Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena
The question that I deposit as the title of my present article is so simple such that its very simplicity is its complexity.
I had a good mind to ask this question in another way, which is: Can white people not be racist? To navigate the simple complexity of the question that is under discussion I intend to explore first what exactly racism itself as a political resource and a system is in the world order.
To start with, Aime Cesaire spoke for many black thinkers and activists of the world when he argued that the racism of black people is only reverse racism as they are forced to react to the violence of the racism of the white supremacist world system.
Thinkers such as Mahmood Mamdani and Frantz Fanon, in discussing violence, have made suggestions about what can be called the difference between non-revolutionary racism that is oppressive hate and discrimination, and revolutionary racism that is aimed at overthrowing domination and segregation and is liberating.
Both the ideas of reverse racism and revolutionary racism derive their moral authority and political right from the ideas of a just war. Ideas of a just war are founded on the ethical grounds that a fight for freedom and for justice is better and right compared to the fight to conquer and dominate others for purposes of exploiting their labour and stealing their resources as the colonists and imperialists did and continue to do.
By the foregoing, it is important to observe that there is not just one racism but kinds of racism or different uses and abuses of racism.
For instance, freedom fighters engaged in a just liberation struggle are frequently compelled to employ and deploy violence, to kill enemies of freedom and destroy their property, but their violence does not carry the same evil as the violence of invading conquerors who kill to invade, dominate and pillage.
What fundamentally is Racism?
Prevalently we are sold to the simple idea of racism as hate and discrimination of one by another based on the colour of the skin. This understanding of racism is criminally misleading and works to conceal rather than reveal what exactly racism has done to humanity.
Racism has far too many other markers beyond the simple colour of the skin. To start with, in the ancient West were ideas that some people had more purity of blood than others.
Then came the purity of spirit marker, that other people had souls and others did not, that others had God and other were pagans, gentiles, heathens, infidels and all.
Racism also morphed to discrimination by distance and geographic location, people from far away distances, beyond immediate borders became strangers, foreigners and hated aliens.
Fitness and unfitness of the species, as a classifier was also promoted by scientific racists like Charles Darwin and others. Shape and size of the skull was also tried as a maker of difference, just like the shape and size of the nose, genitalia was not left out in the experimentation.
In a word, racism is a system of power that produces superior and inferior beings. It is a system of classification and hierarchisation that has produced classes of powerful and powerless, poor and rich peoples in the world. The word race, as used in the phrase “human race” names the species.
So, when one species of people see themselves as superior to another based on their blood (which is a fiction), on their geographic origin, on their history, religion, culture, gender, size and ability of body they are empirically practising racism.
That is how wide and even deep racism is in the present world. In a strong way, it becomes clear that other discriminations in the world such as xenophobia, nativism, tribalism and bigotry are in many ways derivatives of racism. It also becomes clear that people of the white skin might have become infamous for it, because of their centrality in the world system, but they really do not hold monopoly of racism in a general sense.
All the varied peoples of the world are capable at one point or another to use any of the above mentioned markers of racism to their criminal advantage.
The important thing to understand is that racism is an ideological, social and political construction that has no basis, in fact, it is based on myths and fictions.
Even the most racist white scientists have tried and failed to prove that there is anything superior in the blood of white Europeans and Americans compared to that of dark Nigerians and Ghanaians.
When people want to discriminate others they manufacture differences and weaknesses that do not exist, that is why Benedict Anderson in 1983 unmasked nations themselves as imagined communities that exist more in the mind than in reality, for instance, essentially there is nothing in our blood that makes us uniquely Zimbabwean but we use our nationality to call out foreigners.
Countries themselves as geographic locations that have maps and borders, in the view of Edward Said, are “imaginative geographies” that are imagined and constructed and named by powerful people and powerful systems, nothing essential makes Zambia a country except what the mapped piece of land is called and believed to be. In a way, it is all because of nationalism and nativism that other people have become natives and others foreigners anywhere in the world.
Can a white person not be racist?
Simplistically and also simply, there are jolly good white peoples out there that for their good hearts, their kind works, what they have done for and with black peoples can really not be racist, no.
In actuality and philosophically, however, all white people can be understood and experienced as fundamentally racist, whether they practice the racism themselves or silently benefit from it as a political and social system within the present world order.
Whether they were missionaries selling God, merchants selling goods and services or Empire builders seeking to expand their power, the colonialists and imperialists that landed and invaded the Global South were white skinned. Racism as marked by skin colour was the most visible form of racism but not the only one in the Global South.
The claim that the white skin made one superior, cleaner, closer to God, more powerful and intelligent was a strong colonial myth.
Even the most well-meaning, kindest and even holiest of all white peoples, some of whom died, were injured or jailed fighting against colonialism and racism still benefit or benefitted from simply being white skinned in the world.
The most decolonial and most liberated and liberating white people in the world are those who start everything by acknowledging the underserved privilege that they have enjoyed over Asians and Africans in the present world order.
For white people, racism became a political and social resource that delivered immense economic and political power that philosophers call “ontological density” (Isithunzi lesisindo emhlabeni). Philosophically speaking, all white people have been shaped and produced into racists by the world’s system, how they acknowledge and use their racial privilege is what makes some white people evil and others not. In a way, the first racism of all the racisms in the world is white supremacist racism; it is the most armed, most moneyed, most landed and therefore most powerful racism in the planet.
Even as powerful as it is and as violent as it has been, white supremacists racism is the most denied evil in the world. A few decades after apartheid, almost all white people that one meets in South Africa claim to have opposed apartheid. A simple fool then wonders why apartheid lasted for so long if it had no supporters.
Can Black people be racist?
From the understanding of racism that I profiled above black people like all other people are capable of and have practiced racism.
They have also practiced black on black racism just like the whites have employed and deployed white on white racism, anti-Semitism for instance, the myths of purity of blood and superiority of birth have not been given to all white people in the same measure.
True enough, the racism of black people against white people can be called reverse racism, just racism or revolutionary racism but how much power and influence does it have?
White supremacist racism has changed the world and created colonisers and the colonised, produced rich and poor people, whereas black racism can really not change the weather in the world, it is not backed by the same social and political power that backs white racism in the present Euro-American hegemonic Empire.
Black racism is at its most powerful when it is black on black racism, against white people and the world system it really has no teeth and is reducible to the anger and depression of the defeated protester.
For that reason, non-racialism, the comfortable and convenient belief that racism is over and people should no longer worry about it is a very racist argument in that it seeks to conceal toxic power relations in the world, it hides the inequalities and injustices that racism has occasioned.
It is as racist and as offensive as most white people who seek to absolve themselves of racism by claiming to have black friends or black lovers and insisting that they don’t see colour when they are the colour itself.
Anti-racism, the opposition to racial hatred and discrimination by all human beings, black and white, is probably the decolonial way to go.
Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from Pretoria: firstname.lastname@example.org