Why talk about racism today (or why not)?
“Until the philosophy which hold one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned everywhere is war, me say war.
That until there no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes me say war.
That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all, without regard to race dis a war.
That until that day the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship rule of international morality will remain in but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained now everywhere is war – war.”
Bob Marley: ‘War’
Some people love to claim we live in a post-racial society. They feel that talking about something which is a construct, a fantasy, like ‘Race’ will only make it more real. I have some sympathy for this view. I’d also rather not have to talk about these issues and there is a real danger of talking about something in the wrong way and thus creating new problems. However I think events of the past years and the #blacklivesmatter movement have brought to public attention that this post-racial reality is more of a fantasy than anything else.
Usually I think you will find people that say this, themselves have a certain level of privilege or a lack of historical awareness. Often when I discuss issues of race with my white friends who hold this view one of the following things come up or in my opinion is likely to underlie their standpoint:
- “The way things are” hypothesis. Also related to people claiming things to be ‘natural’, to me it betrays a certain laziness in thinking or perceiving, a dangerous one in fact. Many reactionist movements (including fascists, anti-abortionists, anti gay movements) use this completely opaque argument to defend their position. In this case it comes down to claiming that people have an innate tendency to categorize people (on some level this might hold true, but does that mean change is impossible?). This is often goes hand in hand with the next hypothesis:
- “Things will stay the same” hypothesis, people have a tendency to view (against all evidence) the situation they find themselves in as semi-permanent. This is why it so hard to quite smoking (that craving feels like it will extend into eternity), why break-ups suck so much (“I’ll never find anyone ever again”). And why people keep believing going to war is a solution to things (“Really wars cause untold suffering to millions?, I’d have thunk(!?$) we’d just go in and take care of business.”). Probably this hypothesis is some kind of psychological help to convince ourselves we live in a stable and secure world. Billions of years of change kind of speak against this hypothesis. It also prevents us from actually building a relatively stable and secure world.
- The last one I came across is the “things will sort itself out” hypothesis. One some level this might be true. Things do happen and when they do, we end up calling it reality, the place we call home. However what this home looks like is profoundly an effect of our joint interactions. And related to this last one and the previous we can also hypothesize the following: “Things will change” and possibly “Things will get worse” or “Things can get out of hand fairly quickly”. Just ask anybody alive in Europe in 1939 or any of the black people killed by police recently (if we could).
Racism is everywhere, nonetheless it is only one of many societal problems that face us. I see climate change and capitalism (which is a major cause for both issues) as the three biggest threats to wellbeing. Besides that they are many other private, personal or familial issues beseeching us. Where is the rent coming from? Will I be able to feed my baby? Will my mom beat this cancer?
We can be excused for not wanting to think about issues that make an already precarious existence more so. Or not having the mental space to give time to all these things.
Or preferring to give attention to things that actually make us feel good, to focus on the positive.
I know I have some friends that might read this and say: “Is he having a go at capitalism again?” I don’t believe in simple classifications of things. Any classification is just a tool to think with. Capitalism like Racism or Love can take many forms.
As I have said in a previous post, the old meaning of object is ‘thrown against the senses’. To me, at heart capitalism is a philosophy (and there are many other philosophies which do the same), an ideology, which treats reality and what is found within as essentially separate from everything else, separate from itself. As objects appearing to the self. A schizophrenic world view.
My philosophy simply entails trying to extend that sense of self, that sense of feeling and empathy to other people and beings to the extent that we share a dependency with whatever kind of being we find ourselves confronted with. This does not mean to ignore science or objectivity, it entails being capable of more than one way of looking at the world.
That means saying #blacklivesmatter, that means realizing that all of reality is connected. It means recognizing we are a part of nature and we depend it. That when we mistreat or abuse each other, we are also doing damage to ourselves.
So even though I am all for letting sleeping dogs lie, I think letting them sleep on a nest of vipers is unwise. Hard as it is to think about these issues, imagine how much harder it is for the people experiencing them. Imagine the horror that could continue to occur if we do nothing, imagine the new holocausts waiting to happen. And they are waiting as climate change is bound to wipe out exactly those communities of colour that have historically been colonized.
Imagine if the people in your life that have extended a helping hand or simply a warm hand of compassion had not done so. How bleak a world would we live in, if nobody cared, if nobody tried to fight wrongs?
Ask yourself, when you act, Do you not do so out of a belief in something greater? A belief or a hope, that something good will come of it?
That was the emotional and cognitive side of things, now let’s consider some facts. The case of Holland:
After reading this piece on slave wealth in the UK, I became curious about the Dutch situation:
A few facts;
-75 % of the slaves in North America were transported there by Dutch slavers.
-When slavery was abolished in Holland in 1863 all slave owners were paid 300 guilders compensation per slave (6787,21 in euros today). Also all slaves had to continue working for 10 years for free after this. This is why descendants of slaves say slavery ended in 1873.
-If we take the 45000 slaves that were property in Dutch lands (including the colonies) and multiply that by 6787,21 (300 guilders of 1863 in euros today) we arrive at a sum of 309,519450 euros. If we add to that 10 years work by 45000 slaves for a minimum wage of 1507,80 per month we arrive at a further 814,212000 euros. If we add these two figures we arrive at a sum of 1,123731450 billion euros.
So just looking at the amount of money paid to former slave owners after abolition of slavery in one country, we find a sum of more than a billion euros. We have not counted the profit from the hundreds of years of slave trade before abolition, nor the cost of other types of exploitation (of resources for instance). Nor have we counted the costs of permanently damaging the economies in countries of origin, making them ripe for exploitation which continues to this day.
We also have not considered the psychological damage to both slavers and slaves, in the effort to dehumanize slaves. Imagine being the son of a man who makes his money by treating human beings as less than cattle. Imagine the trans-generational effects of violence, rape and murder. Imagine large swaths of populations effectively suffering from PTSD.
We have mainly talked about negative effects in the sense of costs. Every action has an effect. You can call it karma or basic physics. Now imagine all the potential snubbed out, all the people wanting to love and be free, but killed or hurt instead. All the lives that could have been.
We don’t have to look far to see white supremacy at work today. The migrant crisis in the Mediterranean or lack of attention for the fact that most people killed by ISIS are muslims. Or discrimination in the job market or by police, things that happen in Holland, not only in the US. We like to think that Holland is more progressive or tolerant than the US. Possibly in some ways it is, but on the topic of Race the discussion is long overdue. When POC start this discussion as with “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” we can see them being policed for simply wearing t-shirts that support their view. When Charlie Hebdo happened everybody was defending free speech. But when black bodies are on the line. Free Speech is not important suddenly.
The reason we have to deal with this legacy is precisely because the racial contract keeps taking on new forms, and finding new ways of exclusion and suffering.