Racism, continued (long)

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Sun, 24 Mar 1996 17:16:39 +0900

Herein I wish to examine some recent postings concerning
the topic of racism. Mostly it will be in the context of the
continuing debate (in its various guises of discussion, argument, etc.)
that John McCreery and I are having. Although I have tried to keep things
short, still this posting has ended up a long one. It has also taken me
some time to write, so the discussion on anthro-list has already
moved on to different topics. But, better late than never.

On Wed, 20 Mar 1996 John McCreery writes:

Let us suppose, for example, that I am a French Jew in occupied
France during WWII. I hate, fear, see as a threat, and look down
on any German I encounter. Am I racist?

What if the German is a two-year old child?

My response: Even in the first case, I would consider it a kind of
racism. While from one point of view, this kind of racism in response
to racism seems benign, we have to ask ourselves the question of why
a French Jew during WWII would not only fear all (most?) Germans,
and feel they were a threat to herself or himself, but also why
she or he would feel it necessary to hate Germans or look down on
them. In my opinion, while feelings of fear and being threatened
would be justified given the circumstances, the feeling of hate
and the attitude of looking down on the other would not: they are
extra, added feelings, perhaps understandable given the circumstances,
but ultimately unnecessary. I would, thus, tentatively suggest that
from a folk psychological point of view, that is, in a approach based
on analyzing the intentions of others, what makes racism salient as
a descriptive category is that it represents a fusion of various
emotions and attitudes.

On the other hand, what is obscured in this kind of folk psychology
analysis is that racism is often less an individual phenomena than
a complex historical and cultural construction. In the case in question,
we would first have to consider the long history of anti-Semitism in
Europe. This would include its medieval origins as well as its
continuation into modern times. We would, also, of course, in
particular want to compare anti-Semitism in France and Germany.
Next, we would need to study the rise of National Socialism in
Germany. Why did it need to intensify the pre-existing tradition of
anti-Semitism? Why did it come to treat Jewish people as a hygienic
problem (the merging of "scientism" with an older tradition of
ordinary racism)? Here, I can only suggest a few of the many cultural
and historical issues involved.

Another difficulty in the example which JM gives is that it is set
in wartime. In wartime, racist ideologies become more explicit.
This is a deliberate move on the part of the governments involved
in a war. They, through various kinds of public-relations/propaganda
campaigns, encourage citizens to fear, see as a threat and look down
upon the "enemy." And this means characterizing the enemy as a racial
other. In the case of the U.S., we see this clearly in WWI in terms of
the Germans and in WWII in terms of both the Japanese and the
Germans (for our racist portrayal of the Japanese, see _War Without
Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War_, John W. Dower, Pantheon
Books, 1986). And if governments actively encourage ordinary
citizens to become racists, their efforts to foster racism in the
soldiers that will be doing the actual killing in the war are much
more intense. This came out in the thread about drill when people
who had served in the armed forces in the U.S. talked about their

In regard to the second case of hating 2-year-old German children,
of course such a person would be racist. Children, particularly 2-year
olds, haven't been completely socialized into their cultural identities
so it would be absurd to treat them as being embodiments of a
particular national group. The individual who even hated German
children would be denying his or her own humanity (denying the
potential that human beings can change, and grow and evolve).

Let's sidetrack a little bit. Mencius (371-289 B.C.E.?) said: "All people
have the mind [which cannot bear to see the suffering of] others. The
ancient kings had this in mind and therefore they had a government that
could not bear to see the suffering of the people. When a government
that cannot bear to see the suffering of the people is conducted from a
mind that cannot bear to see the suffering of others, the government of
the empire will be as easy as making something go round in the palms.
"When I say that all people have the mind which cannot bear to see
the suffering of others, my meaning may be illustrated thus: Now,
when people suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they all have
a feeling of alarm and distress, not to gain friendship with the child's
parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbors and friends, nor
because they dislike the reputation [of lack of humanity because they
did not rescue the child]. From such a case, we see that a person without
the feeling of commiseration is not a person; a person without the
feeling of shame and dislike is not a person; a person without the
feeling of deference and compliance is not a person; and a person
without the feeling of right and wrong is not a person. The feeling
of commiseration is the beginning of humanity ["jen"]; the feeling of
shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness ["i" or "yi"]; the
feeling of deference and compliance is the beginning of propriety ["li"];
and the feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom ["chih"]."
(_A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy_, Wing-Tsit Chan, Princeton
University Press, 1963, p. 65)

In terms of Mencius's philosophy, the person who hates two year
olds of other races would be lacking in the fundamental morality
which is part of our human nature. I bring up Mencius here because
I would like to later delve into the question of how universal
"democracy" is as a value. The point which I will try to make is
that while there is much in the Confucian tradition that is
"democratic" and that is concerned with respecting "human rights,"
the language that they use for talking about these issues is far
different from the language used in the Western tradition. And as
a complicating feature in modern (and/or postmodern) East Asian
nations, the Western based vocabulary and the more traditionally
based vocabulary of "democracy," "human rights," etc. coexist and
interact in various ways.

JM continues:

In my own, flawed, formulation I used the expression "born into
a certain group" to point to the essentializing gesture that would
say, "Yes, I hate that two-year old--because she is German." The
ethnic label determines the judgment, regardless of other factors.

A similar labeling process was what I found wrong in the
statements that started this argument. To say that the Taiwanese
are Chinese and, therefore, X is not to rise above the fray because,
after all, we must understand the "Chinese" position. It is,
instead, to favor one side of what is now a very contentious

My reply: Concerning, JM's first point what would prevent an individual
from saying "Yes, I love that two-year old, because she is a German"?
If we exclude the special case of a wartime situation, what is there to
prevent people from evaluating different ethnic groups (people born
in different places) positively? While this kind of positive evaluation
or labeling may also be stereotypical (an essentializing gesture) can
we in truth say that it is racist? I think not (or if we do we still have
to distinguish positive from negative "racism"), and so, at least to me,
difference alone is not a defining characteristic of racism.

In regard to JM's second point, I am a little unclear exactly to what
statement of mine he is referring to. Perhaps he at a later date
could do me the favor of quoting the relevant passage. In general,
though, I would like to say that my intention in writing the various
things I did on Taiwan was to in fact suggest that the identification
of Taiwan as a Chinese country was problematic. Just as in the case
of the U.S., the original inhabitants were different from the group that
is now dominant. This renders ironical any appeals to shared ethnic
identity (in the case of Taiwan that it is somehow a nation that
preserves the Ming tradition of Chinese governance, in the case of
the U.S that it is somehow a nation which fulfills the Western
European dream of participatory democracy).

In addition, I think that JM is to a degree misrepresenting the nature
of our debate (in other words, he is always representing my point of
view as if it means that I am willing to sit on the sidelines and watch
contentedly while the PRC swallows down the poor, defenseless
Republic of China, when in fact I as much as JM wish to see the
continued existence of an independent Taiwan!). The issue which
motivated me to get involved in this discussion of Taiwan was not
whether Taiwan should be independent or not, but whether the U.S.
should go to war to defend Taiwan from the Communist "monster"
lurking across the straits. I see the original issue as being this
because of the implied sense of JM's comments in his 3/12 posting
"In re Davenport (2), aka 'History is dead?'": "As someone who did
fieldwork and still has friends in Taiwan, not to mention a daughter
in training to become an officer in the U.S. Navy, I read news of
Chinese missile launches in the straits of Taiwan and maneuverings
of U.S. warships in the waters near Taiwan with a keen personal
interest." If JM was not talking about his fear that the U.S. would
have to go to war to save Taiwan from mainland China, there would
have been no need to mention his daughter who serves in the U.S. Navy.
A more explicit phrasing of this same point is found in his March 13th
posting, "In Re Davenport (4), grumble, grumble": "If the Taiwanese
resist an attempt to settle the situation by force and my country does
not come to their aid, I will be ashamed."

One reason I am against this approach of going to war is that wars
rarely solve the problems they are meant to remedy. And certainly
getting involved in what would amount to a civil war would be
foolhardy. Fortunately, though, I need not go into detail on the
virtues of pacifism, etc., because in the case in question there will
be no war. It's all bluff and posturing. The only slim possibility that
the whole thing will burst out into an actual war, I feel, is if the U.S.
sticks its big nose into things and sirs up a hornets' nest. It was for
this reason, that I suggested that the U.S. should do nothing militarily.
Let the Chinese politicians and military leaders on both sides of the
straits play out their little game of brinkmanship. It doesn't concern
us, nor does it effect the status of either country (the only possible
effect that the PRC's military posturing could have on Taiwan is
influencing voters to vote for candidates opposed to Taiwan's
independence, although on the other hand it could well cause
Taiwanese people to do the opposite as a vote of defiance).

JM continues:

Li Peng favors one position, Peng Ming-min another.
Lin Yang-kang and Lee Teng-hui represent positions between
them. To make the fact that they are all, in a broad sense, Chinese
the only factor in assessing their views would, to me, be a
thoroughly racist proposition.

Li Peng is premier of the Peoples Republic of China. . . . To learn
more about them, anaccessible source is the March 14, 1996, issue
of the Far Eastern Economic Review.

My reply: I would like to thank JM for providing the useful
background information. On the other hand, I have some difficulty
in understanding how I have "made the fact that they are all, in a
broad sense, Chinese the only factor in assessing their views"
One simple reason for this is the only leader in the above list
who I mentioned in my previous postings was the current
president of Taiwan. Thus, I could not have compared their

Ania Lian comments:

I remember a year ago or so we had a discussion about INTERFERENCE
into a culture. Example of a problem:

Do Chinese people just "culturally" wash themselves twice a week, or
because of the conditions that they live in? Now, would it be right to
interfere and give them a better water supply? They did for so long so
well without it.

Correlation: Would it be right to tell/show to Indian women that dying
with their husband should be an option not a bonding law? (or allowing
their men to beat them to death, after all this all is cultural: let them
beat them, and if they get born to it and know no better (i.e.. this is the
norm), why show anybody otherwise)?

My response: Anna Lian is here playing the devil's advocate. What I
wish to question in her approach though is the factuality of the examples
she gives. Is it true that Chinese [note the inclusive "Chinese" which
could potentially refer to people in the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong and
the numerous people living in Chinese communities in various parts
of the world] only wash themselves two times a week? I think not
(and notice how the implication that they do not bathe regularly would
imply the racist assumption that they are "dirty," "smell bad," etc.).
Perhaps *some* Chinese (but how many? Anna Lian provides us with
no factual information so we can't judge the relevance of this
phenomenon) in the PRC do not bathe regularly because of a lack of
adequate water facilities, but why should Americans rush off to help
them? [And how many people in the U.S. also suffer the same fate of
not bathing regularly due to a lack of adequate water facilities? No
doubt, the number is much smaller than in the PRC, but even in the U.S.
we have our own problems with poverty.] I would assume that the PRC
is already making efforts to improve the water supply.

The second example seems at first sight to be based more on fact
than the first one of Chinese not bathing or taking showers regularly,
since there is *as we all know* the Indian custom of the widow
jumping onto her deceased husband's funeral pyre. Let's though
examine this *fact* in greater detail.

"high-caste Indian women used to throw themselves on the funeral
pyres of their husbands; and in other parts of the world, widows
commit suicide, or the like."
"The sense that the widow is anomalous--that she, rather than
the ghost of the dead person or some other close kin, must bear the
weight of a loss--seems most elaborate in groups in which a woman
is defined exclusively in and through her male relations. Harper (1969)
["Fear and the Status of Women," _Southwestern Journal of
Anthropology_, 25, pp. 81-95] illustrated this in a paper on
high-caste Brahmins in southern India. Among members of this
group, marriage is seen as a necessary but terrible fact of a
woman's maturity. . . . It is significant that low-caste groups in the
same area have no such beliefs about widows; there women have a
role in social life and production, and women remarry at will."
(Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, "A Theoretical Overview," in _Women,
Culture, and Society_, M.Z. Rosaldo and Louise Laphere, eds, Stanford
University Press, 1974, pp. 33-34)

What we think (in our taken-for-granted knowledge of the "world") is
a wide-spread practice in India, turns out to be something that is no
longer ordinarily practiced, and even when it was practiced it was
confined only to certain groups within Indian society. Furthermore,
many societies have difficulty dealing with widows (even U.S. society,
as the experiences of my mother showed me after my father died when
I was still a child). How did we come to have such an exaggerated
opinion of what Indian society is like (and why did our image fall into
the racist pattern of looking at the "other" as being, in this case, a
group which treats its women badly)? The answer is of course the
mass media. The media sensationalizes the few isolated cases of
survivals of the custom of women dying with their husbands in
high-caste Brahmin society (and does this "society" itself in any
unmediated way even survive in the modern era?) and so distorts our
understanding of India. Concerning the issue of wife-beating, U.S.
society has its own serious problem of domestic violence, which
makes it difficult at least for me, to characterize wife-beating as
a unique feature of Indian society.

On Tue, 19 Mar 1996, John McCreery comments in "Davenport,
propositions and persons":

While seeing how easy it is for Clyde to see an attack on his
words as an attack on himself, I would like to insist that it just
ain't so."

My reply: I would in this instance want to suggest that it was not so
much the "attack" on my words that I objected to, but rather the
attribution of "words" to me that I did not use. This is seen both in his
literal ascription of "words" to me (the "quote" using crude language he
created to represent my racist attitude) and the more figurative
misreading of my discussion in for example suggesting that I wanted
to let Taiwan be "devoured" by the PRC (not a direct quote of JM: I am
using the word "devour" for rhetorical effect).

On Wed, 20 Mar 1996 Ronald Kephart in "Racism" made the following
point in regard to JM's previously cited example:

Maybe I've missed something, in which case pardon me. But no, this
could not be "racist" because Jew, Muslim, French, and German are
not "racial" categories.

My reply: This is a good point. It would be more accurate to say
"ethnically prejudiced person" or, perhaps, "ethnocentrist." However,
both "ethnically prejudiced person" and "ethnocentrist" lack the strong
connotations of "racist" as implying that the underlying belief system
is either an ideology (politically motivated) or an intense mixture of
feelings of fear, paranoia, hatred and superiority. In addition, a "racist"
is often precisely the kind of person who confuses ethnic identity with
the biological notion of race; she or he hypostatizes "race" just as, for
example, the sexist hypostatizes "sex."

Clyde Davenport