Where in the world are people most likely to say that they would not want “people of another race” as neighbors? The results, from the Swedish World Values Survey, were published this week in The Washington Post in the form of a map by Max Fisher, who drew some conclusions here. The Swedish research team, meanwhile, found that racism does not necessarily decrease when economic freedom increases. (But homophobia does.)
The results are fascinating, but they should not be seen as inerrant proof of how things stand. Nor should the map be used as a travel guide. In the case of Sweden, which has seen on-going riots in the poor suburban neighborhoods of Stockholm all week, qualifying as less racist than other countries hardly proves you are racism-free. And as Fisher points out, there is no guarantee that the respondents answered honestly.
When both Americans and Germans hear the word “race,” only the most socially inept among them do not know to respond very, very carefully. In Germany, even seemingly objective words like “home” and “deport” make most people immediately think of the Holocaust. But if you said to a white German, “How would you feel about having gypsies live next door?”, or if you said to a WASP American, “How would you feel about having neighbors who are illegal immigrants?”, you might get a more cynical answer. (I use the offensive terms “illegal immigrants” and “gypsies” for hypothetical purposes. Readers outside the U.S. and Europe should note that “undocumented immigrants” and “Roma” are more objective, less derogatory terms.) Almost everyone in the U.S. and Germany knows racism is a bad thing, which is why most racists will not admit to it. As Desmond Tutu said, five minutes after apartheid ended in South Africa, you couldn’t find anyone who had ever supported apartheid.
Indeed, while readers in India have been reacting angrily to their nation’s standing in the survey, there is a tremendous risk that people from the countries that appear less racist are, or will become, dangerously complacent about their supposed open-mindedness. The U.S. and U.K. appear slightly more tolerant than Germany, but a friend from India has openly said she feels much more respected and protected here in Berlin than in New York, where she has been harassed by Homeland Security officials, or in London, where her brother was beaten up for being a “Paki.” Anecdotal evidence is less empirical than statistical evidence, but statistical evidence is far from infallible.
Take for example the fact that France ranks as one of the most racist nations in the West. The strongest evidence to support this finding is probably the popularity of the right-wing, anti-immigration party National Front, which won 17.9% of the vote in the first round of last year’s presidential election. But racism cannot always be measured so plainly. In the United States, hate groups are on the rise, but most segregationists and white supremacists vote either Republican or Democrat because they must operate in a two-party system if they want to get anything done. Many members of Congress have been members of the nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens (also known as the CCC, which sounds a lot like another white supremacist organization), which in 1997 presented the former head of the National Front with a Confederate flag. The U.S. ranks as more tolerant than France in the survey, yet a great deal of its racism survives covertly.
And on the flipside, America’s history reveals more overt racism than France’s. All anti-miscegenation laws were lifted in France 175 years earlier than in the United States. French literary giant Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was the son of France’s first black general, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who was the highest ranking black general in any Western country until Colin Powell rose to the rank in 1989. Racial segregation laws did not exist in modern France until the Nazi Occupation, which is why many black American celebrities like Josephine Baker expatriated there. Anecdotal evidence suggests people of sub-Saharan background have been better integrated into French society than people of Arab and/or Muslim background, but this is difficult to examine because, unlike in the United States, it has been illegal in France since 1958 to collect data on race or ethnicity.
Indeed, what do we mean by people of a “different race”? What do you imagine? In the United States, we tend to think of ethnicity as something we can’t quite put our finger on, while race is widely thought to be based on indisputable biological facts. Having pale skin, brownish wavy hair, and no epicanthic fold makes people think of me in the U.S. and Europe as white, affording me all the privileges that implies. The precise details of my ethnicity and heritage—growing up in a WASP family with ancestors who were English, Irish, German, Polish, Scottish, and also possibly Jewish—are rarely an issue. Nowadays. But marriage to my Irish Catholic grandfather in 1943 led my grandmother to be disowned by her own grandmother.
And today the ethnicity of a white person of Middle Eastern background is a major issue for many right-wing Westerners. Some will argue that the dark hair and olive skin tone common among Middle Easterners renders them a separate, biologically identifiable race, but then what about Greek or Spanish people? What about Austrians and Southern Germans? What about that Harry Potteresque raven-hair/pale skin combination so common in the U.K. and Ireland? Is this starting to sound silly? Jokes about redheads suddenly become less innocuous in light of violent gingerism. For better or for worse, predominantly white societies recognize tremendous physical diversity across Europe, but usually fail to differentiate between Chinese and Japanese, or West Africans and East Africans. Race is in the eye—or mind—of the beholder.
President Obama is almost universally perceived as black by Americans, whereas his sister Maya could be assumed to be anything from Iranian to Italian. In South Africa or Zimbabwe, he would not be categorized as “Black” but “Coloured.” Indeed, a few years ago some German friends noted to me that Obama didn’t look “black” to them. He looked more Tunisian or Ethiopian. My first reaction was to assume this was racist – how dare they deny him his identity! He identifies as black and self-determination is all that matters! But, admittedly, when I first saw him, I didn’t wait to hear how he self-identified before I made subconscious assumptions about his race. The way in which Americans are trained to immediately classify anyone with kinky hair and/or a certain shape of nose as black is based on one of the most racist ideas in human history, the One-Drop Rule, which classified anyone with a single African ancestor as “black” so that slavery could be easily enforced in the U.S. Denying someone their right to self-determination by instantly classifying them based on their appearance is the essence of racism.
If all of this makes you feel as uncomfortable as I do, it is because, as Jay Smooth has pointed out, racism and the entire concept of separate races were invented to deny people the right to feel comfortable in a given place. All racial categories are social constructs, not biological facts, and they use complex combinations of class, language/dialect, religion, appearance, ancestry, and residence as determining factors.
Years ago, my German-Swedish boyfriend almost went through the roof when a teenage friend of the family said she felt a bit nervous in Berlin “because of all the immigrants around.” How could she say such a thing in front of his American girlfriend?! he seethed. But she didn’t think of me as an “immigrant” because I’m middle class, I have the same hair color and complexion as the majority of German citizens, I celebrate Christmas, and I immigrated to Berlin simply because I loved the city, not out of economic necessity or a fear of persecution at home. Around the world, some people are intolerant of any race that they perceive as different from their own, while others are intolerant of only certain races. Which kind of racism is preferable?
No matter the answer, the existence of the second kind proves that both kinds of racism are unnatural.