Ethics 12 – Racism, Eurocentrism & Postcolonialism

For this lecture, please watch this talk on Postcolonialism by Said.

civil rights imageAs we discussed last time, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 there was a shift in American culture powered by movements against sexism and racism.  Today there remains much sexist and racist prejudice but it is largely covert, not overt.  The majority of prejudice is largely invisible to the privileged while being a constant uphill battle to the marginalized.  If you are marginalized and you point out covert racism, you are often accused of overt racism by privileged people.  If you are privileged, you are accused of self-hatred or mindless rebellion.  In terms of racism in our culture, the marginalized are accused of “playing the race card”, and the privileged are accused of “white guilt”.

PiagetWe are just beginning to discover how genetically similar humanity is today.  For the last few decades, the best evidence against both sexism and racism has been the work of the French psychologist Piaget on the study of child development stages.  Children of both genders and all ethnicities go through the same four stages of development at the same ages.  Another good piece of evidence against racism in particular is an experiment where urban American and rural African children were given laptops and asked to play basic games, which showed that there was no difference in the time it took each group of children to learn.

DNARecently, work in genetics has shown that race is itself a social construct, not a biological or scientific fact.  Genetically, we are among the most similar of all species.  Penguins have twice the amount of genetic difference, fruit flies ten times more.  It has only been 100,000 years since humanity spread out of Africa, which may be a long time relative to an individual human life but not in terms of evolution.  There is almost nine times the genetic variation within an ethnic group than between ethnic groups.  The majority of genetic variation occurs between individuals, not between groups.  Interacting with others in a multicultural society, intelligence and personality seem to vary across each ethnic group as they do across humanity as a whole.

Not only is there no genetic evidence that intelligence and personality are attributable to the continent from which one’s ancestors come, intelligence and personality are not fixed by genetics, and we are each capable of increasing our intelligence and improving our personality throughout our lives.

Ethnocentrism, prejudice in favor of one’s own ethnicity, is quite old, but racism, the idea that there are continental sized groups that are biologically predisposed to be intelligent or pleasant relative to other continental groups, is quite recent, only developing over the last few hundred years.  In this sense, Italians can be prejudiced but not racist against French people, any more than Nigerians can be racist against Ethiopians or Japanese people can be racist against Koreans.  One can only be racist against Koreans as Asians, as part of a whole race.  In our culture of language use, we say that Korean is an ethnicity, not a race.  If we were to say that each distinct culture is a particular race, then ethnocentric prejudice and racism would be one and the same thing.  However, the way that we use the words today, racism is a modern global form of ethnocentrism and prejudice.

World MapRacism breaks the world down into four races: African, or “black”, European, or “white”, Asian, and people of the Americas, which includes both Native Americans and Latinas/os.  Traditionally, Europeans, including scientists and biologists, consider Europeans to be genetically superior in intelligence and personality to the three other races.  Recently, because Europe dominated and decimated the cultures of Africa and the Americas through colonialism but could not do the same to Asia, Asians are considered by many to be genetically superior as well, though Europeans still consider themselves more culturally advanced with a greater appreciation of individuality and freedom of thought.  Of course, Europe and Asia are actually one continent, sometimes called Eurasia, and there is a continuous spectrum of ethnicity from one end to the other, from Ireland to Indonesia.

There is a joke about the strengths and faults of European ethnicities that goes,”In Heaven, the police are British, the chefs are Italian, the mechanics are German, the lovers are French and everything is organized by the Swiss, while in Hell, the police are German, the chefs are British, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and everything is organized by the Italians”.  Europeans did not consider themselves to be a single race with a single character until very recently.

italian eastside NYCIn America, cities developed slums and ghettos, areas for immigrants and minorities.  Italians, Slavs and Jews were used as labor while stereotyped as emotional and sexual, of an inferior biological nature.  The Nordic and Celtic Western Europeans were believed to be superior to the Mediterranean and Eastern Europeans.  What we call ‘white’ was broken down into dozens of groups, analyzed for inheritable and immutable traits.  The playwright Israel Zangwill wrote the play The Melting Pot in 1914, arguing that God would melt all the European people together in America, under the torch of Lady Liberty, into a single white race.  Much later, in the 1960s and 70s, this term was used to include non-Europeans and counter accusations of American systematic racism.


EthnomathematicsOne of my favorite subjects is teaching against Eurocentrism.  While the work of Piaget and the laptop experiment suggests that we all learn and think similarly regardless of culture, one of the central messages in education in America and Europe is that we belong to a special culture called “the West” which is superior to other civilizations, particularly in regards to reason and freedom.  Often examples from ancient Greece are used to illustrate this superiority, and then the focus becomes modern Europe, ignoring all other cultures and the thousands of years in between the cultures of ancient Greece and modern Europe.

AlexanderThis situation, which many like myself call Eurocentric and thus ignorant, is very recent.  It came about in the last few hundred years in the wake of European success and dominance of the world, since the 1600s.  Before that time, Greeks, Romans and Europeans did not describe themselves as “the West”, did not understand themselves to be a single European ethnicity, nor did they claim as a cultural group to be superior in terms of reason or freedom relative to all other civilizations.  Greek civilization is indebted to Egyptian, Persian, Mesopotamian and Indian culture, and modern Europe and the European enlightenment of the 1600s and 1700s is indebted to Chinese, Islamic and Native American culture.

Julius CaesarThe Roman Empire conquered much of Western Europe and converted them to Roman Catholic Christianity, but they thought Western Europeans, like myself, to be inferior savages.  Romans thought Germanic and Celtic tribes were barbaric and inferior, owning them as slaves in Rome and depicting them as savages in art.  Julius Caesar wrote that the Gauls were primitive, warlike, and immoral, justifying their conquest and enslavement.  These are the very things Europeans would use to justify the domination of Africa and the Americas thousands of years later.  Rome enriched itself and financed the construction of impressive buildings with the wealth and slave labor reaped from the conquered.  Western European culture was almost entirely destroyed and replaced with Roman culture.  This is why witches, the shamans of their tribes, were burned at the stake and are still portrayed as evil today.

Sack of RomeAfter the fall of Rome, in one of the most remarkable cases of Stockholm syndrome in history, the conquered identified themselves with their conquerors and adopted Roman history and identity as their own to make claims to power and lineage.  Then, after the Protestant Reformation, many Western Europeans ceased to identify with Rome and chose instead to identify exclusively with the ancient Greeks.  As Christianity had passed from Greece through Rome to Europe, Protestants turned from Latin sources back to Greek to retranslate the Bible, discovering the wisdom and knowledge of the Greeks in the process.  Over the last four hundred years, as Western Europe rose in power, wealth and dominance, the Europeans explained their successes in terms of Greek and Roman history and identity.  What was in medieval times called Christendom, and then during the Enlightenment called the European race, is in modern times called “The West”, still portrayed as distinct and superior.

This is the modern mythology that we can disprove but we still believe, and enshrine in museums, textbooks and most importantly, fictional and nonfictional TV and movies.  The last has the greatest effect.  What you see your culture present is much more important than an academic argument.  The eyes are much harder to doubt than the ears or the structure of an argument.  Consider that Mel Gibson had an all white cast speak Aramaic for “historical accuracy” in The Passion.

holocaust-memorialIt surprises many to learn that the term “the West” came largely into use in the years following WWII, after the Holocaust showed terrible antisemitism.  Before WWII, academics freely used the term ‘European Race’ to describe the ancient Greeks, ancient Romans, and modern Europeans equally.  After the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement, the term became an eyesore.  Academics began increasingly referring to this “race” as “The West.

300 culture clashAll sorts of ridiculous statements in the first paragraphs of philosophy, history and even science textbooks show us this, where the Greeks are ‘the birthplace of reason’ without context.  One of my favorite examples is the British historian who stated that the most important event in British history was the battle of Marathon, depicted in the movie 300 as a cultural clash between white, European Spartans defending their freedom against the Persians, who are depicted as a strange mishmash of alien, non-European people.  In fact, there were different cultural groups of Greeks on both sides of the battle of Marathon, and the battle did not keep the Persians out of Greece over the next few centuries.  Marathon is often cast as the birth of “the West”, even though no one, including the ancient Greeks, used the term until after WWII.

hannaford-race the history of an idea in the westThere seem to be distinct ethnic groups that are easily divisible into recognizable races.  In Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Hannaford argues that racism rose with science and modernity.  The word ‘race’ entered European languages between 1200 and 1500 CE, first entering Spanish as ‘raza’ from the Arabic ‘ras’, meaning head or origin.  Latinos refer to themselves as “la Raza”, for this reason.  It was first used to refer to the course of a river or competition in speed.  In the later middle ages, it was then used to refer to family lineage, particularly royal and noble families.  It was between the time of the Spanish Inquisition and the American slave trade that the word ‘race’ came to be understood as a distinct biological group as opposed to any lineage or course.  As Europe encountered Africa and the Americas, biological identity of race supplemented the cultural identity of Christian.

phrenologyThe term then began to be used by European biologists in the 1700s and 1800s.  Kant wrote On the Different Races of Men in 1775, that having character is being endowed with rationality and freedom, and that there are categorical types of character that are particular to ethnic groups that should not be mixed.  In the early and mid 1800s, scientists and theorists argued back and forth between the positions of polygenists, who argued that the human races are separate species, and monogenists, who argued that there is one human race, a particular form of the nature/nurture debate.  Often, the debate focused on whether or not Europeans were of the same species as Africans and Native Americans.

japanese geishaIt appears that the distinction of superior “white” people and inferior “black” people originated not in Europe, but in India, where it was enshrined in the caste system.  Then, centuries later, Chinese authors referred to courtly women and scholars, who stayed indoors, as “white faced people”, similar to the geishas of Japan.  A thousand years ago, during the Islamic golden age, the Persians referred to themselves as white and to Africans as black.  One Persian playwright wrote a play entitled The Whites vs the Blacks, contrasting the foolishness in a Persian city with the same human behaviors in an African village.  Surprisingly, Europeans appear to have gotten the tradition of calling themselves white, much as they got the cultural achievements required for the Renaissance and European Enlightenment, from Asia.

Battle of NichopolasLarge scale ethnic conflict was originally between religions, not races.  Thus, Europeans were not white, but ‘Christians’, and they were prejudiced and afraid of Jews and Muslims.  1492 was not only the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but also the year that Christian kings and queens of Portugal and Spain reconquered those lands from Muslims, and the year that the Spanish Inquisition began to purge the same lands of Jews and Muslims.  After the Holocaust, white Christians and Ashkenaz Jews could no longer speak of ‘European race’ comfortably, so Europe became ‘the West’ over a period of time.  The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s further distanced the use of the word ‘West’ from ethnicity and race, even though the average person still understands ‘West’ to mean white and mistakenly believes that white is a genetically distinct race.

Fanon & Postcolonialism


Postcolonialism is a movement in scholarship that argues the effects of colonialism persist in spite of decolonization.  Franz Fanon (1925 – 1961) was a philosopher, existentialist, Freudian and Marxist who began his career in psychiatry and became a revolutionary whose writings are one of the central sources of the Postcolonial school of thought along with Edward Said.  Fanon’s two most famous works are The Wretched of the Earth (or The Damned of the Earth, as an alternative translation of the French title) and Black Skin, White Masks.  His writings have been an inspiration to many anti-racist and anti-establishment groups, including the Black Panthers.

MartiniqueFanon was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, a French colony as it remains today similar to US control of Puerto Rico.  Though middle class, he witnessed the racist brutality of the French military toward the African population who were descended from slaves brought by the French to Martinique to work on plantations, as Africans had been brought to Haiti by the French and to Jamaica by the British.  Nevertheless, Fanon joined the French military fighting Germany and Italy in Algeria.  When Germany was defeated, the white soldiers were featured in parades while the black soldiers were removed from sight.  Fanon went to France and studied psychology and medicine, becoming a doctor and psychiatrist.  He also studied philosophy, and attended lectures by the Phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, former student of Husserl like Heidegger, who argued that phenomenology and existentialism must be put in the context of the human body and physical experience like Freud and later Korzybski and Piaget.

Black Skin White MasksIn 1952, Fanon wrote Black Skin, White Masks as an expansion of his doctoral thesis, arguing that colonialism had a destructive impact on the physical and mental health of black people.  Soon after writing the book he moved to Algeria to practice psychiatry, soon becoming the head of service for a major psychiatric hospital.  Fanon began experimenting with therapy that took cultural background of Arabic and black patients and the effects of racism into account.

In The Damned of the Earth, which was published only in 1961 just before his death, Fanon argued that colonialism had taught black people to interiorize racism such that they considered themselves evil and ugly and become self-destructive and violent against their fellow black people.  Fanon, in accord with the existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre, saw racism as a form of lying to oneself to avoid the endless transformation of our existence and the questioning gaze of the other.  The black body and mind is denigrated to affirm and celebrate the West, white culture and achievements including colonial control of the globe.

racist small brainRacism in America Today

Black and Latino people are 3 times likelier to be poor, on average earn 40% less that the average white person and have ONE TENTH the net worth.  Racial profiling by police criminalizes the marginalized, keeping them marginal.  Redlining is the practice of not lending to particular people or selling new homes to let people get out of certain areas based on the area from which they apply.  In the 1940s most white people supported segregation.  In 1970, one fourth did.  Now, it is estimated that 20-50% of white people agree with racist stereotypes openly, and often do not think of this as racist but rather simple observation of culture and reality.

Racism has real costs: study in the American Journal of Health estimated that “over 886,00 deaths could have been prevented from 1991 to 2000 if African Americans had the same health care as white Americans”, stemming from lack of sufficient insurance, poor services, and reluctance to seek care.

black white history relations

whiteprivilege_knightIn the last article in your reader, called White Privilege, there is a great list that spells out what privileged vs. marginalized means in terms of racism in America today.  White people can be in the company of other white people in most environments, can move and travel without fear, can shop without being harassed, can hear about their people’s achievements and how it makes the world a better place while being educated and entertained, can swear and dress in old clothes without people thinking white people are stupid or evil, do not have to speak for their race in particular (remember the Myth of the Model Minority article), can criticize the government and our way of life without fear of becoming an alien, can get pulled over or audited without fear of discrimination, and can get medical and legal help without fear of discrimination.

What Cant Be Done About Racism?

The interactions we have with others create categories and frames in our heads that mislead us into thinking that certain types of people are smart or unkind and mislead us into treating them as separate types of people.

emotionNeuroscientists have shown that within milliseconds we identify others by ethnicity, gender and age, before we have a chance to think or speak.  This can negatively frame our thinking, communication, and interactions.  We naturally show frustration and negative emotions when we consider someone a threat, and this reinforces these reactions in ourselves and in others, including children, whether or not we’re aware of it.  Psychologists have shown that we are all somewhat racist, the privileged and disadvantaged, some of us more so, and some less so.  We are all imprinted with negative attitudes towards ethnicities who share our common culture, even if we actively ignore it in ourselves or live where racism is far more covert than overt, more thought to oneself than spoken out loud.

In our diverse society, it is mentally and physically healthier to talk about our problems rather than ignore them and to discourage the idea that we are on opposing teams.  When we focus on not making mistakes, this has a negative impact on our thinking and the perceptions of others, but when we focus on having a positive and open interaction, this is good for thinking and communication.  Positivity helps us see each other as individuals and not as categories.  Understanding that our thinking and personalities are not fixed, but can be enriched and developed, helps us to identify with each other and thrive.

confucius2Confucius said that if you put yourself with any two people at random, you can take their strengths as a model to follow and their faults as a warning.  This is wise advice, as we all share similar strengths and faults.  Intelligence and compassion are human virtues.  Ignorance and brutality are human problems.  We can see these are valued and useful yet difficult to develop in all human cultures, ancient and modern.  Just as genetics shows we are actually one race with a variety of interrelated ethnicities, we share one culture with many cross-pollinating branches of subculture.  We can draw on excellent and terrible examples from all of humanity to become better people.  While this may seem obvious, it is easily forgotten.

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