Drawing the line: what is racism and what is ‘just’ highly unpleasant

Drawing the line: what is racism and what is ‘just’ highly unpleasant

Diaries have been much under consideration this week. Work on the Forbes diary and letters for 1871 has continued, with our in-depth analysis of their pronoun uses and the relational ‘worlds’ these indicate now in large part completed. This was followed last Monday by a lengthy Skype research meeting to plan the main elements of our December conference presentation in Brussels that will discuss this. And alongside this we have both been working on other diaries as well.

Emilia has now heroically completed the first stage transcription of all the many volumes of Forbes diaries that span the period 1850 to 1922, preparatory to our joint activity (probably before or after being in Brussels) of checking and double-checking these before they are assimilated into the WWW databases. And Liz has been reading the Albert Einstein travel diaries of 1922–1923 and thinking back and forth between his casually negative comments about people, and particularly ‘the Chinese’, in ethnic terms; and a passage in the David Forbes 1871 diary we’re working on that contains an entry which in part negatively comments on some ‘Hottentot’ men he had come across.

There has been considerable controversy about the Einstein travel diaries, published recently, with their editor, Ze’ev Rosenkrantz, accepting that Einstein’s comments were racist and positioning them as part of the casual racialised zeitgeist of the time. What kind of comments are these? They include such things as “Chinese don’t sit on benches while eating but squat like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods. All this occurs quietly and demurely. Even the children are spiritless and look obtuse” and “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary”. These comments combine observations used to generalise a whole people (the squatting aspect), and a positive comment about this (quietly and demurely), coupled with a negative comment about children’s demeanour, and then a more negative comment about ‘these Chinese‘ supplanting other peoples numerically.

These comments are clearly very generalised and based on treating ‘European‘ as a benchmark and ‘others‘ as deficient, and in the latter instance also making an unpleasant remark about racial dominance. But where should the line be drawn between comments that are highly generalised and now thought iffy, and comments that are not only racial but racist? In the case in question, this can come in the same sentence. But, this is with the proviso that treating comments about ‘these Chinese‘ as racist, rather than ‘just’ as unpleasant over-generalisation, needs some consideration. Certainly If such things are placed on a spectrum with at one end physical violence and genocides, ‘the line’ might seem rather different. But these are difficult, troubled considerations.

Thinking about the entry in the 1871 David Forbes diary referred to earlier may help. This diary was written over an extended trip away from the Forbes farm, when David Forbes travelled to the what is now the Kimberley area and was then referred to as the ‘diamond fields‘. Large numbers of other people, both black and white, did the same, in search of diamonds or employment or both, with their rapid movements from one place of discovery to another known as ‘rushes‘. As well as the diggings themselves, a range of service provisions grew up around the diggers’ camps, including shops, restaurants and canteens (ie. shabeens), with attendant high levels of drunkenness and venereal disease, as the overwhelmingly male camps and the large amounts of money in circulation led to an equally high level of prostitution.

And here, cutting a long and sad story very short, the Khoikhoi people often referred to at the time as ‘Hottentot’, and the Griqua or in South African terms ‘coloured’ people, were at this point in something like melt-down, and ostracised by more straightforwardly African people and by whites alike. Some of the diamond fields were on land that had been Griqua, but land manoeuvers and grabs ended this. Smaller groups of these peoples frequented the diggings and their associated services, including the shabeens and prostitution. The diary entry by David Forbes was written in this context. So what did he write?

After commenting on his day’s travel, the second half of the diary entry for Thursday 11 May 1871 is:

“Got to Blomhof in the evening where we found about two hundred wagons outspaned about half belonging to The Hottentot tribes who claim the county along the west side of the vaal river as far as ‘Clerkdorp’ on ‘scoonspruit’

There is a commission now sitting in Blomhof hearing evidence from the different claimants when the Hottentots finish the Transvaal will show then tittle to the land

Saw Mr Forsman and the president [of the Transvaal] to night

Lots of Hottontots prowling about to see what they can pick up they are dirtiest looking lot of fellows ever I saw”

These comments are couched in terms of the different claimants to the land to the west of the Vaal river, and Forbes’ final remark seems confined to the ‘Hottentots‘ who were prowling about, rather than being used in a more generally dismissive way. This is iffy and takes little cognisance of the circumstance he actually refers to, as it treats the prowling, picking up and dirtiness as the product of these particular people; but still, the remarks are confined to the prowlers and not an entire people.

So it can be reasoned that one way of drawing the line is that what is ‘just’ unpleasant differs from what is racist because the latter involves negative, contemptuous comments about entire categories of people. The word ‘fellow‘ may not seem very negative, but in the parlance of David Forbes it is the strongest he gets in commenting about individuals. But he uses it of white as well as black when people offended against his understanding of civility and proper behaviour. However, while ‘Hottentot‘ is an ethnic/racial term, it did not have the opprobrium in 1871 that it later accrued; and ‘fellow‘ is a general term that Forbes used to criticise what he saw as bad behaviour and carries no ethnic/racial connotations with it.

But what about the following remark, contained in a Friday 26 May 1871 letter from David Forbes to his sister-in-law Sarah Purcocks, who was with his wife Kate in overseeing their Athole farm-estate and managing in a hands-on way its home-farm:

“I dont consider this [Hebron] a very good place to bring ladies to everything is so public we are on a flat just like the Durban flat this is middle Hebron and upper Hebron is on a ridge but not nearly so high as the ?beria we are all along the river tents and wagons as close as they can well be or rather they were so a short time ago but a great many have left for a new rush … there is five billard rooms and I should think 15 or 20 canteens all the blacks men and women are drunken brutes like all Hottentots, the coloured people here ‘Curanas’ are the ugliest dirtiest looking wretches I ever saw”

This seems clear enough. ‘All the blacks‘ makes a vastly generalised statement about ‘drunken brutes’ and also links ‘Hottentots‘ to this. It continues with characterising ‘the coloured people‘ as ‘the ugliest dirtiest looking‘ Forbes had ever seen, an even more negative statement because contemptuous in its evaluation of this entire group of people.

The Korannas are now usually seen as an African people from further north in southern Africa; however, at the time it was used of a mixed group of refugee people who had banded together during a period of almost continuous warfare that had displaced them, and many of whom had then inter-married with Griqua. All the people referred to in this extract from Forbes’ letter were living out circumstances of radical displacement, because of earlier warfare and also because of more recent dislocations in former ways of life brought about by white incursions of different kinds, including by establishing a magnet that drew people to such a tumultuous, violent and drunken place as the diamond fields were in 1871. What Forbes was observing was not ‘all the blacks‘ or even ‘the coloured people‘, but specific groups in circumstances of dislocation that were, for some of them, in extremis.

The line to draw becomes much clearer here, for the remarks in Forbes’ letter ignore circumstances and generalise in not only negative but also contemptuous ways about entire peoples. This raises another question, which is whether the negativity and contempt are necessary criteria, or whether racism can also inhere in generalisations about an entire people that are entirely positive. Einstein‘s comments about the Japanese are of this kind, for example. What this further raises in turn is whether there is in fact a connection here, that racism is not just about the negative and contemptuous, but also about hierarchy of a particular and peculiar kind. That is, does it involve starkly binary evaluations of whole categories of people within a two-part hierarchy?

Last updated:  23 August 2018