Decolonise this – the dark side of the Enlightenment

German philosopher and racist twat Immanuel Kant

I’ve always greatly respected the Enlightenment, the European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries led by philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, Newton, Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith.

The Enlightenment emphasised reason. I’d looked up to it as a way out of superstition, ignorance and oppression, and as the foundation of modern liberal democracy.

However, the Black Lives Matter movement has exposed the part played by Enlightenment philosophers in justifying the slave trade and slavery by coming up with the idea of white supremacy.

I didn’t know, for instance, that Immanuel Kant said, ‘humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites’. To be fair, he later recanted (re-Kanted?) but the damage was done.

Before changing his mind, Kant expounded at length from his Königsberg coffee-shop about the failings of the various ‘races’ as compared with the perfect whites. He babbled authoritatively about the qualities of different African ‘races’ in terms of their suitability as slaves.

Such ‘philosophy’ was extremely useful to slave traders and ‘owners’ – not in practical terms, but in terms of moral support for their inhuman enterprise.

Now we know – and in the woke wake of that awareness students have – understandably – called for decolonisation of the university syllabus. (The Daily Mail‘s response: ‘They Kant be serious!’)

In defence of the Enlightenment, it’s said that Kant & co. were conservative, and we should look to lesser-known radical philosophers of the Enlightenment – Baruch Spinoza, for instance – for its heart and soul. Maybe so, but those mainstream conservative Enlightenment philosophers built our foundations – which now feel shaky.

Luckily – switch of metaphor! – the fruit of the Enlightenment, liberal democracy (currently the worst form of government apart from all the others) seems not to be poisoned by its toxic past. So I’ll still praise the Enlightenment – but less wholeheartedly.

The poison wasn’t Enlightenment philosophy – it was colonialism. It’d be nice to think those two heavyweight phenomena – Enlightenment and colonialism – were fundamentally separate and coincidental, rather than horribly symbiotic.

We need to decolonise our democracy but it’s easier said than done. Having ripped off and destroyed colonial countries, the UK blithely invited large numbers of residents of those countries to move and live here to help rebuild postwar Britain – then blighted their lives with postcolonial racism.

As I argue elsewhere, colonial racism is apparently a twisted version of a redundant anti-stranger instinct (evolved to protect against communicable disease). If we acknowledge that, we can choose to live above it (as with other ‘monsters from the id‘), so enabling us to oppose and end racism – and decolonise our minds.


This post is an edited excerpt from my longform post Colour me racist, blame my genes – racism explained as a redundant instinct

Is it OK to say ‘mixed-race’? No. But…

Meghan Markle, AKA Duchess of Sussex | Photo: Shutterstock

Is it OK to say ‘mixed race’? No – because there are no human ‘races’. But…

Even the Guardian (centre-left, the UK’s only national daily newspaper not owned by billionaire twats) uses it to describe, for instance, Meghan Markle. (The usually brilliant Guardian style guide is silent on the subject.)

I objected to the use of the phrase on a local Facebook page and got a hostile response. People said, ‘I’m mixed race – that’s what I call myself’.

‘Mixed heritage’ (or ‘mixed ethnicity’) is better. More syllables, admittedly, but meaningful. (‘Dual heritage‘ is as pointlessly limiting as the horrible phrase, ‘half-caste’ – which leads into a hell-hole of racist numerical classifications such as ‘quadroon’.)

Why do skin colour and ethnic origin need describing? Mostly they don’t, but skin colour can be used to describe an unknown person. In the local FB page incident a man harassing women in a park was described as ‘mixed-race’.

Similarly, UK police use identification codes to describe suspects to colleagues, eg IC4: [South] Asian. (Interestingly, there’s no IC code for people whose skin colour indicates mixed heritage.)

So there may be a perceived need to describe skin colour and ethnic origin, in which case the words used matter.

‘Mixed race’ implies there are human races – but only science-denying racists believe that. They say there are different races, some of which are intrinsically superior to others. They’re wrong.

Pseudo-scientific racists, from ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers (eg Kant and Locke) onwards, tried to justify colonialism and racism by claiming Europeans are inherently more intelligent than other ‘races’. They aren’t.

German philosopher and racist twat Immanuel Kant | Image: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Taxonomically, it’s generally agreed that all modern humans are Homo sapiens sapiens, the only surviving subspecies of the species Homo sapiens (the only surviving species of the genus Homo).

Race is a slippery word, but in biology it’s an informal rank below the level of subspecies, the members of which are significantly distinct from other members of the subspecies.

Genetic research has confirmed the obvious: the differences that evolved between different human populations are not significantly genetically distinct. The different populations aren’t races in any scientifically meaningful sense.

Some say ‘race’ is a social construct that doesn’t have to be scientifically meaningful – it’s just a way of describing the different human populations. Such slippery post-modern sophistry is used by racists to blur the issue.

Single-gene disorders associated with particular populations are the only significant difference. For instance, cystic fibrosis is most common among people of north European heritage.

Otherwise the differences, albeit visually obvious, are superficial.

There are no different human races, just human populations with differences which, apart from single-gene disorders, are superficial – and which are becoming increasingly mixed!

Before pseudo-scientific racism was rumbled, racists sneered about the danger of ‘miscegenation‘; and amongst ethnic minorities there’s pressure to resist assimilation and preserve cultural heritage by not ‘marrying out‘, but – some dodgy lyrics aside – Blue Mink were right: what we need is a great big melting pot.

In the meantime, words matter.

Perhaps due to carelessness or laziness, the word ‘race’ is frequently used – misused – in non-racist media, by both black and white writers and speakers.

Also, strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as ‘the human race‘. It’s an inclusive and relatively harmless phrase (and ‘the human subspecies‘ isn’t catchy) but ‘humanity‘ is better.

There is such a thing – albeit misnamed – as racism. Until racism ends, that word must continue to be used.

But there’s no reason to say ‘mixed-race‘. It’s loaded with colonial notions of white superiority. It should be left in the shameful past where it belongs.

Mixed heritage‘ celebrates our differences and embraces the mixing of them.

But some people say, ‘I’m mixed race – that’s how I describe myself. Don’t tell me what to say!’

It must be difficult enough being brown-skinned in a white world – facing microracism (‘Where are you from?’) and conscious and unconscious personal and institutional bias – without having a white saviour tell you how you should or shouldn’t describe yourself.

Whitesplaining word-nerd, antiracist virtue signaller – who do I think I am? It’s like a white person telling African Americans not to use the N-word: ‘I say, you rapper chappies – you really shouldn’t use that bad word.’

Except it’s not like that. When a mixed-heritage person uses the phrase ‘mixed-race’ to describe themselves, they’re not re-appropriating the word ‘race‘ in a playfully political way.

They’re giving white people permission to use that phrase – and they’re inadvertently agreeing with zealous racists, the only people who think there actually are different races.

Maybe mixed-heritage people call themselves ‘mixed-race’, thinking, ‘So what? Who cares? It’s just what people say. And it’s only two syllables.’ (Maybe it’s to wind up mitherers like me. If so, Damn – you got me.)

I just hope it’s not an example of that depressing phenomenon, internalised racism.