Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
23 Jul 2021
Opponents of Critical Race Theory protest outside of the Loudoun County School Board headquarters, in Ashburn, Virginia, US June 22, 2021. [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]
The rising public conversations about race and racism in the United States have once again confused millions of well-meaning Americans into believing that if they look like what is now socially codified as “a white person” then they must feel guilty about the racist history of their country. This is a false guilt. Looking at any person and judging the content of their character based on the complexion of their skin is blatant racism, predicated on a false and illogical premise. It is only white supremacists who benefit from the confusion of the term “white” as a colour of skin designation with “white” as an ideology of racial supremacy.
A reactionary propagandist named Christopher Rufo is now identified as the chief agent provocateur mobilising racist Americans against a figment of their own imagination they call “Critical Race Theory” by way of conflating racism with the designated colour of a person’s skin. The objective is to frighten people to think that if the colour of their skin is coded as “white” in this country, then they are the targets of their so-called “coloured” compatriots’ demands for racial justice.
But the word “white” in the context of talking about racism is not a signifier for skin colour. In this vital context, “white” is an ideology. You are only “white” in this sense if you think you are entitled to certain privileges that must be denied to others whom you in the same breath call “Black”, “brown”, “red”, “yellow”, etc.
Racism is a construct
“There is no such thing as race, none” – this is how master novelist late Toni Morrison broke it down very simply in a famous interview. “It’s the human race, scientifically, anthropologically. Racism is a construct, a social construct, and it has benefits, money can be made off of it, people who don’t like themselves can feel better because of it … so it has a social function. But race can only be defined as a human being.”
Precisely in that sense, the word “white” is a signifier of that racism, its ideological register, its coded symbol. That is all. No human being at birth is “white”, “Black”, “brown”, “red”, “yellow” or any other colour. They are all eventually coded with these colours to divide and rule them better. East Asians are called “yellow”, West Asians and Latinx “brown”, Native Americans “red”, Africans “Black”, all of them set against the fictive centrality of the Caucasian “white”, which Europeans have racialised and reserved for themselves and gave to their settler colonial extensions in North America or Australia as a signifier of superiority. The historical origin of all such racist designations come to full “scientific” blooming during the period Europeans call – without the slightest sense of irony – their “Enlightenment”.
Racism is the colour codification of the relation of power and abuse, precisely as sexism is the gendered codification of the selfsame social malaise. Racism is a byproduct of the colonial conquest of the world for economic exploitations that needed a cultural alibi and ideological justification. If you think you are superior to other human beings because you are “white”, or you come from a superior civilisation because you are “white” then you are a racist – namely, you assume you come from a fictitious race that is superior to other races, whom you therefore feel entitled to abuse and exploit.
This is how the British ruled India, the French Algeria, the Belgians Congo, etc. When Germans slaughtered tens of thousands of Africans in Namibia between 1904 and 1908, that was predicated on their sense of racial superiority. When they brought that genocide home and perpetrated it on Jews a couple of decades later, that was based on a sense of racial superiority.
In yet another interview, Toni Morrison was asked, if she would ever change and write books that “incorporate white lives into them substantially”. She looked at her interlocutor with a look of not contempt but pity. “You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is,” she said, “because you could never ask a white author when they are going to write about white people.”
Morrison is here turning the racist question thrown at her against itself. The question is asked from the presumed epicentre of a position of power so assured of itself that is unconscious of itself. Morrison unveils that centre, makes it conscious of itself, and exposes it for the sham that it is.
No races before racism
Such encounters abound in the ideas of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and others, where the ideological foregrounding of the very supposition of being “white” is questioned and exposed. But it is in her novel A Marcy (2008) that Morrison went back to a point in American history when there was no American history, namely a time of fluidity in the continental social life before the racial codification of power surfaces in a manner that would be sustained for the rest of American history.
Set in the late 17th century, A Marcy maps out the continental domain where the Portuguese, the Spanish, the British, and all other Europeans had come to overrun the natives and begin importing African slaves, before slavery and the coded colour “Black” had become intertwined. In the book, the gathering destinies of Jacob Vaark, an Anglo-Dutch trader, his wife Rebekka, slave girl Florens, Native American farm worker Lina, and a free African blacksmith whom Florens loves, details a whole different America before the rise of racism as the defining moment of American history.
Similarly, though through critical thinking rather than creative writing, in The History of White People (2010), Nell Irvin Painter details the prolonged and twisted history of how the very idea of “white people” has gone through successive changes throughout history and how the European “Enlightenment” period is chiefly responsible for the invention of racial categories.
During this so-called “Age of Reason”, scholars like Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) began dividing people by measuring their skulls. As Painter puts it in a recent follow-up essay:
“At the two extremities Blumenbach placed the skulls he considered ugly, the African and the Asian. Next to the African was the Tahitian. Next to the Asian was the Native American,” Painter explained in a recent follow-up essay. “In the middle was Blumenbach’s ‘most beautiful skull’ — of a young Georgian woman who had been a sex slave in Moscow, where she died of venereal disease. Her beautiful skull became the basis for the name given to white people; a native of the South Caucasus [between the Black and Caspian Seas], she inspired the label ‘Caucasian’.”
Predicated on this illustrious past, being “white” is today an ideological conviction people acquire as they ignore such histories and are indoctrinated not just into racism but even more basically into racialised thinking. Being “white” is not a biological predicate by virtue of which one is condemned to hatred and bigotry. No one is. Being “white” is an ideological conviction by virtue of which you are convinced you are a superior human being.
The overcoming of the disease of racism is to begin with the undoing of the social construction of races that is the premise of racism. Given its long and murderous history of racial hatred, which was fully on display during the four years of the Trump presidency, the US has a very long road ahead before this simple fact is fully perceived and understood. There are powerful interests, institutionalised in the Republican Party in particular, vested in sustaining the bloody history of racism in this country.
To overcome that we must realise “white” is an ideology, a false racialised consciousness that is used by those in power to divide people to rule them better. It is the rich and the powerful who are the beneficiaries of this false consciousness. It is the poor and the powerless who are divided into white and Black and yellow and red. The rich and the powerful use these fictitious racial categories to get people to despise each other and thus conceal the real battlefront – the one between classes. Race is the colour codification of that relation of power, not that relation of power itself. What has a poor person branded as “white” in common with a rich manipulator of such racist ideologies? Nothing but the delusion that he or she belongs to a superior race while they share identical economic hardship with equally disenfranchised people they have been told to hate as Black, brown, yellow, or red?
If you are not racist you are not “white”, no matter what you have been assigned as in that colour codification of power. In the same vein, if you do not feel a victim of the very same colour codification then you are not Black, brown, yellow, red, or any other colour thus designated by the same code. You are a human being. WEB Du Bois’s assumption that “the problem of the Twentieth century is the problem of the colour-line” is only valid if we remain confined within that colour codification of power. “The colour-line” would not be a problem if we understand, dismantle, and overcome it. On that day, MLK is waiting for us: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
The metaphor of a “rainbow” usually used to bring these colours harmoniously together is a flawed liberal metaphor. Far superior is Rumi’s metaphor where in a story in Masnavi he says colours are like shades of clouds covering the bright shining light of the moon. We do not need the false colouring of our troubled imagination. We need the polishing sparkle of our peaceful souls.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He received a dual PhD in Sociology of Culture and Islamic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. He wrote his dissertation on Max Weber's theory of charismatic authority with Philip Rieff (1922-2006), the most distinguished Freudian cultural critic of his time. Professor Dabashi has taught and delivered lectures in many North American, European, Arab, and Iranian universities. Professor Dabashi has written twenty-five books, edited four, and contributed chapters to many more. He is also the author of over 100 essays, articles and book reviews on subjects ranging from Iranian Studies, medieval and modern Islam, and comparative literature to world cinema and the philosophy of art (trans-aesthetics). His books and articles have been translated into numerous languages, including Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Danish, Russian, Hebrew, Italian, Arabic, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Polish, Turkish, Urdu and Catalan. His books include Authority in Islam ; Theology of Discontent ; Truth and Narrative ; Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future ; Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran ; Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema ; Iran: A People Interrupted ; and an edited volume, Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema. His most recent work includes Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (2011), The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (2012), Corpus Anarchicum: Political Protest, Suicidal Violence, and the Making of the Posthuman Body (2012), The World of Persian Literary Humanism (2012) and Being A Muslim in the World (2013).