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Racist bones

This is a guest post by S.O.Muffin

A typical response to an accusation of racism, once it has been made toward those on the left or liberal part of the ideological spectrum, is that the accused “has no racist bone in his body” or words to that effect.

Literally, nobody – neither you, nor me, neither Nick Griffin nor Alfred Rosenberg – has “a racist bone”. Bones don’t carry views, moral stances or cultural concepts. Yet, we all – you, I, Peter Tatchell or Nelson Mandela – have a racist gene. Human genes have been shaped in the long course of human evolution, by and large well before the neolithic era, before the emergence of human society as we know it. In this long and murky history of Homo Sapiens we have been hunting and gathering in small groups, related by kinship or, as a geneticist would say, by large level of genetic identity. Being altruistic within the group, helping those that in large measure carry genes identical to your own, while being beastly to those without, was beneficial to the propagation of these genes to the next generation. Thus, those programmed genetically to what we would now call “racism” were good in passing the very same genes to the next generation. At the deepest, genetic level, we all carry propensity toward racism. Racism is natural.

This might sound like a very bleak view of the human nature and heritage. It is not: read on. It might even sound like a defense of racism, “full of natural goodness”. It might sound so only to those of lazy mental disposition who identify “natural” with “good”. Cancer, my friends, is natural. Tamoxifen is not. This is particularly pertinent in regard to behavioural traits imprinted in our genes. For it is not just racism. Take the male of the species. Given that the more females you manage to impregnate, whether by the sweetness of your disposition or by brute force, the more copies of your genes are likely to survive in the next generation, it makes sense that our genes predispose us (well, the males among us) toward rape. Rape is natural. Yet, exactly like racism, it is wrong and heinous.

For we, as a species, as a society, as a collection of individuals of the only species on Planet Earth with the capacity to discuss such matters on Internet blogs, have a layer that mediates between our genetic urges, some of them unpleasant and dark, and our behaviour: our consciences, values, culture, taboos, laws…
Why is this important? OK, so most will agree that “racist bones” is a bad metaphor. So what?

So a great deal. Because if we all carry the capacity to do ill – specifically, to be racist – our waking life must be accompanied by constant vigilance. Our genes cannot be toggled on and off. Our life is a tug of war between them and our “better self”. And these pesky genes are not mugs, they know how to insinuate themselves, how to influence our behaviour when we least expect it, even when we believe honestly that we are acting in the most decent and honourable manner.

This has a number of consequences, indeed a number of operative implications, that should influence the manner people (or at least the sort of people, like – I hope – you and me, who abhor racism in all its forms) behave.

First, the fact that you believe that you aren’t racist doesn’t mean that your words or deeds aren’t ever racist. Thus, when confronted with an accusation of racism, you should always listen, ask for the facts, ask for an explanation what exactly have you done that is perceived as racist. It might well be that the accusation is wrong or used in vain – the worse the moral stigma of a particular transgression, the more it is likely that some will use it in vain or for their own purposes. (In this, again, racism and rape are similar.) However, you should forever be aware that, even if you don’t believe yourself to be racist, you are (like everybody else) a carrier of the racist gene. You might have slipped. Your gene might have led you astray. And if this is so, better own up as soon as possible, apologise forthwith, rather than throwing mud at your accusers. That is, if you are a real anti-racist.

Secondly, once you have owned up, there should be a measure of forgiveness, at least of the first offence. As long as you are willing to learn from your own uphill struggles with our flawed genetic heritage, this will make you into a better person. And others, including your ideological opponents, should be big enough to acknowledge this, rather than scoring cheap political points.

Thirdly, organisations: political parties, clubs, places of work, trade unions, educational institutions and so on, must recognise this capacity of individuals to slip into racist and tribal modes, of ganging up on minorities, of demonising groups for real or perceived crimes of individuals… And this capacity can easily create a group mentality, a parallelogram of forces that leads toward racist behaviour, even if the organisation in question is honestly (in its own eyes) committed to fight racism. Because also organisations have the metaphorical racist bones.

Fourthly, there is no need for despair. As species, we are getting less racist. The more we understand ourselves and each other, the more we understand that other human beings are so much like us, regardless of their skin pigmentation or nationality or whatsoever, the more the ideals of Enlightenment prevail, the more we see individuals as responsible (for better or worse) for their behaviour, rather than being part of a group, the more likely are the anti-racist antibodies to prevail. So, the message is not bleak. But this fight against racism, at the first instance, is with not some sort of stereotypical racist thugs (although, of course, they must be fought tooth and nail). It is within ourselves.