What is Racism?

Written by | Society

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

In the past, racism was de­fined as discrimination, inequality, and prejudice directed at an individual or group, based on biological characteristics. But, currently, it has been redefi­ned as systemic, i.e., cultural, social, and institutional. Racism is embedded in almost all the institutions of the world, and it is deeply rooted in their socio-political systems. Our remote past shows that Adam and Eve, a beautiful creation of God Almighty, were created to live together and give company to one another and, under His command, live a purposeful and happy life. They were born without the element of discrimination. Though their origin was as one, later, when God settled their generations in different regions of the earth, they were divided. In this division, they adopted the traits of that region. The purpose of this division was to expand more families, recognize their identity, and teach the concept of mutual brotherhood and welfare of all the families of the world. 

As God Almighty says in the Glorious Qur’an:

“And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colors. In that surely are signs for those who possess knowledge” (1).

This division was all a natural process that took place by the will of God for the benefi­t and cooperation and distinction of human beings. It had nothing to do with inequality or superiority or inferiority of one group over the other. But with time, human perceptions started changing, and racial discrimination in different forms began creeping into the minds of people. The ‘enlightened’ minds began thinking about various factors behind the repercussions of racism. They formed their own opinions about (a) Biological or scientifi­c racism, i.e., a distinction based on physical characteristics, and (b) Systemic racism that is also called institutional and structural racism because it deals with the structure, system, procedures, and policies of different institutions.

In the past, people of different regions were being judged by their physical features. People with light skin and hair were considered more powerful, prestigious, and superior to people of other hues. Charles Darwin the father of evolutionary theory, believed in “natural selection” and “survival of the ­fittest” (2). In his view, those people who were best adjusted to their environment were called the most successful and bene­ficial in their lives. Nature awarded them with the best traits, abilities, ideas, and beliefs, and they were made for supremacy over the less successful ones. Black Africans were considered at the lowest level of abilities and traits because they were less “evolved” than the white Europeans. In this way, he gave a great push to biological or scientifi­c racism and declared that only physical characteristics determine the inferiority or superiority of a race. This theory widened a great distance between whites and blacks by diminishing the traits and abilities of the latter. People forgot that superiority and inferiority have quite different meanings in the eyes of God. So God reminded the Children of Adam by saying:

“O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female, and We have made you in tribes and sub-tribes that you may recognize one another. Verily the most honorable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you. Surely, Allah is all-knowing, All-Aware” (3).

The ongoing process of discrimination at a larger scale not only a­ffected the Third World countries but even in this age of enlightenment and progress, the most civilized nations are also not free from its after-eff­ects. So, racism in a broader sense is an indicator of discriminatory practices, and in order to make this world peaceful and discrimination-free, conventions for scholarly discussions have been held at higher levels. A convention was held at Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre (January 10, 2020) where scholars from all around the world participated and discussed racism, its after-eff­ects, and ways and means for its elimination. The viewpoint that was formed there was as follows: 

“Racism occurs between individuals on an interpersonal level and is imbedded in organizations and institutions through their policies, procedures, and practices” (4). 

Racism consists of complex elements of inequality, prejudices, oppression, antagonism, the struggle for power, dominancy for the subjugation of other groups; these elements, with all their innate complexity, are embedded in all the European, American, and Asian political and socio-economic institutional systems. At some places, it is practiced openly, while at other places, it is hidden. There are also people in the world who are open-minded and do not believe in racism. Color, creed, race, and financial status do not bother them, and they are unbiased in dealing with people of other races. Racism is a power-play game that is deeply rooted in sociopolitical matters. Whoever wins the game becomes the winner and is dominant. Power creates not only supremacy, but it also creates inequality and discrimination, which gives birth to superiority as well as inferiority complexes. These complexes divide people into two groups, i.e., oppressor and oppressed. This division and its perceived eff­ects block or minimize the access of the oppressed group to di­fferent progressive opportunities of life. Moreover, the negative attitude of the oppressor group impacts the minds of the oppressed class, and they start su­ffering from an inferiority complex that later becomes the cause of medical as well as psychological problems. 

Racism occurs not only at the interpersonal level, but it has also been perceived at structural levels. The outcome of the perpetuation of certain policies formed on the basis of discriminatory elements is beneficial for more powerful and dominant members of society but is a hindrance in the path of progress to others. Policies based on ethnicity, color, belief, or other such factors pave the way for segregation, inequalities, and hatred that directly hit the members of a particular race. 

To use taboo words for people of di­fferent colors and beliefs and commit injustices on them by creating obstacles in the way of achieving their goals are also included in discrimination. For example, if Mr. A commits a crime and gets punished, his action under the glasses colored with prejudice will not be considered as an individual action but all the members of his creed, culture, color, even the country to which he belongs will become the target of negative thinking. Islamophobia or xenophobia are very clear examples of prejudice toward Muslims. In the USA and western countries, people of diff­erent ethnic origins do not have access to equal opportunities in housing, healthcare, and criminal justice, etc. It is also not easy for students of other ethnicities to get loans for education because of challenging terms and conditions. The same is the case in business matters. Prejudice and discrimination in the name of religion also occur in many countries of the world. Di­fferent religious groups play their own part in accelerating the speed and intensity of discrimination. Political affiliations are also a glaring example of discrimination. 

Inequalities and prejudices between whites and black also exist where blacks are denied equal opportunities and true justice. History is full of movements that became a forum to raise voices against racism. A recent example is that of the killing of George Floyd, a black man of Minneapolis, USA, where a policeman kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck while he begged for breath by saying, “I cannot breathe.” These words became a slogan after his death. This incident triggered protests all around the world, and people, including whites, demonstrated against this discrimination which led to homicide, and placards held by protestors conveyed the message “Black Lives Matter.” 

In Europe, the first signs of racism started showing in the 12th century and remained through the 19th century, where Jews were identified with the devil, witchcraft, and sorcery. They were accused of black magic and blood libel. Out of fear and insecurity of life, many Jews converted to Christianity. In medieval times, Jews were kept under periodic check and were commanded to mark their bodies and to wear a specific badge for identification and segregation (5). The holocaust was the genocide of European Jews during the Second World War. Six million Jews were killed in this war. It was a mass killing based solely on discrimination of them as an inferior race whose lives were worthless.

Another example of racial discrimination is that of the Atlantic slave trade. The Euro-American Atlantic slave trade, which enslaved African people and transported them to Europe and America, was also a driving force that gave rise to racism. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln called for abolishing slavery, and after passing the thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, he abolished it (6). The great human rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr., fought all his life for human rights.

In short, racism or discrimination, whether it is biological or systemic, cultural, institutional or structural, targets the individual as well as the masses. Whether it is practiced openly or secretly, it is still embedded not only in European and American institutions, but is deeply rooted in other countries of the world as well. Governments of these countries are trying their best to eliminate it and are taking di­fferent measures. As stated earlier, antagonism, hatred, and inequalities divide a nation into two groups, i.e., the oppressor and the oppressed, and generate superiority and inferiority complexes. The superiority complex generates a means of becoming more powerful and dominant, but it also leads to the violation of the human rights of the weaker group. The inferiority complex impacts greatly the minds of the subjugated and weaker class that gives rise to many psychological and medical issues. 

Racism could be minimized or eliminated by keeping all these factors in view and having Firm faith in one’s own culture and beliefs. Fruitful results can be seen by accepting and honoring the diversity of di­fferent races with open-mindedness, irrespective of their biological or cultural characteristics. Good communication skills and access to equal progressive opportunities help to intermingle people of various cultures and develop mutual understanding. 

Last modified: December 2021

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