Sunday, December 7, 2008

On the Invention of Racism, Part I

So, before I get into this post, I want to note that uglyblackjohn secretly (not really, but the announcement was embedded in the comments of my first post, so I just found it) bestowed a blogging award on me last week. Just found it, so I shall let that marinate for a minute before I more competently address that. However, I wanted to thank uglyblackjohn for the acknowledgment and invite you all to click on his name above to check out his blog.

Now, on to the racism!!!

The above image is a depiction of a schematic drawing from one of Leonardo da Vinci's many inventions. Da Vinci, of course, is now (and was during his time) acknowledged as one of the foremost geniuses of his time - and maybe beyond. A true representative of a "Renaissance Man," he flourished as Europe came out of the throes of the Dark Ages.

But the question is: how did Europe come out of the Dark Ages? And what were other people doing during that time? Did the Dark Ages span the entire world?

To answer the last question first - of course not. While Europe was battling through plague and squalor and the lack of any semblance of what modern folks call "civilization" (i.e. literacy, academia, peaceful co-existence, medicine, hygiene, etc.) the rest of the world was - gasp - doing pretty much fine. China was pushing along, celebrating over two thousand years straight of scholastic aptitude and written language. In Western Africa, Timbuktu boasted a library of 1600 volumes, as well as a university rivaled only by another advanced university in the Sudan (Eastern Africa). Arab Muslims (the Moors) were in a period of scientific and academic achievement perhaps unrivaled in all of the world. Across the Pacific, the Mayan, Incan, and Aztec Empires were building cities of hundreds of thousands with irrigated farmlands and sewage systems.

In Europe, backwards tribes were fighting over nomadic lands and wallowing in their own filth.

So how did white Europeans stop acting like savages and get a little bit of civilization? By getting help from all the non-white civilizations, of course. Mostly, it was the Moors who were able to pass on their knowledge to the primitive Europeans. Their extensive academic and scientific knowledge - preserved in libraries - was the backbone of European "genius" as it blossomed during the Renaissance. But the Europeans were smart - they knew that they had much to learn from all the other more advanced civilizations, so they built on what they learned from interactions with the Chinese and Africans that they traded with. End result? Europe stopped being a cesspool.

Or did it? At the time of the white "discovery" of the Americas, London was still a city swarming with filth and excrement and disease (while the Mexican city of Tenochtitlan harbored hundreds of thousands - perhaps more - in perfectly-ordered streets). Scotland was a hinterland full of feuding tribes. The indigenous Americans commented on the incoming Europeans' filth (as it was against custom for white folks to bathe at the time, while the Natives upheld customs of cleanliness and hygiene).

So how did these backwards people take over the world? Was it because they were more "advanced"? Somewhat. They surely had more firepower in most cases. But it really came down to savagery. Because the conquering Europeans were more ruthless in their desire to kill all who stood in their way, they were able to succeed. Oh, and not to mention the fact that over 70% of the original inhabitants of the Americas died of disease before even having a chance to fight back.

Because the fact of the matter is that the indigenous Americans taught the Europeans how to farm, so they could survive in the "New World." Most of the original colonial towns were built on Native city-plans (complete with sectioned-off farm-plots) that had been abandoned as Natives died of plague (probably smallpox).

So where does the racism come in? Well, somewhere along the line, white Europeans became the "inevitable" conquerors of the world. Somewhere along the line, we stopped thinking of the different "races" (which didn't really exist in the way they do now) as equals. We stopped thinking of the various non-white civilizations of the world as on par with (or more advanced than) white European culture. Somewhere, somehow, we started ranking races against each other. Instead of where we had been - where different ethnicities were acknowledged to be different (because, even then, there was no "color-blind") and unusual, but NOT inferior - we came to a world where people started thinking of different "races" as more or less human than others.

So how did that happen? By design, pure and simple. Racism was intentionally constructed to serve very specific purposes. Racism is not - and has never been - a natural result of physical differences between people. I'm tired of hearing that claim. Noticing difference and grouping people IS natural. But those are two very different things - with very different possible results.

And so, if you tune in for my next installment, I will break down the true history of racism, why it was invented, the results, and (hopefully) what we can do about it.

The suspense must be killing you . . .


a Tonggu Momma said...

I don't have another way to contact you, so I wanted to come here and tell you that I am so very sorry that I offended you.

I do very much understand what you mean - it was not my intention to in any way encourage that attitude. I have a very wry sense of humor and laughed when I pulled out some of the old Christmas stuff. I just found it ironic.

I am upset that I hurt and angered you.

We are as immersed in the Chinese culture as is possible where we live - including both me and my daughter talking Mandarin, attending a Chinese church (my husband and I are two of only six Caucasians in the congregation), being active members of our local FCC (Families with Children from China) and generally trying to live a life filled with diversity of race and opinions.

We still have lots to learn.

We originally chose China because we wanted to adopt from Asia since - between my husband and me - we have four first cousins adopted from Asia and also both previously lived in Asia.

We've been waiting for 2.5 years to adopt a second time from China. And will likely continue to wait an additional 1 to 2 years more. This is - historically - an exceptionally long wait for international adoption.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your opinion with me. I will remember this - it will definitely be a reminder for me to pause and think. And again, I am so very sorry my words were offensive to you.

a Tonggu Momma said...

One more thing... if you haven't completely given up on me... a couple of months ago I wrote a post about my struggles with entitlement. It's not the end all, be all, by any means, but I did want to share that I do think about and consider entitlement throughout this process.

Lxy said...

One aspect of racism that many people today don't realize is that this phenomenon goes beyond the issue of stereotypes, negative attitudes, or even institutionalized discrimination.

Racism ultimately arose and is grounded in a more fundamental geopolitical reality of world historic significance: Western Colonialism.

The Western conquest of the "New" World and elsewhere had to be justified. The colonized had to be seen as inferior to the European conquerers and thus deserving of subjugation. And racism was/is an important ideology to justify this Western supremacist worldview--then as now.

CVT said...

Lxy -
Dang! Way to steal my thunder! But yeah - that's where I was headed with the Part II . . . I guess I'll still go ahead with that, though, because I'd like to see if you have some things to add that I missed.

Tonggu Momma - Read my post "On Walking in the Wind" for my response. I do appreciate that you are making an effort for your adoptive child, but there is always more . . .

Lxy said...


You should definitely write Part 2. I'm sure that you have a lot of points to make. I was just mentioning the general issue of Western colonialism.