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Sunday, Oct 20, 2019

If Brown=terrorist, doesn?t White=racist?

While fear and paranoia is natural in these days, it seems that racial jump made to equate all Muslims or brown-skinned people with a threat has been too easy.

india Updated: Aug 26, 2006 03:48 IST


The English word ‘barbarian’ owes its origin to the Greek word ‘barbaros’, one who cannot speak Greek and thereby is a non-Greek. The ancient Greeks encountered many other civilisations — the Egyptians, Persians and Phoenicians to name just a few — and acknowledged their antiquity and sophistication. By referring to these ‘outsiders’ as barbarians, the Greeks did not see them as peoples possessing any less civilisational quotient than themselves. ‘Barbaros’ simply referred to the non-Greekness of non-Greeks. The definitional shift happened in the 5th century BC with the Greco-Persian Wars.

'Barbarians' became a shorthand for the vanquished Persians, ultimately leading to the modern connotation signifying peoples who are racially inferior and are to be treated with disdain.

In the first decade of the millennium, one would have thought that with globalisation — increased migrations and more ethnicities living geographically together — racial hostilities and anxieties would go down and ultimately become a thing remembered in history books. After all, the old colonising mindset of superiority was based on power and on general ignorance about ‘other’ peoples. Unfortunately, post-9/11 and especially after the thwarted mid-air bombings earlier this month, the bogey of racial stereotyping — always simmering in the background as was made evident, for instance, in the Paris riots earlier this year — has returned with a vengeance. If a ‘security alert’ can be sounded in a plane followed by the detainment of 12 passengers simply because they ‘looked’ and ‘behaved’ like Islamic terrorists, Western authorities need to seriously rethink the way they identify potential ‘terrorists’ and should educate themselves about parts of the world and the peoples outside their own backyards.

While fear and paranoia is natural in these days of asymmetrical warfare, it seems that the racial jump made to equate all Muslims or brown-skinned people with a threat has been too easy. Dregs of colonial and post-colonial bigotry mixed with post-9/11 fear is a dangerous cocktail. Apart from the not-subtle-at-all humiliation doled out to swathes of people, if the current trend is not checked, one could see a clash of civilisations that has been manufactured out of little else but ignorance. It is hard to root out knee-jerk behaviour based along racial lines.

But what is shocking is that security officials, whose job it is to be able to not make dangerous generalisations, seem to be as ignorant as the Regular Joe Racist. No one is arguing against being vigilant against individuals who might match the ‘type’ that makes everyone so jittery these days. But if the ‘type’ itself is kept ludicrously vague — ‘of Middle Eastern appearance’, South Asians with beards, non-Whites with mobile phones — there is something to seriously worry about. Ignorance about ‘other’ people — such as all White people are racist, or Western women are ‘easy’ — is one stop away from terrible, civilisational misunderstandings.

First Published: Aug 26, 2006 03:48 IST

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