In the last few weeks, a lot has been said about the need to fight racism. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black people in the West as well as the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has breathed new life into the conversation about inequality and racial injustice.
This newfound impetus is much welcomed but we will be wasting our time if we fail to acknowledge how we got here in the first place. To truly tackle racism, we must face the inconvenient truth of why we categorise ourselves using skin pigmentation so that we can not only understand the gravity of what we are dealing with but also that we may seek change in other aspects of life that have been impacted by this great ill.
The myth of 'the curse of Ham'
Theories and notions of human worth based on skin colour are not entirely new. Many people may point to medieval models of race, which mixed classical ideas (the suggestion that factors such as geography and climate played a significant role in the physical appearance of different peoples) with the idea that humanity as a whole descended from the three sons of Noah (Shem, Ham and Japheth), producing distinct Semitic (Asiatic), Hamitic (African) and Japhetic (Indo-European) people. This theory dates back to the Babylonian Talmud, which states, "the descendants of Ham are cursed by being black, and depicts Ham as a sinful man and his progeny as degenerates."
However, this theory was widely discredited as early as the 9th century, with many thinkers pointing to the fact that different human skin colours, particularly black skin, were the result of the environment and climate, rather than the myth of ‘the curse of Ham’.
No scientific basis
There is no scientific basis for race as a differentiator, either. And this is not for lack of trying. This idea was invented and popularised for one reason and one reason only - to create a hierarchy of human beings. The scientific racism that was the accepted norm between the 16th century and the end of World War II presents an interesting case study. The 16th century saw the rise of scientific racism, a belief, which is now widely discredited, that suggested that empirical evidence exists to support or justify racial inferiority or racial superiority and any discrimination that may result from that. Historically, scientific racism received credence throughout the scientific community, but it is no longer considered scientific.
Scientific racism used methods such as craniometry (the measurement of the cranium) and other pseudoscientific methods to support the classification of human populations into physically discrete groups, that might be asserted to be superior or inferior. It was on the basis of this principle that Adolf Hilter built the concentration camps, with the sole purpose of cleansing humanity of the weaker races for the furtherance of his supposedly superior Aryan race. This was resoundingly truncated by Jesse Owens, a Black American athlete, who won four gold medals, broke/equalled nine olympic records and set three world records at the 1936 Berlin Olympics that Hitler had orchestrated to make his point about Aryan superiority.
Othering and ordering
Glorifying your own attributes as signs of superiority is also not new. In many great civilizations across the world, from Rome to China, the norm was to equate physical characteristics, such as hair and eye colour, with psychological and moral qualities, usually assigning the highest qualities to your own people and lower qualities to the "Other", either lower classes or outsiders to the society.
In the same way, modern western society has identified skin colour as a tool for ordering and ‘othering’ the world. The world, as a result is not ordered based on character, morals or any other tangible traits, but on skin pigmentation and other intangible traits that will always be out of reach for many.
Difference can be a dangerous tool in the wrong hands. It is an easy way to turn people against one another and create conflict where it doesn’t naturally exist. We cannot pretend that skin colours are not different. That would be ignorant. However, if we really want to end racism, we must recognise that the idea of separating ourselves, for any reason, according to skin pigmentation has no scientific basis and must be fought against as much as the structures of oppression that it upholds.
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