How Culture can Crystallize Racism

Mamadou Ba

Of all the former colonial powers, Portugal remains one of the countries with a colonial past where the discussion around racism is still one of the most immature and least clarifying. This is because this discourse is embedded within the historical fantasy of “Luso-tropicalism”—itself constructed on a historical sham—which suggests that in comparison to other colonial incursions, Portuguese colonialism was supposedly the most generous and least violent. This premise—founded on a historical fallacy and flawed in its mixture of ideological proselytism and theoretical revisionism of the devastating impact of the colonial enterprise—is building up culturally, and is hindering a serious and straightforward debate on racism. In public discourse in Portugal, racism and its denial demarcate the site of difference in a society that continues to think of itself as culturally homogeneous. This is because it is structurally and historically anchored to its colonial heritage, from which it has yet to be released.

The issue of ethnic/racial diversity and the struggle for its visibility in public space and political representation compels us to more closely analyze the ideological slippage that has intensified racism in society’s social and cultural practices. The racist ideology that has solidified as “cultural racism” draws on other theoretical and political apparatuses to gain its social and political legitimacy. The transition of this ideological racism into a cultural reality that cuts across all spheres of society has led to its trivialization. It has also made it much more difficult to address the current normalization of violence in everyday social practices and institutional interactions.

Racism has become increasingly culturally and politically entrenched in Portuguese society. It finds expression in economic, cultural, social, and political dimensions; it also results from Eurocentrism, which has produced the demand to differentiate, distinguish, and alienate racialized ethnic groups from the rest of humanity on the basis of their skin color and/or culture. The main impetus of this enterprise to dehumanize racialized ethnic groups lays in the power to construe the myths that have always justified racism.

Thus, far from being a mere repository of unconscious and harmless prejudices, as is often implied, an analysis of the current political situation—including the strengthening of fascism and the rise of the far right across Europe—demonstrates that racism remains a conjunction of contemporary institutional political practices with the ideologies of slavery, imperialism, and colonialism. Racism against the Roma and Blacks, as well as Islamophobia—whether overt or covert—is an institution that results from the philosophical and political traditions that have always considered these groups, and all other “non-white” people, as inferior.

Over the centuries, in Portugal and throughout the West, ideological racism has been consolidated and reinforced as institutional racism; this in turn has functioned to legitimize sociological racism, or better yet, cultural racism. Back during the colonial period and the era of slavery, and in the periods following them, racism always retained a characteristic trait: the denial of humanity to a substantial part of humanity. And, in the development of institutional racism, the boundary between culture and politics was very tenuous for a long time. But now, it is culture that justifies politics: now, it is the other way around. Political organization and cultural cataloging have always supported state racism, euphemistically referred to as

“institutional racism.” For example, the Indigenous Charter (Estatuto do Indigenato) of 1926 stated: “The indigenous are not granted, for lack of practical significance, the rights pertaining to our constitutional institutions. We do not submit their private, domestic, and public lives, […] to our political laws; our administrative, civil, commercial, and penal codes; or our judicial organization.” Three years later, in 1929, the second article of the revised statute adamantly claimed: “Individuals of the black race and their descendants, born or living in the colonies, do not yet exhibit the individual and social habits required for the full implementation of public and private rights of Portuguese citizens.” In other words, even after the abolition of slavery and the establishment of the republic, dehumanization was the structural foundation of the social and political organization of the country’s relationship with non-white people.

The cultural underpinning of today’s Romaphobia is equally as dense and old, and is very deeply rooted in the institutional history of our country. On Roma communities, for example, one can read barbarities such as these, in a royal decree of 1649: “I, the King . . . . understanding the great loss and disquiet suffered by the kingdom in regard to the vagabond people called gypsies, who form gangs and live off robbing and tricking, against the service of God and me. Beyond the kingdom’s ordinances, through many laws and provisions, we have sought to extinguish the name and ways of these gypsy vagabonds with prison and punishment, banishment and exile, without end or results; and lately, wanting to completely banish the way of life and memory of these tramps, with no home, nor laws, nor churches, nor settlements, nor livelihood apart from robbing, I ordered that in all the kingdom they are arrested and brought to this city [Lisbon], where they will be shipped and taken for service in the conquests . . .”

The Roma were punished with flogging and deported to the colonies for ten years or more just for being Roma, as an eighteenth-century royal decree attests. In this decree, among other outrageous comments, things like this were declared: “I order that in this kingdom no person of either sex, is to use the garb, language, or gadgets of the gypsies, nor their trickeries—their so-called “buenas dichas” [fortune-telling]; and likewise, [I order] that the so-called gypsies, or the people related to them, do not live together in more than a maximum of two houses per street, and that there are not 37 together on the roads, or settled together in the fields, nor will they deal in selling or buying, or trading of animals, but that in clothing, tongue, and way of life, they be like other people in the land; and those who do otherwise, even those with no previous penalty, will be beaten and banished for ten years; men will be banished to the ships and women to Brazil.”

It is thus evident that the institutional structures undergirding contemporary societies have inherited the dehumanization and dispossession of dignity that almost always went hand in hand with justifying the racial discrimination that sustained the Portuguese colonial enterprise. Moreover, they continue to determine the country’s current sociopolitical relations. The strengthening of the extreme right in Europe in general, and all the racist episodes in Portugal in the last few years that have preceded its recent institutional legitimation, objectively substantiate centuries-old historical continuities. Ideological power relations also cyclically reinvent them, though they are always solidly anchored in Eurocentrism. It is more visible now than ever before, that racism did not only not end, but moreover, that it is increasingly present in society, both culturally and politically. Unfortunately, we are finding that behind many administrative acts, legislative initiatives, legal decisions, and political positions on non-white people in the country, lurks “racism as the wild shelter of European humanism, its beast,” covered by the “the dark veil of the color” of one’s skin and/or of cultural difference.

The Enlightenment and universalism are generally presented as historical, political, and cultural moments aimed at strengthening the demand for a radical and uncompromising humanism in the face of barbarism and uncivilized backwardness. They are thus culturally considered the genetic markers of modernity, and of the other historical moments of moral release from obscurantism and barbarism. Yet, this is a rather romanticized and very dubious perspective. As a matter of fact, from all the classics of these periods—from Hegel to Kant, through Hume, Tocqueville, Montesquieu, Comte, Durkheim, and so many others—upon whose thinking lie the theoretical and philosophical foundations of current ideological models guiding political debates, none of them escape the most ordinary of racisms. They all believed in the superiority of European civilizations and cultures. As David Hume wrote, for example, “I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general, all the other species of men . . . to be naturally inferior to the whites.”[1]

Supporting Hume’s thesis, Kant wrote in turn, in the Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime: “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color. The religion of fetishes so widespread among them is perhaps a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible in human nature.”[2]

Very early on, Frantz Fanon diagnosed the imbrication of ideological processes with the cultural mechanisms of the production and consolidation of racism as a space of hierarchization. In his speech at the First Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris in September 1956, he declared that, “The unilaterally declared normative value of certain cultures deserves our careful attention.” He also discloses that, “One of the paradoxes immediately encountered is the rebound of egocentric, sociocentric definitions.” He recalls that the process systematically consists of affirming, “the existence of human groups having no culture; then of a hierarchy of cultures; and finally, the concept of cultural relativity. We have here the whole range from overall negation to singular and specific recognition. It is precisely this fragmented and bloody history that we must sketch on the level of cultural anthropology.”[3] Finally, he further states, “The doctrine of cultural hierarchy is thus but one aspect of a systematized hierarchization implacably pursued. […] To study the relations of racism and culture is to raise the question of their reciprocal action. If culture is the combination of motor and mental behavior patterns arising from the encounter of man with nature and with his fellow-man, it can be said that racism is indeed a cultural element.”[4]

Racism’s biological justification for colonial and slave violence perch among the “lights” of the Enlightenment and universalism. Hegel, one of the greatest bulwarks of Western thought of the period, stated that, “In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence—as for example, God, or Law—in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being. […] We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality—all that we call feeling—if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. […] The undervaluing of humanity among [Negroes] reaches an incredible degree of intensity. Tyranny is regarded as no wrong, and cannibalism is looked upon as quite customary and proper. […] Among the Negroes moral sentiments are quite weak, or more strictly speaking, non-existent.”[5]

Auguste Comte, in his classic The Course on Positive Philosophy, asked, “Why is Europe the scene, and why is the white race the agent, of the highest civilization?” He answered without blinking that, “No doubt, we are beginning to see, in the organization of the whites, and especially their cerebral constitution, some positive germs of superiority.”[6]

Analyzing “the probable future condition of the three races which inhabit the territory of the United States,” Alexis de Tocqueville stated in his famous work Democracy in America, that, “Amongst these widely differing families of men, the first which attracts attention—the superior in intelligence, in power, and in enjoyment—is the White, or European, the MAN pre-eminently so called; below him appear the Negro and the Indian. These two unhappy races have nothing in common, neither birth, nor features, nor language, nor habits. Their only resemblance lies in their misfortunes. Both of them occupy an equally inferior position in the country they inhabit.”[7] And further on, he writes that, “The modern slave differs from his master not only in his condition, but in his origin. You may set the Negro free, but you cannot make him otherwise than an alien to the European. Nor is this all; we scarcely acknowledge the common features of humanity in this stranger whom slavery has brought amongst us. His physiognomy is to our eyes hideous, his understanding weak, his tastes low; and we are almost inclined to look upon him as a being intermediate between man and the brutes.”[8]

If we consider culture as a space where the production of social and political relations, learning, knowledge, and skills accumulate, in light of these short excerpts from some of the most important European thinkers, we can see the intrinsic link between the political management of ethnic diversity and the cultural production of racism in the European postcolonial collective imaginary. There is an umbilical cord linking contemporary racism to European cultural and identity construction.

Edward Said identified this condition by stressing that, “philosophers will conduct their discussions of Locke, Hume, and empiricism without ever taking into account that there is an explicit connection in these classic writers between their ‘philosophic’ doctrines and racial theory, justifications of slavery, or arguments for colonial exploitation.”[9] He adds in the same vein, “Most professional humanists as a result are unable to make the connection between the prolonged and sordid cruelty of such practices as slavery, colonialist and racial oppression, and imperial subjection on the one hand, and the poetry, fiction, and philosophy of the society that engages in these practices on the other.”[10] This consequently led to humanity being divided up on the basis of  “a hierarchy of races that reduced and dehumanized” other peoples and their cultures.[11]

Long before Edward Said, in the mid-1950s, Fanon stated with inherent clarity and straightforwardness: “In reality, a colonial country is a racist country. If in England, in Belgium, or in France, despite the democratic principles affirmed by these respective nations, there are still racists, it is these racists who, in their opposition to the country as a whole, are logically consistent.”[12] In other words, despite the politeness of theoretical rhetorical conventions on democratic ethics and morality, racism persists because it is constitutive of the ideological matrix of the culturally prevailing regime.

Thus, discrimination reverberates in political constructions that operate as cultural mechanisms that diminish and stigmatize the “other” in order to impose crippling homogenization onto one’s right to difference. In postcolonial European societies, a hegemonic homogenizing agenda operates against non-white ethnic groups and against difference. The demonization of cultural values, forms, and lifestyles such as language, clothing, and non-white people’s relationship with the world justify their marginalization on the pretext that they are incompatible with “European civilization.” Non-white cultures are devalued and threatened with destruction, and often even actually demolished. And once again, precisely in this regard, Fanon stated that, “The reproach of inertia constantly directed at ‘the native’ is utterly dishonest. As though it were possible for a man to evolve otherwise than within the framework of a culture that recognizes him and that he decides to assume.”[13]

Essentially, the majoritarian cultural order’s accusation of the cultural inadequacy of non-white communities for their alleged “refusal” and/or “incapacity for social integration,” results from a strategy of ostracizing difference. The frequent accusation that ethnic minorities—particularly the Roma, the African diaspora, and immigrants and their descendants—lack urbanity and civility, is a strategy of cultural stigmatization.

From framing non-white people through biology to essentialist representations of them, forms of racism have adapted to the times and their narratives, employing multiple political devices of exclusion and various institutional mechanisms of spatially, socially, culturally, and politically confining racialized communities. The plight of economic, social, and political vulnerability ends up exacerbating cultural exclusion, thrusting communities into a kind of “identarian underground” through their lack of recognition and lack of space for cultural affirmation.

It is noteworthy that until recently, the presence of racialized people in public space has been almost non-existent, and whenever it occurs, it is often clearly as subalterns. In this regard, and regarding cultural marginalization and the struggle for the right to cultural recognition more broadly, Stuart Hall has said of the role of music in affirming communities, that it is symbolic of a “nostalgia for what cannot be.”[14]

Roughly speaking, it can be argued that the rhetoric of praise for ethnic and cultural diversity in political discourse does not correspond to reality; such rhetoric may even function to conceal colonial and racist relationships between European countries and their racialized communities. For example, when European countries arrogantly and forcefully insist that immigrants must learn the languages ​​of their host countries, they are suggesting that [European languages] are the only ones that could enable these people to grasp the social and political codes of their new contexts and habitus. Above all, Europeans are also implying that immigrants’ native languages ​​ are unable to construct such codes for understanding the complexity of the reality of their new contexts. This is false: not only can these languages ​​create these codes (and they have), but they can also re-appropriate them, re-signify them, and adapt them to their original cultural values. The proof of this capacity for re-appropriation and cultural reframing is demonstrated in the way in which second-generation immigrants are able to construct a political and cultural space for claiming a sense of cosmopolitan belonging through music, urban art, and alternative sports.

The majority’s preoccupation with preserving their cultural values in the face of the possible defilement of the “national matrix” by external cultural “contagions” is related to the specter of cultural superiority inherited from the Eurocentric imaginary that shapes national pride. It is this legacy that Kobena Mercer dissects when he says that “identity only becomes an issue when it is in crisis, when something assumed to be fixed, coherent, and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty.”[15] From this perspective, it is interesting to note that in rhetoric about national cultural identity (in opposition to urban and suburban cultures), there is a level of discomfort expressed in lectures on urbanity and civility, because urban and suburban cultures are creating spaces of resistance, cultural affirmation, and identification that refuse hegemonic cultural homogeneity.

Strictly speaking, the much-discussed European identity crisis regarding foreign and immigrant communities reflects, above all, a fear of difference. In particular, it reflects a fear of having to share with racialized subjects on equal terms and with dignity, and of having to share the power to construct narratives about belonging to the national fabric. In postcolonial societies such as Portugal, language, diverse forms of cultural expression, and ethnic diversity are increasingly spaces for producing narratives and counter-narratives, whether through the reductive essentialization of difference, or through strategies that involve claiming and rescuing subordinated identities.

Some political reconfigurations of the “national culture” are leading to a tacit political consensus between traditionally progressive forces and conservative forces. This consensus consists in articulating—through a limited cultural policy agenda in the face of the ethnocultural diversity of European postcolonial societies—discourse that glorifies the colonial past, along with political rhetoric that stresses the importance of cosmopolitanism. This concession by progressive sectors to the normative proto-nationalist rhetoric of “national identity” and cultural belonging (and with insidious semantic decline), leads to the ostracization of ethnic diversity, and positions culture at the epicenter of all phobias against difference.

It is therefore unwise to assume that the abolition of slavery, the end of colonialism, the independence of the former colonies, and the military defeat of Nazism meant the lato sensus defeat of racism. Neither the military and political defeats of Nazism and colonialism, nor their “moral defeats” signified the defeat of racism. This is because, ideologically, it remained structurally rooted in popular culture, cyclically reinventing itself in institutional, political struggles. Structurally, cultural racism represents a kind of a return to the past, when the so-called “decline” or “backwardness” of civilization justified it. Once again, all fields of knowledge and modalities of being in the world mobilized to legitimize the shift from biological racism to cultural racism.

The various angles of analyzing race in Portugal—a place marred by its colonial heritage and Eurocentric institutional doctrine—highlight an expressive polysemy of racism. These are shaped by a complex web of fields that affirm cultural racism—including dressing and eating, and flavors and smells—and almost anything else that can serve as devices for marking, separating, moving away, confining, and discriminating. At stake are modes of occupying space, conflicts over memory, and the real and/or fictional symbolic representations of racialized bodies, class and gender, and cultural and artistic production; these are all instrumentalized to feed the culture of racism. From cinema to theater, history to literature, philosophy to anthropology, sociology to political science, and academia to politics, racism is still an expression of a past that remains present, a past that insists on not passing, and of a future postponed. This is because it is deeply and symbolically steeped in a collective imagination that refuses to move forward. Of strategic importance to the issue of race, are cinema, theater, literature, media, music, the fine arts, and other non-academic modes of knowledge. At a time when identities have become political weapons of division, and in which culture occupies and will continue to occupy (unfortunately, for a long time) an unprecedented centrism regarding the affirmation/contestation of difference, the boundaries between racism and culture will become increasingly and dangerously unstable. And that could unfortunately result in the further strengthening of racism. The school that shapes imaginaries and the culture that ossifies them are the preferred location for the growth, survival, and crystallization of racism. Faced with this, our challenge is to identify, among many other things, where culture ends and where racism begins, in order to collectively choose which school and which culture we want, so we can construct a society free of discrimination.

Lisbon, 11/28/19

[1] David Hume, “Of national characters” (1748/1753), footnote f, in Hume: Political Essays, ed. Knud Haakonssen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 86.
[2] Emmanuel Kant, Observations on the Feelings of the Beautiful and Sublime, trans. J.T. Goldthwait (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960 [1764]), 110–111.
[3] Frantz Fanon, “Racism and Culture” (1956), trans. Haakon Chevalier, in Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays (New York: Grove Press, 1967): 31.
[4] Fanon, “Racism and Culture,” trans. Haakon Chevalier, 31–32.
[5] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “Geographical Basis of History” trans. J. Sibree, in the Philosophy of History, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1956 [1899]), 93, 95, 96.
[6] Auguste Comte, The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, vol. II, trans. Harriet Martineau (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2009 [1853]), 544.
[7] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1, trans. Henry Reeve (Boston: John Allyn Publisher, 1876 [1838]), 425.
[8] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, 459.
[9] Edward Said, “Introduction to Orientalism” (1978), in The Edward Said Reader, eds. Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 79.
[10] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage Books, 1994), xiv.
[11] Edward Said, Freud and the Non-European (London: Verso, 2014), 21.
[12] Fanon, “Racism and Culture,” trans. Haakon Chevalier, 39–40.
[13] Fanon, “Racism and Culture,” trans. Haakon Chevalier, 34.
[14] Stuart Hall, in The Stuart Hall Project, directed by John Akomfrah (U.K: Smoking Dogs Films, 2012).
[15] Kobena Mercer, “Welcome to the Jungle: Identity and Diversity in Postmodern Politics” in Identity, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), 43.