Racism is most often and probably correctly thought of as a modern phenomenon. It is not that it has not existed in ages past – simply that it is now criminalised and socially unacceptable. We live in an age of political correctness.
While not acceptable, racism is nonetheless explicable and must be seen in context. It must be viewed in an historical and anthropological framework if we are to make any sense of it.
We tend to think of racism as black versus white hatred, we tend to think in terms of skin colour and ethnicity.
Racism was a normal and everyday occurence in the not so distant past. In the days of empire terms such as “wog”, “slope” and “nigger” were commonplace and in the 19th century well through to the 20th white western europeans and americans would routinely look down on and despise people they considered as mere savages.
But it was always a two way street. The “looked down upon” would often feel mutual hatred and loathing of the white colonialists. Not without cause perhaps.
In 1986 I was living in Tokyo and had a white English male friend who had a local Japanese girlfriend. Her parents considered my friend “white trash” – racism always cuts both ways. In the East we were “gweilo” (“foreign devil” ) and “gaijin” ( “outside person”, “alien”, “Non-Japanese”). Both term have a history of racially deprecatory use. We were (and probably still are) called “roundeyes” (a derogatory, ethnic slur).
Today’s Guardian Reader would not of course see the argument, but racism occurs when tribe meets tribe. Especially when one tribe is seen as the invader.
Racism in current Britain is explicable by a feeling of panic amongst the locals that their territory and way of life is being taken over. Tribalism, territorial rights, fear of the outsider: it is all perfectly explicable. Again and as usual it is Darwinian, a perceived (or perhaps real) struggle for survival.
What is not at all easy is how to manage or overcome it. As I have argued elsewhere, nobody “owns” planet earth. Land ownership is an absurdity when you think about it: why should a single owner or “nation” have the right to exclude anybody from any section of spaceship earth? We all need air to breathe and land upon which to build shelter and grow our crops.
We live on a grossly overcrowded planet and population control (voluntary!) might help. But it would not cure narrow tribalism. That will only be cured by education and understanding and the eradication of vast gaps between rich and poor. A more equal and understanding society may emerge if our economies become more aimed towards co-operation and mutual help rather than aggressive asset accumulation and greed.
Above all it would be nice to eradicate hatred and violence from the dictionary. But don’t hold your breath; and we are all, collectively, to blame.