Wertheim: Modern-day Racism: A Mixture That Calls for Some Clarification

Anne-Ruth Wertheim writes in a guest editorial for Informed Comment:

Modern-day Racism: A Mixture That Calls for Some Clarification

Propagators of modern-day racism, which is often called Islamophobia in an effort to take off the edge, claim that all they are doing is warning people about what they see as the danger of Islam, and that it has nothing to do with racism. But it is a misconception to think that racism only pertains to the physical features people are born with. Throughout history, cultural characteristics that people develop in the course of their lives have also been grounds for maligning and excluding certain groups. The competition racism that mercantile minorities all across the globe have been, and still are, confronted with, as well as the anti-Semitism in pre-WWII Europe, were imbued with cultural prejudices, and never failed to include the item of religion.

Nonetheless it is understandable that people feel confused. Modern-day racism is a mixture of two types of racism, exploitation or colonial racism and cultural or competition racism. Thus, while focusing primarily on a cultural aspect of the group, such as Islam, their religion, there still exists a focus on the group’s physical features. I will try to explain this in my article.

I was born in Indonesia when it was still a Dutch colony. I lived in a beautiful house with my parents and my little brother and sister. Like any child, I looked at the world as something that was just there. There were always Indonesian servants around who were quick to pick up anything I dropped. They would take my dirty clothes and give them back clean and neatly ironed. At breakfast every morning, my mother would sit at the table and talk to Kokki about what she would cook that day, Kokki squatting on the ground as they spoke. And when I was allowed to go along shopping, I would see Chinese proprietors bossing around Indonesians who swept the floors.

My view of the world consisted of three layers, with us white Dutchmen on top, the Indonesians at the bottom, and the Chinese in between.

From one day to the next my view of the world turned upside down when I was seven. World War II was raging in the Pacific and the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies. They set up a cruel regime that was to last for three and a half years and sent us and everyone else who was white to internment camps. We hardly had anything to eat, not much of anything else either, and were kept in line with a show of physical force. Our camp was guarded by Indonesian soldiers who were beaten just as hard by the Japanese as we were, though they were fed a lot better.

Now the Japanese were on top and we were at the bottom with the Indonesians in between.

Halfway through the war, the Japanese, who were allies of Nazi Germany, started to follow its example and separate Jews from non-Jews. My father, who was at an internment camp for men, was Jewish, but my mother, who was with me and my brother and sister at the women’s camp, was not. So we three children were half-Jewish and the Japanese threatened to separate us by force from our mother. To keep that from happening, my mother decided to register as Jewish herself and all four of us went to the Jewish camp together.*

After the war our family returned to the Netherlands and I discovered that my father’s Jewish family had been almost entirely killed and my Jewish grandparents had committed suicide the day the Dutch capitulated to the German army.

Shortly before and during the war, both of my parents were gradually convinced of the legitimacy of the Indonesian people’s struggle for independence. As outsiders among other Dutch people, who still felt and thought in a very colonial way, our family had to endure a lot of aggression, which of course had great impact on me as a high school student.

So by that time I had experienced quite a bit of racism and violence and all kinds of images were tangled up in my mind. It was not until much later that I started to untangle the chaos of images. One of the people I learned from was my father, a sociologist of Southeast Asia, W. F. Wertheim. He drew a distinction between two types of racism:

1. Exploitation or colonial racism towards colonized peoples and blacks during slavery and Apartheid. They were considered stupid and lazy and unable to govern themselves, but good enough to do the heavy labour for the ruling white minority.

2. Competition or cultural racism towards mercantile minorities all across the globe who compete with the established majorities. The Chinese in Indonesia and Jews in pre-WWII Europe were considered sly and cunning and accused of wanting to rule the world.

Continuing in my father’s footsteps, I discovered a shift here in Europe and thus also in the Netherlands. The first guest workers from Turkey and Morocco were confronted with the familiar old-style colonial racism and they were looked down upon. As is witnessed by the numerous references in modern-day racism to the alleged inabilities of immigrants, this tendency to look down on these people is still very much in evidence. But now that their children and grandchildren are better able to compete, the racism is starting to exhibit more elements of competition racism and to focus more on their cultural features. It is turning against Muslims and in essence all non-Western immigrants.

So, at the moment, a shift can be observed from the colonial, exploitation type of racism that focuses on physical features to the cultural type of racism that focuses on cultural features such as religion. Being somewhere in the middle of this shift we now have to do with a mixture which combines elements from both types of racism.

This modern-day mixture is nicely illustrated by the language the extreme right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders uses, slyly intertwining looking down on people with inspiring fear of them.**

Characteristics of Two Types of Racism

1. Exploitation or colonial racism


Wherever people have others do heavy
labour without paying them much
(slavery, Apartheid, in colonies
where minorities exploit majorities)

Prejudices put forth
Mentally slow, backwards, childike, lazy
(predominantly inborn or physical traits)

Intentions of prejudices
Overtly: to confirm their own superiority,
justify exploitation
Covertly: to feel better than someone else

Accompanying violence
Against rebellious individuals,
to keep the group in its place, (has to be
kept physically healthy enough to work)

Group borderlines
Can be vague

2. Cultural or competition racism

Wherever minorities have to compete
with an established majority
(mercantile minorities all across the globe,
Jews in pre-WWII Europe)

Prejudices put forth
Sly, unreliable, love money, loyal to foreign
powers, a menacing religion, want to rule the world (mainly acquired traits, cultural)

Intentions of prejudices
Overtly: to express fear and distrust, justify
Covertly: jealousy and fear of rivals, a need to feel unity against the scapegoated group, it is all their own fault and they have no right to exist

Accompanying violence
Against the entire group, physical
elimination of rivals
(pogroms, Holocaust)

Group borderlines
Must be sharp, members need to be recognized


In this chart I show exactly where the differences lie between the two types of racism. To start with, they apply to totally different groups. This is directly linked to the kind of work they do and their economic position. In this connection, there is also a difference in the prejudices that are put into circulation. In colonial racism, the prejudices have to do with contempt and disdain and focus mainly on physical features, and in cultural racism they evoke fear and mainly focus on cultural features. The intentions behind the prejudices are completely in line with what they are supposed to justify, in one case exploitation, in the other exclusion.

When I write and talk about these two types of racism, something that always strikes me is how much more familiar the exploitation type of racism is to people than the competition type. Racism that pertains to groups that are forced to do the heavy work and are considered to be stupid and lazy, is widely known, and the human damage caused by colonial and post-colonial procedures is recognized manifold. But the other type of racism that pertains groups that are competitive and for that reason accused of being dangerous and striving for total domination, is amazingly unknown. Nevertheless this last type has also caused and still causes much damage in the world – ranging from pogroms on Chinese mercantile minorities everywhere in Asia, to the expulsion of the Indian- and Pakistani mercantile minority from Uganda, to what happened to the Jews in Europe.

It is also interesting to see what makes people believe in prejudices that they nonetheless prefer to keep to themselves. No one is about to admit how much they like feeling superior to another group. And in our competition-ridden society, envy and jealousy are frowned upon; anyone who has less than someone else has only himself to blame. This capitalistic ideology was aptly stated recently by Dutch right-wing politician Mark Rutte when he sardonically referred to a higher tax for the rich as jealousy tax. So it is no wonder people would rather not admit their envy towards the competitiveness of immigrants and prefer to be carried away by cheerleaders for the fear of Islam.

Lastly, the violence – be it extremely diverse – that accompanies each type of racism. In the case of exploitation racism, only a few rebellious individuals are publicly punished to keep everyone else in their place. The group as a whole, after all, has to remain healthy enough to do the hard work. But the intention of cultural racism is to exterminate an entire group or expel them from the country. History has shown that this kind of mass violence is set in motion once the epithets that really scare people have been uttered long and systematically enough about a specific group. It is not without reason that people who commit these acts of violence so often say that they had no choice, that it was self-defence. And in every case, the outbreak of violence was preceded by a sharper outlining of the group, accompanied by allusions to expulsion, and a stronger emphasis on recognizing members of the group.

With their seemingly purely economic question about the costs of all the non-Western immigrants and their children and their children’s children, the propagators of modern-day racism in the Netherlands recently put a group in the spotlight that everyone can recognize by the colour of their skin. This is going to mean trouble. But there is still time. Time for more and more people to understand the mechanisms that are in motion and opt for a future of peaceful coexistence.

* I tell this story in The Goose Snatches the Bread from the Ducks. My Childhood in a Japanese Prison Camp on the Isle of Java, which can be ordered on DVD or downloaded via this site..

** See This Link to my earlier essay at IC


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).

9 Responses

  1. A conclusion would be that the Tea Party has become totally unhinged from reality as it tries to decide whether exploitation racism should be applied to President Obama as an example of a “failed leader,” or whether competition racism should be the paradigm, hence the fascination with his birth status or his father’s religion. I see this as a major problem for the Tea Party. It could be the issue that divides and destroys. Let’s not help them sort it out.

  2. Thank you for this interesting essay.

    I think your categories may be valid, but they are not exhaustive.

    It seems to me there is at least one further category, one that is not exclusively connected with race but which could be: the association of a domestic minority with a foreign regime, movement, ideology, or other transnational loyalty perceived as threatening, leading to a “scare”.

    For me, the current Islamophobia looks a bit like a Red Scare or the “Loyalist” panic in the UK in the 1790’s (where revolutionary feeling became associated with loyalty to France, once it came to war).

    People are associating Muslims with a transnational Islamist agenda, which is why they are posing questions like “Is Hamas a terrorist group” as shibboleths. I suppose 9/11 is the ultimate expression of a revolutionary Islamist ideology and movement, against which the US is fighting wars, and the Cordoba House is perceived as failing to respect the meaning of Ground Zero. Obviously, for rational people, there is no reason at all not to build a mosque near GZ. But war has made people’s thinking black and white, with-us-or-against-us. Islam is probably permanently discredited in huge swathes of the US now, and failure to respect the shibboleths and to be totally at one with the War on Terror, and to share in the mass mood, means Muslims are perceived as joining the other side.

    So you have Muslims in the US perceived as radical (probably the average US Muslim’s views on foreign policy really are liberal or radical, compared with the overall average) and transnational, during a time of wars fought against other Muslims and against movements that claim Islam as their inspiration. It’s a recipe, not for racism as such, but for a “scare” directed at a religious minority, which is often de facto a racial or ethnic minority.

  3. Actually, British anti-Catholicism circa 17-19th century might be the closest analogue:

    a religion associated with a domestic minority,

    with foreign countries (Ireland, France),

    with autocratic dictatorships (France, Spain),

    with terrorist plots (Guy Fawkes),

    with war (Spanish Armada, Louis XIV),

    with transnational loyalty (Pope),

    even with the fear and suspicion that the King is one of them! (Charles I & II, James II)

    and with public riots against church buildings (certainly in London).

  4. Excellent article and very informative not only because it helps to understand the racism going on in our country now, but also, for me, it describes a situation in Indonesia that was new information.

    Thank you, Juan Cole, for all your very informative and knowledgeable columns.

  5. […] Nonetheless it is understandable that people feel confused. Modern-day racism is a mixture of two types of racism, exploitation or colonial racism and cultural or competition racism. Thus, while focusing primarily on a cultural aspect of the group, such as Islam, their religion, there still exists a focus on the group’s physical features. I will try to explain this in my article.” link to juancole.com… […]

  6. When Confederate general (and former slave-trader and future KKK founder) Nathan Bedford-Forrest overran Ft. Pillow and its mostly black defenders, one of the black men who tried to surrender to a Southern cavalryman was told, “Saddle my horse!”

    The man complied. Then the Confederate said, “I will saddle my own horse, and shoot you too.” Which he did, though the prisoner survived.

    That was then the Southern view of black people’s right to exist. Once they had shown they would defy slavery, they had no right to exist. This was impractical for the Southern elite from a labor economics standpoint, of course, so they constructed a satistfyingly humiliating caste status for freed slaves that kept poor whites sadistic and happy.

    Thomas Jefferson expressed a similar viewpoint, though, in his writings on the Commonwealth of Virginia; he said the blacks had to be freed, but then they would immediately have to be ethnically cleansed. His ideal social system would not work, he knew, if whites had to share citizenship with blacks and compete with them in the marketplace.

    It is too easy for white Americans to believe that all other nations and races only exist to serve them, since that is mostly how it has been in modern times. So we are slowly transitioning from the confident, aggressive bigotry against any of the sub-creatures at home or abroad who refuse our orders, to the fearful, senile bigotry against the competition from our former subjects.

    Yet this process can happen quickly or go in reverse. An extremist like Milosevic or Hitler can come to power based on the fear that “those people” are too competitive to be allowed to exist, yet after a few easy victories they switch to a triumphal tone saying that they must cross borders and rescue their kind in other lands, which implies that they are naturally superior.

    In the US context, I have in the past tried to distinguish between racism based on the belief that the enemy race is born inferior and therefore should be kept under unfair conditions, and racism based on the belief that the enemy are the product of an inferior culture, and must be forcibly assimilated. Mostly the former have been conservatives and the latter have been liberals, but Reagan seized on the libertarian idea that “less entrepreneurial” cultures had no inherent right to exist (Thomas Sowell eloquently damns his own people to cultural extinction this way) and thus rehabilitated his new Southern allies, who switched to the safer form of bigotry by becoming market fundamentalists.

    This is another dimension to the racism problem. You can see cases where people who fear a competitive rival group will try to mandate cultural extermination instead of deportation. The corporate elite certainly would prefer this, since they are the high priests of modern white American culture and want to standardize the entire world population to be addicted to the products and labels they control. When the goal is to keep a lower caste subjugated, however, assimilation is a tricky matter. Some slaveowners in the US wanted slaves Christianized, but perhaps some saw that this would create dangerous questions about how Christians must treat other Christians. The tendency in the South was that assimilation must occur under the context of “seperate but equal”, meaning that blacks got inferior everything, but had to act white and not express any ideas of their own despite their differing circumstances.

    In the current white power crisis, the corporate sponsors have total control of where the Tea Party can go in eliminationism. Thus we see in Arizona that real efforts to reduce the illegal population such as jailing guilty employers are bypassed for laws that target all Hispanics for petty humiliation. If too many Hispanics leave, it’s bad for business. But if too many Hispanics stay and give birth to new, voting, citizens, then whites will lose the competition for power. So we see a law that targets Hispanic education classes that might teach an accurate history of how whites got power over Hispanics. A delicate dance of treating Hispanics as sub-creatures, as competitors, as deportable, as necessary labor captives, has turned into a slamdance run by Neanderthals.

  7. So which type of racism would describe anti-Hispanic feelings in the U.S.? It seems that there are two competing (and contradictory) stereotypes of Hispanics in the U.S.:
    1. They are lazy, criminal, stupid and genetically inferior.
    2. They work too hard, save too much money and “steal jobs” from Anglos.

Comments are closed.