was not only concerned with the genocide of Jews in Europe but also of all undesirable individuals such as the disabled and those with mental problems so as to free the “pure German race” from “inferior pedigrees”. Racial superiority had created the concept of “racial cleansing”. This same concept was used in Imperial Japan, Unit 731 was created possibly as a Eugenics lab and partly as a laboratory for the experimentation and creation of deadly disease especially for use in biological weapons. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan share many striking similarities in their general ideologies. Nazi Germany sought to create the pure German race not only by exterminating any deemed unworthy of life or inferior, but also in reclaiming the so-called lost bloodlines of the German diaspora in other European countries. Imperial Japan took a similar line of action due to their belief that the Japanese were the superior Asian race, to this end the Koreans while seen as inferior to Japanese and treated extremely brutally, were also seen with potential for assimilation. Therefore, the Japanese aimed at destroying Korean culture through aggressive language assimilation, brutality and heavy propaganda. A similar approach was taken in Taiwan and it was hoped the Japanese settlers would be able to breed out and absorb the local population. The Chinese however, were simply viewed as little better than animals. Unit 731, captured local Chinese men, women and children for the most indescribable human experimentation. At the time, to cover over the real research that was taking place, these so-called researchers referred to their human test subjects as Manchurian monkeys. This lexical choice is no coincidence, as “Manchurian monkey” was the racial epithet used for Chinese. The Imperial Japanese attitude towards the ethnic groups in China became undeniably clear during the massacre of Nanjing.
That however is modern history, where there was more likelihood of interaction between completely different races. Racism is in fact merely an extension of ethnic hatred. Consider the history of almost any modern country, that is to say those with recorded history, and one will quickly find the same brutalities taking place between closely related ethnic groups as those that took place between races. During the Hundred Years War, white Europeans wholeheartedly butchered other white Europeans from opposing ethnic groups. During the Warring States and Three Kingdoms periods in Chinese history different Chinese ethnic groups wholeheartedly slaughtered other Chinese ethnic groups. During the various Bantu expansions, different Bantu tribes and ethnic group wholeheartedly destroyed people from other Bantu groups. For the majority of history, the chance of being murdered by a member of one's own racial or closely related group has been significantly higher than suffering the same fate at the hands of someone from a different racial group. It is therefore intellectually dishonest to only consider recent history when trying to understand the social interactions of ethnic groups and races over the course of history or to ignore the ongoing ethnic tensions around the world when considering contemporary history.
Race is predominantly viewed as an obsolete concept by the majority of the population regardless of their political inclination, yet there are aspects of Academia which seem disproportionately focused on keeping racialization alive. The motivation for doing so likely boils down to two things. Firstly, racialization and concepts of race are easily accessible methods for creating support as they draw on historical injustices. Secondly, these factors also serve to create considerable financial benefits for academics who keep this concept alive. The most vocal academic proponents of this highly racialized worldview are individuals who stand the most to gain via the financial incentives such as research sponsorship or publication of their books which are bought by those who feel disenfranchised and who may have genuinely suffered or by those who wish to help. Such manipulation can rightly the reviewed as having a predatory aspect because it capitalizes on the suffering of others.
The most common modern racialisations which animate the corpse of racial thought, are the concepts of Blackness and Whiteness with numerous books written on these subjects. The concepts of Blackness and whiteness are in themselves deeply racist as well as highly erroneous. Both terms are used to describe individuals' life experiences based on the tone of skin. This in turn becomes highly problematic because skin tone is a poor predicate of personal views, ethics, worldview, religious belief and of course personality. Both terms also erroneously assume the homogeneity of a very large groups of people based purely on the content of melanin or lack thereof. Simply considering some of the basic facts concerning the ethnic makeup of people with different skin tones shows exactly how crude if not laughable the concepts of Blackness and Whiteness really are, both in practice and as a theory to understand social phenomenon. The continent of Africa, is home to more than 3000 ethnic groups which speak more than 2,100 languages, most of these groups have their own rituals, customs and traditions which have been developed over millennia. The attempt of attributing a common shared life experience based on something as superficial as skin tone, verges upon the insulting. Consider then Europe which has 87 indigenous ethnic groups, all of which have their own unique perspectives and many who have their own languages. Then consider the diaspora of Europeans across the globe, can it be assumed that all these individuals have a similar view who have had similar life experiences. This has not even touched upon the numerous ethnic groups that exist in Asia, the Americas, Oceania or the many island nations around the world.
In discussing the ideas encased in such an ethnic monolith, further questions then arise. Are individuals with multi-ethnic ancestry to be classed as having benefited from whiteness, or have they been oppressed for that blackness? Does such a classification take place based merely on the melanin content? Are East Asians to be classified as white and therefore beneficiaries of whiteness? Are South Asians, to be classed as black, or does it depend on their melanin content or caste? Who is to decide which persons are classified as being impacted by Blackness or Whiteness? These are really the same questions that arose at the time when eugenics was the dominant racial theory thus ironically recreating the very racialized ideologies of the past. These concepts of Blackness and Whiteness, should therefore be rejected as a continuation of that same pre-modern system of eugenics which has led to the genocide of countless people. This system also encourages the view of eternal oppressor and eternal victim narrative which does not assist those who have truly been disadvantaged or disenfranchised but locks them into a vicious and hopeless cycle of despair and resentment. It becomes like giving a man a fish instead of teaching him how to fish, and then blaming the lack of this knowledge on a third party.
When filtering into education, these concepts cause a social divide from a young age and is child abuse in two ways, a) children who happen to have more melanin are taught they will be disadvantaged and never have the same chances in life due to the system that their lower melanin class mates belong to, b) the lower melanin class mates then feel guilty for belonging to an oppressive caste which keeps their fellow classmates down. This does not foster warm relationships, on the contrary, it serves to add a divisive factor to the class environment and stifles free interaction. It also produces a narrow and ideological world view. Students should be taught historical realities in history class, with context, to understand events as they took place within the time that events occurred to avoid repeating them, rather than to resuscitate a system of a bygone era for application in a modern setting.
This concept also feeds the notion that racism is an inescapable institutional system of power plus privilege and not a serious personal flaw. By so doing, it absolves the individual of the need to address their own biases and to correct these as part of their personal self-development. In the modern application, racism cannot be argued to be institutionalized if there is no policy that clearly favours a certain race (although there are organisations with race related problems that are separate from policy). Therein lies the danger of blaming the institute or organization of being institutionally racist, when the reality is that the individual holds responsibility for their own actions and by failing to address this aggravates the social problem. This in turn means that any individual regardless of their skin tone can in fact be racist and must take the personal responsibility to make a personal effort if they are so inclined, to remove this bias and the associated actions. An oxymoron then states that members of certain ethnicities are incapable of being racist towards members of certain other ethnicities, this itself is quite racist as it proposes that one group is unable for reasons of race to hold a certain view and inadvertently creates a racial hierarchy of inferiority and superiority. Hence, such a definition is really contradictory and self-defeating as it deflects away from personal development and instead anger towards a system. When such a view becomes mainstream it results in bigotry of low expectations for certain ethnic groups, serving only to strengthen basic tropes and stereotypes. Are all conflicts then based on ethnicity?
Most disagreements, miscommunications and misunderstanding in multi-ethnic environments arise not as a result of melanin content, but rather from cultural differences. Different cultures and languages cause people to see the world in a different way, decode behaviours differently and therefore interpret actions according to their cultural norms. Often what is viewed as polite or acceptable in one culture may be viewed as rude or unacceptable in another, with such differences occurring even between closely related cultural groups that speak the same language. These may even include fairly harmless mannerisms, which of course are not wrong in of themselves, but could be misunderstood in a certain cultural context. Such differences can occur even with individuals of the same ethnic group that have lived in a different country and have been raised there. For example, some Koreans view Gyopo (Koreans born/raised Overseas) as being rude. In actual fact they may not be rude at all, but because their mannerisms have been Westernized and because of their Asian appearance they are held to the cultural standard of Koreans who have only known their own country and culture resulting in a misunderstanding. The same cultural differences occur even within the Anglosphere as the cultures in different English speaking countries differ considerably. Such phenomenon only highlights the problematic nature of describing the world and its people through highly racialized terms like Blackness and Whiteness.
In essence, terminology such as Blackness and Whiteness, keep racial stereotypes alive and are also very little use in studying complex social phenomena because by definition these terms attempt a univariate approach in the classification of manifold social interactions across numerous cultures, language groups and also over vast expenses of time. Comparatively speaking, such a hyper simplified model is the equivalent of trying to understand the game of chess by looking at only a single chess piece.
Rather than taking a very simplistic view of history and human interactions developed over millennia a more comprehensive view is needed. The context of historical events regardless of the emotional attachment and brutality of such events must be considered to fully understand why they happened and the motivation behind them so as to avoid repeating them. Racism should not merely be seen as an institutional construct, but as a personal prejudice and the responsibility of the individual to address thereby affecting the wider community. If academics truly believe and agree that the concept of race is outdated and obsolete, they should discontinue the use of racialized terms like Blackness and Whiteness which have no validity in understanding the ways in which people behave and merely perpetuate shallow pseudoscientific understanding.
Alaric Naudé is a professor specialising in education, linguistics and social science. He is widely recognised as having a great face for radio.