Blinded by colours

(First published on July 25th, 2020)

NYC Comedian Ryan Long came up with a brilliant video in which two men, one woke one racist are discussing matters pertaining to colour and race. The racist among them announces very proudly that they agree on everything. And then they launch into their explanations regarding the primacy of the racial identity, their aversion to the dilution of these identities through interracial marriages, and the need to keep their cultural products like food and music separate. They may have different sets of reasons, one bigoted and selfish, other compassionate and cosmopolitan, but the end result is invariably the same. A perfect example of how good people overthink things and end up rewarding the prejudiced with what they so desperately need. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Whiteness is back in sharp focus these days. Borrowing from Yuval Harari’s storytelling metaphor one can say that like any other race it is just another construct. But it is more loaded than many others. For instance, white supremacists associate it with their claims of being a master race and their right to either rule others or to exterminate the rest. Critics associate it with the long history of colonialism, oppression, and hate. But if you look closely, white people are people like any other group or set. And whiteness is just another construct.

Why is it in so much focus, you ask? Because academics and the media have been trying to grapple with Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 and explain it with as many theories as they can invent. White distress, white fragility, white privilege, white rage, and so on. Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. But could it be that Donald Trump won not because he was white but because he was perceived for long as a living breathing example of the American dream? That those who voted for a Black president eight and four years ago voted this time for a man with the popular catchphrase “you are fired” as a message? That the candidate chosen to fight Trump had huge and unfortunate baggage that her supporters chose to ignore? That Obama’s failure to shut the racists up, lessen the pain of the working class and put an end to the endless wars was deemed as the betrayal of his campaign promise “yes, we can”? Think about it. It is such a huge promise that you are doomed to fail the moment you make it because then even your best may not be good enough. And it is equal parts saddening and fascinating how as if by default the pundits and the media went directly to whiteness for an explanation. If you are tired of seeing Trump as the subject of every other book that comes out these days just take a step back and see how many books were written on race by serious scholars in the past three and a half years. You will be surprised.

Look, racists exist in every society and they are rightly shunned to the margins. But when serious people start writing about constructs like race you only help mainstreaming them. As a result, many conspiracy theories which did not deserve any attention have been magnified. One such theory is called white genocide and we will return to it later.

Let me first qualify why I think that race is a flawed construct. Should the colour of your skin, your eyes and hair define you? You realise that you had zero choice in the matter. We talk about these colours because they are easily distinguishable but not many others. For instance, what is the colour of your flesh, blood and bones? What is the colour of your brain? Ah, the brain. The racially prejudiced do not ignore the brain. But here they talk about the size, not the function or colour. Why? Because their lack of consistency suits their narratives. Take what suits your claims, dismiss what does not. But inevitably this is your basic “us versus them” spiel. If you invert the argument of the racists and start using the colour of the brain and size and weight of your bodies you might end up creating grounds for slightly funnier prejudices. Tall versus the short, fat versus the lean. But in our broken world, someone could capitalise on that prejudice too.

The basic drives motivating every sentient being on this planet remain the same: to live, to preserve one’s interests, to belong, to stand for something, and to leave a legacy behind. But because social Darwinism is so close to every racist’s heart let us also take a gander at their concept of a utopia. The white nationalists have a minimalist model and a maximalist model. Their minimalist model involves a dedicated land and country for the whites. Now, apart from non-whites who should not be able to set foot on the land? Any woman who does not find men attractive, especially white men, any woman who refuses to bear a child even if it is a product of rape and any woman who cannot for some biological reason is not fertile. Because this essentially is all about birth rates. Also not allowed are children of mixed marriages even if they learn more towards the definition of whiteness and persons with disabilities. So, Hitler’s Nazi Germany basically.

But the story doesn’t end there. This is a starting point not an end in itself. Once you have built a nation you start the good work of waging a war on the rest of the world which either ends with the subjugation or the extermination of non-white or mixed-race people.

Now ask them what happens next. Their answer would essentially be some version of “they lived happily ever after”. But that is not how Darwinism and identity politics work. Even if you exterminate the entire world’s non-white population and settle white people there what happens a few generations later? The people who live in various parts acquire those physical characteristics because of the unique environmental conditions and the genetic mutations in response to them. So basically, what is the point? And what happens when people start discriminating on the basis of other characteristics? It is a slippery slope and an ugly and unintelligent way to address the forces of nature.

Conspiracy theories like white genocide, that the white people are being systemically replaced by non-white individuals, also find traction because of the rise of billionaires from the parts where the white population is surrounded by non-whites. Elon Musk comes from South Africa and Rupert Murdoch from Australia. Slightly more meaningful and rational dialogue between these communities may go a long way in allaying their fears. Anyone standing up for racial harmony hence becomes a hero because even though it is no easy task it is an admirable one. But remember, you cannot deconstruct one racial identity while weaponising another. Trying to hold today’s white people accountable for what their forebearers did centuries ago is as counterproductive as believing that all human beings should not be considered equal. Only empathy and compassion can help us now.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 25th, 2020.


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