“Are we inherently racist?”

AS much as we want to think that all human beings are the same, the truth is that we are different. We differ in the way we think, work, live and earn our livelihood. We also differ in terms of race, religion, gender and skin colour. Unfortunately, we tend to make use of these differences to discriminate against each other.

Irrespective of how racism is defined, it can be typified by an act of discrimination, prejudice, or antagonism towards any individual or group that is branded as inferior. Logically, if the whole human race has one trait, such as one complexion, one religion or one social status, it is unlikely to envisage discrimination.

Often, discrimination in the name of distinguishing groups of people living in the same society is officially allowed and is not seen as an embarrassing suit of society; rather, it is considered legal or commonsensical. In fact, the scope of discrimination follows the increasing number of different traits and attributes. Nationality is perhaps the biggest addition to that trend.

While we are fond of diagnosing those differences, we are also infatuated with categorising ourselves as either superior or inferior using different traits and attributes and are captivated by a perceived categorisation of superiority or inferiority. In those dogmatic and bigotry contexts of a superiority complex, who is not a racist?

Needless to say, our perceived categorisation is not universal. We use subjective and relative standards to categorise ourselves based on our desire and intent, which makes our society full of different forms of discrimination! Arguably, this oversimplification is the biggest irony of modern human civilisation, which is an amplified furtherance of the past.

Prof Dr Mohammad Tariqur Rahman

Nonetheless, the biggest question is why we discriminate against each other or act racist. Is racism inherent in the human race?

In line with the evidence presented by behavioural scientists or psychologists, it can be argued that humans by nature possess the quality of inherent or implicit bias, i.e., the inherent judgmental tendency to differentiate something as right or wrong, good or bad, and beautiful or ugly. But it does not mean that humans are inherently racist.

Inherent judgmental tendencies help us construct our cognitive filter for that differentiation. Logically, how the cognitive filter will be constructed depends on one’s knowledge and experiences. Not to shock, though, two individuals who are educated and raised in the same way would construct different cognitive filters and, hence, perceive the same event or issue differently.

Through the acquired cognitive filter, we reorient our inherent judgmental tendency to come up with our cognitive interpretations to judge and categorise any trait and attribute subjectively.

Eventually, our subjective cognitive interpretation may work as the source of racial or discriminatory acts and attitudes, if not exercised justly.

Therefore, how one would construct cognitive filters to subsequently develop just or unjust cognitive interpretations is most likely to be acquired rather than inherent. That gives the possibility that racism is acquired rather than an inherent trait of mankind, but that of course originates in our inherent judgmental tendency.

In fact, having this judgmental tendency is not only a part of human nature but is also important. Because, without that tendency, we would be unable to judge and categorise what is good or bad, right or wrong, and so on. Eventually, it would prevent us from achieving a higher level as human beings.

Therefore, it is crucial to recognise the potential of our inherent judgmental tendency. At the same time, it is also important to make appropriate exercises of our judgmental acumen using the acquired cognitive filter for just or rightful cognitive interpretations. Or else it would lead to racial or discriminatory havoc.

However, constructing the filter depends on more than what we know or experience; it depends on the worldview of our lives.

To develop an appropriate cognitive filter, we ought to fix our worldview to identify the purpose of our very existence as a human race. That will allow us to evaluate or exercise our judgmental tendencies more objectively.

The truth is, as human beings, no one is perfect. Yet we have the responsibility to uphold the spirit of humanity and strive towards perfection. The purpose of being human is to achieve a level of superior human quality rather than just merely holding a perceived superior identity in terms of race, religion, socioeconomic status, or skin colour. – Jan 19, 2023


Prof Dr Mohammad Tariqur Rahman is the Associate Dean for Continuing Education in the Faculty of Dentistry and is also an Associate Member at UM LEAD in Universiti Malaya.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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