Society

Big white lie that invented racism

floyd

A woman walks past a mural of George Floyd, defaced recently with graffiti, at the George Floyd memorial area in Minneapolis, Minnesota. AFP PHOTO

douglaskiereini-img

Summary

  • In order to understand what racism means to a black person, one has to live the experience of blackness and the privileges which are denied to the race on one hand and the privileges that are taken for granted with whiteness on the other.
  • To say that the Black Lives Matter movement has become too much is to miss the point because racism has not stopped, and black people have to face it every day of their lives.

Two weeks ago, as I was conducting an interview for an article, someone remarked that “this Lewis Hamilton thing and Black Lives Matter has become too much, and he should stop. He has made his point.” While I am an avowed Lewis Hamilton supporter, I did not respond but that statement got me thinking. I imagined a young black man in America getting up in the morning ready to go out into the streets.

Purely on account of his blackness he has to consider the risks he is likely to face that day and every day. Are the police going to stop him because he looks suspicious walking by a white neighbourhood, took too long window shopping at a particular shop, ask for his ID or driving license, might he encounter some white rednecks? The list is endless. My friend Prof Chege Waruinge tells me that while teaching in a Big-Ten Midwestern University in the 1970s, he would walk into a classroom and as he was writing his name on the blackboard white students would walk out on him. Although some of the good white students would later apologise to him for the behaviour of their classmates, the experience was very trying.

In order to understand what racism means to a black person, one has to live the experience of blackness and the privileges which are denied to the race on one hand and the privileges that are taken for granted with whiteness on the other. To say that the Black Lives Matter movement has become too much is to miss the point because racism has not stopped, and black people have to face it every day of their lives.

This week, listening to audio journalist John Biewen’s podcast on racism, I was impressed by his candor on the subject, he being a man who is entitled to white privilege. He looks at racism from the lens of whiteness. “First of all,” he says, “race is a recent invention, just a few hundred years old. Before that people divided themselves by religion, tribal group, language and things like that but most human people had no notion of race.”

Biewen goes on to say that yes, in ancient times there was slavery. People often enslaved people who did not look like them and others who did look like them. The English word “slave” is derived from the word slav. The Slavic people of Eastern Europe were enslaved by all sorts of people including western Europeans for centuries. Slavery was not about race because no one had thought up race yet.

According to Ibram X. Kendi in his 2017 book Stamped From The Beginning, Prince Henry of Portugal and his chronicler Gomez de Zurara were the first to justify slavery as salvation as opposed to enriching themselves thus starting the systemic racism against black people that spread throughout the western world.

By the early 1400s the Slavs had built better fortifications and Africa became the main theatre of operation for slave traders. This then allowed the curse theory to be fully activated as now the slaves were exclusively black.

Gomes Eanes de Zurara is credited with writing the first “recorded history of anti-black racist ideas” with The Chronicle of the Discovery of Guinea in 1453. It was a glorified record of the Portuguese slavery trade in the 1440s under Prince Henry.

Until his death in 1460, Prince Henry sponsored Atlantic voyages to west Africa by the Portuguese, to circumvent Islamic slave traders, and in so doing created a distinct form of slavery than had not existed before. Premodern Islamic slave traders, like their Christian counterparts in premodern Italy, were not pursuing racist policies but, enslaving what we now consider to be Africans, Arabs and, Europeans alike. At the dawn of the modern world, the Portuguese began to trade exclusively African bodies. Despite their different skin colours, languages and, ethnic groups Zurara blended them into one single group of people, worthy of enslavement in order to create hierarchy, the first racist idea.

Race is an essential ingredient in the making of racist ideas, the crust that holds the pie. Once a race has been created, it must be filled in. Zurara filled the African race with negative qualities that would justify Prince Henry’s evangelical mission to the world. According to him, this Black race of people was lost, living “like beasts, without any custom of reasonable beings. They had no understanding of good, but only knew how to live in bestial sloth”.

During the Age of Enlightenment, beginning in 1735, Carl Linnaeus locked in the racial hierarchy of humankind in “System Naturale”. He colour-coded the races as White, Yellow, Red and Black. He attached each race to one of the four regions of the world and described their characteristics. The Linnaeus taxonomy became the blueprint that nearly every enlightened race maker followed, and race makers still follow today.

At the very top, Linnaeus positioned “Homo sapiens europaeus”, making up the most superior character traits; “Vigorous, muscular. Flowing blond hair. Very smart, inventive. Covered by tight clothing. Ruled by law.” At the very bottom of the racial hierarchy, Linnaeus positioned “Homo sapiens afer”, with the least desirable characteristics; “Sluggish, lazy. Black, kinky hair. Silky skin. Flat nose. Thick lips. Females with genital flap and elongated breasts. Crafty, slow, careless. Covered by grease. Ruled by caprice.”

The obedient Zurara succeeded in creating racial difference to convince the world that Prince Henry did not slave-trade for money, only to save souls. One traveler observed in 1466 that Portugal was accumulating more capital from selling enslaved Africans to foreigners than all the taxes levied on the entire kingdom. Race had served its purpose. Other European nations followed suit.

Race is not a biological fact. Science tells us that we are 99 percent genetically identical and there is no gene for race. Race is a system that was deliberately created for the exploitation of one group of people by another. Race is a lie.