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Two guises of racism – Informed Comment

Two guises of racism, disdain as well as envy

Informed Comment, October 6, 2020, Anne-Ruth Wertheim

Amsterdam (Special to Informed Comment) – Discussions still focus on who can and who cannot be called racist, while the question of what racism actually is, is posed much less and is often fobbed off with vague descriptions in the direction of ‘believing population groups to be inferior’. Looking down on people is of course a terrible thing, but – although it is hardly ever talked about – jealousy is also at play. Likewise it is seldom discussed what actually prompts people when they utter their prejudices or act in a racist way. Whenever this is discussed, the emphasis is usually on the words they use to motivate their statements or acts. But we must also ask ourselves what underlying feelings and thoughts they prefer to keep to themselves. It’s absolutely essential to see through the mechanisms at work, if for no other reason than to combat racism in such a way that racist violence does not break out in the future.

Anne-Ruth Wertheim

By unravelling these mechanisms, complicated questions can be answered. Questions such as: Why are the descendants of guest workers and people from the former colonies put at a disadvantage when they compete in the labor market – often with a reference to habits which are attributed to the countries of their forefathers? Why after all these years is equal representation in the media grossly lacking people with a migration background? Why are politicians from minorities continually pinned down on matters specifically concerning what people call ‘their community’, when they try to tackle issues which affect the whole of society? Why are people of color who do important work in this society either being belittled or accused of putting themselves on the foreground? Why is there such an outrage when people of color demand the abolition of a tradition that portrays them in a painful way: Black Pete (blackface)? And why are people from minorities labelled disloyal when they set up their own party after established parties fail to offer them enough opportunities? And finally why is it that racism has not declined, now that so many people with a migration background have reached prominent positions in government, politics and all other societal domains, such as film, music, cabaret, architecture, sport, medicine, literature, journalism, law and ICT?

Exploitation racism and competition racism

Racism or racial delusion appears in two different forms: exploitation racism and competition racism. The distinction between the two comes from my father, a sociologist who specialized in south-east Asia, Wim F. Wertheim. As a child and young man in Europe, he experienced what it was like to be discriminated against as a Jew. Later on as an adult in the colonial Dutch East Indies, he was struck by two totally different phenomena. He saw how the Indonesian population was exploited through the use of derogatory comments, whilst the Chinese mercantile minority was exposed to a form of racism which was strikingly similar to the anti-Semitism he knew from Europe. He named the first type exploitation racism and the second competition racism and described them in his academic work. Years later I further developed these differences and integrated them into a chart, see illustration: Characteristics of the two types of racism. The two types differ in the following ways: the population at which they are targeted, the prejudices which accompany them, the motivation behind the prejudices, and the kind of violence which goes with it.

Exploitation and competition racism target two totally different population groups and there is a direct relationship to the work they do and their economic position. Consequently, there is a significant difference between the kind of prejudices which are brought into circulation: condescending or terrifying in nature. The enslaved, the black population of South Africa, the original inhabitants of colonized countries and Afro-Americans in the US were supposed to have a low IQ ‘by nature’ and were considered lazy and childlike. And therefore mundane hard labor was the only thing they were capable of and supposedly this also was what they preferred. These disdainful prejudices are perfectly in tune with what they are meant to justify: exploitation.

Stupid and lazy would be the opposite of the traits used to describe the diligent and successful Chinese mercantile minority in Indonesia, they were said to be sly and up to no good. Besides they were henchmen for big scary China, which would pursue world dominance. There was a striking resemblance to anti-Semitism in Europe, there Jews were also said to be cunning, disloyal to the countries where they lived and hungry for world power. As proof a falsified document from bygone times was conjured up in which mysterious men were said to have used words to this effect. In recent times such, more cultural, prejudices have been attributed to the Muslims. To support the idea that they are not to be trusted and are disloyal, rumors are spread that they are controlled by the long arm of their mother country, with references to their dual nationality. And if that does not suffice, their holy scriptures are cited selectively so that they can be accused of wanting to establish Sharia law worldwide. Here again, the prejudices are completely in accordance with what they are meant to justify and that is not exploitation but exclusion.

Which motivations behind racist prejudice do people prefer to keep to themselves?

When asked about their motives for their racist words and/or actions, is their response really what drives them? Or do the words they use only reveal part of their motives and do they prefer to hide the rest?

People who look down on another population group will probably not readily admit how good it feels to raise themselves above others. In cultures and faith communities in which the dominating norm is that all people are equal, and this applies to by far the most, you may expect such a sense of superiority to be coupled with feelings of shame and/or guilt. All the more reason to find even more evidence that the other group is, in actual fact, inferior.

A similar phenomenon could be at play when there is a fear of a minority’s competitive power. People will probably not be inclined to reveal their envy, because in a capitalist society like ours there is effectively a taboo on jealousy. Moreover, it makes much more sense to keep it a secret when you think that a group is doing well, otherwise you might weaken your own group’s competitive position. It’s therefore a hundred times more beneficial to state with great emphasis that the group is not to be trusted and is a great danger to society.

After all, identifying a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in society is generally not something to be proud about. People who do so will probably not like to acknowledge how they enjoy sharing the conviction with like-minded people around them that the cause of all misery should really be sought in the scapegoat group. In my experience in education, I often observed how consoling it can be for groups – especially those struggling with mutual tensions – to experience a mutual sense of unity when bullying a scapegoat.

Different kinds of violence

The violence inherent to exploitation racism is entirely different from that of competition racism.

In the case of exploitation racism, the group as a whole needs to be kept healthy and at work, but at the same time compliant and willing to endure the most wretched working conditions. When a few rise up in revolt and threaten to motivate others to do the same, the authorities endeavor to suppress it by publicly punishing the rebels, in full view of all the others.

In the case of competition racism, the whole rival group needs to be driven out of the region and this may start with the killing of a few members of the group, but soon turns into mass slaughter, pogroms. History has shown that such mass violence can be sparked when fearsome qualifications over a group are systematically circulated for long enough. It is not surprising therefore that the perpetrators of such violence always claim they acted in self-defense: if they had not killed the other person, they would have been killed. And wherever they occur, such outbreaks of violence are always preceded by a sharper demarcation of the group, accompanied by an allusion to their expulsion and stronger emphasis on the recognizability of the members of the group. In the period immediately preceding to the actual killing, to the usual terrifying accusations are added disdainfully qualifications in order to dehumanize the future victims – that seems to make killing easier.

So, while violence inherent to exploitation racism is generally aimed at insurgent individuals, there are exceptions. During the enslavement of Africans and their transportation to the United States, large numbers of people often died in the holds of the vessels in which they were being shipped. Rather than put an end to such an abuse, the perpetrators cynically ‘solved’ this problem by fetching more people from Africa. As well as during the enslavement of people from Africa, mass violence was not seldom used in the colonies too, when people were forced to become coolies.

Shift in the proportions between exploitation racism and competition racism

When I carried out research into adult education in the 1990s, I observed a noteworthy phenomenon. My task was to register signs of racism during Dutch lessons that were given to migrants and in Dutch lessons that were given to Dutch-speaking adults who had hardly attended school – I noted this for both students and teachers.[1]

I discovered that – to some extent concealed in expressions and gestures – both disdain/self-conceit (exploitation racism) and jealousy, distrust and fear (competition racism) occurred. As a result, I wondered whether this hybrid only occurred at this moment in this setting. Or whether the prevailing racism after World War II was perhaps changing its character. I discussed with my father the possibility that here in Europe and therefore also in the Netherlands there was a shift from exploitation racism to competition racism. He found that an interesting thought, which he included in the article on colonial racism in Indonesia that he was writing for De Gids (1991) at the time.[2]

In the meantime, almost 30 years have passed and my hypothesis has not only turned out to be true, this phenomenon is still prevalent. The first guest workers and non-Western immigrants from the colonies predominantly suffered from the old, familiar colonial exploitation racism – they were looked upon with disdain. This disdain was still going strong in the 1990s and continues today. Disparaging prejudices are still targeted at people of color, and descendants of people from regions which are considered to be less developed are also seen in this light.

As the children and grandchildren of all these people became more capable of competing, prejudices associated with competition racism began to circulate alongside the usual exploitation racism that has never gone away. To begin with, that they would be unreliable and disloyal to the Dutch state.

In addition, Islam had been found in the cultural baggage of guest workers and this provided a welcome source from which to derive the frightening prejudices that belong to competition racism.

But even without Islam, there were still plenty of frightening prejudices to be unleashed on the descendants of people from the former colonies – after all, they too were becoming formidable competitors. One such a prejudice is that they are in the process of killing a Dutch tradition that they – completely mistaken – regard as racist, Black Pete (blackface)!

One might get the impression from the discussions on this topic that especially exploitation racism is involved here, the desire to be able to continue looking down on people of color without worry. But the other prejudice that is circulating, that the activists against Black Pete are aggressive disruptors of a peaceful children’s party, is terrifying and points in the direction of competitive racism. The competition at play here isn’t about jobs or housing, but about control over Dutch traditions, about the exclusive right to control them; the fact that a minority demands participation in this matter provokes intense envy.

And now non-Western refugees have also become a target of competition racism. Prejudices are being spread about them too that they are dishonestly stealing jobs and homes and that they are life-threatening and do not belong here.

All the prejudices of competition racism intensified as more and more children and grandchildren of both migrant workers and people from the colonies succeeded – often after having overcome a great deal of underestimation and opposition – to complete their studies and to conquer interesting places in the labor market, in public administration and throughout the rest of society. And so they became rivals of the established population – especially those with a lot of education. Descendants who have made it and come to the fore are often used to argue that racism is not that bad. Or they are set as an example to those who are still catching up. But it is underestimated just how much the envy of the established population for these exemplary figures can stir up competition racism.

I predict that the shift from exploitation racism to competition racism will continue with the further emancipation of minorities – who are recognizable in the public space – therefore increasing the chance of mass violence. Fortunately, however, powerful counter-movements have emerged in recent years of which Black Lives Matter is the most striking. Through these counter movements more and more people are able to get to the bottom of the racist mechanisms, which helps to halt this fatal development. I call for attention to be paid to both forms of racism — not only the form of racism which humiliates groups of people, but also the form that wrongs people out of envy.

This essay is revised from an earlier version.

[1] Anne-Ruth Wertheim:‘Schurende Culturen’ in Vorming, Vaktijdschrift voor Volwasseneneducatie en Sociaal-Cultureel Werk, jaargang 10, oktober 1994, pp.27-41.

[2] See W.F.Wertheim ‘Koloniaal racisme in Indonesië, Ons onverwerkt verleden?’ (Colonial racism in Indonesia, Our unresolved past) in De Gids, issue 154 (1991):

Anne-Ruth Wertheim has conducted research on racism for decades. A former biology teacher, she is a sculptor and writer who lives in Amsterdam. She is an Informed Comment regular.