I have been called ‘racist’ quite a few times. I believe it was probable that O.J. Simpson murdered his wife. I believe languages spoken by very few people need not be preserved. I believe that, in the realm of rationality, science, technology and democracy, Western Civilization has offered us much more than any other culture. I believe children of immigrants and indigenous peoples profit much more by receiving Western-style secular education than by adhering to the traditional education of their ancestors. For all of these reasons, I have been called a ‘racist’.
I, of course, have always rejected this label. If we understand ‘racism’ as I believe we should, namely, as a form of discrimination based upon biological traits, then by no means am I a racist. I firmly believe that ‘race’ is a meaningless concept in biology. We may classify human biological traits in countless ways, and these classification systems will not cohere. The concept of ‘race’ presupposes, so to speak, a ‘whole package’: certain type of skin color corresponds to certain type of hair texture, blood type, and so on. This, anthropologists warn us, is clearly not the case.
So, if I do not believe in the existence of races, how can I be a racist? Yet, it took me a while to realize that, not only am I not a racist, but also that usually, those who call me a ‘racist’ are much closer to racist ideas than I am. It wasn’t until I encountered the writings of Kenan Malik, that I could clearly see the proximity of racist ideas and the premises of many self-proclaimed anti-racists.
Those people who call me a ‘racist’ are, for the most part, multiculturalists and enthusiasts of identity politics. They believe that it is a terrible act of colonialism to attempt to assimilate people of different cultural background into a melting pot, and instead, they promote and celebrate cultural differences among human beings. And, in such a manner, they believe Western Civilization should not expand.
I agree that Western Civilization should not expand by force, and indeed, colonialism has a lot to repent for, precisely because of this. But, Western Civilization has some huge advantages to offer, and that is presumably the reason why a great number of people from the Third World choose to migrate to Western countries. There is great appeal in science, technology, liberalism, prosperity and democracy.
Now, enthusiasts of identity politics believe that those peoples in contact with Western Civilization should strive to conserve the culture of their ancestors: in other words, they should resist assimilation into Western values. Even the children of immigrants or indigenous people who, out of their own will, desire to adopt Western values, should be refrained from doing so. For, the argument goes, by listening to Mozart (or Brittney Spears or any other piece of Western music) and not listening to the traditional music of their ancestors, they are losing their cultural essence, and thus, are being seriously harmed- even if they do not realize so.
I had the intuition that there was something dead wrong with this argument, but I could not figure it out… until I came across Kenan Malik. His work on race and multiculturalism is twofold. On the one hand, Malik opposes the traditional racists who argue that race is a valid biological concept. On this, Malik is not very original, as there are plenty of authors who show how inconsistent the concept of ‘race’ is.
But Malik is profoundly original by showing that, inadvertently, promoters of identity politics reason along similar lines as traditional racists. Very much as traditional racists have done, identity politics assumes the existence of racial essences: somehow, the fact that a girl’s ancestors were Wayuu makes her Wayuu, and she can only be happy by living as a Wayuu. It is as if, within her biological make-up, there is a gene that codifies Wayuu behavior. And, in this sense, if such a girl chooses a Western lifestyle, she is living contrary to what her essence dictates. She may dress as a Westerner, she may speak only Indo-European languages, she may feel no cultural attachment to the Wayuu, but nevertheless, she will never be a Westerner; she will be a confused Wayuu.
This is exactly the premise of racism: cultural traits correspond to biological traits. In previous centuries, colonialist racism assumed that colonized people could never achieve high levels of Western education, because they simply did not have the biological basis for it. Something all too similar is assumed by identity politics: a Wayuu girl will never satisfactorily assume Western values, because her ancestors had another culture.
Thank you, Kenan Malik, for showing us how old racial pseudoscientists such as LeBon or Gobineau are, in a sense, closer to Will Kymlicka than we had ever thought.