Friday, July 16, 2010

A Note on Racism

As I’ve noted earlier, we saw The Jewel in the Crown again and I’ve read The Raj Quartet for the second time. Those experiences once more constellated a cluster of memories for me, dating back to my childhood and the days of World War II. In that time I was a child-member of an occupying force, a Hungarian army brat stationed in Serbia. It was a time when the little girl next door, a rather sweet child, suddenly appeared in the street to play with a huge yellow star sewn into her dress. A few weeks later she and her family vanished. I went to a Catholic school then; the teachers were all nuns; and for a while there, until they too disappeared, three member of my second-grade class appeared in school with the same sorts of stars, and our leading Sister lectured us about those stars trying to tell us that they meant nothing at all, just a little formality having to do with names. We’d had no idea at all that little Jewish children were our classmates. We’d never noticed. But we noticed that those children now had a strange shyness and sadness about them that they’d never had before. That was then.

Today’s context also included violent events in which Kyrgyz Turks killed Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan and in which in Pakistan Muslims did violence to a Sufi community. In the background are continual (even if by now barely audible) reports of Sunni on Shia violence in Iraq, and vice versa. And never mind Jewish violence on Palestinians. Murderous clashes between Muslims and Hindus, a feature of The Raj Quartet, has not stayed in the 1940s. No. It still recurs quite regularly now. In most cases, then, as now the race of those who kill each other is the same. Let me keep that simple. They look exactly the same on either side—much as the little girl next door looked exactly like I did, and her mom like mine, and her dad like my father.

My thesis is that “racism” is a culturally juvenile, overly simplistic tag applied to a category not of human but of subhuman behavior. It isn’t precisely animal behavior but closely linked to it; animals living in packs and groups behave in violently territorial ways and sometimes cause the deaths of members of the opposing group. Animals are protected by the limits nature sets to this sort of thing. Human are more clever—but there is a kind of threshold. Intelligence, calculation, and free-will are already present, but the genuinely human is not yet awakened. It’s only there as a dim potential. It’s a very harsh way to put it. But is it true? I think it is. Race is just a very convenient way of tagging the “alien other”—the other that, in a dim, subhuman consciousness threatens, and may therefore be violently attacked to give vent to one’s dread and fear.

The paradox of this, of course, is that external conditioning, thus social pressure for tolerance of other races, is just that, conditioning. The underlying biological imperative is stronger and will surface under the right conditions anyway. The bio-social tribalism behind group-on-group hatred and violence literally permeates political speech today, even if carefully coded. It’s purpose is not to “educate” or to persuade but merely to signal: if you feel this, here’s where you belong. To raise humanity to a higher level—now there is a job that can’t be done by propaganda or by broadcasting nest odor.


  1. Different kinds of signaling are still going on despite many efforts at building up tolerance. For the first time this year at the swimming pool I saw more than one single black family with children, several rambunctious boys and girls, whose behavior was a little more rowdy perhaps than some other members expected. This caused raised eyebrows, literally. I wonder if the subjects of this signaling themselves even noticed...

    I agree that raising our consciousness to a higher HUMAN level will take much more time.

  2. I'm not so sure it is a matter of intolerance of other races or groups. For example, if there were no pockets of Muslims on the Indian side of the partition line in 1947, would there have been no rioting and killing?

    I tend to think there would have been, but the perpetrators would have been forced to more keenly discriminate about the characteristics of the target group: fellow Hindus, but perhaps those that follow teachings of a certain Baba.

    And at the extreme, where everyone was equivalent and no one could be singled out, the violent would kill themselves. It would be one of the hardest things in the world not to give violent expression to deeply built-up emotions, and in our day and age, we do not do the hardest things in the world: we pass on it.


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