Saturday, January 29, 2011

Is Racism Inevitable?

In 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr's assassination, Illinois schoolteacher Jane Elliot proposed an experiment to her third grade class. The children were separated into blue- and brown-eyed groups and were told that brown eyes were superior to blue eyes. The rate at which the children learned to discriminate was alarming; taunting and arrogance were quickly and unabashedly adopted by the brown-eyed students. What we can glean from this experiment is that hate is easily learned--particularly if there are benefits to be gained from discrimination.

Gobineau ends The Inequality of the Human Races by admitting the considerable consequences of his radical hypothesis and examination. Although his theory alone might not have impacted humanity to the extent in which he had hoped, the consequences of his forceful assertions of racial superiority were relatively immediate and long-lasting. This essay is shocking, but it is a logical jump from Hegel's philosophy of race.  While Hegel is mainly concerned with categorizing, Gobineau's goal is to explain how and why certain races are superior. Hegel made it easy to exploit his philosophy by laying out all the different races and subtly constructing a hierarchical blueprint. Neither Hegel nor Gobineau explicitly admit to the existence of a racial hierarchy, but Gobineau is seemingly determined to prove the legitimacy of his own race. It's rather obvious that one would attempt to justify his own race and downplay the historical and social importance of others; white Europeans took advantage of the fact that they were the first to acknowledge the distinction of races, constantly putting themselves on top and claiming their superiority--it is an instinctual effort to ensure survival.

Looking back we can generally agree that they really have no solid proof for their assumptions, but regardless, they were making "rational," philosophical arguments and putting them out in publications which allowed their propaganda to spread. Consequentially, all the other white Europeans who read this literature were able to easily relate and saw that they were being deemed the superior race. To me there seems to be a very prominent chain of events: race is "discovered;" race is explored; race is categorized; race is exploited;  The blue-eye/brown-eye experiment proves just how easy it is to learn and internalize the hatred of those who are different. I question whether or not racism was inevitable, or if there was some possibility that humanity could have seen race as a positive thing. 


  1. I think that as you said, it is easy to teach someone to hate another race by constantly instilling in someone that they are superior, whether or not it is because they have brown eyes or blue eyes or simply because they are white. Answering the question "Is racism inevitable?" is a hard question to start with, given the background of growing up in the United States as a minority. I do think that racism is not an easy concept to teach though. Yes, if tell someone "you are superior," then you will encounter hatred, but what if she told those same students, brown eyed and blue eyed people that they are equal?

  2. Sophie,

    You make an interesting argument. I agree that "racism" is a learned hierarchical perspective on different "categories" of people; there does seem to be an evolutionary motivation for people to advance their own race by undermining the race of another. However, I believe that "hate" is a strong word to use when making this argument. Do you think that "hatred" and "racism" are indistinguishable? Although racism may provoke people to demonstrate "hateful" behaviors, do you think these behaviors reflect a sincere emotion or a product of environment? I am hesitant to believe that the brown eyed children actually began to "hate" the blue-eyed children, despite the discrimination that took place. Given this point, do you think it is possible to have incongruent thoughts/emotions and behaviors?

  3. One thing to understand about white people during industrialization and colonialism is that other races were not the only people they oppressed. The emergence and prominence of capitalism opened new doors for exploitation. Historically slavery is not confined one race over another. With the advent of capitalism, the white working class received commission for their work, but only the bare minimum. A surplus in labor during this period meant that employers would have no trouble finding poor souls desperate enough to work 12+ hour days in filthy conditions just to earn squat pay. It seems to me that the conditions for many in industrialized Europe were not much superior to those of their enslaved counterparts. Ideas of superiority in the privileged class of Europe included both inferior races and inferior classes. It seems likely to me that while the working class may have resented their position, they may have found solace in thinking themselves at lease superior to savages based on their skin color or heritage. In this way the white lower class could align itself with the notion of white supremacy, even while at the same time falling victim to such. This seems a good way to produce unjustified judgments about the division and quality of races.

  4. While generally optimistic, I find myself cynical regarding the inevitability of racism. Like we said in class, two parties in the woods seek only to have their freedoms acknowledged and to use the other as a resource for this affirmation. We are ego-centered beings. Freud believes that we do not ever actually love anyone but rather the companionship and needs that the other fulfills. As a society, power is crucial to survival, and, just as Cole said, some humans may seek dominance by any "justification" possible.

  5. You present some interesting ideas, Sophie. It seems as though when a division is made a question of superiority immediately follows. I question whether a feeling of hate directly corresponds to a feeling of superiority. If anything I think it would be the oppressed people who would feel hatred towards their "superiors". Cole's point brings to mind the convenience of the dividing of the races in dividing the lower class, possibly making them weaker.


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