Embodied Racism and the Dichotomy of Civilisation and Nature

Civilisation/nature is, I propose, the central dichotomy of embodied racism from which all others are derived, and connects very closely with notions of superiority and inferiority, and forms a key transferable, but not necessarily constitutive, component of other racisms.

Embodied racism is often sidelined or ignored in sociological analysis. In an example, Werbner, in the development of her concept of the ‘grand inquisitor’, which is a productive description of the ideal type Muslim of the Islamophobe, describes biological racism as a ‘far cruder’ form (Werbner 2005: 7), and something the culturally racist view of grand inquisitor might attach itself to as an addition. While this is an examination of Islamophobia as a racialisation, the reliance on the older concept of biological racism, and its obvious anachronistic connotations, prevents such inquiry from seeing the widespread use of its remnants - embodied racism - which are much more free-floating.

Many past expressions of what has been labelled ‘biological racism’ may not have exhibited systemic totality and could have had more in common with embodied racism. While embodied racism does not need to be a constitutive part of cultural racism, there is little evidence that it is any more or less ‘crude’. Overall, sociological approaches suggest it is a racism already analysed, already understood and already dealt with by the sociologist concerned with typologising cultural racism, seeing it as dated and now irrelevant. Wieviorka presents a further example:

[R]acism was a way of thinking and acting that referred to the idea of human races, and the differentiation and ranking of groups and individuals in terms of their natural phenotypical or genetic attributes. Racism was in the terminal phase of its classical, biological era. (Wieviorka 1997: 141. Emphasis added)

Although Wieviorka does not specify the social field to which he is referring, it is likely that he intends us to apply his comments to the development and status of race science, rather than to that of humorous discourse. This concentration on the formal sphere does not consider that embodied racism still exists in other discourses. Here is an example:

How do you stop black kids jumping on your bed?

Put velcro on the celing.

(sic) (SolarGeneral.com 2008)

Elements of biological racism exist and are reproduced in racist humour as embodied racism. While these depictions do not present the systemic totality of biological racism, they do reflect many of its internal truth claims. In this example, ‘natural’ phenotypical characteristics are depicted - in the form of an emphasis on the hair of black children - and it is difficult to see how this racism exists in a terminal condition. The dominant rhetorical device in this joke is infantilism, which is combined with absurdity and outwitting. The childish nature of the joke is evident, it contains no extreme terms, stereotypes or depictions of violence and so the ethotic argument is difficult to criticise without seeming over-serious. The use of infantilism provokes inflections of meaning that might not lead directly to racism. However, the pathos, or enjoyment of this form of humour does lead to an implicit acceptance of the practice of highlighting and demeaning the bodily characteristics of the ‘other’, which is a key component of embodied racism. Just one example of racist humour highlights the folly of believing that embodied racism died when it was supposed to.

Of major importance for the impact of embodied racism - and directly lifted from biological racism - is its ability to act as a classificatory system, or its ability to construct a dichotomy between the ‘civilised’ body of the self and ‘uncivilised’ body of the ‘other’. This dichotomy works because of its close connection to a chain of signification in which civilisation implicitly connects to the superior, the cultural, cultivation, an interest in cerebral pursuits, and intelligence, whereas nature connotes the inferior, the savage, instinctive responses, corporeality and stupidity.

Embodied racism resembles a modern, order-building discourse imbued with an inheritance from enlightenment and colonial race investigations. David Hume suggested that, ‘I am apt to suspect that negroes and in general all other species of man to be naturally inferior than to the whites’ (Hume 1997 [1754]: 33), in what was a classic piece of biological racism. Embodied racism reproduces such notions of superiority/inferiority. Although there were internal differences and debates among Enlightenment thinkers and not all created straightforward or uncritical race hierarchies, or agreed on these hierarchies (Chukwudi Eze 1997: 6), these ideas represent a clear site of early dichotomy formation, which had, following Bauman’s ideas, the inherent propensity to create ambivalence. This uncertainty is reproduced in embodied racism to a far greater extent because of the failed status of its biological ancestor.

Embodied dichotomies have a colonial legacy, and so colonial racisms, or racisms that were developed, in part, through the colonial process and which symbolise the aims of that process, exist in embodied racism. Banton has explained the link between the development of race and colonialism. Barot and Bird reiterate his position: ‘Banton states clearly that the concept of‘race’ developed as Europeans came into contact with people whose physical appearance was very different. As Banton says, ‘the contacts were important to the development by Europeans of racial categories’ (Banton 1977: 13 in Barot and Bird 2001: 607). Embodied racism, as a racism that uses race, has a colonial heritage. In contemporary sociology, Grosfoguel links colonialism to contemporary racisms by suggesting they can be conceptualised through understanding that, ‘[t]he negative symbolic images of colonial racialised subjects ... are related to the colonial histories of each empire and the ‘global coloniality’ still present under a ‘post-colonial’, ‘post imperial’ capitalist world system’ (2004: 331). These enlightenment/colonial racisms are directly transferred into embodied racist joking.

 
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