It’s fair to say that mainstream Western thought surrounding race is starting to crumble. The death of George Floyd has sparked discourse about the racial discrimination faced by black people globally. Social media is filled with highly-charged commentary by people from all over the political spectrum. Racism today, especially in Britain, takes a more covert form than the blatant legally sanctioned racism seen prior to the 60s. Connotations of illegality have allowed a narrative that disputes the existence of racism to prevail. These social undertones have led to some commentators urging black people to move on and leave the past in the past.
As much as we would like to, we simply can’t.
Legacies of the Past
Prior to the 1960s, racist prejudice against non-whites was not only legal but integral to maintaining the Western world’s economic power. The commodification of black people allowed the First World to profit from the ridiculously cheap labour they provided. To commodify a human essentially transforms them into an object to trade. In order to treat humans as goods with purely economic value, there is a process of dehumanisation that occurs to justify this transition.
The dehumanisation of colonised and enslaved Africans made it morally justifiable for slave and colonial masters to treat them in unspeakable ways. Over time, narratives about black Africans’ inferiority became mainstream global stereotypes – whether it was their ungovernable temperaments, violent nature or hypersexual ways. Dr Sims – dubbed as the ‘modern father of gynaecology’ – believed that black women could not feel pain and thus performed a variety of cruel and unusual operations on them without anaesthesia.
Slavery and colonialism are no longer legal, however, the legacies of the narratives that were placed on enslaved and colonised Africans still impact black people today. In 2016, a survey of 222 white medical students found that ‘half of them endorsed at least one myth about physiological differences between black people and white people, including that black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s.’ These perceptions about pain tolerance are clearly rooted in Sim’s works and have disturbing material effects; in the US, black people are significantly less likely to receive pain medication for the same conditions and same reported level of pain as white people. Whilst over in the UK, black mothers are dying at a rate of five times more than white mothers during childbirth with some blame resting with the NHS’s racial biases about pain tolerance.
Without referring to the racial biases of the past, we would be unable to explain the prevalence and persistence of these statistics, showing how irresponsible it is for society to leave the past in the past. The influence of these narratives are not exclusive to the medical world either, since these stereotypes impact the way that black people are viewed in our everyday lives.
The connection between the past, the present and the future
Scientist Carl Sagan once remarked “You have to know the past to understand the present.”
The De-colonisation of Africa after World War II and the 13th Amendment in 1865 were purported to be the beginning of the end of the legal commodification of black bodies. As I previously discussed, commodification came with dehumanising stereotypes, and whilst legal action is swift, changing societal views is not. The legacies of these stereotypes are pervasive and have influenced the archetypes of ‘the Angry Black Woman’, ‘the lazy black man’, ‘the strong black woman’ and ‘the drug dealing, vicious black man’. These stereotypes seem comparatively harmless to the violent depictions of black men and women as Sambos, Mandingos and Jezebels. However, stereotypes don’t exist in vacuums; these depictions may have been harmless if they didn’t inform the behaviour of individuals and more broadly, institutions.
Stereotyping is natural – our brains use stereotyping to assess whether a given person is likely to be a threat to us as individuals and, to some extent, society at large. This natural psychological process becomes problematic when our stereotypes are informed purely by socially acceptable dogma. This is especially worrisome when we look at modern racially driven stereotypes. Often the way we are exposed to these stereotypes is extremely subtle and makes it difficult to identify them and recognise the racial aspects to them. This, in turn, makes it harder to persuade others of their existence and their material impacts on black people and the way society perceives them.
Take the common phrase ‘black-on-black crime.’ In a purely theoretical sense, there is little to dispute; it’s simply crime committed by a black person against another black person. In reality, this is a highly-charged term as it implies that the black community has a crime issue purely on the basis of race. It’s very rare that any other racial community receives the same treatment – you never see rhetoric about white-on-white crime, do you?
A term like this often negates to display two things: how only a minute percentage of black people are involved in the majority of violent crime in these areas and how other issues that promote crime, such as poverty and inner city living are bigger predictors of crime than simply being black.
In 2016, 90.1% of black people were murdered by other black people, and 83.5% of white people were murdered by other white people. Whilst there is a difference, is it really enough to warrant a term that implies that the black community is much more violent than any other – I would argue not. Even so, black people continue to be stopped and searched more than any other race, both in the UK and parts of the US. It’s the legacies of these stereotypes that have led to the highly publicised deaths of unarmed black men Philando Castile, Botham Jean and countless others at the hands of the police. It’s pretty evident that the discreet signalling of negative stereotypes established during slavery and colonial era are subconsciously upheld by terms like black-on-black crime. More than anything, it just shows how much of the present is rooted in the past. We can’t escape our history and to pretend like it doesn’t exist is a disservice to society.
If we are to achieve the equality that we, as a society, claim to value, then we need to start analysing what, if any, ways are the stereotypes we hold about black people are the products of the past. We need to be conscious of how these were used to dehumanise and demonise black people to maintain authority over them for economic gain. That should be enough of a driver for society to take a deeper inward look and start thinking of ways to overcome the pervasiveness of these stereotypes.
Please understand that we simply cannot afford to leave the past in the past. There is still more work to be done for us all to be equal.
By Tanya Kasinganeti
Some useful definitions
British Colonialism – The geographic and political units formerly under British control, including dominions, colonies, dependencies, trust territories, and protectorates. At the height of its power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the empire comprised about one quarter of the world’s land area and population and encompassed territories on every continent
13th Amendment – An amendment to the American constitution which outlawed slavery
- Any of the links I’ve provided in this article
- Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism by Patricia Hill-Collins
- Colonialism in Africa is still alive and well by Osaki Peebe Harry
- Social Stereotypes