World

No, racism isn't a 'creation of white people'

2 September 2020

4:00 PM

2 September 2020

4:00 PM

I remember that, as a small child, I was told not to talk when my father took me inside the public library in Richmond. Now I find that the British Library has rendered me speechless. With the apparent approval of the chief librarian, Liz Jolly, a review of statues and artworks in the library is under way. Among those who are commemorated by statues in the library and who are being subjected to this inquisition are Beethoven and Mendelssohn, as protagonists of ‘western civilisational supremacy’.

Setting aside for the moment the implication that many of the greatest composers, artists, writers and maybe scientists of the past should be shunned as ‘western’, we should stop short with alarm at the name of Mendelssohn. Of Jewish origin, though baptised as a boy, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy suffered for his ancestry during his lifetime and remained a victim of anti-Semitism after his death. There was a monument to him in Leipzig from 1892 to 1936, when it was thrown away. There was a bronze statue of him in front of the Opera House of Düsseldorf until the same year. Besides, his music was banned. One might charitably assume that he has been chosen for ‘review’ by the British Library out of profound ignorance of the fact that he was a victim of racism. And, since it is now the fashion to condemn anyone related to the targeted individual, it is worth pointing out that his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, the distinguished philosopher, was spurned and humiliated by Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, who deeply disliked Jews.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Ms Jolly asserts that ‘racism is a creation of white people’, of whom she is one. In this she appears to be supported by the ‘Decolonising Working Group’ at the British Library, and by 200 members of the library staff, who are demanding special privileges for BAME staff, including a voice in the appointment of senior librarians within the BL, owing to the racial ‘state of emergency’ within its walls.

It is hard to see what will be left after they have finished their purge. Anti-imperialist objections have been raised to the design of the building, which reminds some people, apparently, of a British battleship, something that has never ever occurred to me, much as I dislike it. How you ‘decolonise’ a collection of books that aims at completeness it is truly impossible to say, and what will be done with them if they are found wanting is not revealed, though here again the Nazis had ways of dealing with the problem. It is in the nature of a library that receives every book published in the British Isles that its contents are dominated by centuries of white authors. There is, it is true, the India Office Library as well within its walls. But that of course is a monument to Imperialism and to Orientalism, so even those books that investigate other cultures are obviously tainted. Maps on the walls of the library may also be removed if they are too Eurocentric, as maps are ‘tools of power’.

Ms Jolly’s adherence to these views is part of a wider and ever more dangerous pattern of politicisation. The Director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, prefaces the latest magazine sent out to all ‘members’ of the British Museum with an announcement of his whole-hearted support for Black Lives Matter.

Many of us fear for the future of the collections, once just about everything apart from some knapped flints from Sussex is repatriated. Sir Hans Sloane, already in the firing line at the British Library, has been marched off his pedestal in the British Museum into the prison of a glass case where his links to slavery can be proclaimed – except that they were tangential, through Lady Sloane’s inheritance.

This is nothing compared to the remote and worthy relative of Cecil Rhodes whose name could be removed from a British street because, well, people might think he was that Rhodes. The Spaniards knew all about the condemnation not just of people but of members of their bloodline. In the sixteenth century this was called the doctrine of limpieza de sangre, ‘purity of blood’, meaning that anyone with Jewish or Moorish ancestors fell under suspicion and could not, officially at any rate, be given positions of power in Church and State. And then, of course, there were the Nuremberg laws, not to mention the exclusion of ‘cosmopolitans’ in the Soviet Union and its satellites.


Cultural institutions and universities lap up the latest ‘correct’ way of thinking without displaying any of that critical sense which is part of their raison d’être. Universities are places where one should shake off the easy assumptions acquired by the age of 18 or so, and be prepared to challenge all orthodoxies.

Those who support BLM and BAME initiatives and any number of diversity programmes may imagine that they are doing just that. But in fact the reverse is true. A herd instinct leads people, notably university professors and lecturers, to concur with the latest fashion. It was ever so. In the 1930s, very many German academics approved of the expulsion of Jewish professors and the closure of the universities to Jewish students; and conductors approved of the purging of their orchestras, museum directors of their collections of ‘degenerate art’. Many enthusiastically identified with what was thought to be the mood of the times. I cannot count the number of conversations in which I have heard academics drop into the discussion, even without reference to the subject in hand, a disapproving mention of ‘white males’ – generally these are ‘white males’ who have already arrived where they want to be in life. As someone who likes to think of himself as colour-blind about race, I cannot help thinking that that is racism.

Of course white people did not create racism. If Ms Jolly means specifically that pseudo-scientific racism developed in the wake of Darwin’s discoveries, then it is fair to state that white people did develop a particular form of racism. But the examples that are summoned up by those who try to argue that racism is a white creation always go further back in time, bringing in Columbus, Captain Cook and others.

The history of racism goes back further in time than the records humanity possesses. The ancient Egyptians, whom Archbishop Welby would presumably regard as ‘Middle Eastern’ rather than white (along with Jesus), may or may not have been negative about Israelites, depending on how literally you believe the book of Exodus; but they certainly had condescending views of other peoples such as the Asiatic Hyksos, who for a time conquered the Nile Delta; they mocked the ‘gross’ appearance of the corpulent, steatopygous Jtj, Queen of Punt (roughly, Somalia), and were not very complimentary about her husband’s subjects either.

The early Arab conquerors of al-Andalus, Spain, looked down with contempt on the Berbers who accompanied their armies, treating them as second-class citizens, along with Jews and Christians, even though these Berbers had accepted Islam. If we want to play the game of skin colour, it is quite likely that many of the Berbers were whiter with bluer eyes than their Arab masters.

And the slave trade within the Indian Ocean brought hundreds of thousands of black African slaves to the heartlands of the Islamic empire, resulting in a massive slave revolt in 869 that started in Basra and carried on for fourteen years, threatening the survival of the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad. Zanzibar, under the rule of the Sultans of far-away Oman, was the nineteenth-century capital of this horrible trade. 35,000 African boys sold along these trade routes are said to have been castrated in Coptic monasteries each year, of whom ten per cent survived.

Assuming, however, that Archbishop Welby is wrong and that ‘Middle Easterners’, including Jesus, were white, it is not difficult to find racism far beyond the lands inhabited by white people. Among the most pernicious examples is Japanese racism towards Koreans and Chinese, at its worst in the famous Rape of Nanjing in 1937. To this day, Koreans living in Japan change their name to a Japanese one to avoid the denigration and discrimination that many of them experience. White Europeans were also the butt of Japanese racism.

The marvellous folding screens that portray the arrival of Portuguese or Dutch ships in Japan, made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, often portray the Europeans as monkeys. The Oranda Kapitan, ‘Captain of Holland’, was subjected to ritual humiliation on his annual visits to the shogun from the tiny ghetto off Nagasaki where the Dutch merchants were confined. And the Ainu population of northern Japan has literally been pushed to the margins and has shrunk to a mere 25,000 people.

Then there is racism within sub-Saharan Africa. The modern history of Rwanda testifies amply and horrendously to that, though it has been argued that the distinction between Hutus and Tutsi was imported by their Belgian colonial rulers. Within the Belgian Congo, the Pygmies have often suffered at the hands of their neighbours.

But there is plenty to report further back in time, as the Bantu population displaced the original San or ‘Bushman’ population of the southernmost parts of the continent. More to the point, the trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves was fed by African rulers who passed on captives from neighbouring peoples. By and large they avoided selling their own brethren.

The Aztecs were not keen on their neighbours and exterminated large numbers in ritual human sacrifices. The early Gypsies may well have moved out of India because of caste discrimination, which is not very different from racial discrimination. Nor can one ignore white-on-white racism, whether against European Jews or Slavs or the Irish, just to give some major examples. It is therefore a sad and horrible truth that every continent has experienced racist persecutions before as well as after the age of the European empires. Quite possibly the first Homo Sapiens played a big role in the disappearance of the Neanderthals.

Librarians are probably best advised to look after books. Nowadays – and Ms Jolly may be an example of this – they spend their time as Directors of Information Services, so-called, and the modern public library is often airy and full of light, because it lacks most of those books that I remember seeing crammed into every dark and musty corner of Richmond Public Library. A little time spent reading history books would also be time well spent.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Professor David Abulafia is Emeritus Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge


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