Deep down, are we all racist and xenophobic?
In my last two posts I wrote about a book by Dom Benoit published in 1904 about the Catholic missions in the mid 19th Century in the Canadian West. The book is a biography of Mgr. Taché, second archbishop of St. Boniface (1853-1894).
Was I unfair in singling them out for a special call-out for being racist? Yes and no.
It’s pretty obvious that the missionaries understood that the indigenous peoples of the area were human, but that they were significantly different from themselves, especially in the fact that they weren’t ‘children of God.’ The derogatory manner in which they describe indigenous peoples, especially plains peoples, would immediately label them racist in most people’s books.
Their mission’s objective was to make ‘savages’ into ‘children of God’. They may have thought they had accomplished that by baptizing as mahy as possible, but that apparently still didn’t make them equal to white folk in the eyes of Canadian governments, all of which had institutionally racist practices and values regarding indigenous people. There is no doubt that Sir John A. Macdonald’s government was racist to the core. It’s hard not to conclude that most Canadian governments over the decades, both federal and provincial have been racist. Their policies prove it, the Indian Act proves it, all their actions prove it.
So, along with the missionaries of the mid 19th Century, are they special in their racism? Are governments racist, along with a few bad individuals, or are we all racist, deep down? Some of us may deny it vehemently, but the impetus, the imperative, the drive to characterize ‘other’ groups of people and their institutions as inferior or undeserving because of some national or group trait is pervasive. Can we avoid being racist and xenophobic? Can we avoid labelling groups (gender, age, colour, etc.) and nations with sweeping generalizations that deny human individuality and capacity for free thought?
The short answer is that I think we can, but it takes a lot of effort and thought. It means letting go of a lot of ‘isms’ some of which we love dearly, like patriotism.
If we believe that our society, our way of life is the greatest thing on earth, it makes it difficult to just accept others as they are and not to try to convince them, by ideology or coercion, that they should change. The Catholic missionaries of the Canadian West obviously thought that their religious beliefs and practices were the only ones that could lead to salvation, that is to eternal life in the presence of God. It seems to me that they would feel a holy obligation to try to ‘convert’ as many ‘savages’ as possible to save them from being condemned to an eternity in pergatory or hell. One could argue that their drive to ‘save’ the indigenous people is no different from a compulsion we might have to pull someone out of the way of a speeding train in order to save their lives. It’s just something ya gotta do.
So, yes, if we feel we have the only road to heaven, or to salvation, the good life, prosperity or whatever you might want to call it, it’s hard not to want to share it or conversely, to prove to others that ours is a superior way by kicking their asses just to prove it. If, however, we can express some humility in the face of the diversity of human (and other) life on this planet, we can begin to overcome prejudice and ignorance. It’s not easy and it’s not even likely to happen on any scale until the structural and historical conditions in place currently on the planet that make prejudice and ignorance possible and even inevitable are still dominant.
My rant here is not intended to make you feel guilty or bad because you may harbour secret prejudices or make sweeping generalizations about people. It’s more of an invitation to humility and to critical thought about your world and how it works.
If you ever get a chance, watch a 2003 documentary film called Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality. It does a beautiful job in visually summarizing my argument above. You can do that, or you can rummage around the archives on my blog to find references to Ernest Becker’s work Escape From Evil. The film is based on his work.
2 thoughts on “Deep down, are we all racist?”
I’ve enjoyed reading your last three blogs and how it demonstrates the lack of understanding humans have for others who appear different from them. I too heard the word ‘sauvage’ spoken among my relatives and people of Maillardville when I was growing up. I didn’t go to school with many native kids and those that I recall were usually foster children who didn’t usually hang around town for very long. I do however, recall the words ‘squaw’, ‘papoose’, ‘Geronimo’ and ‘chug’ being heaped upon these poor kids but so did the words ‘frog’, ‘dogan’, ‘peasouper’, ‘Catholic bastard’, ‘Mudville welfare cases’ to many of us Francophone kids. For whatever reason my parents chose to remove me from parochial school after grade three and sent me to public school for my forth grade, a transition that was far from easy at first. Bullying and prejudice was every bit as prevalent then as I suppose it is in so many schools today. Fortunately I had sympathetic teachers and big friends to hang out with but there was always occasions where a group of bullies could make life really miserable for a small, bookish, francophone kid. All of this to say that I tend to agree with the question you ask in your blog and maybe it isn’t so much racism as it it is ignorance and fear that govern so many minds and opinions. Perhaps the bullies I knew as a kid where themselves bullied or abused…who can say?
Nobody ever said that evolution was a fast thing but we can always have hope or as one old Oblates Pastor use to love to say in his homily and to many of his parishioners “aimez vous les uns les autres”.
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Thank you for your comment, Dan. It’s measured and thoughtful as always. Now that you mention it, I remember mom and dad talking about the ‘sauvages’ in Alberta where they lived. They had all the stereotypes of the indolent, shiftless, immoral, Indian. Mom said you couldn’t trust them with anything. They’s steal everything and had no respect for private property. Do I think mom and dad were racists? Yes, I do, but I understand their racism not as a personal trait, but as an institutional one. They were no more racist than the majority of people and they didn’t acknowledge their own racism either. It’s the old story:”I’m not racist, but…” I’m not optimistic that the human species can get over this in a short time. We may never. That makes me sad sometimes just thinking about it.
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