Race and Racism
Non-fiction (Race Relations, Ethnic Studies)
A book in the collection: The West
A book in the series: Identity
What is racism? Racism is white people thinking or feeling about our race the way that people of other races think and feel about theirs.
Race is and will remain the primary human identity. Most races enjoy the loyalties and support of their own, but not white people. We have uniquely become prejudiced against our own.
Carrying the white man and woman’s burden, we help other races at the expense of our poor and vulnerable and at the expense of our futures, while absolving other races of responsibility for their lives and histories. We’ve never felt more morally superior than we’ve come to feel by rejecting our race we think we don’t need.
If we examined the past and present honestly, we’d see ourselves as other races see themselves. We’d honour our forebears, help our poor and vulnerable, and safeguard our futures.
- White Man’s Burden
- Other Races
- Jewish Identity
- Jewish Themes
- German Identity
- Imperial Turkey
- Imperial Japan
- Imperial China
- Black Identity
- The Politicisation of History
- White Racial Guilt
- Other Races’ Innocence
- White People’s Heroes and Heroines
- White Identity
- The Rule of Words
- The Serious Matter of Humour
- Acceptable and Unacceptable Abuse
- Whites-Only Racism
- The Presumption of White People’s Racism
- Reverse Racism
- A Gentle Touch of Racism
Chapter 1: Racism
We in the West identify with the world. The world doesn’t identify with us.
The world doesn’t identify with anyone or everyone. Among the students studying for a Master of Business Administration degree with me was a toothpaste company executive, Lenore. As part of a group project in 1995, we investigated the Colgate-Palmolive company’s marketing of dental hygiene products in Papua New Guinea, a parliamentary democracy within the British Commonwealth, with the British monarch the head of state. The Western company executives and marketers assumed that people the world over would relate to the company’s film of children from all manner of races cleaning their teeth. Perhaps the white-skinned expatriates living behind barbed wire in Port Moresby compounds did.
Papua New Guineans didn’t. They weren’t part of the racial polyglot presented before them, part of that world. That was America. They were Melanesian.
Traditional tribalism remains important to Melanesians and many other races, but race is and will remain the primary human identity. Other races retaining their racial identities mightn’t necessarily mean white people should revive ours. It does make me wonder why not.
Race makes identity easy. In 1948, between his two terms as Australian prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies proudly declared himself “British to his bootstraps.” Australians were British, as Australian law denoted until 1949. Being Australian was our point of distinction with other British, like New Zealanders and Canadians (but not Quebecois French). To the rest of the world, we were one in the same. We didn’t cease being British for being away from our Isles a few hundred years.
We might have been more particularly Irish, Scottish, or Welsh, which could matter aside the dominant English. My mother’s mother was proudly a Burke, who called herself my “old Irish grandmother.” She never left Australia in her life.
Our races gave us hearts, histories, and heroes. They made each of us someone; we knew who we were. My parents spoke proudly of seeing maps of the earth where the red denoting the British Empire covered so many countries: the empire on which the sun never set. We were peoples with cultures and futures for which to prepare.
We were nations between each other, but bracketed ourselves to be European when we encountered non-Europeans. Merged into our pan-European identity, we were white.
That became most acute after World War II. Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill (who’d pitted Britons against Germans before it again became fashionable) was among those craving that we embrace our collective European identity to avert further war. Remaining a British nationalist, Churchill didn’t imagine us surrendering our national selves, but we did in time surrender.
In Australia, we accepted waves of immigrants from Continental Europe. My father called them New Australians, until the term became discriminatory and discrimination for the West became wrong. We became Anglo-Celts; never before had the English been so muddled with the Irish. A pan-European status came to being Australian, but even our pan-European West became impractical with waves of immigrants from outside. When we ceased identifying with our race, we lost our identity.
The sun set on our empires. It set by our hands.
There’d come a new word: racism. Initially, it meant white people’s malice to other races. It came quickly to mean our prejudice against them, and then believing race had practical consequences. Soon enough, it meant us remembering race.
Wherever European peoples live in the world, we’d stopped identifying with our living and our dead. Race we now find confronting.
When he was six years old, in 2002, my eldest son played soccer. Each Saturday morning, parents of the ten boys in his team watched their sons rush around the field, as much after the rest of the pack as after the ball. We applauded the rare goals either team scored, hoping our sons improved a little each week. We weren’t altogether sure that they did.
Amidst the conversations during one game, a parent wanted to remark about a talented player from the opposing team. Not knowing his name, or indeed the names of any players from opposing teams, she tried to identify him by his movements: his place to the side of most other boys. If his jersey carried a number she couldn’t see it. When that description was unclear, she tried describing him by his skills: his hurried turn. That also failed, so she reluctantly mentioned his size: he was smaller than other boys on the field.
She never mentioned his race. He was the only Chinese, the only Asian.
The freedoms we had to be British, Australian, American and so forth, we no longer have. We don’t even know what they mean. I’m not sure I do.
I think it was late in the first decade of the new millennium that a British newspaper (The Sun, I think) asked its readers to say what they thought it meant to be British. Among the many detailed replies, one was conspicuously brief. In just a handful of words, the reader said being British meant carrying a British passport. That was all, nothing more, nothing less.
Other readers made longer-winded expressions of much the same idea, or spoke of a slightly more exacting definition requiring British citizenship. It seemed very little.
Their definitions made British the people who’d waged war against Britain, if they took a British passport that morning. They excluded people who’d defended our fighting Isles, and whose ancestors died doing so, but whom that morning surrendered British citizenship to join her former colonies.
To say our identity lies in the passport we hold, citizenship, or other documentation, is to say we have no identity. Li Cunxin could be known the world over as the last dancer to Chinese leader Mao Zedong, defect to America, move to Australia in 1995, and fourteen years later be named Australian Father of the Year. In the words of the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, he wasn’t just an Aussie dad. He was the “top Aussie dad.”
Through my several visits to America in the 1990s, I was often bemused to hear Americans call their country the home of the free. When I wasn’t bemused, I could be annoyed. Mike, a Washington lawyer, was the only American with whom I had the chance to point out that other countries are also free. I didn’t proceed to say it, but being a land of liberty isn’t a definition of any one country when others enjoy liberty too. However fine might be their freedoms, they aren’t uniquely America’s.
Addressing the American University School of International Service in Washington the first day of July 2011, President Barack Obama said being American “is not a matter of blood or birth.” He didn’t say what being American is.
His vice president Joe Biden did, addressing the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s 2014 Legislative Summit and citing President Theodore Roosevelt’s speech titled ‘True Americanism’ in 1894. “Americanism is not a question of birthplace or creed or a line of descent. It’s a question of principles, idealism, and character.”
Roosevelt spoke at a time America restricted immigration by race. His America was a North European melting pot. (Southern Europe’s melting pots were in Latin America; Argentinians, Chileans, and Uruguayans were distinctions from other Spaniards, otherwise one in the same.) America’s immigrants Anglicised their names leaving no observable distinction with other Americans; they Americanised them.
By the time of Biden, only the idealism remained, but it’s no longer the immigrants’. It’s ours. Biden believed illegal immigrants were already American.
Never to be outdone by Americans, Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship issued its Australian Values Statement in 2007. Applicants for immigration needed to sit a multiple-choice examination, ticking boxes on a government questionnaire supposedly ensuring they respected the freedom and dignity of the individual, equality of men and women, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, a spirit of egalitarianism that embraced mutual respect, tolerance, fair play, compassion for those in need in pursuit of the public good, and equal opportunity for individuals, regardless of their race, religion, or ethnicity. (They could’ve been the stated values of almost any country on earth, including those that discriminate by race or religion.)
In 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown thought values were the only way to define being British in the era of multiple races. A complicated process of submissions and consultations, including a summit of up to a thousand citizens, would determine those values. The Times newspaper responded with a competition to choose a new motto for the country. A fifth of respondents chose “No Motto Please, We’re British.”
The need to define who we are is a peculiarly postmodern quest for the West. Few countries elsewhere imagine it.
In 2009, President Nicholas Sarkozy (the son of a Hungarian aristocrat and a French Jewess, with a little more in her besides) proposed a debate about what it meant to be French. Alain Juppe was one of several former prime ministers who objected, believing such a debate would stigmatise immigrants. For Juppe, being French was what it had been since the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity. He was idealistic and thus ideological, implying the first Frenchmen were the 1789 revolutionaries. Frenchmen or women not sharing those values weren’t French. Other people on earth believing them presumably were.
Juppe’s definition excluded immigrants he presumed to include. “Liberty, egalitarianism, and fraternity are not shared values,” a young black Muslim in Marseilles told American Jewish film-maker Ami Horowitz early in 2015, after three Muslims massacred seventeen people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices and a kosher supermarket in Paris. “On freedom of expression, there is a conflict.”
Our vision of a single world people makes ideals our identity, but any identity based upon values has to be vague. Hardly a country anywhere doesn’t claim liberty, equality, and fraternity, interpreting each as it chooses. One person’s liberty is another person’s constraint. Equality of opportunity is at odds with equality of outcome; people aren’t equal. Fraternity presupposes something joining us, with no suggestion of what that could be. Whenever we try to define ourselves with values, they become more words we bandy about, without thought as to how free we are.
If we think words define us, then we’re undefined. Identities depending on words aren’t identities. They’re words. We fail to define, and so fail to comprehend ourselves or anyone else.
Whatever Sarkozy imagined, nothing came of it. A little more than a year later, at the end of 2010 in his annual address to the people of France, he defended his country’s use of the beleaguered euro currency by saying Europe was “essential to our future, to our identity, and to our values.”
Europe is no longer racial. It’s money.
Our values mightn’t be much, but they’re all that we have, along with our currencies. If there’s identity in values, it’s the identity shared throughout our postmodern West: a conglomerate Western identity masquerading as national identities we all have in common. Rights and self-righteousness define no country, but the West’s rejection of racism, not all racism but only our racism, defines us all. It’s our identity no less surely than race used to be. None of our other values, minor identities, or anything else, not even us, matter as much. It’s our certainty, conviction, and existential sense of what we are.
White people can preach all we like about uniting different races with common values. For growing numbers of people, that’s more of our white privilege: expecting other races to ignore race because we do.
I know little of other races, as they know little of us, but they enjoy no end of clubs, coalitions, and countries predicated upon race. I learnt of American Indians in Film and Television, the Black Media Alliance, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and the Korean American Bar Association in 2012, when their representatives turned up at the Los Angeles City Council to condemn racism on Los Angeles radio (but not racism in the formation of their associations and alliances).
In their best respects, we of the West could pause and examine other races’ attitudes to themselves and others in contrast to our attitudes to ours. While we made racial blindness a virtue, other races aren’t so virtuous. They don’t deny what they see, but we can’t see it because we see only individuals. They remain defined by their race without thought of being anything else, retaining their racial roots.
For a while there, we rationalised our rejection of only white racism by saying minority races needed redress from powerful majorities. If that were really our only consideration, we’d have not let them immigrate from where they’d been majorities and they’d not have come, except to empower minorities already here.
Minorities rule suits minorities better than majorities, but becoming minorities in streets, suburbs, and whole cities hasn’t allowed us to enjoy our racial identities. We still refuse to form business, cultural, sporting, or other associations around race. We condemn any of us who do. Matthew Heimbach formed a white students union at Towson University, Maryland in 2012. The Southern Poverty Law Centre designated it a hate group.
Our new-found blindness to race doesn’t blind us to racism. Racism remains, but not race. Having rejected race, we could just say racists are mistaken. We don’t. While learning to pass people of other races without our European eyes confessing we’ve noticed them, we’ve lost the ability to let racist remarks pass without rebuke. If any of us don’t reject all notions of race, then someone else brings us back into line. We haven’t moved beyond racial identities enough to be indifferent to white people retaining them. Becoming disinterested in race, we’ve become transfixed with racism.
Being white is being unable to see ourselves as other races see themselves. No matter how few we become, we rationalise our rejection of only our racism by insisting that ours remains the dominant culture, but in increasing numbers of places it clearly doesn’t. Not simply a minority as we are in Texas, we’re no longer the largest minority in California or New Mexico. I’m not sure we’ve ever been the largest minority in Hawaii. We still don’t allow ourselves racial loyalties or begrudge the more numerous Hispanics or Asians theirs. We respect other races’ loyalties, unacceptable for us.
At Georgia State University by 2013, white people comprised only thirty-eight percent of students. “If we are already minorities on campus and are soon to be minorities in this country, why wouldn’t we have the right to advocate for ourselves and have a club just like every other minority?” asked eighteen-year-old freshman Patrick Sharp, who tried to form a white students union. “All we want to do is celebrate white identity. This is about being in touch with who you are as a white person and being proud of that.”
We’re not proud. Among other races around us, we think we can hide.