Final Word

Race, racism and racists: pots and kettles abound


Race, racism and racists have lately become probably the most dominating terms used in South African political discourse – but where did it all start?

One of the first truths that emerged from our quest to find the root or origin of these terms, is that not only South Africans are obsessed with ‘race’, ‘racism’ and ‘racists’.

A Google search of the key words ‘race word origin’, delivered 82,7 million results in 42 seconds! The question ‘racism word origin’ delivered 14,6 million results and ‘where did the word racism originate?’ immediately threw up 306 00 results.

The second truth that emerged is that it is not only in South Africa that ‘race’, ‘racism’ and ‘racist’ have become some of the first weapons of choice in political – and sometimes commercial and other – battles.

To describe the current political battle in South Africa, one can hardly do better than use the words from a 2012 article under the heading “Who Originated the Term ‘Racist’ And Why?” by American Al Benson to define the use of the term ‘racist’ in his native country: “We have all heard the term ’racist’ often more than we care to. It seems as if the politically correct draw the word like a pistol every time they want to verbally mow someone down.

 “Unfortunately, it often works and the person who has been labelled a racist or guilty of ‘white racism’ (it’s always white racism, never racism of any other colour) slinks off into a corner somewhere and remains silent from then on out, which was the reason for using the term to begin with. It silences dissent.”

Different sources tell varying stories about the origins of the root word ‘race’.

According to Wikipedia the “concept of race as a rough division of human population has a long and complicated history. The word race itself is modern and was used in the sense of ‘nation, ethnic group’ during the 16th to 19th century, and only acquired its modern meaning in the field of physical anthropology from the mid-19th century.”

The word ‘race’ as a term for a group of persons related by common descent or heredity – often or mostly accompanied by common physical characteristics – dates back to the late 15th century. Most commonly it is accepted that it arrived in Middle English as ras from Old Norse rās and/or Old French rasse from Italian razza, which in turn may have been derived from the Arabic Word ras meaning the head of someone or something.

Enter racism

Sociopolitical problems around the term ‘race’ seem to have started with scientific attempts to classify humanity into distinct anthropological groups and then stratify them into “higher and lower” levels during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The concept of stratification of groups can, however, be traced back to ancient Egypt, when ... “the lighter ancient Egyptians were in power, they called the darker group ‘the evil race of Ish’. When the darker ancient Egyptians were in power, they called the lighter group ‘the pale, degraded race of Arvad’.

“These differences also related to different cultural groups who competed for power. For example, the Ancient Egyptian sacred text, called Book of Gates, identifies four ethnic categories that are now conventionally labelled ‘Egyptians’, ‘Asiatics, ‘Libyans’ and ‘Nubians’, but such distinctions tended to conflate differences as defined by physical features such as skin tone, with tribal and national identity.”

As far as can be ascertained the first use of the term racism, can ascribed to the colourful American Richard Henry Pratt in 1902.

Pratt campaigned against what he regarded the evils of racial segregation, claiming:

 “Segregating any class or race of people apart from the rest of the people kills the progress of the segregated people or makes their growth very slow. Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism,” he argued.

Ironically however, Pratt is also the man who coined the phrase “kill the Indian …save the man”.

Revealing cultural chauvinism, he said: "A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man." 

Enter the racist

While credit for the term ‘racism’ goes to an American, a number of sources agree that the term ‘racist’, as a political swearword, should go to the Russian and arch-communist Leon Trotsky.

He invented the word in his 1930 book The History of the Russian Revolution, and his reason for doing so, according to Dustin Stanley in an article on the website The Unpopular Truth, was to create a “rallying cry for good Red Army communists to embark upon murderous rampages against peoples who resisted having their traditional way of life paved over and replaced with an alien system.”

Final word

When political leaders and activists in the present-day South African discourse surrounding race, hurl the terms ‘racism’ and ‘racist’ as an insult at everyone who dares to differ from, or oppose them, they are following an old and established political tradition of the pot calling the kettle black.

by Piet Coetzer

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