Wertheim: There is Racism and There is Racism II

Anne-Ruth Wertheim writes in a guest op-ed for IC:

After I wrote my article “There is Racism and There is Racism’’, I received quite a few often very emotional reactions. At the Trouw website, in personal emails and at any number of blogs. Some of the readers who responded are just as concerned as I am that the latest developments can lead to violence. The distinction I drew between the two kinds of racism and the mechanisms that go along with them have encouraged them in their efforts to head us all in a more peaceful direction. Others reacted with indignation. But all things considered, it is clear that a newspaper article like this about such a complicated issue can also evoke misunderstandings. . .

In your article in Trouw you agree with Harry de Winter, who compares Islamophobia to the Holocaust. That is total nonsense!

Harry de Winter compares Islamophobia to how the public mind set was primed for the Holocaust in the 1930s. How considerable percentages of the European populations allowed themselves to be convinced that their society’s problems at the time were all the fault of their Jewish compatriots. I think the comparison is a valid one and I will illustrate why below.

Racism is all about races and has nothing to do with cultures!

It is true that exploitation racism is focused on peoples or ethnic groups like the indigenous natives in the colonies or the blacks in South Africa. Cultural racism is a completely different story. It targets mercantile minorities, the Chinese in Indonesia and the Indians and Pakistanis in Uganda. European anti-Semitism can also be viewed as cultural racism.

Prejudices are always expressed without people actually meeting and getting to know each other and they pertain to entire groups. Our society puts so much emphasis on the individual and our individual freedom. People who are the object of prejudices are however solely viewed as members of a group and held collectively responsible for whatever other members of the group do. Depending on the kind of socio-economic problems and feelings that are involved, prejudices can be focused on ‘race’ (whatever that may be) or ethnic group at one extreme and culture at the other, and everything in between. The two kinds of prejudices also often both occur as factors in mixtures.

Criticism of Islam doesn’t have anything to do with racism!

The point here is not criticism of this religion or that. Of course that is something that should be able to be expressed. The point is that people are labeled because of their religion, isolated from the rest, discriminated and ultimately perhaps even violently driven out of the country.

Muslims and non-Western immigrants are racists themselves, so what are they complaining about?

There is racism all over, that is true, and it needs to be analysed and combated all over. An eye for an eye and everyone goes blind, that is no solution.

What in the world do you mean by different kinds of racism?

It is a distinction that can be used to clarify the mechanisms in effect at the moment in our society. I think it is important for people to be able to see them for what they are.

In cases of exploitation racism, a small group of people benefits from the work done by huge numbers of other people. The happy few have workers do hard, dirty and often dangerous jobs under poor working conditions and for low wages. They don’t want to have to admit this is exploitation, so they spread the notion that they are so stupid and backwards they wouldn’t want it any other way.

In cases of cultural racism, competition among groups plays an important role but not the only one. For centuries and all across the globe, there was economic competition between the established populations and mercantile minorities who, as it happens, had also been living there for centuries themselves. The established population was jealous of their ingenuity and perseverance and looked for ways to eliminate them as rivals or at any rate weaken them. They started by casting suspicion on their deviant culture including their religion, and telling stories about how sly they were and how dangerous because they were out to rule the world. In the end they started to believe the stories themselves and the fears would periodically get so out of hand that mass violence broke out against the minorities in what was called pogroms. In the anti-Semitism that prevailed in Europe, competition was a factor side by side with for example the Christian accusation that the Jews had killed Jesus.

You wrote that prejudices can serve to justify certain things.

Prejudices can mask or legitimate underlying feelings. That was clear in the cases of exploitation racism in the colonies and in competition racism against the mercantile minorities as well. Colonials who felt uncomfortable with their role as exploiters were all too willing to believe the exploited people were quite happy with things as they were. After all, they were born stupid, lazy and childlike. An additional advantage was that the colonials could feel superior to them. Of course the people who were bothered by the successes of mercantile minorities could hardly call them stupid and lazy. They turned to the aspects developed later in life, their culture. To them the solution was to see the behaviour of the mercantile minorities as deviant, unreliable and scary, so that in the end, they had only themselves to blame for their demise.

The things people say about Muslims are not just made up, they are true.

As one regards the cultural racism on the rise here in the Netherlands, one might wonder whether and to what extent there are other feelings underlying the prejudices about Muslims and essentially about all non-Western immigrants. Our society is permeated with competition for money and goods as well as fame and honour. It is accompanied by all kinds of feelings that people are not supposed to have, as we are told from early childhood. You should not be jealous of people who are doing better than you, you should be able to cope with loss, you should be happy for other people’s accomplishments and so forth. So it is very understandable that people prefer to conceal their socio-economic motivation. For example, their irritation at having to compete with immigrants, their jealousy if immigrants are successful, and their problems about having to share the public space with them. It is more comfortable to believe that the entire group simply does not count, that Muslims are so dangerous that it disqualifies them. It would not be the first time in history that the belief in a common enemy met a need for harmony and consensus, especially in times of economic insecurity like we are experiencing today, what with privatization, globalization and market mechanisms…

Do you mean gut feelings?

No, because it is not a term that explains anything or solves anything. What is more, it has a condescending sound to it. I am trying to analyze how people come to believe in cultural biases.

You wrote that cultural racism is gaining ground in the Netherlands. But isn’t it inconceivable that competition is playing a role here? Aren’t the immigrants way too far behind and much too problematic?

In recent decades, there has been a shift in the Netherlands from disdain for the first labour immigrants from Turkey and Morocco to growing distrust and fear of Muslims and actually all non-Western immigrants and their children and grandchildren. At the moment, there is a mixture of prejudices, remains of the familiar old condescension and fear and suspicion. I think that at least in part, this shift can be explained by the growing ability of immigrants and their children and grandchildren to compete. So I think this shift is going to continue. Their emancipation is in full swing and they are in the process of taking the places they have earned for themselves in all the sectors of society including the highly educated ones. Everyone can see and feel this, even though most of the media do keep stubbornly zooming in on the lags and the problems, which of course are there as well.

Nature or nurture, what difference does it make?

Sometimes victims of exploitation racism, who can’t help being the way they are, also find themselves getting a bit of sympathy, even though of course it is not nice to get it from people who look down at you. Victims of cultural racism however are to blame for being the way they are. In the course of their lifetime, they have internalized their identity and pernicious ideas and customs in their very essence. They are given a choice: either abandon their identity, ideas and customs and lose their self-respect or be excluded from society. If such a thing is possible, this makes cultural racism even more ruthless than exploitation racism.

They just have to integrate, period!

Forcing people to either abandon their identity or be excluded is not integration. All over the world, immigrants integrate into new societies, sometimes after one generation, sometimes after two or three, in infinite different variations. Jewish Europeans were completely integrated and often even assimilated and it did not save them from mass annihilation.

What does group formation have to do with violence?

In both types of racism, prejudices focus on a group. It does not matter that much to the exploiters whether the group is sharply defined, the more people it includes, the better. In cultural racism, step by step the borders are reinforced until a recognizable group has been constructed that can be eliminated as a whole. The mercantile minorities could be identified by their appearance and names and Jewish Europeans, who were more difficult to recognize, were forced to wear a yellow star. Delineation of this kind makes it possible to scapegoat an entire group. Over and over again this has proved to be an excellent way to avert tension in a society.

A clearly defined group can also be more easily accused of being under the influence of foreign powers and thus unreliable. Last spring doubts were suddenly expressed about the loyalty of Ahmed Aboutaleb, Nebahat Albayrak and Khadija Arib, who had all recently risen to high positions in Dutch society. No one could claim they still had to integrate or make up for some lag so new ammunition had to be found: they had two passports. As I noted in my article in Trouw, doubts about loyalty and the accusation of being loyal to distant powers are part of cultural racism. Jews were accused of following the Wise Men of Zion, a non-existent sneaky association bent on ruling the world. And Chinese traders were thought to be marionettes of the big bad mother country.

If and when it comes to violence, a very important difference between the two types of racism is the nature of the violence. In exploitation racism, violence is focused on a few individuals in public to make it clear to everyone else that resistance is useless. In cultural racism, violence is on a mass scale because it is designed to murder all the members of the group viewed as dangerous or drive them out of the country.

You wrote that we tend to tone cultural racism down by calling it Islamophobia!?

Islamophobia only pertains to the fear of Islam. Although a phobia is an exaggerated, unhealthy and irrational fear, in only a few years and under the influence of this very same irrational fear, the term has been weakened to now mean a justified fear of Islam. Nowadays people barely seem to feel any embarrassment about using it this way. I want precisely these people to appreciate the severity of the situation. And to realize that in the end, incessantly spreading fear and discord in a population can lead to mass violence. It is naive and arrogant to think this kind of violence can only break out in distant countries and that we in the West are too respectable. That is not what our history tells us. It is also short-sighted and misleading to act as if Islamophobia is something very different than racism just because it targets a religion and not a race, whatever that may be. As I noted above, the cultural racism that is emerging in the Netherlands and is toned down by calling it Islamophobia has quite a few features in common with competition racism against mercantile minorities and with anti-Semitism as well. The main point of racism is that it singles out a specific segment of the population, targets it with prejudices about traits people are either born with or acquire, and then treats them as if these prejudices are actually true.

Why don’t you refer to it as discrimination? That doesn’t sound as bad.

Discrimination can be an aspect of racism and often is, but it is not always demonstrable. The people who treat a group unfairly or exclude it can often defend their decisions by saying they have nothing to do with race or religion and claiming to have totally different reasons in mind. The term racism covers a lot more than just discrimination, it also includes biases and preconceptions and prejudices and can include violence as well.

Don’t you think it turns people off if you accuse them of racism?

I am not accusing anyone of anything, I am analyzing the situation and showing what can happen. I hope and trust that it would be a good thing if more people could understand the mechanisms in operation here. I do think though that the people who encourage and spread fear of a specific segment of the population are taking on a very heavy responsibility. They are attacking, so they are the attackers. By labeling the people they are attacking scary and dangerous, they are creating a very advantageous reversal of the whole picture. In one fell swoop, they turn themselves into the attacked party instead of the attackers. They present themselves as victims of the danger they themselves have invented, and they try to persuade everyone else to share their prejudices. And instead of seeing the situation as something they themselves are creating, they say the Muslims ought to be able to deal with it and should not act like victims.

But I have faith that we are capable of rational thinking, well maybe not all of us but certainly most of us. If a lot of people, whether they are politicians or not, see what is actually happening, in the end they will stand behind what is in the interest of society as a whole and thus also in their own interest.

But don’t you think extremist Muslim violence is dangerous?

Of course I think extremist violence based on religion, whether it is Islam or any other religion, is dangerous and needs to be combated. But not by randomly holding people responsible just because they believe in the same religion. Whenever the media focus on violence, they automatically refer to extremist Muslim violence. I think they should also consider the possibility that violence might break out here in the Netherlands against the Muslims and all the other recognizable non-Western immigrants. People’s fear is an incredibly strong motivation for outbursts of violence. The media would be wiser to expose these mechanisms for what they are.

. . . I [was] happy to take advantage of the opportunity Anja Meulenbelt is offering me as a guest on her blog to elaborate upon my analyses based on these readers’ responses.

Anne-Ruth Wertheim is a journalist and the author of various books including De gans eet het brood van de eenden op, mijn kindertijd in een Jappenkamp op Java (The Goose Snatches the Bread from the Ducks, My Childhood in a Japanese Prison Camp on Java, 1994). An Indonesian translation of the book was published in March 2008.She works with the concepts of exploitation/colonial racism (contempt or condescension) and cultural/competition racism (envy and distrust). Other articles she wrote about racism could be found at http://www.risq.org/article492html, at http://www.risq.org/article427.html and http://www.risq.org/article441.html.

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