racism was a science
October 3, 2015
It suddenly occurs to me, after a recent ask I got, that people don”t quite grasp the full implications of scientific racism.
Like. Yes, by this point, we know that racism has no scientific or objective basis. That it is a socially constructed thing.
During the hundreds of years during which racism was a science, people literally believed that this was objective fact. That racism accurately describe the biology of all human beings on this planet.
This is one of the reasons why I consistently argue against a notion that there is some part of racism (at least between 1750 to about 1950) that is culturally or geographically variable. It wasn”t.
While, yes, there wasn”t a 100% consensus within the science (which is basically something that never happens in science) people still worked within the same framework and still believed that racism was an objective feature of the world. Maybe they disagreed with one person (or another”s) conclusions or observations regarding this objective feature of the world, but that is was an object, real feature of the world was largely unquestioned (especially in popular discourse).
This is why, in the 1930s, Blumenbach”s 1795 treatise was still being used as evidence of the true, objective reality of racism. Because it was a science. Much like physics. So it was still relevant and dominant in the same way that Newton”s physics was. Or Euclid”s geometry.
And this was and always has been global in scope. Because when scientific racism was created, it was basically at the height of white European colonialism, where pretty much the entire world was controlled by white Europe (or soon would be).
And just like physics doens”t change based on geography or culture, neither did racism (more or less). This is why a German”s treatise on race was used as evidence in American court cases. And why nazi Germany latter looked favourably on how Americans had advanced eugenics. It was a global and inter-cultural discourse. Because that”s how science works.
This is why, for my own part, I think looking at the ‘scientific” writings of this period and how they influenced actual policy and law really clarifies the situation. Because while there was, indeed, some inflamatory ethnic dicourse and discrimination directed towards the Irish in their early days of settling in America1, their whiteness, in terms of the law and policy, was never, ever in question. Because, scientifically (read: it was an objective fact), they were white.
And, sure, the people who disagree with me are the ones who assert that racism can be based on culture, ethnicity, religion, and whatever else, not just biology. Which is where we get pre-scientific theories of racism in Europe. Or discussions of variable kinds of racisms. But honestly? I think they are wrong.
Scientific racial discourse attempted to incorporate the intra-ethnic and religious prejudice from North/West Europeans towards others, and it did succeed. Again, you can see this in eugenics and US immigration policies. But this came after the five essential races were dilineated. And very few of the people who were attempting this actually argued that the ‘bad” whites weren”t, in fact, white. Because their whiteness was an object fact about the world. Thus, they came up with theories about how the bad whites were degenerate based on their proximity to inferior races (inter-marriage, by culture, maybe by looks).
But racism as science (inclusive of nordicism described in the previous paragraph) pretty much died out post-WWII. And those momentary inclusions, certain oppression discourses amongst white Europeans that pre-dated racism, split off again from racial discourse and continued on their merry way. And not much changed for those targetted by these pre-racial discourses. They were oppressed before racism and they are oppressed post-racilization.
One of the scholars I read during my research says this:
The short answer is that the use of the term ‘race’ continues to bear witness to important strategic, epistemological, and political commitments not adequately served by the invocation of categories of greater generality (such as ‘otherness’ or ‘difference’) or greater benignity in our understanding of human culture and society…Or, to put it another way: the refusal of race de-stigmatizes the impacts and consequences of certain laws, acts, practices, and institutions in the medieval period, so that we cannot name them for what they are, nor can we bear adequate witness to the full meaning of the manifestations and phenomena they install.2
I do not fucking understand why Heng thinks this. Not calling some real, actual, and awful oppression ‘racism” does not, in any way, take away from its terrible reality. Or the awful consequences of the people impacted by these discourses.
Put in another way, does it actually diminish the experiences of a persecuted religious group if we say it isn”t racism? But religious discrimination?
I mean. Religion, in places that have human rights codes of some kind, tends to be one of the major categories of human rights protections. It is a widely recognized ground of discrimination and oppression. Refugees can claim asylum based on religious persecution. It is real and recognized. Does this need to be called ‘racism” in order, as Heng suggests, for us to ‘bear adequate witness” to the reality of this oppression?
Like. Look at what”s happening in Myanmar. Does it diminish the awful reality of what Muslims there are experiencing at the hands of the Buddhist majority if we don”t call this racism? I tend to think not, but its pretty clear to me, at this point, that I”m in a minority in thinking this way.
To me, it seems that people like Heng are working off an implicit hierarchy of oppressions, such that racism is at the top. So that by reframing certain things as racism, they are more serious? Should be given higher priority in resisting oppression?
But there isn”t a hierarchy of oppression. One kind of oppression isn”t ‘better” or ‘worse” than any other kind. They all have devastating and terrible consequences for the people targetted by them.
I also don”t get how these scholars don”t see the harm they do by always asserting that race can be based on any given thing. When the reality is that white supremacy and racism have always organized and oriented itself in relation to Blackness (and anti-Blackness). You know in all of my reading, so far, I”ve seen questions about whether or not Asians (specific groups or as a whole) are ‘yellow” or ‘white”. Same with Indigenous ppl of the americas. You know what I”ve never, ever seen interogated? Why Blackness is the most stable and eduring racial category of them all (at least by anyone who doesn”t already study anti-Blackness).
For me, so long as anti-Blackness is central to racial oppression, it should only and always be about bodies and colour. That attempts to generalize it actually harm the one group who has truly been reduced to a mere colour (most of the colour terms for other races have largely fallen out of common use).
Like. What does it mean when people say that racism is unstable and variable based on time, geography, and culture when Blackness appears to remain unchanged in hundreds of years? Racism is a stable discourse because Blackness is a stable racial category. And so it”ll continue to be until (I”m not even sure this is possible) anti-Blackness is disconnected from racism. This also means that racism is always and only a discourse/technology of white supremacy, since white supremacy is likewise organized around anti-Blackness.
This, I think, is what we lose when scholars attempt to push a ‘racism can be constructed around anything” discourse. Then again, anti-Blackness is pretty fucking entrenched in academic discourse, so I”m really not surprised that this is what has become of critical race and whiteness studies.
- I"m always interested in the way that the irish are 'immigrants" but never settlers. Why? ↩
- 322-323. Heng, Geraldine. "The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages1.” Literature Compass 8, no. 5 (May 1, 2011): 315–31. doi:10.1111/j.1741-4113.2011.00790.x. ↩