You black. Me white. Is there anything beyond this difference? Everyday life is not gray, it is black and white.
Black is the color of mourning. White is the color of mourning. I am sad. Black are the letters on white paper which had to be bleached in order to be worthy to be covered with printing ink. White appears the dust of computer screens which stay turned off. Black is the soot on my polluted soul – they try to make me believe. White is the foam at the mouth of the false preachers – I say. The world: captured within the narrow limits of the color space between black and white.
Humans are visual animals. Color blindness is considered a disability. Colors are the spices of vision. Color creates structure and reflects structures. The (non-)colors of black and white bear (or, rather, capture) all other colors. Black and white mean accumulated coloration: the essence of color. Is this the explanation for the essentialist obsession for color which is expressed in the black and white thinking of racism (and which even infiltrates the counter-movement of anti-racism)?
Traces of this obsession can be found far back in history. Already the ancient (Indian) Rigveda, which originates at 1750 to 1200 before our time, separates people in color-coded »castes«. Although the political body has a common root in the cosmic body of Purusha (and thus represents a inseparable unity), the single parts serve different tasks - some being more relevant than others. These functional segments are color-coded, since »varna«, the Sanskrit term for caste, simply means »color«, and the the hierarchy of functions/colors is defined along a light and dark gradation. White: the priests (brahmins), red: the rulers and warriors (kshatriyas), yellow: the merchants and land-owners (vaishyas) and black: the service class (shudras). Even today, in India, light skin is associated with high social status and beauty. On the other hand, especially the dark gods (depicted in blue color in traditional iconography) are worshiped with great devotion by the people, prominent examples being the Kali, the black, who represents the dark side of the goddess Parvati, or, Krishna, the son of a tribal king, who is held to be an incarnation of Vishnu. The dark is thus symbolically absorbed by the light (so to speak: a reversal of natural law).
Also Greek antiquity was a reservoir of proto-racist ideas which build a relevant basis for modern racism – however, (to some extent) in a reversed color-order. For example, the masks in Greek comedies representing slaves were red-haired. And slaves often had names like Xanthis (from xanthos: yellow) or Pytthias (from pyrrhos: red). Both points the North European origin of a large proportion of slaves in ancient Greece. The ideological fundament of slavery was the proposition that there exist developed and backward peoples. The members of the latter were hold to be positioned somewhere in between the Greeks and domesticated animals as they lacked (logical) thinking, and one therefore called them »barbaroi« – stammerers. A wide-spread theory explained the inferiority of the barbaroi as an effect of the climate (environmental theory). Herodot, for example, characterized Asians to be weak and characterless in contrast to Greek braveness – which he explained with the milder climate and the dominance of monarchy in that part of the world. But there was also the idea that such traits could be established through heredity (heredity theory). Finally, there was the believe that lesser mixing with other peoples would increased strength (purity theory). All relevant theoretical approaches to explain the inferiority or superiority of a people or »race« were thus already present in ancient Greece. Modern racism hardly went beyond those antique theories.
Modern racism, however, disguises itself in scientific »objectivism«. Racial theories influenced by Social Darwinism spread in the 19th century, and new scientific disciplines, like anthropology, emerged, which aimed at empirically proving the superiority of European culture and the »white race« in order to ideologically justify the exploitations of other peoples. The influential scientific racists were probably Carl von Linné (1707–1778) and Arthur de Gobineau (1816–82). While Linné »identified« four geographically defined »races« (Europeans, Americans, Asians and Africans) which, as he claimed, differ in their mental capabilities (with the Eurpeans – »of course« – being on the top), Gobineau separated mankind according to skin colour into three basic »races«: the white (being the most beautiful, intelligent and vital), the yellow (interested only in what is useful) and the black (dominated by emotion). According to Gobineau, the »superior races« tend to absorb the inferior, which can be an advantage at low levels of miscegenation, but which finally will lead to degeneration. Houston Chamberlain (1855–1927) heavily drew on Gobineau in his racist ideology in which the Nordic race was to save to world. However, it was a »privilege« of German National Socialism to violently attempt to realize these abstruse ideas.
It is important to note though that whiteness in the context of racism is not exclusively a category of skin color but also of (genetic) purity and, foremost, an expression of the social power of definition: the one who may define who is white is white. For example, Noel Ignatiev describes the process of the suppressed group of the Irish in the US becoming themselves a dominant group in his book »How the Irish Became White«. Whiteness, in this sense, means power and blackness is a position of oppression. When the color relations of a social group change the scheme of social color coding must be altered accordingly. An interesting example of this shift are also Italien migrants in Germany. While members of this group used to be held as blacks during the 1950s to the 1970s, who are sloppy and may only do primitive work, they are meanwhile accepted as white Europeans.
However, these cases are not intended to show the mere contingency of color coding. To the contrary, the »essence« of the racist discrimination is its binding to biological characteristics and sensual experience. Even though a (white) Irish or Italian can be white-washed, a black Nigerian or American will hardly ever be. The colored poison of racism penetrates the the order of social power. And the fatal effect of is poison is that neither can the racists nor can the »rassified« escape from the imprisonment. Instead of attacking the mode of power distribution, which divides the world in suppressors and oppressed, the first try to compensate that they are themselves suppressed and the latter seek for reversal.
Why is it that difference is naturalized and bound to physical characteristics? Why can’t we overcome racist color coding? – There are several reasons. First, there is a general problem. All efforts to fight racism need to refer to the distinction introduced by racism. For example, to prove that people with dark skin are discriminated against in job applications we need to look at the skin colors of applicants. What is more, racist discrimination may rely on a specific attraction. It connects to perception. The real power of racism is its aesthetic dimension, there is no rational core of the difference that racism relies on. Racism serves economic and political purposes, but its persistence and power to infiltrate all areas of life rest on its »sensuality«. Black and white, this »truth« seems obvious in a world of uncertainty. The supposed disambiguity of skin color distracts attention from the substantial. The »other« of racism is not only is visible and thus seems real.
In the end, it is secondary if the other is devalued or evaluated. It is all about »othering«, and color is the stigma. The borders of color space cannot be crossed. Thus, only in reference to color racism is comprehensible. And it is even likely that racism works more violent where the visibility of otherness is low and clarity, which the racist desires, is questioned by the ambivalence of the other.
Usually, only those violent forms, like the eliminatory anti-semitism of German National Socialism, or practices which at least involve discrimination and devaluation are labelled with the term racism. Today, along with the growing voice of the others who deny to be silenced, this changed a little to the better. But now mainstream theorists lament about an over-use of the term for any kind of exclusion. And, not without bitter ambiguousness, in the real world we are faced with the accusation racism-accusations were a »killer argument«. Even Etienne Balibar, one of the most prominent voices of anti-racism, had to ask: is there a (neo-)racism without races? The answer is quite simple: there is only racism without races.
The world is penetrated by the racist discrimination. And, unfortunately, it is still valid what Fantz Fanon wrote in in »Black Skin, White Masks«: »The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness.« The omnipresence of racism and its color coded discrimination is the core of the problem. One cannot put racism to an end denying its ubiquitous reality. As, in reality, there is an obsession for color. It may only be cured by gray thoughts - and the voice and practice of resistance.
Text by Anil K. Jain. Please, also refer to the article on anti-racism.