Racism and mass murder
Norwegians will never forget the murder of Benjamin Hermansen. There are many reasons for that, one of the most obvious being that he was killed purely because of the colour of his skin. His killers were self-confessed neo-Nazis. As well as being a story about the savage killing of an innocent boy, the murder recalls memories of some of the most oppressive regimes, terror incidents and mass murders in recent history. It evokes thoughts of Nazi Germany, apartheid and the Ku Klux Klan.
Benjamin’s murder reminds us of the darkest history of racism, a history condemned by the vast, vast majority of Norwegians.
Benjamin’s murder reminds us of the darkest history of racism, a history condemned by the vast, vast majority of Norwegians. The connection to this history can help explain the battle over the term racism that is currently taking place. When the word racism is uttered it is not merely a theoretical understanding of the term that is applied to interpret it – the frames of reference also include oppression and mass murder.
For that reason many teachers feel hurt when students call them racist, which goes to show how the term has a power and impact that few other words do. There are numerous other terms that can sometimes be used as an alternative: discrimination, xenophobia, chauvinism, exclusion. None of these words has the same effect as the word racism has.
What is racism?
The world racism is derived from the word race and first came into widespread usage in the 1930s when adopted by opponents of the Nazis’ racist and anti-Semitic world view. Narrow definitions of the word associate it with the idea of race as a biological phenomenon. One example is the definition given in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (britannica.com):
“… any action, practice, or belief that reflects the racial world view—the ideology that humans may be divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called “races”; that there is a causal link between inherited physical traits and traits of personality, intellect, morality, and other cultural and behavioral features; and that some races are innately superior to others.”
Broad definitions of racism include differential treatment of various kinds, not limited to racism. One example is the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination from 1965, which describes “racial discrimination” as:
“… any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin …”
In their 2015 book “Hva er rasisme?” (What is racism?), Bangstad and Døving define racism thus (Chapter 1):
- Dividing a populace into different categories whereby some are ascribed negative essential (immutable) traits.
- Reducing the identity of an individual to the given negative traits of a category.
- Using the negative traits as an argument for subordination and discrimination.
This definition describes racism as more than just prejudice on the one hand and more than just discrimination on the other. According to Bangstad and Døving, the term racism links prejudice and discrimination: racism is what we get when prejudice justifies discrimination.
Racism as a polemical term
Disagreement over what constitutes racism frequently crops up in debates. Racism is a sensitive topic, and the term can quickly become politicised. It can also be used as a polemic, bearing in mind the oppressive and bloody history of racism. Biological or modern racism can be said to be a Western concept. Yet it can be argued that when broadly interpreted as prejudice that legitimises differential treatment, racism can be traced much further back in time and to many different societies and corners of the world.
It involves a notion of “us” and “the others” whereby individuals who belong to “the others” can never become like “us” or part of “us”.
It involves a notion of “us” and “the others” whereby individuals who belong to “the others” can never become like “us” or part of “us”. Such ideas could often have religious explanations, such as “the others” being damned by a divine power. The distinction between biological and more broad-based racism is currently a focal point in the discussion surrounding the issue and can help explain why there is considerable disagreement over the meaning of the term. The use of the term does not negate the fact that it is now associated with slavery and mass murder, however. This explains why the use of the term “racism” is often controversial and emotionally charged. At the same time it is the historical connotations that give the term its potency. Expressions such as “everyday racism” can therefore seem self-contradictory since there is nothing everyday about persecution, slavery and mass murder. Yet there are other, related terms, such as “bigotry”, “prejudice”, “xenophobia”, “discrimination”, “structural discrimination” and “majority privilege”. Which term is used to describe a given situation must be seen in light of the person’s vocabulary, how the person interprets the situation, and what the person wants to achieve with their choice of words.
The key indicator of modern-day racism is whether the belief about a certain group is rigid and whether a group is ascribed attributes that its members cannot escape.
The key indicator of racism is whether the belief about a certain group is rigid and whether a group is ascribed attributes that its members cannot escape.
Structural racism and everyday racism
When racist views are allowed to build the very foundations of a society, such as during the apartheid regime in South Africa prior to 1944, it is very different from when an individual engages in racist thoughts or actions. Michel Wieviorka has identified four levels of racism in different societies (The Arena of Racism 1995, Chapter 5):
- The predecessor to racism, infra-racism, is characterised by various forms of xenophobia.
- Racism can be fragmented, yet still highly visible in society – including in attitude surveys.
- Political racism, i.e. racist ideas form the basis for a (political) movement.
- Racism becomes total, as a foundation for the state and the starting point for exclusion and persecution.
The term everyday racism is often used to denote racism at Wieviorka’s first level. Everyday racism is when “the others” are exposed to more or less unwitting attitudes and incidents in society. They could be uneasy glances at dark-skinned people on the train or objecting to having a Somali family move in next door.
The history of racism
The term racism first appeared in the early 20th century as a critique of the claims of Germanic racial superiority. The term was made known to a wider audience in a book written by the Jewish German sexologist and physician Magnus Hirschfeld in 1938 (published in the US after his death). Hirschfeld is also considered the founder of the modern gay rights movement. As a sexologist, anti-racist, anti-Nazi and pro-gay Jew, Hirschfeld fitted right into the Nazi doomsday scenario in which the Jews and their collaborators were conspiring against the German people with the intention of splitting and weakening them by undermining societal norms and promoting race-mixing before themselves assuming power.
The term race first appeared in the 16th century, mostly to describe kinship. Biological racism, which is often associated with colonialism, slavery and apartheid, stems from the Age of Enlightenment and the evolution of modernity and science from the 18th century onwards. We could therefore describe biological racism as modern racism. Race biology proposed classifying people according to observable physiological differences, and racists argued in favour of a social hierarchy based on such classifications. Modern “race science” created a discourse in which groups of people were often seen primarily as biological anthropological communities rather than, say, religious communities. It should be added that the Nazis found little support for their notion of a master race in science and anthropology. Nazism was based on myths that flew in the face of biological anthropology.
Race segregation based on biology and culture
Source: Deutsches Konversationslexikon, 1890.
This map is taken from an 1890 German encyclopaedia. It divides mankind into three main races: Caucasoid, Negroid and Mongoloid. During the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century it was a commonly held belief in Western Europe and the US that humanity could be divided into distinct races based on biological characteristics and that European culture was the most highly developed. The idea that cultures develop in step with the group’s biological potential was prevalent in Western thinking.
The notion of other cultures being inferior and undeveloped preceded biological racism.
The notion of other cultures being inferior and undeveloped preceded biological racism. White Europeans believed that what they deemed inferior cultures were the result of lower intelligence. Today there seems to exist a line of thought which asserts that biological racism has traditionally only been about biology. This would be a misunderstanding. The link between cultural and genetic characteristics was deemed to be strong.
Widespread knowledge of the oppression of black Africans in the colonial era in the American South and South Africa has given rise to the misconception that racism only affects people with dark skin.
The best known form of racism appears to be that which legitimised repression of black Africans in European colonies, the American South and South Africa before and after 1900. This has given rise to the misconception that racism only affects people with dark skin. According to the racist world view, peoples such as Russians, Sami and Inuit were inferior and of Mongoloid heritage. The Mongoloid race was described as a typical “short-skulled” race. They were as light-skinned as “long-skulled” peoples. Historical phenomena such as the assimilation policies the Sami people were subjected to by the Norwegian state and the Nazi regime’s mass murder of Poles and Russians cannot be understood without also knowing about the history of race biology and racism. For instance, Sami people were exhibited in zoos at the end of 19th century. The racial ideas that were widespread in the period before and during World War II, and which Nazism was founded upon, were more multifaceted than on the 1890 map, but the hallmarks remained the same.
Racism without races
Recent genetic research has all but rejected the notion that there are different human races. There is no correlation between the external visible features that historical race science was so concerned with and internal features that can only be observed using advanced laboratory equipment. In other words, it is not possible to predict a person’s blood type based on their skin colour. Yet some people believe that knowledge of genetic variations between different groups of people has medical value.
Now that genetics has all but discredited race science, many people are instead talking about “racism without races”.
Now that genetics has all but discredited race science, many people are instead talking about “racism without races”. This means that groups are now categorised using different parameters (e.g. culture, religion or ethnicity), while perceptions, prejudices and oppressive mechanisms remain the same as those embraced by biological (modern) racism. Such reasoning demands a broad definition of racism as something more than just discrimination on the basis of race.
Addressing racism in the classroom
Racism will remain associated with horrendous abuses for the foreseeable future. However, many children and young people see racism as a universal modern-day phenomenon, i.e. racism can be practised by and befall anyone, and they are less likely to give much thought to historical events. Teachers’ views of racism, on the other hand, are probably more coloured by history. Students and teachers can therefore end up talking over each other’s heads if the teacher is not conscious of how the term racism is being used and interpreted differently.
Knowledge of historical racism is important, because it enables us to recognise classic racist ideas.
When teaching about racism we would do well to see the past and the present in context. Knowledge of historical racism is important, because it gives us an understanding of the perils of racism and enables us to recognise classic racist ideas.
Let us look at an example:
A student asks the teacher whether she likes bananas. Some of the students giggle. One black student does not. To be able to analyse the situation and consider different courses of action, the teacher needs to be familiar with the old trope that black Africans are more closely related to apes than to other humans. Western scientists attempted to verify this surmise in the 19th century, and it helped legitimise suppression. Despite robust scientific rebuttal, the trope has proved very hard to kill off. It could be said that the historical backdrop makes the question far more serious than it would have been without this context. The teacher may still choose to respond to the question in a number of ways, but being familiar with the historical references behind the word “banana” puts the teacher in a much better position to deal with the situation.
When addressing racism as a topic the teacher could start by asking the students whether they have experienced racism and, if so, what happened by posing the questions “What happened to you?” and “Why did you feel it was racism?”. The teacher could also discuss what racism is with the students: “What is racism to you?” “Who is affected by racism?” “Can anyone be subjected to racism?” The teacher could also address historical racism, e.g. by looking at “race science” with its measurements and race maps as well as historical events such as apartheid in South Africa, slavery in the US, Norway’s treatment of Sami and Travellers, or the European and Arab slave trade in parts of Africa.
It may be sensible to link these events with the present day.
It may be sensible to link these events with the present day: “How is the US dealing with its history of slavery?” “Which reparations has Norway made to the Norwegian Sami?” To sum up, the teacher could pick up the earlier thread and discuss the differences in the students’ interpretations of racism and of the historical examples. This topic divides opinion to some extent, so there should be some interesting discussions.
Author: Harald Syse