By Pauline Fritz
‘Why I no longer talk to white people about races’ is the title of this book that I have recently spotted in many magically attractive bookstores. Renni-Eddo Lodge’s title is provocative and strikes me at a very vulnerable spot. As a white, privileged, European woman, having studied alongside students of a supposedly different “race”, I have never shared its emotional experiences and thus never dared to touch the subject of “race”. Until now. What changed? Whether it was the “surprising” realization of a looming climate catastrophe and potential human extinction or maybe it was just re-watching Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece “Night on Earth”, something led me to think: What if we decided to no longer talk about race? What if we recognized that this socially and historically arbitrarily constructed concept isn’t useful at all? And that categorizing people into racial boxes prevents us from focusing on what is really important? Imagine, if we just put ourselves in the place of Jim Jarmush’s blind Taxi Driver, who has never seen color or any visible traits, would we be able to finally focus on what we share and not what divides us? This is what I ask, when I am desperately trying to find the root cause of why we, humans, have been so bad at effective climate action and achieving (at least) the 1.5 degree target. I – white, privileged, European and human, clinging to the survival of the earth – have come up with this thesis:
If we shifted our focus from the notion of human races to the notion of a human species, would it allow us to see ourselves as one species among many others sharing a single habitat, the planet, and adopt the necessary behavior to protect it?
What do race and planetary exploitation have to do with each other? Taking a trip back into history, the correlation is not hard to find. The concept of race itself was instrumental in the period when the notions of colonial exploitation, human exceptionalism, and the idea of growth and capitalist exploitation were born. Notions that today are cited as the systemic root causes for climate change. Indeed, this idea that humans are capable of inventing machines, producing products and acquiring wealth, simply by using their intelligence and whatever resources the planet has to offer, was at the root of capitalism and ultimately the effects we read in the IPPC climate reports today. At this point in history, when we decided to turn towards growth and exploitation, is the point where race comes into play.
The colonial conquest enabled not only the exploitation of land but also of human labor. In order to justify the latter, the notion of “human races” came in handy. Using Hegelian philosophy and scientific observation of phenotypes recorded by European “explorers”, colonial powers were constructed a “Rassentheorie” (theory of races). It served as a basis to justify domination of one people over another, and caused immense human suffering. As land was conquered to be exploited, as natural resources were extracted to fuel factories that would destroy the planet, people were categorized into arbitrarily defined inferior races and utilized to do exactly that: destroy the planet.
“Race as a fundamental category that is at once material and phantasmic has been at the root of catastrophe the cause of extraordinary psychic destruction and of innumerable crimes and massacres”, writes Achille Mbembe in “Critique of Black Reason”. The African Philosopher claims that with the concept of race our brains have been trained to emphasize differences among humans. Thereby, we have distanced our imagination, from what we share and our common reality that we shall call “humanity”. Hannah Ahrendt, my personal most influential German-American philosopher, would go beyond. She claims that the atrocities of the 20th century in colonies and concentration camps, both controlled and governed by the idea of race, were not only distancing humans from humanity, they were acts of active dehumanization. By subjecting other humans to processes of abstraction, objectification, or even dehumanization, we have failed to recognize “Ubuntu”. This small word describes an ancient African philosophy, which in essence says: “I am because you are”. That is, I exist as a human because you recognize me as a human. If one applied Ubuntu to non-human organisms it would say: I am because I breathe from the trees, because I eat from what comes from the soil, and because I drink from the water deep down in the ground. As Achille Mbembe says: “The world will not survive unless humanity devotes itself to the task of sustaining what can be called the reservoirs of life”.
So back to my thesis. Is it possible to live in a non-racialized world? Can we eliminate race from our imagination and only see humanity? No. Although race applied to humans is an unfounded concept, we cannot neglect the fact that history has left its mark. Forgetting the atrocities the notion of “human races” has produced throughout history, and ignoring the ever present structural racism, could be fatal, and even potentially produce the reverse effect. Be it for the sake of our planet or the sake of collective action, neglecting race is impossible. The global environmental movement “Extinction rebellion” has faced immense problems with its civil disobedience protests, as non-whites are targeted and arrested much more frequently. We as former colonial powers and industrialized nations are much more responsible for climate change than those who, once subjected to racial classification and exploitation, now disproportionately feel its effects. I think it may be safe to say that climate action is racialized. What can we do then, as white, capitalist, former colonists and destroyers of the planet?
We can be inspired by Achille Mbembe and Franz Fanon and recognize that every human is fundamentally intangible. We can reconnect with each other, and with the “reservoirs of life” and protect life in all its forms that still exists on this planet. Because we don’t know how long it will last.
Illustration: Anna Belia
Pauline Fritz is a chocolate addict and yoga enthusiast. She is an exchange student at the Department of Government, studying everything related to the African continent and the protection of the planet. Currently she is working on trying to break less things.