I never expected blogging would pay off but on Monday, Oct. 22, it did. Because of a post I had written last week about Dr. James Watson’s statements (see this posting and the associated comments), I was invited to be a guest on the BBC’s “World Have Your Say” program. Unfortunately, rather than adress the substance and merit of Dr. Watson’s words, the show’s presenters chose to focus on his right to free speech; I tried, during my 60 or so seconds of airtime, to argue that the issue was not one of free speech. However, because we had been allowed to speak only in the last five minutes of the show, I and another African blogger (both based in the US) couldn’t go into any detail or address the real substance of what Dr. Watson had said. That’s why I’ve decided to use this space to say what I would have said, had I been given more time and had the show been more focused on racism, which I believe lies at the heart of Dr. Watson’s words.
But first, a recap. Last week the renowned scientist and Nobel Prize winner brought down a firestorm of criticism on his own head after he told the Sunday Times that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” He also said that although he hoped everyone was equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” Since then, the good doctor has been suspended by his employer, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and removed from its board of directors. The London Science Museum, which had invited Dr. Watson to give a talk on his latest book canceled his appearance, and the mayor of London, Ken Livingston, issued a statement condemning Dr. Watson’s remarks as “racist propaganda masquerading as scientific fact.” All this negative press forced the famous geneticist to hastily recant and issue a statement of apology in which he says “there is no scientific basis” for anyone to infer from his words that Africans are genetically inferior.
Despite the backtracking, I think the mayor of London is absolutely right to say that Dr. Watson’s words were nothing more than a pathetic attempt to use modern science to justify old racism, a clear case of trying to put new wine into an old wineskin. Why do I say Watson’s words were racist? Ask yourself this question: How many people who didn’t already believe that Black people are less intelligent actually read those words and thought, “Hmmm . . . I guess I was wrong about this! Now that I’m hearing it from a scientist, I believe that Black people are, in fact, less intelligent”? Not many, I would assume, and of the ones who might have, how many would have been Black? Conversely, many people did try to use those same words to justify what they already thought about Black people’s intellectual inferiority—some of them even posted comments on this blog. It seems Dr. Watson’s words had only two consequences, depending on the person reading them:
They failed to change the mind of someone who didn’t already believe Black people are not as intelligent or
They were unquestioningly accepted by someone who already thought Black people were less intelligent and then used to justify pre-existing beliefs.
Without any scientific backing for those remarks, Dr. Watson was simply and simplistically alluding to a widely held belief that Black people are lazy and less intelligence than White people. The simplicity of thinking behind those statements leaves me feeling that they were nothing more than the expression of a racist opinion.
After all, simplicity is at the heart of racism, an ideology which maintains that the greatest determiner of a person’s character is ”race” (i.e., skin color, hair texture, physical stature, etc.). This simple and simplistic—yet disappointingly widesperead—mindset maintains that if a person is intelligent, hard-working, or kind, it must be because of his/her “race.” In other words, “race” is all there is to a person. To the racist, the essence of the “nigger” shown in the caricature above lies in his physical attributes. A “nigger” has black skin, bulging eyes, buck teeth, big, red lips, etc. To become a “nigger,” simply change your appearance by blackening your face and reddening your lips or, better yet, buy Nigger Make-Up and hey presto! Instant “nigger!” (Go here or here for an intelligent and academic look at the origins, uses, and meanings of the word “nigger.”) To the racist, the “nigger” has no personality, no emotions, and no history. In fact, the “nigger” has nothing but his physical appearance.
Herein lies the beauty of racism and racist thinking. Once the physical attributes have been identified and deemed to be the “nigger’s” defining characteristics, the next step is simply to attach social meaning to them.
For the racist, skin color is infused with all of a person’s qualities—always negative if the person is not White. Once this social meaning has been “encoded” into a person’s “race,” the next step is to lump everyone who belongs to that “race” into the predefined categories. Pretty soon, everyone who looks like a “nigger” (i.e., has black skin, curly hair, etc.) is a “nigger.” Even worse, everyone who fits that physical description must, by definition be everything that a “nigger” is: lazy, violent, unintelligent, dishonest (or any number of other negative qualities). The human being is thus robbed of individuality—even worse, humanity—and denied the chance to prove her/his own merit as an individual person. Rather, by being stripped of identity, of ”personhood,” the “nigger” is lumped into an undifferentiated mass of people all of whom have the same qualities forced onto them. Here’s a simple formula I devised to illustrate my point. Follow it and soon, you too will be thinking like a racist:
Identify the “defining” physical characteristics of the object of your hatred (in the case of the “nigger” above, they’re black skin, curly hair, buck teeth, and bulging eyes)
- Attach social meaning to those physical characteristics (e.g., the “nigger” is lazy, violent, dishonest, unintelligent, or any number of other negatives)
Broadly apply that social meaning to every person who shares the same physical characteristics as the person in Step 1 (e.g., anybody who has black skin, curly hair, buck teeth, or bulging eyes is lazy, violent, dishonest, unintelligent, or any number of other negatives)
Such racist thinking recognizes no geographical or national boundary and ignores environmental, cultural, religious, and other differences, choosing instead to see “race” (skin color/hair texture) as the defining and unifying attribute of the “other.” This is why British racists use “wog” for Black Americans, Africans, Black people from the Caribbean, Australian Aborigines, and even dark-skinned Indians. And, although “race” in the American context has no biological basis, skin color and hair texture have been infused with so much social meaning that ”nigger” is equally used against Black Africans, Black Americans, and Black people from the Caribbean, despite DNA studies showing that ”30 percent of African-American males [who participated in a Howard University study] have a white male ancestor.” But more on genetics later.
For now, it’s enough to only point out that lumping people into an undifferentiated mass is a form of dehumanization. Such dehumanization through undifferentiation was the reason Nazis shaved their victims’ heads, dressed them in the same clothes, and took away their names and replaced them with numbers. Members of an undifferentiated mass of people lack individuality, lack identity, lack personhood, and consequently, lack humanity. This practice serves the primary functions of simplifying and justifying the exploitation, brutalization, and general dehumanization of an entire population in order to put that population’s land, labor, wealth, and natural or other resources at the disposal of someone else. This was as true of colonialism in Africa as it was of North American slavery and the Jewish Holocaust.
Secondly, racism is inherently a simplistic and apolitical ideology, laying the responsibility for an individual’s success or failure in life squarely at the feet of that individual. By looking only at skin color or other physical attributes, the racist need not look at that person’s interaction with other persons through, say, colonialism or enslavement, and how that interaction might also impact who, and where in life, that person is today. Rather, racism enables the racist to bypass the hard work of thinking, allows the racist to look solely at a person’s “race,” and to attribute that person’s situation in life to his/her skin color and/or hair texture. Racism and racist thought, in sum, are artificially and deliberately created ideologies that serve the social, economic, or political purpose of devaluing and dehumanizing people in order to marginalize and disenfranchise them. Once that has been done, the victims of racism cannot fully or equally participate in their societies, which in turn makes them vulnerable to exploitation and further marginalization.
Read Part II here.