Racism Today: 'Us' and 'Them'

By Memmi, Albert | UNESCO Courier, May-June 1986 | Go to article overview

Racism Today: 'Us' and 'Them'


Memmi, Albert, UNESCO Courier


Racism today: "Us' and "Them'

AFTER twenty years of observation, reflection, research and studies "in the field', I am convinced that racism is a rotten plank. I am not speaking only of its moral aspect, but of its very logic.

Man's present biological nature developed, and is still developing, in the course of continuous cross-breeding processes. In this context, therefore, the concept of purity is no more than a metaphor, wishful thinking, fantasy. This is not to say that men do not differ from each other. They do, both culturally and even biologically. But, surprisingly, the most recent scientific research reveals on the contrary that the differences are so fragmented that it is impossible to make a given social group coincide with any one biological profile. Nor is the concept of superiority any more sustainable on a functional level. There is nothing to prove that biological superiority, assuming that it exists, leads to psychological or cultural superiority. Finally, it is difficult to see why any form of natural superiority should involve economic or social advantages.

In order to survive, man seeks to defend his integrity and his possessions and, on occasions, to appropriate those of his neighbour, whether they be movable or immovable property, food, raw materials, territory, women, real or imaginary religious, cultural or symbolic assets. Man is both aggressor and the object of aggression, both terrifying and terrified.

However, this aggressive rejection of another is not yet exactly racism. The racist way of thinking is based on this rejection, and on pre-existing cultural and social facts.

It is evident that racism or, in other words, alleged racial superiority based on alleged biological purity, is no more than an ideological apparatus, one among many alibis for domination and expropriation. For this reason, I think it is necessary to point out both this general character of a form of human behaviour which is unfortunately only too common, and the specific character of racism. Otherwise the false problems associated with racism will continue to obscure the permanent drama represented by the aggressive rejection of others. To make the distinction more clear, I have proposed that this terrified, aggressive rejection be designated by a new word, heterophobia, and that the term racism be henceforth reserved for that variety of heterophobia which exploits the fear engendered by biological and racial difference in order to justify aggression and privilege. . . . I therefore suggested the following formulation, which has been adopted by the Encyclopaedia Universalis and which Unesco has done me the honour of using as a basis for its own definition: Racism is the generalized, permanent' exploitation of real or imaginary biological differences, to the advantage of the accuser and to the detriment of his victim, for the purpose of justifying aggression.

We can perceive what could constitute a single criterion for replying to those closely related questions which embarrass contemporary consciences--what connexion is there between anti-semitism and the slave trade? …

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