The modern western world has colonialism and imperialism entrenched into its history. The racial and ethnic tensions that are apparent in contemporary society can be traced through history back to the time of colonialism and imperialism. To pretend it is not there is to play into the hands of the modern far right.
Colonialism refers to the political authority of the European powers over some of the areas of Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas. Broadly it is the time when there was a political economy based around the slave trade By the end of the 19th century nearly all Africa had been colonised by one or other of the Great Powers.
Modern racist discourse can be traced back to the slave trade. Although, it is important to remember that racism and slavery did not always go hand-in-hand (think of the ancient Greeks!). Why then, in our murky colonial history did race become such a big deal? From the earliest recordings of British involvement in Africa (large scale in 17th century) the exaggerated term “black” was used to describe the very obviously different skin colour between British and the (at first) West Africans. However the colour ‘black’ came with some deeply ingrained values; it was associated pre 16th century with dirt and death. It had connotations of evil and wickedness. This is illustrated in the distinction between black and white magic and as well, the Black Death. This all came at a time when the ideal of beauty in Britain was very much of a pale white face.
Throughout the Colonial period the appearance of the African was stretched and exaggerated through European discourse. Their nakedness was often highlighted to illustrate their difference from the ‘civilised’ European. To start with people were content to comment on skin colour to describe their difference; during the 17th and 18th centuries however a number of other characteristics were attributed to them. Soon African men were considered to have potent sexuality. The men were considered to have a larger penis and to be extremely lusty. Some Europeans at the time speculated on the sexual intercourse that might have occurred between apes and Africans. Indeed increasingly Europeans would compare the Africans that they ‘discovered’ to the apes that they “discovered” at a similar time. Indeed, other characteristics were recorded at this time such as laziness and superstition. After meeting Africans as neutrals (pre slave trade), the colonial legacy slowly degenerated into a deeply racist discourse.
Towards the end of the 19th century a movement developed to legitimise Imperialism. Social-Darwinism was used to justify the colonial power’s actions in Africa. There was a belief that there was a natural hierarchy of races. These were predominantly European ideas and as such Europeans were normally ranked as the ‘highest being’. This is an almost laughable idea today, but at the time was considered gospel by many. It is important to note that such broad biological assumptions are still made and believed in modern racist belief. For example Charles Murray’s book ‘The Bell Curve’ (1994) is still used by extremists to argue that White people have a higher I.Q than black people. Stereotypes still persist in main stream society in many western countries as the mass of the population still see Black Afro-Caribbean’s consistently performing low skilled manual jobs (a changing but lingering phenomena).
Although the dark days of our colonial past, are just that, our past. It is worth taking a moment to reflect the impact that they are still having on our society. There are some very clear ethnic tensions that can be directly linked to European colonial past. The continued conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo demonstrates some extreme racial tensions that have a clear link to the Belgium legacy there for example. The racism that we see most regularly today however is a lot more subtle.
Modern conflicts, especially in the West appear to be increasingly more complex than simply a reflection of race. Ethnicity is a wider term that can describe a group of people beyond their inherent characteristics. For example the Muslim community in the U.K could easily describe themselves as an ethnic group. No longer does it simply describe your skin colour. This leads to a more complex system of discrimination where culture, religion and race all become intertwined. In the UK there is no simple way of defining what it exactly is that people discriminate against. However appearance still plays a large part in social discrimination in contemporary society. This is reflected in police stop and search figures; increasingly Arabs have been subjected to a greater number of searches.
Despite conflicts growing increasingly more complex, there are still racial elements to most conflicts in the western world. In November 2005 large-scale riots broke out throughout France. The BBC described these as ‘race riots’ as it was predominantly members of the black community rioting. However a more accurate way to try and have one term to describe these riots would perhaps have been to describe them as socio-economic deprivation boiling over. It is no coincidence that these riots took place in some of the poorest neighbourhoods across France. However these riots were portrayed across the world more as race riots.
Today we can see the BNP riding a roller coaster of popularity (for whenever they have risen high they have very soon plunged in public opinion). The peaks of the BNP’s popularity however should worry us. The BNP often attack a way of life opposed to a specific “race” (although the racist undertones are clear). For example their leader Nick Griffin was cleared of the charge ‘inciting racial hatred’ for describing Islam as a ‘wicked faith’. In his trial he argued he did not hate Muslims or any ethnicity but purely the faith they followed. However what the B.N.P does illustrate is that there is still interest and small support for such extreme right-wing politics. They often play on fundamental fears that are still apparent in society; for example they argue that these ‘migrants’ are stealing British jobs. It is apparent that there is interest in these ‘racial’ issues in the main stream even if there is not much support for it. A lot of the discourse they use is similar to that of colonial times. For example the B.N.P campaigned for many months about the Asian ‘sexual predators’ that were coming after ‘our girls’. This is a clear link back to colonial stereotypes that play into the discriminative discourse that the B.N.P wishes to capitalise from.
To forget our colonial past, in all it’s ugliness, is to give the modern racist a free use of a deeply ingrained sub-conscious tool. Regardless of whether we would like to admit it or not, racism still exists in this country. We have to acknowledge that it has a long history. If we do not acknowledge this history, then those outdated images of the black man as a sexual predator, or the monkey chants across football grounds will continue to be used. We have to reclaim our history, however vile it is! At least we have the decency to acknowledge it to be vile!