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returning to the race myth

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‘My own personal view is that today we over-privilege and fetishise the concept of identity’.

Mark Thomas,  Professor of evolutionary genetics, University  College, London (quoted in  Superior: the return of race science, by Angela Saini, 2019)

A couple of years ago I tackled issues of race and identity politics in a post which focussed on ‘blackface’ among other things. I don’t think there’s much I’d change about it, but my current reading of Angela Saini’s above-mentioned book, in particular the chapter ‘Roots’, which relates what anthropology has found regarding the first indicator of race amongst those who tend to obsess over it, namely skin colour, has updated my knowledge without really changing my outlook.

When we think of ‘white’ people one of the most obvious examples would be the pale, cold-weather Scots, of which I’m one. We’re not called WASPs for nothing. I was amused as an adult to find paperwork indicating that I was baptised as a Presbyterian. WTF is that? Another funny thing about my waspness is the fact that I’ve lived in sunny Australia since the age of five, my skin darkening quite splendidly every summer in the pre-sunblock era. Needless to say my intelligence dipped sharply during those months.

Saini relates a story about a 1903 archaeological discovery in Somerset, of one of the oldest human bodies ever found in Britain. Dating back some 10,000 years, he was given the name Cheddar Man as he was discovered in caves at Cheddar Gorge, and much more recently he was analysed by genetic sequencing. There was naturally a lot of interest in the genetics of this fellow, as English, or British, as cheddar cheese.

… what came as a real shock to many was that his bones… carried genetic signatures of skin pigmentation more commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa. It was probable, then, that Cheddar Man would have had dark skin. So dark, in fact, that by today’s standards he would be considered black.

Superior, Angela Saini, p167

Visual reconstructions based on the genetics also showed him to be far less WASP-looking than genteel society might condone. It was front-page news stuff, but experienced geneticists such as Mark Thomas were unfazed. The fact is that modern genomics has probably done more than anything else to scuttle the notions of fixed identities relating to blackness, whiteness, Europeaness, Asianess, Africaness, Scandinavianess or Irishness. In short the necessity of ness-ness ain’t necessarily so.

This has everything to do with genetic drift. As Thomas explains it, in pre-civilisation times, humans migrated in small groups, and would have varied physically (and of course in other ways) from those they separated from. Later, as groups grew and became more stable, there would have been an opposite effect, a greater homogeneity. Thus we see ‘Asians’, ‘Africans’ and ‘Europeans’, from our limited perspective, as near-eternal categories when in fact they’re relatively recent, and of course disintegrating with globalisation – an extremely recent phenomenon, genomically speaking.

On ‘blackness’ itself, that may have been a more recent phenomenon in our ancestry than ‘whiteness’. My good friends the bonobos, and their not-so-nice chimp cousins, tend to have light skin under their dark hair. As we moved forward in time from our ancestral link with chimps and bonobos, losing our body hair and increasing the number of sweat glands as we became more bipedal and used our speed for hunting, there would have been a selection preference for darker skin – again depending on particular environmental conditions and cultural practices. There is of course a quite large gap in our knowledge about early hominids (and there is controversy about how far back we should date the bonobo-human last common ancestor – identifying Graecopithecus as this ancestor tends to push the date further back) considering that Homo Habilis, which dates back, as far as we know, to 2.3 million years ago is the oldest member of our species identified so far. Beyond H habilis we have the Australopithecines, Ardipithecines, Sahelanthropus Tchadensis and Orrorin tugenensis, among others, which may take us back some 7 million years. DNA analysis can only take us back a few thousand years, so I don’t know how we’re ever going to sort out our deeper ancestry.

In any case, the new racial ‘ideas’, given impetus by various thugocracies in the former Yugoslavia as well as today’s Burma/Myanmar, China, India and the USA (where it may yet lead to civil war) are an indication of the fragility of truth when confronted and assaulted by fixed and fiercely held beliefs. Social media has become one of the new and most effective weapons in this assault, and when thugocracies gain control of these weapons, they become so much more formidable.

Truth of course, is, and should be its own weapon against identity politics. Knowledge should be the antidote to these supposedly indelible identities, of blackness, whiteness, Jewishness, Hindu-ness and so on. Unfortunately, too many of us are interested in confirmation than in truth. In fact, according to the psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, in their book The enigma of reason, we use reason more often to confirm beliefs that we want to be true than for any other purpose. And when enough of the ruling class are concerned to confirm erroneous beliefs that happen to advantage them, as is the case for the current Indian Hindu government, the result is a thugocracy that oppresses women as well as the so-called ‘untouchables’ and other victims of the two-thousand year old caste system.

But having just read the chapter entitled ‘Caste’ of Angela Saini’s book, I should modify those remarks. The current Indian government is only reinforcing a system the disadvantages of which are more clear to ex-pats like Saini (and some Indian students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching) than it is to those that remain and ‘belong’. It involves more than just caste and religion, as it’s practiced by Christians and others, and enforced by families and broader relational and cultural units. My own detachment from family and cultural constraints makes it easy for me to judge this rather harshly. And in faraway Australia we hear of the horrors of in-group fealty without feeling its comforts. And naturally as a working-class lad and anti-authoritarian my sympathies are definitely with the underclass.

So how do we overcome the inwardness of caste and class systems, which are ultimately destructive of genetic diversity, not to mention causing the immiseration of millions? The answer, also provided by Mercier and Sperber’s thesis, is interaction and argument. They argue that reason developed as a social rather than an individual phenomenon. Evidence of course also must play a part. Saini’s book provides an excellent example of this, and the scientific community generally does too. Mercier and Sperber give an interesting example of how the marketplace of ideas can produce effective results over time:

The British abolitionists didn’t invent most of the arguments against slavery. But they refined them, backed them with masses of evidence, increased their credibility by relying on trustworthy witnesses, and made them more accessible by allowing them to see life through a slave’s eyes. Debates, public meetings, and newspapers brought these strengthened arguments to a booming urban population. And it worked. People were convinced not only of the evils of slavery but also of the necessity of doing something about it. They petitioned, gave money, and – with the help of other factors, from economy to international politics – had first the slave trade and then slavery itself banned.

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, H Mercier & D Sperber, p314

Some would say, of course, that slavery is still flourishing. I’ve even heard the claim that Jeff Bezos is the quintessential modern slave-owner. But nobody is credibly claiming today that slavery is reasonable. It has long ago lost the argument. That’s why evidence-based argument is our best hope for the future.

References

Superior: the return of race science, Angela Saini, 2019

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber, 2017.

 

Written by stewart henderson

June 17, 2021 at 8:51 pm

The Israeli horrorshow that our governments pretend isn’t happening

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Canto: We just have to talk about Israel. It’s doing my head in.
Jacinta: I know. So let’s start with the slogan – don’t know if its like some official government position – ‘Jewish and Democratic’ – do you see the problem with that?
Canto: You know I do. Democracy is, at least theoretically, inclusive, while Jewishness is, most practically, exclusive. The two are as immiscible as lipids in water.

Jacinta: Well put. And on that basis, I mean considering the putative inclusiveness of democracy, much-touted Athenian democracy, which never lasted long anyway, was never really democratic, because women weren’t regarded as citizens, in fact they were virtually non-persons.

Canto: Right, not to mention slaves, who would’ve been a substantial proportion of the population, and non-citizens like Aristotle, who could never become citizen-voters, despite their contributions to the state. But turning to modern democracies, we’re far more sensitive to the need for inclusiveness if we’re to legitimately describe ourselves as democratic – think of the national shame we feel in Australia about not allowing our indigenous people the right to vote until the early sixties. And of course anyone from overseas who becomes an Australian citizen not only can but must vote here. 

Jacinta: But we don’t think of our country as ‘Australian and democratic’, in spite of some pollies and others trying – unsuccessfully in my view – to characterise typical Australians. And the same with Brits and Americans.

Canto: So that takes us back to Israel and the Jewish obsession with cultural identity, and its association with a particular piece of land, which some Jewish people seem to think is exclusively and eternally theirs. We’ve read a number of texts on the Palestine-Israeli tragedy, or disaster, or whatever you choose to call it, the first one being The case for Palestine, by Australian lawyer Paul Heywood-Smith, which focuses particularly on the legal issues re the creation of the Israeli state, as well as all the hard-headed lobbying of  western politicians by Zionist ideologues in the early twentieth century. It was most educational, but what has most haunted me since reading the book is a less characteristic passage:

What is a secular American Jew? 22% of American Jews now describe themselves as having no religion. That figure rises to 32% for those born after 1980. Is this secular American Jew an American? Is he/she a Jew? Is he/she an Israeli living in the US? Why do Jewish American Organisations regard assimilation as the greatest danger? Religious Jews no doubt have a reason to call themselves Jews. But non-religious American Jews no longer suffer discrimination….. Why can’t they just be American? The answer is – Israel

Paul Heywood-Smith, The case for Palestine, p83.

The reference here is to American Jews but of course it equally applies to Australia, Britain or any other country. It’s strange that Jewishness, which began as a religious rather than a national signifier, should continue to have such significance for non-religious Jews. I think there are two answers rather than one: first, the land of Israel, which was propagandised in Jewish religious writings as ‘the promised land’, upon which was built a magnificent but totally mythical kingdom under David and Solomon, and second, the history of Jewish oppression, throughout Europe in particular, culminating in the holocaust. This has combined to create a heavy sense of culture, associated with a particular stretch of land – which, to be factual, never belonged wholly to the Jews during Old Testament times.

Jacinta: Yet it’s still strange. It does seem, though, that heavy culture – in which one’s culture almost seems to take precedence over one’s humanity – is generally forged in opposition to oppressors. Members of indigenous cultures, for example, who probably took that culture for granted when left to themselves, often develop a fierce pride in it, when it comes under threat from ‘whities’.

Canto: Yes, they dig in and get quite conservative about it. They become preservationists. But returning to Israel – is there any nation now existing on this planet that’s more racist than Israel?

Jacinta: That’s interesting. You might say that because there’s actually no such thing as ‘race’, and I think science backs me up on this, there can be no such thing as racism, but that’s not true. Race is about fact and science, whereas racism is about perception and belief. I’d roughly define racism as a belief in superiority based on a perception of skin colour and/or cultural identity. That saying, I’m inclined to agree with you about Israel, though I haven’t visited that many nations, even in my cyberworld travels…

Canto: No matter, it’s clearly a racist country, by your definition. Add to that sense of superiority the nonsensical idea that the piece of land modern Israel has been built upon (whatever its rather flexible boundaries) has ‘always’ been theirs, and the promotion of a peculiar ‘everyone hates us so we must be super-strong to defend ourselves’ paranoia, and you have a most peculiar and unique form of racism, which is no less vicious for being so.

Jacinta: So clearly Israel is no more a democracy than South Africa was under apartheid. Now, over the past months we’ve been educating ourselves about the situation there via reading – notably four texts. First, The case for Palestine, which is useful for, inter alia, recording the indefensible attitude of successive Australian governments towards Israel’s brutality, of which more later. Second, Tears for Tarshiha, a memoir by Olfat Mahmoud, who was born in Burj Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, after her family were driven out of their native town, Tarshiha, in what is now the north-west of Israel, as part of the Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948, which saw some 700,000 Palestinians fleeing or being forced out of the region. Mahmoud is a Palestinian peace activist and director of an international NGO, who represents the resilience of Palestinians amid horrendous suffering. Her story is simply told but sometimes painful to read. Third is The last earth, by Ramzy Baroud, which tells multiple stories from the Palestinian resistance and the Palestinian diaspora, as part of a people’s history of individual voices and perspectives, a rejection of the ‘terrorist’ stereotype. Fourth is Goliath: life and loathing in greater Israel, an enormous piece of on-the-ground reportage by the Jewish-American journalist Max Blumenthal, which identifies some of the main figures in Israeli right-wing politics and presents a stark picture of the cultivated racism of the Israeli military and its education system, and a multi-faceted picture of the resistance movement. Honestly, no words of mine could do justice to this valuable work.

Canto: Yes, so let’s take some choice quotes from these books to discuss. From The case for Palestine:

In the days preceding the September 2013 election, the [Australian] Foreign Minister and deputy leader of the party Julie Bishop, attacked the Greens over its supposed ‘support’ of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. Bishop demanded that the Greens leader, Senator Milne clarify her party’s stand on ‘the anti-Semitic boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign’. To so describe the BDS campaign demonstrates a remarkable lack of understanding by an incoming foreign minister.

Paul Heywood-Smith, The case for Palestine, p111

Jacinta: Yes, and the author goes on to quote from the movement’s website, which makes clear its human rights agenda, its opposition to racism, anti-Semitism, etc. This ‘anti-Semitic’ slur is commonplace from the defenders of the indefensible, but I’m not sure about Bishop’s lack of understanding – I suspect she knew exactly what she was saying re defending Israel at all costs, which is habitual with right-wing politicians (and many left-wing politicians) in Australia. We’ve long been all the way with the Americans on the topic of Israel, as witnessed by our shameful unwillingness to censure Israeli practices at the UN, putting us always in the outlying position along with our Great Ally.

Canto: I have nothing to add. From Tears for Tarshiha I will quote something in the preface, from a speech made by the author Olfat Mahmoud at the UN, to mark the formation of UNRWA:

As a Palestine refugee in Lebanon, I have very limited rights, I am stateless, and I exist but am not recognised… My father and mother and my grandmothers and grandfathers and my children will remain refugees even if they marry Lebanese. For us the phrases ‘human rights’ and ‘the right to be free from statelessness’, and the right to live in safety and dignity’ have lost all their meaning.

Olfat Mahmoud, Tears for Tarshiha, p4

Jacinta: Well, this speaks to so much, it’s hard to know where to start. The beginning of the end came for non-Jewish Palestinians at the turn of the 20th century, in a rather quiet way, when wealthy European Zionists began buying up land in the region, setting up the Jewish National Fund in 1901 and making it a rule that all land that it acquired was ‘to remain inalienable Jewish property that could not be sold or leased to others’ (Heywood-Smith, p25). This dubious ‘law’ still exists, and reflects the exclusivity that has led to today’s horrorshow in Israel.

Canto: Yes and speaking of horrorshows, the horrific treatment of the Jews under nazism meant that, post-war, the Jewish people benefited from a surge of goodwill, more or less worldwide, which helps explain the rush to create the Israeli state and the bowing to Zionist pressure to ‘simplify’ the massively complex politics of the region in order to bring that state about. And so, the Nakba and all that followed, as some of the world’s most powerful nations turned a blind eye.

Jacinta: All of which cemented thinking in the neighbourhood of the region, which didn’t have to be the case. Israel, due to its behaviour, will have to make itself a fortress against all its neighbours, when it isn’t attacking them. It’s astonishing, when reading Olfat’s book, how little bitterness she shows for the tough upbringing she was forced to endure, but it shouldn’t be at all astonishing that many Palestinians, and their supporters, do feel bitter, and vengeful.

Canto: Now to Ramzy Baroud’s The last earth. I won’t quote from it, I’ll briefly mention some of the stories (there are nine in all), to give some semblance of their variety. Marco’s story – a Palestine refugee born in Yarmouk, Syria, he couldn’t help but be caught up in the conflict there, identifying himself with any one of the competing forces he needed to in order to survive, until he realised that flight was the only option. In his struggle to get to Europe he meets with many demoralising setbacks and the story ends with him still trying to reach a destination with some modicum of security. Ahmad al-Haaj’s story tells of his escape, as a teenager, from the siege of Al-Faluja in 1948, where many family members died. The siege itself is described in detail – the hope followed by despair and the sense of betrayal, the sense of being eternally out-gunned and harrassed, the ruthlessness of Moshe Dayan and the Israeli military. The disruption of families is a major feature throughout. Another story tells of life in a Gaza refugee camp – the disappearances, the frustrations, the constant Israeli intrusions, the quasi-mythic heroes and the legends used to maintain morale amid the desolation. Other stories tell of imprisonment, torture, ritual humiliation, martyrdom, starvation, as well as love and humour.

Jacinta: Yes, these are the stories of ‘ordinary’ people in intolerable situations, people who are as smart, thoughtful, hard-working and ambitious as the rest of us to our varying degrees, but who find themselves thrown into a hellhole by an unlucky throw of the dice.

Canto: Finally, Goliath, which we can no more do justice to here than to any of the other works. For his reportage, Blumenthal mixed with the new right-wing high-fliers as well as the Palestian-Jewish protest movement, the religious zealots and their trapped victims. This overheard piece of conversation from one Jeremy Gimpel, described as ‘a thirty-two year old Israeli transplant from Atlanta who lived in the settlement of Efrat’ and was an electoral candidate, caught my attention:

‘When was Palestine called Palestine? We’re from Judea… we are the indigenous people of the land of Israel!’ I heard him proclaim in a suburban American accent. ‘How dare they try to kick us out of our homeland!’

Jacinta: Yeah, right, note again the paranoia – who is this ‘they’? But the absurdity here needs to be highlighted. The idea (coming from an American!) seems to be that, assuming that Palestine was never an ‘official’ name, the people of Palestine, apart from the Jews, aren’t ‘official’ human beings. It’s like saying that Australia’s indigenous people (or those of the US) aren’t really people because the land then didn’t have an official name – so the white people who arrived and bestowed a name on the place are the indigenous inhabitants!

Canto: Yes, it’s all very logical. Of course, Judea, a small section of Palestine, is only as old as Judaism – a mere 4000 years, and the region had human inhabitants long before that….

Jacinta: Yes but they were all wiped out by the Israelites coming out of Egypt, remember?

Canto: Haha, oh yes, ethnic cleansing….

References

The case for Palestine: the perspective of an Australian observer, by Paul Heywood-Smith, 2014

Tears for Tarshiha: a Palestinian refugee’s inspiring tale of her lifelong fight to return home, by Olfat Mahmoud, 2018

The last earth: a Palestinian story, by Ramzy Baroud, 2018

Goliath: life and loathing in greater Israel, by Max Blumenthal, 2014

Written by stewart henderson

September 30, 2019 at 12:23 pm

some thoughts on blackface, racism and (maybe) cultural appropriation

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Al Jolson

I’ve been only half-listening to the apparent furore about some politician having worn ‘blackface’ decades ago to a fancy-dress party (I may not even have those facts straight) and I’ve been struck by the absoluteness of pundits’ condemnation of this behaviour as deeply offensive. So heads must roll.

This is apparently about ‘race’, and black-white relations, but it has occurred to me, or rather it occurred to me over 40 years ago, that there are no ‘white’ people, and no ‘black’ people. This was a matter of very basic observation – every human on Earth (even albinos) is a shade of brown. Later, certainly by the early eighties, I had another, deeper concern. Is there such a thing as race? This wasn’t a thought driven so much by observation, but by my reading at the time. And the person who switched me on to this fascinating question, more than anyone else, was the great 20th century anthropologist and public intellectual Ashley Montagu.

In around 1983-1984 I was sharing house, as I’d been doing for years, and engaging in high-octane mostly pseudo-intellectual argy-bargy with mostly reluctant co-tenants on any subject worth mentioning. During one of these sessions I tossed out the line that ‘there’s no such thing as race’. An eruption of mockery and disdain followed, so over the the next few days or more I betook myself to Adelaide University’s Barr-Smith library, a favourite haunt in those days, and did what research I could. I ended up writing several foolscap pages in my tiny script – pre-computer days – ‘proving’ my ‘race is a myth’ thesis, which I handed to my opponent. He refused to read it, unsurprisingly.

Those old pages are either lost or hidden among the piles of pre-computer writing mouldering about my house, so now I’m going to think about the topic afresh. One question that interests me is this – if races don’t exist, can racism be said to exist? Obviously there is discrimination of people based on their skin colour, their religion and their ‘ethnicity’ – another concept that needs examination – but should we use terms other than ‘racism’ to describe this?

If there is such a thing as race, then we should be able to determine what the different races are, and how many, but we certainly know that all humans are able to breed with all other humans of the opposite sex, regardless of which race they might belong to. So race, supposing it to be a concept describing something existent in the world, is unlikely to be anything pure or stable. Jefferson Fish, author of ‘The Myth of Race’, distinguishes between social and biological race. Social race just fits with the popular conception. Africans don’t look like Europeans (and their differences in looks can be vaguely described), and so they belong to different races in this respect. Chinese/Japanese/Koreans all belong to another race (because we Europeans can’t tell them apart), Melanesians another, Indians/Pakistanis another, and so on – but don’t examine this too deeply or it will all fall apart. Biological race, on the other hand, doesn’t exist, according to Fish, and many others. Craig Venter baldly stated in 2000, at the completion of the human genome project, “The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.” The genome was deliberately assembled from a number of human subjects who self-identified as members of different races.

I don’t think we need go further into the science of this here. Racism exists because some people believe, for whatever reasons, that ‘white’ people are superior to ‘black’ people, that Asians are superior/inferior to Europeans, etc etc. Sometimes the discrimination is called something else – Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Indophobia, Francophobia, whatever. But sometimes ‘racism’ is used for something a little different from ‘race hatred’. It’s used for having insufficient sensitivity or respect for someone of another ‘race’. Or, I suppose, for someone who is ‘different’. And that’s where ‘blackface’ comes in, apparently.

The idea is that if you blacken your face to represent a ‘black person’, or a person with (considerably?) darker skin than yourself, whatever your intention, you are insulting/mocking that person and the ‘race’ s/he belongs to.

When I think of ‘blackface’ I think of The Black and White Minstrel Show of my youth, and Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy’. People nowadays don’t condemn these examples, they largely excuse them as naive, aspects of an age of innocence. The same people nowadays say that blackface is verboten because it returns us to a history of dressing up as black people to represent barbarity, violence and general lack of civilisation.

Really?

I will use an Australian essay by Marion Gray for The Conversation as a typical example of the argument that if you dress up like someone of another culture/race etc you might offend, so you shouldn’t do it, though you might just be excused on the basis of naïveté. The essay is titled ‘Explainer: why blackface (and brownface) offend.‘ So there are poor benighted people out there who need to have it ‘explained’ to them that dressing up as someone you admire (but whose shade of brown skin is a long way from your own) by changing your skin colour to look more like them – well, that’s a complete no-no. It’s okay (perhaps) to dress up like them (watch out for cultural appropriation), but changing skin colour – even though it’s the most obvious way to look like your hero/ine – just can’t be done, because people used to do this for completely different purposes in the past. Here’s how Gray puts it re US history.

In 19th century America, white performers would put dark paint on their faces and perform ridiculous stereotypes about African Americans in Minstrel shows. As Norm Sheehan has written, blackface began as a popular movement that ridiculed and lampooned African Americans leading up to the American Civil War. It continued until the 1970s.

This passage strikes me as overly simplistic, to put it mildly. It may well be that some nineteenth century blackface was meant to mock ‘black’ people, just as whiteface was used by dark-skinned people to mock ‘whites’, but it’s surely also true that motives and intentions were mixed – and undoubtedly much more so in the 20th century. 

Let’s go further back to the case of Shakespeare’s Moor of Venice, whose skin colour is never specified but was often assumed to be – well, dark. We don’t know if the earliest actors wore blackface for Othello (in England), but it’s certain that anyone of dark skin (a ‘savage’ in those days) would be prohibited from acting, just as women were. And it’s absurd to suppose that a blackface actor would be mocking the Moor, a serious and tragic figure, just as it would be absurd to suppose that the male actors playing women were somehow mocking Shakespeare’s multivarious and complex female characters. As we know, in the twentieth century famous ‘black’ and ‘white’ actors have played Othello on screen, with the utmost seriousness, though in the past half-century the role has rightly been seen as a perfect vehicle for ‘black’ actors, given the lack of substantive roles for them in plays from earlier times. 

My main point here is that intention should be everything, as it is in law. Take, for example, the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show, which ran from 1958 to 1978. It’s described by just about everyone writing in the late 20th century and the 21st as overtly racist, but I would describe it instead as an increasingly ham-fisted attempt to suggest that ‘black’ and ‘white’ people might get along through singalong. Born at a time when racial discrimination was beginning to be raised as a serious issue in Britain, as immigrants were beginning to arrive from the colonies, it harked back to old days of Jolson-style music hall in an increasingly faux-innocent way, but it was never, I think, intended to mock or insult people of non-anglosaxon colours. That’s the issue for me. Racism is about disparaging people due either to the colour of their skin – which is an obviously trivial category – or to other features of ‘social race’, as mentioned above, and this might be the clothes they wear, the language they speak, the food they eat, the customs they keep or any form of identifiable ‘otherness’. So it’s really about discrimination, not race. 

It’s hard not to bring up the issue of identity politics here, and it’s easy for me, as white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, more or less déclassé, and boring in so many other ways, to be dismissive of those who identify as different and in some sense oppressed, but I do take my humanism seriously and try to take people as I find them. As a bit of a loner, I don’t personally know a lot of oppressed people, or privileged people, or people for that matter, so I can’t always tell whether people are generally aggrieved and offended or just getting on their high horse for politically opportunistic reasons.  We do seem sometimes to take our ‘offence’ to absurd extremes. No Cowboys and and Indians nowadays, and that’s fine, but was it ever mockery? Stereotyping, yes, but that’s what kids do. First they stereotype, then over time and brain development they learn about nuance and complexity. Dress-ups too, is a time for play, for a bit of silliness, and that means stereotyping, dressing as a ‘typical’ sailor, or nun, or pirate, or geisha or whatever. 

And here’s one final example. Imagine you’re invited to a fancy-dress party, and you’re asked to go as one of your historical idols. You happen to be ‘white’ but your chosen idol happens to be ‘black’. Maybe it’s Michael Jackson, or Mohammed Ali, or Martin Luther King. So you start to dress up, but realise nobody’s going to guess who you are unless, shock horror, you darken your skin. So you’re applying ye old boot polish when your girlfriend arrives and asks what you’re doing. When you explain, she looks shocked and horrified, ‘oh no, you can’t do that!’ (or maybe ‘oh dear, what can I do, baby’s in black and I’m feeling blue, tell me oh, what can I do?’). So you’re reduced to going to the party in your birthday ‘white’ (but with Mohammed Ali’s boxing gloves and poetic patter) and when you tell people who you’re dressed up as, you might well get the response ‘so you think Ali was/ should’ve been a white man, eh? Well how’d you like them uppercuts?’

It’s all a bit of a mindfield. Some say that wearing ‘blackface’ can be forgiven if people don’t know their history, for then they’re condemned to repeat it. I respectfully disagree. You can dress up to look like someone else, including lightening or darkening your skin, while knowing all the history you need to know. You’re not repeating history if your intentions are more or less completely the opposite of those of the past. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 16, 2019 at 3:23 pm