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Pretending That Race Is Meaningless Is Not A Cure For Xenophobia

12/02/2017 11:41 AM IST | Updated 20/02/2017 11:16 AM IST

It's sobering to read through the history of the eugenics movement, and the way it rolled down from the United States, and then on to Germany. It's a story of how a half-baked, rather ill founded concept primed the slaughter of thousands of innocent souls and did quite the opposite of its aim of advancing human societies. The perverse application of eugenics, its catastrophic consequences, and the scars it left behind are an excellent example of what unsound science can culminate into, and the disastrous results it can produce. Almost everyone would concur that the roots of racial prejudice lie primarily in our aversion towards what we deem as different from ourselves. Xenophobia—fear and hatred of foreigners or anything that is "foreign to us— is no rare thing. When applied to opposite ideologies, it triggers scuffles. When it finds place with a different race, it triggers carnage.

The simple assertion that all people are equal is a feeble antidote to xenophobia that arises out of something as glaringly evident as race.

Race has been a perennial subject of xenophobia, with its ills playing out on a scale that can cause entire societies to implode. It's pretty clear as to why burying this concept and even removing the word "race" from usage was of interest after WWII. Yet, why do such sentiments still linger on? Why does something like lawful migration, or a shift in political makeup, often stir up racial feelings? Why, after years of reiterating the fact that "race is a social construct" does racial prejudice simmer in the minds of some murderous bigots? Why does race continue to be a sensitive topic at all?

Race is deeply engrained in the collective psyche, and our primordial attempts at defining them went so far as to regard different races as different species. Now, even after science has taught us that more than race it is cultural differences that distinguish people from one another, little has changed at a fundamental level.

Be that as it may, the simple assertion that all people are equal is a feeble antidote to xenophobia that arises out of something as glaringly evident as race. The statement that races don't exist and are much the same does not negate the apparent differences—say in skin colour—which underlie the concept of race. The position of science that races are artificial sends the mind, which just cannot dismiss these obvious differences between races, into a distressing conflict. The obvious almost always overrides the obscure, learned truth. As much as race isn't valid, apparent differences between races, howsoever trifling they may be, do exist, and are sufficient to incite certain minds.

The problem, therefore, is not the differences between peoples, call it race or any other thing. The problem is the fear and hatred surrounding these differences—it is these that we need to address.

Let me assure you that I'm not writing this piece as an expert geneticist or anthropologist. I am a medical doctor, and also a voracious reader of social anthropology, who has long wondered at the beauty of how the differences between peoples worldwide have evolved; how people have grown to suit their environments; and how wonderfully nature has played things out to be different with us, while still keeping them basically the same. I am racist in the sense that the concept amazes me and only enhances my affection towards my kin worldwide. But more importantly, I am somebody who can testify how knowledge and learning can overturn feelings such as xenophobia, much more concretely than suppressed ignorance ever can.

Education relating to how people differ, why they differ, and the beautiful features such differences confer can build an entirely new and enduring paradigm of race.

Xenophobia is our primal response to differences, or anything classified as 'non-self', because instincts suggest us to be protective of the self. But xenophobia accordingly is largely instinctive, and can cease to exist where knowledge penetrates. Education can therefore serve as a tool to curb xenophobia and replace it with a positive attitude towards differences. On the other hand, weak and poorly thought out attempts to suppress what is instinctive cause such instincts to fire back with greater momentum.

Our feeble attempts to suppress the xenophobia associated with race, garbed in a few statements of science, have been a tactical error in ensuring that racial tensions don't recur. It's for the very same reason that words like Black and White still fly around with deep-seated feelings entrenched in them. Suppression of such racial feelings which arise out of inadequately explained but obvious differences between peoples is an inept tactic that is bound to fail and result in more horrific disasters.

The way out of it lies in education. Education relating to how people differ, why they differ, and the beautiful features such differences confer can build an entirely new and enduring paradigm of race. It is education that can not only make racial prejudice seem worthless but also kindle long lasting amity between peoples. It can open up the coffer of facts pertaining to the origins of peoples worldwide, which have the potential to substitute xenophobia with the most positive of sentiments. What is to be remembered is that, at the bottom of it, racial prejudice is just another manifestation of our instinctive aversion towards what is different from us, and the solution to it lies in targeting this very aversion.

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