Of Race and Racism

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In America, there is a prevalent belief that the worst accusation you can receive is to be called a racist. It is such a charged term that it can instantly tar a person who gets the label. Given the sordid history of racism in the US, the sensitivities behind the word are understood. Unfortunately, this fear of being labelled a racist has made the discourse of race relations somewhat narrower than it should be. True beliefs and opinions for many are submerged under the polite politically–correct conversation and multicultural rhetoric. Now, when a demagogue like Donald Trump emerges, who throws caution to the wind in his talk about different minorities, a good chunk of the American electorate have found their channel to express their angry nativist and occasionally prejudiced views.

A big problem with racism is that it is so hard to define. There is a popular quote about racism that ‘you know it when you see it’. Typically, we think of racism when someone displays a hostile or superior attitude towards a person or a people based off of their group identity. But racism may not necessarily relate to hostility. If you hold a particularly negative belief of someone based on their group stereotype, while not necessarily holding any personal animosity towards that person, this may potentially be classified as racism. But then again, as we are human beings and reality is complicated, occasionally it may be hard to distinguish between misplaced beliefs and racist thinking. Most of us are prone to labeling people, and may hold some uninformed stereotypes of others, but at what point does this cross into racism? That is not to say that racism is a purely subjective phenomenon, but that it is just notoriously difficult to categorize.

Compounding this problem is that racism is semantically tied to race. When someone like comedian Bill Maher goes on a usual anti-Islam diatribe, he will inject a phrase that ‘Islam is not a race’. Race is a biological concept (white, black, etc.), while many times what we call racial is actual ethnic (cultural). Not that these distinctions matter much when dealing with racial hatred. But I think that given that many offenders use this dodge to escape any accusation of racism, a better term to describe it is simply ‘bigotry’.

I feel pride knowing that Islam brooks no room for racism or birthright superiority. Superiority is only based on piety and spiritual purity. As per the last sermon of our Prophet (pbuh): “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”. Having said that, Muslims must accept that racism has become an endemic problem in many of our countries. Islam’s potential to elevate us over the petty tribalism is as valid today as it was when it began.

My own personal view of bigotry is when we judge anyone unfairly based on their group affiliation without giving that person the opportunity to express their own behavior, judgement and values. Somewhat simplistic, but it has stood me in good stead thus far.

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