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RE: [existlist] Existentialism & Humanism or The global hierarch y of race

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  • Rakwena Mogoai
    As the only racial group that never suffers systemic racism, whites are indenial about its impact. Martin Jacques Saturday September 20, 2003 The Guardian I
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 25, 2003
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      As the only racial group that never suffers systemic racism, whites are
      indenial

      about its impact.

      Martin Jacques

      Saturday September 20, 2003

      The Guardian

      I always found race difficult to understand. It was never intuitive. And the


      reason was simple. Like every other white person, I had never experienced
      it

      myself: the meaning of colour was something I had to learn. The turning
      point

      was falling in love with my wife, an Indian-Malaysian, and her coming to

      live in England. Then, over time, I came to see my own country in a
      completely

      different way, through her eyes, her background. Colour is something white

      people never have to think about because for them it is never a handicap,

      never a source of prejudice or discrimination, but rather the opposite, a

      source of privilege. However liberal and enlightened I tried to be, I still

      had a white outlook on the world. My wife was the beginning of my education.

      But it was not until we went to live in Hong Kong that my view of the world,

      and the place that race occupies within it, was to be utterly transformed.

      Rather than seeing race through the prism of my own society, I learned to

      see it globally. When we left these shores, it felt as if we were moving
      closer

      to my wife's world: this was east Asia and she was Malaysian. And she,
      unlike

      me, had the benefit of speaking Cantonese. So my expectation was that she

      would feel more comfortable in this environment than I would. I was
      wrong. As

      a white, I found myself treated with respect and deference; my wife,

      notwithstanding her knowledge of the language and her intimacy with Chinese

      culture, was the object of an in-your-face racism.

      In our 14 months in Hong Kong, I learned some brutal lessons about racism.

      First, it is not the preserve of whites. Every race displays racial

      prejudice, is capable of racism, carries assumptions about its own virtue
      and

      superiority. Each racism, furthermore, is subtly different, reflecting the

      specificity of its own culture and history.

      Second, there is a global racial hierarchy that helps to shape the power and

      the prejudices of each race. At the top of this hierarchy are whites. The

      reasons are deep-rooted and profound. White societies have been the global

      top dogs for half a millennium, ever since Chinese civilisation went into

      decline.

      With global hegemony, first with Europe and then the US, whites have long

      commanded respect, as well as arousing fear and resentment, among other

      races.

      Being white confers a privilege, a special kind of deference, throughout the

      world, be it Kingston, Hong Kong, Delhi, Lagos - or even, despite the way it

      is portrayed in Britain, Harare. Whites are the only race that never suffers

      any kind of systemic racism anywhere in the world. And the impact of white

      racism has been far more profound and baneful than any other: it remains the

      only racism with global reach.

      Being top of the pile means that whites are peculiarly and uniquely

      insensitive to race and racism, and the power relations this involves. We

      are invariably the beneficiaries, never the victims. Even when
      well-meaning, we

      remain strangely ignorant. The clout enjoyed by whites does not reside

      simply in an abstraction - western societies - but in the skin of each and
      every

      one of us. Whether we like it or not, in every corner of the planet we
      enjoy an

      extraordinary personal power bestowed by our colour. It is something we are

      largely oblivious of, and consequently take for granted, irrespective of

      whether we are liberal or reactionary, backpackers, tourists or expatriate

      businessmen.

      The existence of a de facto global racial hierarchy helps to shape the

      nature of racial prejudice exhibited by other races. Whites are universally

      respected, even when that respect is combined with strong resentment. A race

      generally defers to those above it in the hierarchy and is contemptuous of

      those below it. The Chinese - like the Japanese - widely consider themselves

      to be number two in the pecking order and look down upon all other races as

      inferior. Their respect for whites is also grudging - many Chinese believe

      that western hegemony is, in effect, held on no more than prolonged

      leasehold.

      Those below the Chinese and the Japanese in the hierarchy are invariably

      people of colour (both Chinese and Japanese often like to see themselves as

      white, or nearly white). At the bottom of the pile, virtually everywhere it

      would seem, are those of African descent, the only exception in certain

      cases being the indigenous peoples.

      This highlights the centrality of colour to the global hierarchy. Other

      factors serve to define and reinforce a race's position in the hierarchy -

      levels of development, civilisational values, history, religion, physical

      characteristics and dress - but the most insistent and widespread is colour.

      The reason is that colour is instantly recognisable, it defines difference

      at the glance of an eye. It also happens to have another effect. It makes
      the

      global hierarchy seem like the natural order of things: you are born with

      your colour, it is something nobody can do anything about, it is neither
      cultural

      nor social but physical in origin. In the era of globalisation, with mass

      migration and globalised cultural industries, colour has become the

      universal calling card of difference. In interwar Europe, the dominant
      forms of

      racism were anti-semitism and racialised nationalisms, today it is colour:
      at a

      football match, it is blacks not Jews that get jeered, even in eastern
      Europe.

      Liberals like to think that racism is a product of ignorance, of a lack of

      contact, and that as human mobility increases, so racism will decline. This

      might be described as the Benetton view of the world. And it does contain a

      modicum of truth. Intermixing can foster greater understanding, but not

      necessarily, as Burnley, Sri Lanka and Israel, in their very different ways,

      all testify.

      Hong Kong, compared with China, is an open society, and has long been so,

      yet it has had little or no effect in mollifying Chinese prejudice towards

      people of darker skin. It is not that racism is immovable and intractable,
      but that

      its roots are deep, its prejudices as old as humanity itself. The origins of

      Chinese racism lie in the Middle Kingdom: the belief that the Chinese are

      superior to other races - with the exception of whites - is centuries, if

      not thousands of years, old. The disparaging attitude among American whites

      towards blacks has its roots in slavery. Wishing it wasn't true, denying it

      is true, will never change the reality. We can only understand - and tackle

      racism - if we are honest about it. And when it comes to race - more than

      any other issue - honesty is in desperately short supply.

      Race remains the great taboo. Take the case of Hong Kong. A conspiracy of

      silence surrounded race. As the British departed in 1997, amid much

      self-congratulation, they breathed not a word about racism. Yet the latter

      was integral to colonial rule, its leitmotif: colonialism, after all, is

      institutionalised racism at its crudest and most base. The majority of

      Chinese, the object of it, meanwhile, harboured an equally racist mentality

      towards people of darker skin. Masters of their own home, they too are in

      denial of their own racism. But that, in varying degrees, is true of racism

      not only in Hong Kong but in every country in the world. You may remember

      that, after the riots in Burnley in the summer of 2001, Tony Blair declared

      that they were not a true reflection of the state of race relations in

      Britain: of course, they were, even if the picture is less discouraging in

      other aspects.

      Racism everywhere remains largely invisible and hugely under-estimated, the

      issue that barely speaks its name. How can the Economist produce a

      15,000-word survey on migration, as it did last year, and hardly mention
      the word

      racism?

      Why does virtually no one talk about the racism suffered by the Williams

      sisters on the tennis circuit even though the evidence is legion? Why are

      the deeply racist western attitudes towards Arabs barely mentioned in the

      context of the occupation of Iraq, carefully hidden behind talk of religion
      and

      civilisational values?

      The dominant race in a society, whether white or otherwise, rarely admits to

      its own racism. Denial is near universal. The reasons are manifold. It has a

      huge vested interest in its own privilege. It will often be oblivious to its

      own prejudices. It will regard its racist attitudes as nothing more than

      common sense, having the force and justification of nature. Only when

      challenged by those on the receiving end is racism outed, and attitudes

      begin to change. The reason why British society is less nakedly racist than
      it

      used to be is that whites have been forced by people of colour to question

      age-old racist assumptions. Nations are never honest about themselves: they


      are all in varying degrees of denial.

      This is clearly fundamental to understanding the way in which racism is

      underplayed as a national and global issue. But there is another reason,

      which is a specifically white problem. Because whites remain the
      overwhelmingly

      dominant global race, perched in splendid isolation on top of the pile even

      though they only represent 17% of the world's population, they are

      overwhelmingly responsible for setting the global agenda, for determining

      what is discussed and what is not. And the fact that whites have no
      experience

      of racism, except as perpetrators, means that racism is constantly
      underplayed

      by western institutions - by governments, by the media, by corporations.

      Moreover, because whites have reigned globally supreme for half a
      millennium,

      they, more than any other race, have left their mark on the rest of

      humanity: they have a vested interest in denying the extent and baneful
      effects

      of racism.

      It was only two years ago, you may remember, that the first-ever United

      Nations conference on racism was held - against the fierce resistance of the

      US (and that in the Clinton era). Nothing more eloquently testifies to the

      unwillingness of western governments to engage in a global dialogue about

      the

      problem of racism.

      If racism is now more widely recognised than it used to be, the situation is

      likely to be transformed over the next few decades. As migration increases,

      as

      the regime of denial is challenged, as subordinate races find the will and

      confidence to challenge the dominant race, as understanding of racism

      develops, as we become more aware of other racisms like that of the Han

      Chinese, then the global prominence of racism is surely set to increase

      dramatically.

      It is rare to hear a political leader speaking the discourse of colour.

      Robert Mugabe is one, but he is tainted and discredited. The Malaysian
      prime

      minister, Mahathir Mohamed, is articulate on the subject of white privilege

      and the global hierarchy. The most striking example by a huge margin,

      though, is Nelson Mandela. When it comes to colour, his sacrifice is beyond


      compare and his authority unimpeachable. And his message is always
      universal -

      not confined to the interests of one race. It is he who has suggested that

      western support for Israel has something to do with race. It is he who has
      hinted

      that it is no accident that the authority of the UN is under threat at a
      time

      when its secretary general is black. And yet his voice is almost alone in a
      world

      where race oozes from every pore of humanity. In a world where racism is

      becoming increasingly important, we will need more such leaders. And

      invariably they will be people of colour: on this subject whites lack moral

      authority. I could only understand the racism suffered by my wife through

      her words and experience. I never felt it myself. The difference is utterly

      fundamental.

      * Martin Jacques is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. The

      death of his wife, Harinder Veriah, in 2000 in a Hong Kong hospital

      triggered an outcry which culminated in this summer's announcement by the

      Hong Kong government that it would introduce anti-racist legislation for
      the first

      time
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