Race is a very sensitive topic particularly in South Africa. As a black African race and racism are concepts that have shaped my life to such an extent that they have even affected who and what I have become. Some theorists refer to the concepts of race and “race.” The former alludes to biological distinctions and the latter to social and cultural constructions. This distinction is not always so straightforward when it comes to race but “race” in quotation marks is used to call attention to the extremely constructed nature of the term. “Race” is a culturally formed expression but no matter how much the concept may be shown to be unscientific, ‘it seems to persist and reinvent itself and so requires critical academic examination.’
From as far back as the time of early human writing there is evidence of the existence of views about the differences between peoples of different cultures. These views often emphasized physiological differences to explain differences in mannerisms and intelligence (Appiah, 1999). The early Greek and Hebrew thinkers also used certain criteria to explain differences between people. The Greeks explained their supposed superiority over people of Asia by citing geographical factors. The argument here was that the barren soils of Greece had made the Greeks tougher and more independent therefore making them more superior than the Asians (Appiah, 1999, p. 1575). The Hebrews placed emphasis on the relationship that people had with God (Appiah, 1999, p. 1575). What emerges from this way of thinking is that people have always been seeking to explain their superiority over other people by suggesting the presence of certain factors that inherently make the others weak.
‘For many centuries the western world has accorded superiority to lighter skin types and relative inferiority to darker skin types’ (Chancer & Watkins, 2006, p.50). Their ability to do this is related to the history of the rest of the world and the way it was conquered by the west resulting in them being the ‘in-group’ and the rest of the world being the ‘out-group.’ As the in- group they were in the position of determining what was deemed normal or abnormal. To buttress this biased world view the west had theorists and academics that came forward with ideas from their different disciplines that explained their superiority over people of other skin colours. Immanuel Kant is an example of one such person. Writing at a time when opposition to the institution of slavery was rising in Europe Kant used anthropology and geography to come up with a hierarchy of races. This hierarchy explained the link between skin colour, geography and anthropology and intelligence.
As opposed to being the truth Kant’s ideas were just a way of normalising the power relations that existed between Europe and the rest of the non-white world (McCarthy, 2003). This was just a way for Europe to continue the ill-treatment of non-white people. For, example Ideas like this supported slavery in that it was stated that even though Africans were lazy they made good slaves because of their docile nature, that is, they were incapable of performing other tasks except those of servants. Ideas like this also support the view that when Europeans embarked on imperialist policies in Africa and elsewhere they did it in innocence to bring commerce, civilisation and Christianity to backward uncivilised, lazy savages. This ignores the other motives that Europe had by coming to Africa. For example even after the abolition of slavery Africa still offered Europe a source of cheap labour. Africa was also a source of raw materials for European businesses. With the colonial administration in place Europe was able to take advantage of this in a way that benefited the mother country in Europe and its white citizens residing in Africa (Rodney, 1981).
The idea that a set of inherent characteristics were passed down from one generation to another based merely on race sounds antiquated in today’s world. However not so long ago these very ideas informed government policy in places like South Africa and Nazi Germany before that. In both these countries the definition of who was superior was based purely on race. Every one had their place in these societies. The advantaged group was the white race and everyone else was considered inferior therefore they had to take a corresponding place in society. This happened in every sphere of society be it in the economy, education even in housing and access to health.
Definitions of race are an issue of controversy. This is due to the existence of many ideas about the issue. If we look at history however we realise that they way this concept came about was because of a certain context. It was not inherently in existence. It was a combination of the power relations that existed at the time and the imperialist policies of others that influenced how we define race even today. The end of colonisation has not coincided with an end to racism or has it necessitated an end to the need to continue to critically analyse this concept of race. Certain things have remained the same however the issues around racism have changed. For example the issue in South Africa is no longer about discriminatory policies but more about the legacy of those policies. In my view current theories on race do very little to show the relationship between olden day thinking on race and current ideas about issues of tribalism where skin colour even amongst people of the same race is said to determine behaviour.
Granted the ideas of Kant have no space in a world looking to transcend the category of race but so many other current situations show evidence of this way of thinking. For example the case of the white South African who applied for refugee status in Canada based on the fact that he is a victim of black criminals in South Africa stinks of the same kind of thinking applied by Kant. It ignores the context in which crime occurs in South Africa and assumes a universalistic approach to issues of race and behaviour. If there is to be a move forward there needs to be recognition of race not as an isolated concept but one related to others such as gender and class.