EXCERPT 23: Race is a Four Letter Word

LOGBOOK THREE: Connecting with the African Diaspora in Canada and Coming
to Grips with the Roots of Racism
EXCERPT 23: Race is a Four Letter Word
“The traditional concept of race as a biological fact is a myth. I am going to show you that
nearly everything you think you know about race is a social construct. You don’t have to
be a racist to be wrong about what race is. That doesn’t make the efforts of a belief in
race any less damaging or the situation less parlous. Most Americans still believe in it
without knowing what it is they believe in.”
—Joseph Grace, The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America
The Concept of Race
At the heart of many, if not most, discriminatory actions, particularly those between individuals of
different colour, is this elusive, enigmatic concept of “race.” This concept postulates that the world’s
population can be divided into a number of groups that have similar genetic makeup and that each of
these groups is recognizable by appearance and specific attributes.
This may at first appear to be a relatively benign concept for
attributing human differences but it has been seized upon by
unscrupulous individuals and used for personal and political gain.
Hitler twisted this thinking into his concept of an Aryan Master Race
and used it to promote the extermination of the Jewish race within
Throughout the world, we can find evidence of individuals drawing
on this concept of “race,” assigning positive attributes to one race
(their own) and noting the deficiencies of those attributes in other
races and then using these concepts to justify discrimination against
certain groups of people.
Although most of us have this concept in our primary set of vocabulary, my sense is that few of us, if
pressed, could define it with much clarity.
The preeminent evolutionary biologist, Joseph Graves, writes of asking his university students to
define the concept and found, to his surprise, the sad reality that:
most believed that black, white, Asian, Hispanic and American Indian are biological races
some thought every country had produced its own biological race
some felt races had existed since the beginning of tiresome thought they appeared in
antiquity about the time of the fall of the Tower of Babel, as described in the Book of Genesis
many believed that race determined one’s intelligence quotient and other personality traits;
as well as sexual characteristics; athletic ability and disease predisposition (see Graves’ The
Race Myth).
These surprising social stereotypes promote three basic assumptions that sustain racism throughout
the world. These assumptions are:
that races exist
that each race has its own genetically determined characteristics
that social hierarchy is an inescapable result from these differences
Race and IQ
A favourite base for promoting the position of racists has been the enormous amount of energy that
has gone into the study of links between race and IQ. The essence of many pseudo-scientific studies
about IQ is to argue that races (the traditional big three—blacks, whites and Asians) are real and
distinguished by cognition, morality and physical differences. Usually in ratings based on these
assumptions, the black race finishes last.
My first memory of these arguments came early in University when in Psychology class I was
introduced to the writings of Arthur Jensen who was arguing that the clear differences in IQ scores
between racial groups in the United States reflected different genetic makeup of different races.
Jensen’s arguments surfaced again during my time at the Althouse College of Education when the
prestigious Harvard Education Review carried reports of his work.
The anger that surfaced among some groups as a result of Jensen’s work became real to me during
my visits to Harlem for research and my time in the Columbia Teachers Collective located at the edge
of Harlem.
The controversy over the arguments about the positive correlation between membership in the black
race and low IQ exploded at Western University as a result of the work of Phillip Rushton. Students
mobilized to try to stop his teaching about the inferiority of some races (based on IQ studies), but the
University defended his right to explore this topic and report his findings.
These emotional interactions led me to learn more about IQ tests—and the many aspects of
intelligence, which are influenced by such things as poverty and other environmental issues. I
challenged my student teachers to consider the impact of one’s social and economic environment by
confronting them with a different kind of IQ test—the Soul Folk Chitlin Test, one that young children
in Harlem could pass easily but which stumped my middle-class white teachers. (See the Appendix
attached to this Excerpt.)
Grappling With the Pervasiveness of White Racism against Blacks
“When I mention that racism has a history, people often give me very confused looks.
Racism is most often seen as an individual, psychological phenomenon. For example,
one often hears the statement. “Racism is just human nature.” Buried in that
statement is the implication that since there isn’t much we can do about human
nature, there isn’t much we can do about racism either. According to this point of
view, racism is constant, unchanging, like the weather, the moon or the seasons.
Understanding history is a good antidote to that kind of pessimism. If we can show
that racism has a beginning, then the “human nature argument" doesn’t hold much
water. And if racism has a beginning, then we can have an end.“
—Toronto Board of Education Report
As I became more aware in the sixties of the strong feelings of some whites against blacks I became
interested in understanding why the discrimination against blacks had become so firmly embedded in
western societies and seemed to have a great capacity to resist any efforts to reduce racism. In
addition, I wondered why anti-black discrimination was apparently one of the most significant forms
of racism at work in the world.
In my early efforts to understand the historical roots of this discrimination I was initially naively
confident that historical and scientific research backed by educational efforts would continually
reduce these historical and scientific misconceptions about race; i.e., that races represent various
subspecies of the human race; that different races are characterized by specific and different
attributes; and that the white race occupied a place at the top of this natural ladder with blacks at
the bottom.
As new historical data was unearthed, and as I became more familiar with
older ethnic historical information that had already been available, I
assumed that the availability of this strong new evidence to refute the
pseudo-scientific claims used to support the promotion of racism would
become quickly marginalized. But here I was wrong. Anti-black racism
continued to be part of thinking among some mainstream whites in spite of
increasing evidence of important cultural contributions by great African
societies in the past (Ife, Ghana, Timbuktu, Zimbabwe); in spite of the
increasing availability of stories of outstanding leaders of African ethnicity in
Europe, the United States and Canada; and, most recently, in spite of the
incredible breakthroughs in genetic studies which, in essence, prove
that everyone in the world is united through our common genetic
heritage in Africa.
It is surprising that in spite of all this accumulated knowledge, antiblack racism manages to sustain a strong foothold in western
societies. How do we explain the amazing resilience of these
destructive ideas?
Ife Culture
Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana
A Look at the History of Racism against Africans (Blacks)
Native West Africans first appeared in London England in the
middle of the 16th century. Until that time black men were virtually
unknown in England. Their arrival was viewed with interest but
with few negative comments.
Western European explorers had made contact with various African
communities much earlier than this and there are some intriguing
stories of those early positive relationships. One of them deals with
contacts between Portugal and the Kingdom of Congo in the late
1400s. The Portuguese left Franciscan monks in the Congo, took
some Africans to Europe and brought them back after they had
learned the Portuguese language and Christian religion.
The King of Congo became a Christian, with the title of Dom Alfonso
the First. He learned the Portuguese language and carried on
extensive correspondence with his counterpart in Europe, all
couched in terms of equality of status. It is reported that he studied
the legal code of Portugal and, noting its excessive harshness, he
admonished the European King to copy African rules and reduce
their severity.
Great Enclosing in Ancient Zimbabwe
Ancient City of Timbuktu
The Economics of the Slave Trade and the Later Colonization of Africa Requires the
Development of a Myth about Africans
My personal journey to understand the historical roots of the
negative perceptions by Europeans and North Americans of Africa
and Africans led me to the realization that these views have been
firmly in place for almost half a millennium, since about 1500. I
also came to realize that they came about mainly as a conscious
invention designed to support two gigantic events that followed
each other closely: the African Slave Trade and the colonization of
Africa by Europe.
Two American scholars, Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jabiow (The
Africa that Never Was: Four Centuries of British Writing About
Africa) show how a dramatic change in British writing about Africa
coincides with an increase in the volume of the slave trade to its
highest level in the 18th century.
The Africa That Never Was:
Four Centuries of British
Writing About Africa
Dorothy Hammond
Alta Jabiow
“That content shifted from almost indifferent and matter of fact reports of what the
voyageurs had seen to judgmental evaluation of the Africans—the shift to such pejorative
comment was due in large measure to the effects of the slave trade. A vested interest in
the slave trade produced a literature of devaluation and since the slave trade was under
attack, the most derogatory writings about Africa came from its literary defenders.” (pp.
22, 23)
Chinua Achebe, the brilliant Nigerian author whom I met briefly in 1960
on a Nigerian train and whose breakthrough novel, Things Fall Apart,
influenced me greatly, summarizes the ongoing impact of this pro-slavery
pro-colonization writing in his most recent book.
Chinua Achebe
“The vast arsenal of derogatory images of Africa amassed to defend
the slave trade and, later colonization, gave the world a literary tradition that is now
happily defunct but also a particular way of looking (or not looking) at Africa and Africans
that ensures, alas, into our own day. And so, although those sensational ‘African’ novels
which were so popular in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth have trickled to
a virtual stop, their centuries old obsession with lurid and degrading stereotypes of Africa
has been bequeathed to the cinema, to journalism, to certain varieties of anthropology,
even to humanitarianism and missionary work itself. (The Education of a BritishProtected Child, 2009, p 79-80)
Closing Thoughts on the Distinctive Canadian Approach to Racism
When I was in Trinidad at the University of West India in 1971, a number of students were pushing
me rather hard about the racist society in Canada, to which I belonged. My answer to them was if
they had said this to me back in 1959 when I was first getting involved in this type of work, I probably
would have felt sorry for them—sorry that they had had so many bad experiences that it had warped
their perspective—for Canadians were really not like that.
But a dozen years later and with a few more phases of my Odyssey completed, I was much more
prepared to accept their description of my society as racist—if we could talk a little more about what
they meant by racism. For, to my mind, the majority of Canadians whom they were attacking as racist
would be honestly shocked to be so described. In fact, they might argue by saying, “I am so lacking in
prejudice that I am prepared to spend my time and money and energy to help you…become like me.”
If we see this unconscious sense of superiority as being racist then, yes, I live in a racist society. And
this type of racism becomes institutionalized easily because, for the most part, it is unconscious.
Rethinking Africa and Race
The Right Honourable
Michaëlle Jean, Governor
General of Canada
My conscious awareness of the impact of these experiences on my later life
is that it alerted me to watch for insightful presentations on the themes of
the contributions of Africans to various disciplines and the constant
challenge of blunting a powerful force in some people’s mind and soul
which somehow made it impossible to accept a black person as an equal,
no matter what their accomplishments are. This aberration is rearing its
head dramatically again in the United States in the thoughtless attacks on
President Barack Obama because of his race. In almost the same period we,
in Canada, accepted celebration of a descendent of a slave as our Governor
To track some of the realities behind these surface differences, I want to now turn in the next series
of Excerpts from Logbook Four to stories outlining the evolution of our Canadian identity and our
efforts to move away from our early discriminatory immigration policies to create an official
multicultural society.
Contact: [email protected]
Appendix to Excerpt 23 of Logbook Three: Soul Folk Chitling Test
What follows is Adrian Dove's 1971 short version of the Chitling Test:
1. A "handkerchief head" is:
(a) a cool cat, (b) a porter, (c) an Uncle Tom, (d) a hoddi, (e) a preacher.
2. Which word is most out of place here?
(a) splib, (b) blood, (c) gray, (d) spook, (e) black.
3. A "gas head" is a person who has a:
(a) fast-moving car, (b) stable of "lace," (c) "process," (d) habit of stealing cars, (e) long jail record for
4. "Bo Diddley" is a:
(a) game for children, (b) down-home cheap wine, (c) down-home singer, (d) new dance, (e) Moejoe
5. "Hully Gully" came from:
(a) East Oakland, (b) Fillmore, (c) Watts, (d) Harlem, (e) Motor City.
6. Cheap chitlings (not the kind you purchase at a frozen food counter) will taste rubbery unless they
are cooked long enough. How soon can you quit cooking them to eat and enjoy them?
(a) 45 minutes, (b) 2 hours, (c) 24 hours, (d) 1 week (on a low flame), (e) 1 hour.
7. What are the "Dixie Hummingbirds?"
(a) part of the KKK, (b) a swamp disease, (c) a modern gospel group, (d) a Mississippi Negro
paramilitary group, (e) Deacons.
8. If you throw the dice and 7 is showing on the top, what is facing down?
(a) 7, (b) snake eyes, (c) boxcars, (d) little Joes, (e) 11.
9. "Jet" is:
(a) an East Oakland motorcycle club, (b) one of the gangs in "West Side Story," (c) a news and gossip
magazine, (d) a way of life for the very rich.
10. T-Bone Walker got famous for playing what?
(a) trombone, (b) piano, (c) "T-flute," (d) guitar, (e) "hambone."
11. "Bird" or "Yardbird" was the "jacket" that jazz lovers from coast to coast hung on:
(a) Lester Young, (b) Peggy Lee, (c) Benny Goodman, (d) Charlie Parker, (e) "Birdman of Alcatraz."
12. Hattie Mae Johnson is on the County. She has four children and her husband is now in jail for nonsupport, as he was unemployed and was not able to give her any money. Her welfare check is now
$286 per month. Last night she went out with the highest player in town. If she got pregnant, then
nine months from now how much more will her welfare check be?
(a) $80, (b) $2, (c) $35, (d) $150, (e) $100.
13. "Money don't get everything it's true."
(a) but I don't have none and I'm so blue, (b) but what it don't get I can't use, (c) so make do with
what you've got, (d) but I don't know that and neither do you.
14. How much does a short dog cost?
(a) $0.15, (b) $2.00, (c) $0.35, (d) $0.05, (e) $0.86 plus tax.
15. Many people say that "Juneteenth" (June 19) should be made a legal holiday because this was the
day when:
(a) the slaves were freed in the USA, (b) the slaves were freed in Texas, (c) the slaves were freed in
Jamaica, (d) the slaves were freed in California, (e) Martin Luther King was born, (f) Booker T.
Washington died.