I guess I’m lucky.
I grew up in a household which didn’t put race on the agenda in the way I’ve now realised many others did when I was growing up in the 70s.
Yes, my dad repeated “jokes” he’d learned as a wartime kid, and, yes, I repeated others that bobbed my way like crap down the cultural sewer pipe, little stinking pellets of unthinking stupidity and careless cruelty.
I hang my head and see it now as the squawking of a parrot mimicking sounds from its environment. We were deeply ignorant and didn’t have the knowledge, perspective or conceptual tools to look deeper into what those supposed jokes said about English culture’s view of non-white people. My youth was stupid, un-self-aware, but not deliberately cruel.
There was plenty of encouragement to get nasty. The obnoxious stereotypes of On The Buses, even the clumsy comedy of Love Thy Neighbour which portrayed a racist white neighbour living next to an intelligent, kind black couple, casual jokes in the playground and simplistic mud hut representations of other cultures and all the other indications that Britain had not learned to deal with race issues was part of my childhood’s psychic background. I took race for granted, I suppose.
Growing up on a housing estate in Hampshire in the 70s, I rarely saw black people. Dad had been a naval officer and in a naive way asked anyone of colour where they were from. I thought this was normal, and continued doing so into the 1990s, until I at last thought about the implication that it was telling them that this was not their home. I cringe at the thought of it.
And yet, on another level, we had a girl at school, Yolande, with dark skin and beautiful long, straight black hair. I really liked her because she was basically a nice person – kind, calm, friendly, considerate. Her parents were from somewhere foreign – somewhere exotic – but I never asked her where she was from, because her house backed on to the school playground. So that’s where she was from. She was just another friend at school and I didn’t really think of her as different, or one of the black people that the jokes were told about.
I first encountered active, aggressive racism when I heard another girl schoolfriend shout Sambo at her. I was about 8 years old and I found the incident baffling. We had a book called Sambo at school, but it was about this smart kid who outmanoeuvred a tiger by turning it into butter. It was a fantasy with a positive hero, and it just didn’t map onto the real world, or on to Yolande. None of it made any sense to me, yet my friend was angry and shouted that word and many others at her, telling her to go back home. Which was odd, because she was in her back garden at the time.
I was disturbed by this first real encounter with actual race hatred. I’m sure I had absorbed racist views from society, in the same way I did sexist ones, but I didn’t know yet that I was a naïve racist who just went along with many of the norms in the culture at the time.
I had no idea what the cultural attitudes I grew up with meant to others because I only thought about myself and my attitudes. Thinking about the lived experience of the people around me who were different from me came much later. It started with the study of English Literature, where I learned to think through other people’s experiences, and that learning is still going on now as I cringe at some of the things I’ve said in the past, usually not maliciously or deliberately, but out of yet more white, male ignorance.
Every day as I grow older, race seems to come up as a discussion point, and I admit that same sense of bafflement I had as a child continues. Because the more I think about the word race, the more I realise I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean.
Just recently I received another perspective on this word race from an unexpected source.
I have been been reading The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russell Wallace as part of research I’ve been doing.
Wallace was the man who came up with the Theory of Evolution at the same time as Darwin. Wallace even minted the phrase survival of the fittest. He was an extraordinary man, spending 8 years in what is now called Indonesia, living on numerous islands among the natives, collecting tens of thousands of specimens for the Royal Society, making observations of the natives while he shot, captured, catalogued skinned and pinned birds, butterflies, weevils, animals – basically anything non-human that lived.
His interest lay in the diversity of species across Indonesia. His theory was that the animal productions of the massive 1700-island archipelago were divided into two distinct and separate groups depending on which of two continental plates the islands were found on. Hence, in the eastern side of the archipelago tree-climbing kangaroos and birds of paradise related to Australian species are found. In the west, we see tigers and babirusa pigs related to species from the Indian subcontinent.
Sometimes the islands might be 15 miles apart, yet their evolutionary spheres are completely separate.
The creatures he wrote about have adapted to their surroundings and specialised into particular species. They thus have particular qualities. The tree kangaroo in New Guinea climbs trees to escape predators, and has adapted to do so more recently, which is why they aren’t very good at it. A species of oriole bird on The Moluccas mimics the colouring of the honeysucker bird, since the latter has strong claws and beak to deter predators, or an insect may look exactly like a leaf to camouflage itself.
And so Wallace categorises each animal, looking at its strengths and weaknesses, seeking to discover why they have evolved to a particular form. Sometimes he refers to the family of parrots as the “parrot tribe”, an odd use of the word which hints at the process of division and categorisation going on in Wallace’s mind in other areas, too.
Toward the end of the book, things take a new turn.
Just as he has already done with the birds, insects and animals, he now starts to classify the races of people living in Indonesia and their (what he considers to be) inherent qualities. As he does so, the colonial European attitude is laid bare.
I should be clear. Wallace is not an out-and-out racist or unquestioning imperialist. His book is fascinating in part because he uses his studies of the nature of beetles or the modifications of butterflies and the treatment of the native tribes to reflect on the way society does or doesn’t work, advocating for regulation of the free market – at times even taking a near-socialist stance.
At other times he speaks of the Dutch imperial system in glowing terms as a kind of benign paternalistic institution good for all members of society, in contrast to the British free market philosophy which he argues inevitably leads to lower wages and poverty. It is a very particular view that misses the exploitation and brutality in the Dutch system. He seems to mistake native resignation to oppression for satisfaction.
Wallace talks about savages and primitive societies all the way through his book (I use these words to report his thinking, not because I agree with them in any way). Just as he does with the other animal productions of the archipelago, he discusses the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different natives. The highest form are the Malays, he contends, while the lowest form are the Papuan savages.
One line in the book, viewed in the light of what happened in Europe with Hitler’s equally unscientific racial theories made my blood run cold:
We most of us believe that we, the higher races have progressed and are progressing. If so, there must be some state of perfection, some ultimate goal, which we may never reach, but to which all true progress must bring nearer.Alfred Russell Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, Vol II, 1869
Here, Russell Wallace kicks over his scientific background and falls straight back into superstition. Variation thus far has only been presented as an adaptation to environment. Now, however, there is a goal, an endpoint toward which evolution is aimed. This implies intention and direction, which is very different from the unconscious mechanisms of adaptation he has been writing about before.
Suddenly, we are no longer looking at people as well or ill-adapted to their environments. He has added metaphysics to the discussion.
Thus, the Malay people have a superior moral sense, which Wallace argues is part of their race. Evolution then, is not only a physical adaptation to the environment. The same process of evolution leads to moral improvement, and the state of a nation’s morals is another indication of the stage of evolution of the race formed from it.
Wallace elucidates further: some of the groups of savages he has encountered are immoral and lazy as a racial trait, while another race of savage is energetic, and though ill-disciplined shows great promise in evolving a moral sense.
This racial theory of morality has deep problems. Not least the lack of any scientific evidence for it.
His idea of a racial teleology is an adaptation of an old idea. Throughout the millennia, prophets have promised us perfection. In the bible, we are offered a New Jerusalem, a perfected world and society in which, in Christian terms, the virtuous dead are resurrected and literally build a perfected heaven on Earth once those who don’t fit in are removed from that perfect society.
Here that same old idea surfaces, now recouched by Wallace in terms of human evolution – an evolution that includes morality.
How can that be? In reality, moral traits that in one situation are considered anti-social or dangerous are in other situations exactly what society demands.
Recently a man was attending a conference in Fishmongers’ Hall, London, when he realised that a terrorist in a suicide vest was killing people outside. Seeking a weapon, he snatched the tusk of a narwhal from the wall and tackled the killer.
The man, Steven Gallant, said he simply acted on impulse without thinking. He was proclaimed a hero. His story, however, is more complex than that. Gallant was on day release to attend a prisoner rehabilitation course. He had been imprisoned for his part in the premeditated murder of a violent offender who had himself been acquitted of the attempted murder of a prostitute. The man that Gallant helped beat to death had been so severely mutilated that the ambulance crew were unable to find his mouth.
Where is this evolutionary morality Wallace claims exists? The very same traits of willingness to use sudden extreme violence without considering the consequences were present in both cases. One is interpreted as immoral, the other as moral. In fact, in the former case Gallant might argue that he was acting under moral compunction to set right the scales of justice. In the latter, he acted on impulse. His own view of matters might well be the reverse of how others judge it.
If one wants an example that answers European stereotypes of the savage rather than with the higher race Russell Wallace suggests is a European trait, we need to look a little closer to home than the Malay Archipelago.
Wallace goes on to elucidate his view, and we realise that he believes the perfectly moral citizen will be in accord with a perfectly moral society:
What is this ideally perfect social state towards which mankind ever has been, and still is tending? Our best thinkers maintain, that it is a state of individual freedom and self-government, rendered possible by the equal development and just balance of the intellectual, moral, and physical parts of our nature,—a state in which we shall each be so perfectly fitted for a social existence, by knowing what is right, and at the same time feeling an irresistible impulse to do what we know to be right, that all laws and all punishments shall be unnecessary. In such a state every man would have a sufficiently well-balanced intellectual organization, to understand the moral law in all its details, and would require no other motive but the free impulses of his own nature to obey that law.
It is both absurd and simultaneously seductive to a European. In Wallace’s view, evolution will take us to societal perfection, and Europeans are nearer to it than savages. Europeans have a heightened moral sense, they are superior, better, higher – while the rest of humanity is either being driven by evolution to become like Europeans, or is savage.
We have in Russell Wallace an early view that, taken on one interpretation, could lead to a theory of eugenics and fascism, and on another to an idealised Utopian socialist state. Both require a single standard which everyone must meet – not necessarily so with socialism, but that is how it has been interpreted by the great monocultures of the 20th Century that called themselves socialist or communist.
And then, just when we think he is irredeemable for his strange blindness to the failings of the higher race of Europeans that at the time were oppressing huge tracts of the globe, the paragraph below follows on from that above:
Now it is very remarkable, that among people in a very low stage of civilization, we find some approach to such a perfect social state. I have lived with communities of savages in South America and in the East, who have no laws or law courts but the public opinion of the village freely expressed. Each man scrupulously respects the rights of his fellow, and any infraction of those rights rarely or never takes place. In such a community, all are nearly equal. There are none of those wide distinctions, of education and ignorance, wealth and poverty, master and servant, which are the product of our civilization; there is none of that wide-spread division of labour, which, while it increases wealth, produces also conflicting interests; there is not that severe competition and struggle for existence, or for wealth, which the dense population of civilized countries inevitably creates. All incitements to great crimes are thus wanting, and petty ones are repressed, partly by the influence of public opinion, but chiefly by that natural sense of justice and of his neighbour’s right, which seems to be, in some degree, inherent in every race of man.Alfred Russell Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, Vol II, 1869
Is it possible that once more we are seeing what appears to be an adapted religious idea shaping Russell Wallace’s world view? The description of an idealised humanity in its most atavistic form has an echo in Christianity after all. If primitive humanity has an innate goodness about it, then it is similar to the innocence Adam had before The Fall.
If this is colouring his thinking, it is yet more illogic and superstition. It is romanticising noble savages as much as his racial theories malign them.
Well, you may ask, what has all this to do with race?
The point is a simple one, in the end. The imprecision of thinking, and the use of taxonomic analogies from the study of nature was overlaid by men like Russell Wallace onto a consideration of the different cultural, intellectual, psychological, moral and biological variations to be found in humans and used to hierachise those variations in terms that were hugely tainted by prejudices and a sense of superiority. The term race itself, then, is tainted by ideas of racism from its earliest uses. Race is a term when it is applied to humans that very roughly attempts to equate to species, or sub-species – and from very early on it has been a way for Europeans to distinguish themselves as somehow superior. All of this is inherent to Russell Wallace’s use of the word. And Alfred Russell Wallace was by no means a far right bigot when compared to other Victorian gentlemen.
The word race, springs from a muddled set of European values designed to evaluate, belittle and censure those who are not like us. This process of judgement is absolutely central to the term, and I don’t know how you can talk about race without those unconscious judgments being present.
That, I believe, is why we need a new word when we talk about the biological diversity that is humanity. The word we use now is crass, outdated, and just not up to the job.