Steve Bannon is right not to beat around the bush: We are racists. Last Saturday, when speaking to France’s far-right National Front, he affirmed their nationalistic platform. “Let them call you racists,” he said. Speaking to those who might be feeling uncomfortable with the National Front’s history and racist image, Bannon said: “Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day, we get stronger and they get weaker.”
Bannon’s remarks were focused on the world of politics, but it’s worth noting that from a biological perspective, racism is a predisposition shared by every one of us, from hydramus baboons to human beings, historically and in the present day. But rather than wearing it as a badge of honor, we should wear it as a badge of shame. Just because an instinct is built into us is no reason not to try to resist it.
Those who rise to the top or take the top by force are often corrupt and mean, as we can see at home and abroad, but the hoi polloi always share the same urges.
What can we do about it? Should we follow Steve Bannon’s example and celebrate racism as if it were a benign way of shouting, “Vive la différence!” or should we try hard to resist the urge to put “the other” in a box that we can then sit on or even crush?
We can fight this vile desire to treat ourselves as superior in small ways.
For instance, Bannon and I are both white. Our ancestors largely came to America from England and, within a decade of arrival, had carried out such racist acts as burning to death — in God’s name and with the church’s blessing — a village of some 500 Native American men, women and children, the smell of whose burning flesh was declared “horrible.”
Colonizing perpetrators performed this despicable deed to stop the native people, whom one governor described as “Adam’s degenerate seed,” from continuing to take part in (and reap profits from) the fur trade, which was grotesquely cruel.
This is not unique to the United States, of course. As a daughter of colonists from England, I spent my childhood in India, where the British, not satisfied with humiliating Asian Indians by occupying their lands and plundering their riches, historically took to punishing “insubordination” and “rebellion” by suffocating their “lessers,” hanging them publicly, and shooting them in cold blood.
Now, lest I appear to be holding nonwhites in higher esteem than whites, let’s not gloss over the fact that Indians on both continents gave as good as they got whenever they could. Asian Indians burned widows to death on funeral pyres, and Hindus slaughtered Muslim families and vice versa at the drop of a Quran or a Gita. They also sewed snakes’ mouths shut, pierced bears’ nostrils so they could thread ropes through them, and captured and trained infant elephants by tying them down and beating them bloody — all atrocities, some that continue in modern times.
The Native Americans were hard at it in earlier centuries, too, scalping settlers, including women, and, yes, here it comes again, the animal part: trapping wild eagles to make headdresses out of their feathers and running bison off cliffs to their deaths.
In nature, the instinct to elevate those whose “tribe” one best relates to, whether one is a baboon or a Brit, is built in. Among the animal races — which, as species-ists, we have decided excludes the human race, a biological falsehood — from chimpanzees who hunt down colobus monkeys to cuckoos who kick other birds’ eggs out of their nests and cats who toy with their prey, there are turf wars, food fights, and even infanticide, something that we can also see in the news when human males retaliate over what they see as a violation of their “breeding rights,” shooting a girlfriend or wife and the child(ren) she took with her when she left his bed.
For further evidence in the human population, look no further than the war atrocities in Bosnia and Croatia and Rwanda, the hatred between Irish Catholics and the Protestants, and on and on ad nauseam. Closer to home for Americans, look at what’s been done by men to women, by white people to black people, by straights to homosexuals. And no one should think that the oppression of nonhumans by humans doesn’t count because “everyone” does it. In earlier times, “everyone” thought women were too stupid to vote or own property, kept slaves in shackles, experimented on orphans, and institutionalized humans with disabilities.
But we can resist history, and we must.
Decide not to go along with it, to fight it with sense and sensibility and with acts of kindness to all others. Don’t cut off motorists you don’t know just because you can get away with it. Don’t eat and wear living beings just because you have the legal right to ignore their feelings and interests. When you find yourself noticing differences between yourself and others, notice the commonalities, too. Appreciate that we all share feelings of hunger, thirst, pain, joy, grief, love for our families, and freedom. None of that depends on whether our skin is a particular color or naked or covered with fur, feathers or scales.
If there’s a beating heart, let’s take that as a sign that we must be respectful. Racists we may be, but we don’t have to act like it. Better to wear our hearts on our sleeves than the despicable “badge of honor” Steve Bannon wishes to wear on his.