RACISM, HISTORY AND LIES
Some doctrines of racial supremacy as classically taught
in Euro/American institutions, textbooks and media:
PHYSICAL CALIBRATION DOCTRINE: In which white anthropologists treat people as racial specimens, measuring "cephalic indices" and attempting to prove superiority of the "white" brain. Ugly racist terminology: "prognathism," "platyrhiny," "steatopygous," "sub-Egyptian." Mug-shot lineups of "the Veddan female," "Arapaho male, "Negroid type," "Mongoloid specimen" characterize this approach. Out of favor in the mid-20th-century, it has enjoyed a revisionist comeback with sociobiology and works claiming racial differentials in intelligence, such as "The Bell Curve."
TECHNOLOGICAL CALIBRATION DOCTRINE: Insists on forcing archaeological finds as well as living cultures into a grid of "development" based on whether tools, materials and techniques valued by "Western" scholars were in use. Example: "They were a stone age civilization who never discovered the wheel!" This model forces cultures into a progressional paradigm: Old and New Stone Ages, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Industrial Revolution, Space Age. This classification ignores the complexity of culture, and the fact that metallurgic technology and military might are not the ultimate measure of advanced culture.
STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT DOCTRINE: The assumption that "primitive" cultures represent lower "stages" in historical evolution, and have yet to attain advanced forms of culture. One English scholar referred to "the child-races of Africa." Usually, social hierarchy, militarization and industrialization are taken as prime measures of "advanced" civilization. In the 19th century, scholars openly used the terms "savage," "barbarian," "civilized." Though these offensive words have (mostly) been dropped, the underlying assumptions are still quite influential. (For a good discussion of how the insistence on talking about "tribes" distorts African history, see http://www.africaaction.org/bp/ethall.htm. )
SPREAD OF CIVILIZATION DOCTRINE: Credits all achievements to conquering empires, assuming their superiority in science, technology, and government. Adherents are usually incapable of perceiving advanced earth-friendly systems of land management, agronomy, medicine, collective social welfare networks, healing, astronomical knowledge, or profound philosophical traditions among peoples considered "primitive" by dominant "Western" standards.
PASSING OF THE TORCH DOCTRINE: Claims a chain of cultural transmission from Mesopotamia and Egypt to Greece to Rome to western Europe to the USA, leaving vast gaps where the history of the rest of the world should be. (And the discussion never returns to Egypt or Iraq to consider what happened there after the fall of their ancient empires.) Most of the planet's cultures are discussed only in relation to the European conquest, if mentioned at all. As a result, few people have any idea of the history of Sumatra, Honduras, Niger, Ecuador, Mozambique, Ohio, Hokkaido, Samoa, or even European countries such as Lithuania or Bosnia.
IF IT WAS GREAT, IT MUST HAVE BEEN WHITE: If advanced science, art, or architecture is found in Africa or South America, then Phoenecians, Greeks, Celts, Vikings (or, in the extreme case, space aliens) must be invoked to explain their presence. (Here, whiteness often functions as a relative concept, as "lighter than.") This bias gives rise to a pronounced tendency to date American or African cultures later than warranted, and as a result dating for these regions is constantly having to be revised further back into the past as evidence of greater antiquity piles up.
Corollary: IF IT WAS WHITE, IT MUST HAVE BEEN GREAT. Thus, the conqueror Charlemagne was a great man, in spite of his genocidal campaign against the Saxons, but the Asian conquerors Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan were simply evil. Stereotypes of head-hunters picture Africans (in the absence of any evidence for such a practice there) but never Celtic head-hunters in France and Britain -- much less Lord Kitchener making off with the Mahdi's skull in Sudan, or U.S. settlers taking scalps and body parts of Indian people. This doctrine also underlies the common assumption that European conquest must have improved life for subject peoples.
A 19th century French engraving
imagines the conquest of Algeria as a
showering of the benefits of superior civilization on abject, genuflecting
IF IT WAS NOT WHITE, AND ITS GREATNESS IS UNDENIABLE, THEN IT MUST BE DEPRECATED IN SOME WAY: Example:The Epic of Man, published in the '60s by Time/Life Books, says of the advanced civilization of ancient Pakistan: "It is known that a static and sterile quality pervaded Indus society." It used to be the academic fashion to call ancient Egypt a "moribund" civilization which "stifled creativity." Similar writings dismissed the "Incas" (Quechua) as "totalitarian," or the Chinese as "isolated" and "resistant to change," ignoring their interchange with steppe societies as well as Southeast Asian cultures.
The AFRICAN GAP DOCTRINE: After examining the first humans hundreds of thousands of years ago, this historical approach completely skips over most of the African archaeological record. It discusses ancient Egypt but ascribes its civilization to "the Middle East," denying its African identity and archaeological connections with Saharan and southern Nilotic civilizations. Saharan civilization, Ile-Ife or Mwanamutapa are not discussed at all. Africa is simply dropped from historical consideration until the era of European slaving and colonization, when it is portrayed as culturally and technologically deficient. The existence of female spheres of power in Africa is ignored.
The BERING STRAIT DOCTRINE insists that all indigenous American peoples came across a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, filtering down through Central America into South America. Problem: numerous archaeological sites in the Americas predate any possible Bering Strait migration by many thousands of years. Access from Alaska to the rest of North America was blocked for millennia by two great ice sheets that covered Canada. An narrow opening that might have allowed passage appeared much too late (about 13,500 years ago) to explain the growing evidence that people were living in both North and South America much earlier than these "first" migrations.
By 1997-98, the tide of opinion began to turn: several scientific conclaves declared that a majority of attending scholars rejected the Bering Strait theory as a full explanation of how the Americas were peopled.The long-doctrinal hypothesis of Clovis hunters as the first immigrants is crumbling before the new dating, as hundreds of pre-Clovis sites pile up: Cactus Hill, Virginia (13,500 BP); Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania (14,000 - 17,000 Before Present); Monte Verde (13,500 BP); Pedra-Furada, Brazil (15,000 BP, and possibly as old as 32,000 BP).
Bering Strait diehards discount the oral histories of indigenous Americans. In spite of the huge diversity among the American peoples and differences between most Americans and east Asians, all are declared to be of "Mongoloid racial origin." After the initial press stampede declaring "Kennewick Man" to be "white," study of the genetic evidence shows something entirely different. Instead, it appears that there have been several waves of migration: from central China, from the ancient Jomon culture of Japan, from south Asia or the Pacific islands. And "Luzia," an 11,500-year-old female skeleton in Brazil "appeared to be more Negroid in its cranial features than Mongoloid," in the stodgy anthropological terminology of the New York Times (Nov 9, 1999). (Actually she most closely resembles aborignal Australians.) But there is also a uniquely North American X-haploid group of mitochondrial DNA, which has yet to be explained.
THE POWER OF NAMING
STEREOTYPING entire peoples as mad, uncontrollable threats: "Wild Indians," "Yellow Hordes" or "the Yellow Peril." As inferior nonhumans: "primitives," "savages," "gooks," "niggers" -- this last term used not only against African-Americans, but also by 18th-century English colonizers of Egypt and India. Even the word "natives," which originally meant simply the people born in a country and by extension the aboriginal inhabitants, took on heavy racist coloration as an inferior Other.
POLARIZATION: "Scientific thought" vs. "primitive belief"; "undeveloped" vs "civilized"; or "the world's great religions" vs. "tribal superstitions," "cults," "idolatry" or "devil-worship." Depending on where it was created, a sculpture could either be a "masterpiece of religious art" or an "idol," "fetish," or "devil." Few people realize that "Western" scientists did not match the accuracy of ancient Maya calculations of the length of the solar year until the mid-20th century.
Indians who resist colonization and land theft are commonly portrayed as evil in popular media, which applies negative labels such as "Renegades." Here indigenous people are Other; the intruders in their country are The Good Guys. The white hero is named after the Texas Rangers, systematic killers of Indian families. His Indian sidekick's name, Tonto, means "fool, stupid person" in Spanish.
RENAMING: Dutch colonists called the Khoi-khoi people "Hottentots" (stutterers). Russians called the northwest Siberian Nentsy "Samoyed" (cannibals). These are blatant examples, but many nationalities are still called by unflattering names given by their enemies: "Sioux" (Lakota); "Miao" (Hmong); "Lapps" (Saami); "Basques" (Euskadi); "Eskimos" (Inuit). European names have replaced the originals in many places: Nigeria, Australia, New Caledonia, New Britain, etc. (But "Rhodesia" bit the dust, after a revolution.)
DEGRADATION OF MEANINGS: "Mumbo jumbo" has become a cliché signifying meaningless superstitions, but it comes from a Mandinke word -- mama dyambo -- for a ritual staff bearing the image of a female ancestor. (Look it up in any good dictionary.) "Fetish" now connotes an obsessive sexual fixation, but originated as a Portuguese interpretation of sacred West African images as "sorcery" (feitição). The holy city of Islam is often appropriated in phrases like "a Mecca for shoppers."
DOUBLE-THINK: Conquest becomes "unification," "pacification,""opening up," and conquered regions are dubbed "protectorates." The convention is to use Europe as the standard, writing texts from the viewpoint of the conquerors / colonizers. Thus, a Rajasthani rebellion against English rule was termed the "Indian Mutiny." A peculiarity of this thinking is the tendency to refer to times of bloody invasions and enslavement with respectful nostalgia, as in "The Golden Age of Greece" and "The Glory That Was Rome," or "How the West Was Won." British subjugation of southern Nigeria is recast as The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
A contributor to Men Become Civilized, edited by Trevor Cairns, explains it all to children:
"When the king of one city conquered others, he would have to make sure that all the people in all the cities knew what to do. He would have to see that they all had rules to follow, so that they would live peacefully together."
Double-think finds ways to recast genocide as regrettable but necessary, due to failings of the people being killed, who are somehow unable to "adapt." Distancing the agent is key here, obscuring the violence with the idea that some kind of natural process is at work: "vanishing races," "by that time the Indians had disappeared."
THE POWER OF IMAGES
Hollywood tomtoms beat as fake Indians jump up and down, uttering brainless cries and grunts. There's the "squaw" complex in literature and cinema, the faithful Indian sidekick, and Robinson Crusoe's "Man Friday." John Wayne as the Western movie hero, saying: "There's humans and then there's Comanches." Or in real life, the actor tried to justify the settler theft of Indian countries: "There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves."
This picture appeared in an insurance ad.
Advertising is an important transmitter of historical misrepresentation. It draws on colonial mythologies such as the notion that the Dutch "bought" Manhattan for the equivalent of $24 in trade goods --in spite of the fact that the Indians did not think of land as something that could be sold. The role of violence is completely obliterated. Even history books do not go into the massacres of Native people. On Staten Island settlers slaughtered the people they called "Wappingers," and afterward played football with their severed heads.
Tarzan goes up against witch doctors and eye-rolling African chiefs. The Caribbean is shown as full of fearful, superstitious natives and zombies, Arabs who have nothing to do all day but loll around in harems, or cheat the white hero. Seductive Suzie Wongs, thieving Mexicans, and shiftless and sexually insatiable African-Americans. Movies commonly depict the Chinese as obsequious and deceitful, Arabs as treacherous, Africans as ignorant and barbaric.
The Mande were farming millet and other crops in West Africa in 6500-5000 BCE.
Temples in Peru and Sudan are much older than the Parthenon.
People in Mississippi, Illinois and Mexico traded with each other and exchanged ideas and symbols, as the the sea-faring Ecuadorians did with Costa Rica and western Mexico.
A small-statured Black people built the oldest civilization in southeast Asia, leaving megalithic temples and statuary in south India, Cambodia, Sumatra and other Indonesian islands.
Archaeology shows that the earliest formative influences on ancient Egypt came from Sudan and the Sahara, not the "Middle East."
The oldest megalithic calendar in the world has recently been discovered in the Egyptian Sahara, dating back to 7000 years ago. European megaliths may have an African origin.
Polynesian mariners had begun navigating by the stars and settling the vast ocean expanses of the Pacific islands before the time of Moses.
WHAT GETS DEFINED AS HISTORY?
In the last half century, the boundaries of "acceptable" history have been expanded by a multidisciplinary approach, including sources previously dismissed: orature (oral tradition), linguistics, anthropology, social history, art, music and other cultural sources. More recently, the social locations of historians have come under consideration as a factor shaping their perspectives, along with a sense that there is no absolutely "objective" view of history. Past claims of objectivity have biases clearly visible today, notably in siding with European settlers and slavers against non-christian cultures, and the almost total eclipse of female acts and experience from historical accounts.
A reader who might react negatively to a blatant expression of racism often misses perceiving one cloaked in scholarly language, in assumptions, judgments and misinformation most people have not been educated to catch. It does not occur to many people to question a pronounced overemphasis on Europe, the smallest continent (actually, a subcontinent of Asia.) If a chapter or two on African and Asian history is inserted in a textbook, publishers go ahead and call it a world history. Typically, media depictions of history have not caught up with information now available in specialized academic sources, and continue to present the old stereotypes and distortions as fact.
BARBARIANS AT THE GATES
In the early '90s a hue and cry was raised in the national media against "multiculturalism." It threatened the very foundations of Western Civilization, explained an outpouring of magazine articles and newspaper columns which shed much heat but little light. A Newsweek cover blared: "THOUGHT POLICE: There's a 'Politically Correct' Way to Talk About Race, Sex and Ideas. Is This the New Enlightenment -- Or the New McCarthyism?" As if this wasn't heavy-handed enough, it adds a warning, "Watch What You Say." (December 24, 1990)
"In U.S. classrooms, battles are flaring over values that are almost a reverse image of the American mainstream. As a result, a new intolerance is on the rise." William A. Henry III, "Upside Down in the Groves of Academe", Time Magazine, April 1, 1991
"'It used to be thought that ideas transcend race, gender and class, that there are such things as truth, reason, morality and artistic excellence, which can be understood and aspired to by everyone, of whatever race, gender or class.' Now we have democracy in the syllabus, affirmative action in the classroom. 'No one believes in greatness.' Bate says mournfully. 'That's gone.'" Gertrude Himmelfarb, Op-Ed in New York Times Magazine, June 5, 1991
"If there is insufficient authentic African culture to meet the demands of self-esteem, then culture must be borrowed from ancient Egypt. No black pharaohs? A few must be invented. Not enough first-rate women poets? Let second-raters be taught instead." --James Kilpatrick, "Poisoning the Groves of Academe," San Francisco Chronicle, April 15, 1991
The assumption that were are no great women poets, no black pharaohs, no other greatness than the usual diet of "Western Civilization" is so ingrained that it is regarded as incontrovertible. Protesting the monochrome, all-male landscape of classic pedagogy becomes "intolerance." But what then are we to call the refusal to open up media and educational horizons to the full spectrum of human achievement?
A response to John Baines' review (August 11, 1991) of Cheikh Anta Diop's Civilization or Barbarism and Martin Bernal's Black Athena:
To the Editor, New York Times Book Review:
Mr. Baines' review of Diop and Bernal express alarm that their books "attack modern conceptions of the origins of Western Civilization" by showing the anteriority of African (especially Egyptian) achievements. It seems to me that he would like to deny the context of the whole discussion, which has been centuries of exalting the Greeks as the fount of Western Civilization and denying the role of Africa in the ancient world. Egypt is treated as part of the "Middle East," and her relations with the rest of Africa ignored. In this context, to demand an "intellectual contribution that will stand without reference to issues of race" is to perpetuate an injurious status quo.
This denial is especially ludicrous in the frequently-heard claim that because Egyptians were "ethnically mixed," they were not black. Southern African peoples are ethnically mixed, yet it would occur to no one that they are other than black. More to the point, if an ancient Egyptian were to find herself in the United States, she would fall within the range of colors we describe as "black." This business of reddish-brown-skinned men and golden-skinned women was a convention in Egyptian art (and one adopted by the Cretans, Greek vases, and Etruscans, bearing out the hypothesis of Egyptian influence). If Mr. Baine wants to take the golden women as a racial marker for light-skinned Egyptians, is he also willing to concede dark-brown-skinned Etruscan men? His claim that considering the race of the Egyptians is "unhelpful"--and the many others who declare it irrelevant--is coy and evasive.
Max Dashu, Suppressed Histories Archives
[The Times did not publish this letter.]
See Ibrahim Sundiata's excellent article, Afrocentrism: The Argument We're Really Having, for more discussion of the African-ness of the Egyptians and racialist agendas of denial.
Here is a recent example of how the pernicious ideas described in this article percolate into popular consciousness. An October 18, 2005 post to an Illinois Museum site reacted to the one of the greatest sculptures in Indian America (known as the "Birger figurine") falls back on the Technological Calibration model:
"The Cahokia Indians never made it out of the stone age, not even to the primitive level of metal working found in the Mayan, Toltec, and Inca societies further south... [If they had left a written record, we would know more] but since they never made it that far, we have to rely on their works." [from the site Indian History: Unearthed artifacts from Cahokia]
More food for thought from Peggy McIntosh, who wrote White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (1988)
“I have met very few men who were truly distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage and conferred dominance. And so one question for me and others like me [meaning white feminists concerned with male domination] is whether we will be like them, or whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged, about unearned race advantage and conferred dominance, and, if so, what we will do to lessen them. In any case, we need to do more work in identifying how they actually affect our daily lives. Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the United States think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see “whiteness” as a racial identity. In addition, since race and sex are not the only advantaging systems at work, we need similarly to examine the daily experience of having age advantage, or ethnic advantage, or physical ability, or advantage related to nationality, religion, or sexual orientation….
“Disapproving of the system won’t be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude. But a 'white skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate but cannot end, these problems.”
Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D. from the Winter 1990 issue of Independent School
© 2000 Max Dashu ... Updated 2008
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