Image Credit: Timo Al-Farooq
Any white person who has travelled in Asia or Africa — especially off the beaten track — will undoubtedly have experienced the curiosity their presence often tends to generate among locals and the friendliness, hospitality, and willingness to help that is extended to visitors from afar.
Think about the spontaneous invitations from strangers in India to drink chai at their home. Cheerful children in Malaysian kampungs on their way home from school proudly shouting “Hello Mister!” at passing white people, irrespective of their gender. Kepala desas in rural Indonesia inviting white backpackers over for dinner. Locals on intercity buses in West Africa engaging the Western traveller in conversation and taking selfies with him or her in the spirit of memorializing the encounter and showing the person off on social media as their new friend.
In short: Westerners are somewhat of a spectacle in non-Western countries, and they would be lying to themselves if they didn’t admit to enjoying all the unwarranted attention given to them and their white privilege.
Now ask yourselves this, dear reader: would it be the same the other way around? Would an Indonesian backpacker visiting the UK be invited to the home of a pastoral Brit for a cuppa and shortbread? Would white children in the Austrian countryside greet a passing traveller from the Gambia or Ghana with a euphoric Grüss Gott or Guten Tag? Would the small-town mayor of an East German town invite a random Indian tourist over for beer and bratwurst?
Apart from the fact that the aforementioned non-white travellers from the Global South would all have a hard time obtaining a visa to enter Fortress Europe and its breakaway Western outlier that recently went rogue in pursuit of even tougher border policies in what is commonly described as Brexit, the answer would most definitely be a resounding “No.”
Why not? Chalk it up to the individualistic culture of Western societies, some would argue. To the Western notion of privacy that is related to it, they would add. Some would even argue climatologically and blame the traditionally colder and more inhospitable weather in Central Europe that creates colder and more inhospitable people.
What these speculations all have in common is the denial of what might be the real reason for the lack of general hospitality: racism.
Chances are that a black or brown person travelling off the beaten track through the white safe spaces of rural Austria and Eastern Germany would not only experience blatant bigotry but would even have to fear for life and limb: a statistic released by the German government in 2015 found that 47 % percent of all racist attacks in the country occurred in its Eastern wing, even though only 17 % of Germany’s population lived there.
Which brings me to the following question: what exactly is racism? What might seem like a redundant question, since everybody has a pretty good idea of what racism is, nonetheless deserves a closer analysis.
Simplistic Wikipedia defines racism as “the natural superiority of one race over another.” Sounds about right, if you give the person involved in drafting the entry the benefit of the doubt and factor in that “natural” was meant to mean “normative.”
But that doesn’t explain the real-life applications of the concept. Cambridge Dictionary’s definition does exactly that when describing racism as “ policies, behaviours, rules, etc. that result in a continued unfair advantage to some people and unfair or harmful treatment of others based on race.”
In public discourse, racism is often used interchangeably with the word “xenophobia” (literally: a fear of anything foreign) which Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes as “that elegant-sounding name for an aversion to persons unfamiliar.”
The Eurocentric and culturalistic bent of this definition should be clear to those who paid close attention to my opening scenarios. White travellers in Asia or Africa are also unfamiliar to the local people: so why is their reaction usually not one of aversion, but rather a welcoming one at best and a neutral one at worst? Are brown and black people simply better human beings than white people?
Even those farangs and bules (Thai and Indonesian terms for white people/Westerners) that in a just world would deserve derision, the sex tourists and pub-crawlers, the pretentious eat-pray-love hedonist-narcissists and their constant exoticizing of the “oriental” other and cultural appropriation of Eastern spirituality, are all guaranteed the civility of outward sympathy, however performatively exercised.
But instead of stroking the high-maintenance ego of entitled Whitey and bolstering his unmeritocratic privilege, shouldn’t he rather be confronted and mercilessly ridiculed?
A funny thing about racism: even though it is a European invention, intended to categorize and hierarchically divvy up human beings along socially constructed “racial” lines in order to morally justify subjugating those deemed of lesser worth than white people and stealing their lands and resources, people of color have internalized this colonial method of dividing and ruling and are not above applying it among themselves.
Think about the periodic attacks by black South Africans against economic migrants from neighboring Zimbabwe or Mozambique (two historically staunch allies of the anti-Apartheid struggle against Pretoria’s Afrikaner regime). These black people — who in the eyes of the white colonizer were all considered equally inferior — are now experiencing among themselves the colonial preposterousness of one group feeling superior to another and expressing this emotion violently.
Think about all those ethnicities lumped together on the African continent by the drawing up of arbitrary colonial borders within which the white masters gave preferential treatment to some groups who were allowed to flourish while disenfranchising others who fell behind.
After the death of colonialism, the social, political, and economic hierarchies established by the colonizer found a new life in many a nominally independent nation-state as postcolonial powder kegs, ready to blow at any given moment.
Think about anti-Black racism in South Asia or China. Colorism in the Arab world. Hindutva attacks against Islam which by and large successfully ruled Hindu-majority India for centuries before the British came, conquered and destroyed the relative communal harmony of the Mughal Empire, ultimately screwing up the Subcontinent beyond repair.
And let’s not forget the more organized forms of ethnicized bigotry: Chinese state persecution of Muslim Uyghurs and Burmese ethnic cleansing campaigns by soldiers and civilians alike against the Muslim Rohingya. These crimes against humanity might not exhibit the grand design and imperial logic of European-style racialization and racism, but they definitely function along similar lines.
“Xenophobia” just doesn’t cut it when describing these phenomena: why would the overwhelmingly Han-Chinese majority fear a small Turkic minority in the far-flung Western corner of its vast territory?
Returning to the good old fashioned racism of white people: Fears and concerns, if they are indeed at the heart of racist actions, as white apologists routinely argue, instead of a sadism tied to the feeling of one’s own cultural superiority, should be taken seriously then. But only up to the point where exogenous factors don’t overshadow personal responsibility.
Just like the comedy of white Germans outsourcing their responsibility of the Holocaust to the Nazis, instead of acknowledging the active role of the average Hans and Edeltraud in ecstatically playing the part of Hitler’s willing executioners, blaming racism solely on the exculpating factor of subjective fear is an equally ridiculous exoneration of the objective evil that is racialized hate.
That is where lies the fallacy of using a toothless term like “xenophobia” to describe racism because the former doesn’t adequately capture the decisive bigotry involved.
It borders on the perverse how we tend to psychologize the racist and in doing so — albeit with honest intentions — achieve the adverse effect of relativizing the racist action. We try to understand the abstract fear of being “invaded” by immigrants to a degree where the racist becomes the victim and the unsuspecting object of his racism becomes the perpetrator.
And the darker the skin color and the more Muslim the faith, the more merciless the otherization, exclusion, and ensuing antagonism.
But what about my concrete fear as a person of color of the white racist? Where’s the constant psychologizing of my racism-induced anxiety by the hegemonic discourse that routinely anthropomorphizes white terrorists into troubled lone wolves while animalizing troubled brown people into the most evil of terrorists?
Am I, who grew up in a racist society, always significantly outnumbered by white people with their historic propensity to do harm and who not even a lifetime ago exterminated six million Jews like vermin, not worthy of being taken seriously by political and public discourse?
These same white people had the audacity of singling out Rwandan Hutus in the 1990s and calling them uncivilized for exterminating Tutsis who were called inyenzi (cockroaches) by the Hutu extremists. Even though “zee Germans” had done the same thing half a century before and another thirty+ years before that when German colonial troops orchestrated their genocide of the Herero and Nama people in what is today the Republic of Namibia.
With a track record like that, I dare White Germany to look me in the eye and tell me — without blinking — that I shouldn’t be scared of it.
Where is the long-overdue admission that racism is not an obsessive-compulsive disorder, but a self-chosen ideology? No one forced Spanish conquistadores to sail across the Atlantic and slaughter entire populations. No one forced the French into Algeria and Vietnam or the Belgians into the Congo and commanded them to commit the unspeakable atrocities that they committed.
Colonialism was not a freak of history, but happened out of Europeans’ own volition and their informed decision to be greedy and barbaric. When are we finally going to talk about the historic evil that is associated with whiteness, like Malcolm X did with his polarizing pre-hajj “The-white-man-is-a-devil” deliberations?
It could have happened the other way around, some intransigent revisionists say. If we hadn’t settler-colonized them, they would have done it to us. No, they wouldn’t have.
No subsistence-economy practicing, self-sufficient African would have felt the need or narcissism to sail across a vast body of water to an unknown land and not only plunder the riches there, but also kill off all the inhabitants, just for the fun of it. Or in the more entertaining words of Trevor Noah from his Netflix special “Afraid of the Dark”:
“They [the British] went around colonizing from pillar to post. People didn’t care about them. No one was trying to find the British. The British were the ones traveling the world, telling everyone of their existence, knocking on doors. […] If you think about it, there was no one from a tropical climate who was trying to take over the world. You don’t ever hear stories of Caribbean conquerors. Yeah, there’s no stories of, like, Troy the Terrible from Trinidad […] If you’re living in a beautiful paradise you have no need to leave.”
Not only would it not have happened the other way around, white people also never even had to experience a tit-for-tat revenge for what they did to the world. Do they ever think of that when they are going about their lives and enjoying the fruits of a globalized world order brazenly tilted in their favor and which is nothing else than a modern continuation of colonialism?
Do they ever feel bad about the death and destruction they wreaked upon the world and the trail of blood they left in the Americas and in Australasia, in Asia and in Africa, without ever having had to be held accountable? I am reminded of a poem by Nayyirah Waheed titled “if we wanted to. people of color could burn the world down. for what we have experienced. are experiencing. but we don’t.”:
“how stunningly beautiful that our sacred respect for the earth. for life. is deeper than our rage.”
One question remains: we know that white hegemony whitewashes racism by blaming it on fear, but why does it do it? Out of ignorance? Calculated strategy? Passive aggressive guilt?
It’s quite simple: it is by far more uncomfortable to admit that one is a bad — or even evil — person than to acknowledge one’s fear. Especially in today’s political climate of anti normativity and inclusiveness, even the racist can proudly proclaim “I have anxiety” and get a free pass from liberals and progressives.
As I’ve mentioned before: chalking up racism to fear turns the racist into an empathy-deserving victim and outsources blame. A bad or evil person is a perpetrator, and apart from people like Tony Soprano or Walter White, individuals who ruthlessly harm others generally do not engender sympathy.
Transposed to Western white-majority society: the semi-fiction of “xenophobia” is dutifully perpetuated because otherwise, the supposedly innocent xenophobe would have to take a good hard look in the mirror and would slowly see himself for what he is: a guilty bigot.
Therefore, in 2021, after decades of having experienced and practiced multiculturalism in Western Europe or North America, we should be able to be more nuanced and in-your-face in our understanding of racism and the language we employ to describe it.
Racism is not xenophobia, bigotry is not a state of fear. Racism IS bigotry. Fear might play a part, however subconsciously, but it is merely an accessory to the crime, not its mastermind.
Be it the racism of the colonizer or the “racism” among the formerly colonized: the sooner we talk and shoot straight, the quicker we can change society for the better and ultimately achieve what Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned when he dreamt of a post-racial world where people would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Yes, it should be THAT simple.