Thursday, March 02, 2006

Levels of racism

Some people have attempted to argue that racism can be seen as a kind of zero-sum game. If the Danish cartoons reflect a certain form of racism, the disproportionate reaction to them in so many different places can be seen as a competing form of racism. The implication is that one cancels out the other and, after all, human nature isn't perfect. But neither, I would submit, is the symmetry we're expected to recognize in this putative face-off of complementary racisms.

The drift of this reasoning often goes one step further by suggesting that complaints about racism on "our side" (white western civilization) are attempts to excuse or mask the racism on the other side, thereby denying the reality of the zero-sum game. One interpretation of my previous posting suggests this idea. In that message, however, I specifically mentioned and condemned the extremist Muslim minority responsible for the more violent and well organized reactions. There is no question of excusing excessive behaviour, though I feel as interculturalists part of our job is to try to understand where it comes from and how it is structured. I should add that, however reprehensible this sometimes programmed and manipulated violence may be, I don't think it should be called racism. Rather it's a form of direct resistance and refusal of the dominant and dominating influence of another culture, an act of open and aggressive public defiance, a phenomenon not unknown even in our own enlightened history (the standard stuff of insurrections leading to wars of independence, Boston Tea Party style). Such organised or impovised resistance may be fully or partially justified, or not justified at all; but it isn't quite the same thing as racism.

I have to admit that I am increasingly appalled by our complacency with a state of general insensitivity to the fate of people who are 1) living in "less advanced" countries and 2) have darker skin than the Europeans who created modern democracy and its sidekick, global capitalism. The best we can do is hope they will become more like us and possibly help them to do so! I recently tried an online "psychological test" designed to determine whether the person taking it is racist and the result for myself said that I was positive. I discovered that I am unconsciously racist. The only comforting factor for me - because I pride myself in not being racist -- is that 50% of American blacks apparently also test out as white racists! This may be an indication of the deep success of a culture that is built on some invisible but fundamentally powerful racist values (in total contradiction, of course, with other visible and explicit values, such as democracy and equality).

My point is that I am neither attempting to blame one party nor excuse another. I'm not even trying to define parties. Rather than looking for a culprit (or group of culprits), I'm trying to recognize a problem and discover where the roots are and how deep they penetrate into our cultural soil. The cartoons, by the way, are only one factor in my outburst. And that fact highlights what is perhaps the most important point in my previous posting. We're wrong to think of it as a problem of the "clash of civilizations" between the post-Christian west and the Muslim world. It's something more fundamental residing in our deep-seated belief that western whites have reached a higher stage of cultural (if not biological) evolution than the rest of humanity. The result is pity and/or contempt of the rest of the world (or mere indifference).

Another contributing factor to my current rage, and this is strictly a matter of chance, is a television documentary I happened to see last week on the history channel (Histoire) here in France. It was a BBC documentary about the end of WWII and the two spectacular A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands of people were sacrificed for no other reason than geo-political strategy (to wit, showing Stalin how "advanced" we were and preventing the Russians from invading Japan). Japan had already offered to surrender but insisted on maintaining the Emperor, considered to be a god. It was all they required to save face, but Truman insisted on "unconditional surrender". After the horrendous, wanton destruction of two cities, Truman got his unconditional surrender, thought this was primarily because in the meantime Russia declared war on Japan. And of course once they had surrendered, Truman generously "offered" the Japanese the very condition they insisted on: maintaining Hirohito as emperor. Although I was already aware of most of the facts, I felt literally sick watching it. Can politics be so inhuman? ... apart from intercultural questions such as the importance of face in Eastern Asia and respect of the symbols of other people's religious, whether one finds them absurd or not.

The documentary consisted almost entirely of interviews. There was very little pure narration. Some of the people interviewed pointed out how the war propaganda developed the idea that the Japanese weren't human beings (a racist sentiment echoed publicly by French prime minister, Edith Cresson, just over ten years ago!). If we had considered them to be our equals, could we have envisaged and accepted massacring entire civilian populations? Not only were the Japanese guilty of Pearl Harbor, but they weren't really human beings anyway.

Because Truman considered it irrational to think of a hereditary monarch as a god, he allowed himself to murder hundreds of thousands of people. That's a cultural problem similar in some ways - but with far worse consequences -- to the insensitivity of the Danish magazine. But provoking death or engaging in torture is only possible, however inexcusable, 1) if you are directly threatened 2) you are not threatened but you consider the other as less than human. Pinochet's torturers and murderers were professionals: they were paid for a specific task; they didn't need to think about why they were killing and torturing. The "enthusiasm" of Abu Ghraib, on the other hand, which we claim was not a matter of policy, can only be explained by ambient if not actively encouraged racism.

Another telling symptom: Samuel Huntington wants to re-establish and protect the WASP tradition in the U.S. from multiculturalism. He has a point, but the point - when you work out the details - is fundamentally racist, though the racism is implicit rather than explicit or possibly unconscious rather than conscious. It certainly isn't a paean to the Ku Klux Klan.

My point is that we tend to do a lot of things "innocently" and "normally" with good intentions, but with an effect that is clearly racist. One of the contributing factors is the belief that everything that's "most advanced" comes from the West (which seems so obvious when you compare measurable "standards of living"), though such a belief is not necessarily founded on the idea that it's advanced because it is Western (which would be simple cultural bigotry). The concept is rather that we - as a people (sometimes a nation, sometimes a race) must be more advanced to have created so many advanced things. Therefore we are implicitly endowed with a "civilizing mission", which we nevertheless seek generously to share with the not yet civilized others (for a small price, of course, since getting people to pay the price is what made us so advanced in the first place).

Those who profit from the advance of our civilization tend to agree; the others simply seethe with frustration until some incident comes along that makes them explode. The reaction of of the Indian population to Bush's visit to India is a demonstration of this divide. There is a class that can negotiate, partner and profit from the adoption of Western economic institutions and styles of consumption. There is another class -- much larger -- that is condemned to follow and occasionally protest. This method of divide and conquer can also be seen in the strategy for integration, particularly of blacks inside the U.S. in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 60s. The strategy consists of building a class of privileged "leaders" who profit from the extension of white civilization into their communities. You can then count on them to "govern" or at least guide their populations, less through political control than through the diversion of glamour. Sports heroes, movie stars and media figures constitute the "proof" of successful integration that rarely extends to the majority of a population still subjected to economic apartheid. A significant and sufficient number of the victims allow their identification with celebrities of their own race to shape their personal ambition, confirming their acceptance of the values of the dominant culture, one of which is individualism over collectivism (the ever threatening solidarity of the oppressed). The classic example of this is the ambition of black youngsters to play basketball in the NBA, where they can wear real diamonds in their ears (i.e. demonstrate and represent glamourous black culture). This phenonomen concerns hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of youngsters and has a powerful effect on the community's acceptance of persistent inequality, partly because it creates a feeling of racial pride (blacks are better basketball players or at least have a cultural style that is better adapted to the principles of the sport), but more significantly because it encourages individualism, self-reliance and capitalistic ambition in a community where none of these correspond to the structure and successful workings of the real economy and society confined as they are to the perimeter of white post-industrial civilization.

To some extent this malady of racism infects our own community of intercultural professionals. After all, much of what we do follows in the wake of globalisation and our job is as often as not one of supporting the trend, helping civilization advance. Can this be done ethically? Can we avoid racism? Should we counter it? Or is it better - or at least easier - simply to remain blithely unaware? These are questions we might want to ask ourselves (after taking an online psychological test), independently of what our employers or clients expect of us.

We could of course complicate the debate by citing the many examples of ethnic rivalry where race isn't the critical factor but the forms of behaviour are similar. But if race isn't the critical factor let's not call it racism. And especially let's not use the sins of others to excuse ourselves from thinking about our own contradictions.

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