Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Racism in the Twentieth Century: A Call for New Epistemologies

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Racism in the Twentieth Century: A Call for New Epistemologies

Article excerpt

All human beings belong to a single species and are descended from a common stock. They are born equal in dignity and rights and all form an integral part of humanity. All individuals and groups have the right to be different, to consider themselves as different and to be regarded as such. However, the diversity of life styles and the right to be different may not, in any circumstances, serve as a pretext for racial prejudice; they may not justify either in law or in fact any discriminatory practice whatsoever, nor provide a ground for the policy of apartheid, which is the extreme form of racism.1

In the field of racial prejudice and racist attitudes and practices, specialists in natural and social sciences and cultural studies, as well as scientific organizations and associations, are called upon to undertake objective research on a wide interdisciplinary basis; all States should encourage them to this end.2

Racism With or Without Races?

Most present-day anthropologists, sociologists and other scholars accept that the division of humanity into various races has no scientific basis. Yet the concept of race is still widely used by some scholars, politicians and others worldwide in popular discourses, with different meanings and purposes. The popular understanding of racial differences among human beings is at the root of social, political, economic and cultural exclusion, and is still the one of the biggest challenges to world peace and equality.

This article discusses the need for new epistemologies of racism, based on the twentieth-century experiences that have influenced definitions, practices and discourses on racism and race. The first part will address the divergences between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries' conceptions of race, and how they influenced the concept of racism in academia, politics and popular thinking. The second part will deal with the challenges presented during the twentieth century to studies on racism or racial conflicts, especially in relation to national identities in multicultural societies.

The twentieth century presented many changes that affected the cultural universe, such as the development of new communications technologies, the alterations in the political, economic and social order, and the demands of globalization, with interactions between different sectors of human life. These changes have also influenced the relations among different groups and have presented complex interrogations of studies on racism. This article stresses the need for new epistemologies combined with new methodologies, which would bring new approaches to these problems, starting with the very definition of "racism" itself.

Between "We" and "the Others": The Elaboration of the Difference

Historically, human groups have felt the need to differentiate themselves from "others" as a way to define their identity and territoriality. The competition for natural resources and the rivalries among groups influenced the definition of the "others", and resulted in definitions based on opposition and negativity. As societies become more complex, the definition of the self in opposition to the other becomes a definition of nationality and identity. According to Todorov, European philosophers paid more attention than previously to definitions of "nation" during the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, when the debate on human differences and the idea of human races started to take shape.3

Peter Gay discusses the concept of the "convenient Other" as a social construct that confirms the superiority of a particular group over others. He explains that the idea behind the "convenient Other" gives a very useful alibi for aggression and exploitation. According to him, the construct of the "convenient Other" was part of the "cultivation of the hatred" that, during the Victorian Age, used those contradictory speculations on biology and history (which formed the basis of the racist theories) to justify British aggression and domination over other societies. …

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