More than individual action: Defining racism

Citlaly Escobar, Contributor

In my last letter, I discussed Augsburg’s climate and our lack of a communal understanding of what it means to be “anti-racist.” In order to be anti-racist, we all must have a common analysis of what race and racism are and how they function together to produce systems of hierarchical racialized power.

First, let’s discuss the definition of racism. Racism, as defined by Google, is: “Prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” By this definition, anyone has the potential to be racist because racism is an individual account that is enacted when one engages another individual with outright malicious words and actions.

However, racism is not simply an individualized action. Racism is a conglomerate system that manifested out of white supremacy with the intention to place western European people in power. Racism was a tool created out of colonization to justify the genocide of Indigenous people and turn Black and Brown people into bodies of labor.

Before colonization, the concept of race didn’t exist. Sure, ethnic statuses existed, and people were grouped by their geographic area but no one was racialized. Skin color wasn’t used to define people. Race was invented around the 1600s and became an accepted social construction in the 18th century with the era of “Natural and Biological Science.”

Around the 1700s, nations like England, Germany and Spain were scrambling to justify their mass warfare against non-European people. In this scramble, a new field of science was created: Biological Taxon. This field aimed to “provide evidence for the biological difference between people across the world.”

Utilizing this to launch his scientific career, Johann Blumenbach specialized in a new research study to analyze the cranium differences between global groups of people and list the groups from the biggest craniums to smallest — because obviously, the bigger the skull, the bigger the brain, and the smarter you are, right? It’s science!

Using a sample size of only sixty skulls, Blumenbach determined skulls from the Caucasus Mountains in Europe had the biggest skulls while skulls located in the Mongolia region were second largest, the ones from the Americas third largest and the smallest skulls were from the continent of Africa.

With this unreliable data, he created a ranked classification from the most “culturally superior” to the lowest. This classification was: 1) People from the Caucasus Mountains and West were Caucasoid, 2) People from Mongolia and Asia were Mongoloids, 3) Indigenous peoples from the Americas and Australia were Australoids and 4) People from the continent of Africa were Negroids.

This classification quickly became accepted by European societies and used to justify the continued exploitation of people. In the United States, this classification was used to justify institutional slavery despite the U.S. Constitution’s declaration, “All men are created equal,” because this classification proved that non-Caucasoids weren’t culturally aware and therefore, not human.

And unlike where every other classification was rooted in a specific location, the last classification was not; the root of the word indicates it is tied to an ambiguous color that can be manipulated to one’s own discretion.

Eventually, the racial theories of Johann Blumenbach and others were scientifically disproved. Yet while the theories were disproved, governments continued to enact race-based laws.

While race wasn’t always real, it is now real because we invented it and socially constructed it. Because it was solidified by people and institutions, we are living the effects of a racialized society.

Now this is where I leave you: Based on this context, how can racism be just an individual action with no system behind it? Can a person of color, who does not benefit from this system of classification, be racist towards a white person?

This article was originally published in the Feb. 8, 2019 issue.