The ideas of race “science” stemmed from a need to justify the political movements occurring in the world at that time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Europeans and their descendants (ie. Americans) engaged in colonization, taking over many parts of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In order to create a basis for their expansion, they had to come up with valid reasons for why they even had the right in the first place to take over the land of other groups and then oppress those said groups. The solution that these colonizers came up with was to create a factual basis for a concept that had existed for centuries: racism. By claiming that their prejudice against “others,” meaning peoples and cultures from other places in the world that they were unfamiliar with, was undeniable and simply biological, these colonizers declared that they and their descendants had been chosen to rule over the non-white world. White people were then able to weaponize this “science” since, as stated by rica.junction, it “provided a perfect excuse for slavery, colonialism, segregation, genocide, and land acquisition.”
The need to justify their horrifying treatment of people of color largely stemmed from the socio-psychological ideas of cognitive dissonance, Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory, and Latane and Darley’s Bystander Effect. Cognitive dissonance essentially comes from a person’s need to maintain a positive self-image, and when someone does something bad or immoral, contradicting their positive self-image, they try in any way possible to justify their actions and maintain their belief that they are a good person. In the case of colonialism, white people needed to justify their violence and oppression towards people of color, and they did so by claiming that people of color were either below them on a racial hierarchy or not even people at all, but animals, and that they were not, therefore, deserving of rights such as liberty and body autonomy. Additionally, Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory explains how humans develop a sense of membership tied to the group(s) that they are a part of and that they have a natural tendency to categorize people based on their group(s), thereby creating an “us versus them” mentality. This played into race “science” as these scientists took advantage of this concept and essentially created numerous divisions among humanity based on race, claiming that people of different races were entirely different “species” or “breeds” of humans. However, as NPR’s interview with Angela Saini explains, this is an extremely inaccurate way to describe humanity as the racial divisions that race “scientists” conjured up were often proxies for other characteristics, such as geographical location. Nevertheless, these concepts are still deeply ingrained in our society, and people will likely say how they feel they can relate more to or understand better members of their own race (or people who appear to be of their own race) when, in fact, these connections are based on other factors such as culture, language, or religion. Finally, Latane and Darley’s Bystander Effect can be seen in the lack of action taken by ordinary white people during the age of colonialism. Many working-class Europeans and Americans likely fell prey to the propaganda being used at the time, which justified the actions of colonizers. The influx of “science” and racist discourse coupled with Social Identity Theory resulted in many white people, even if they did not believe that their governments’ treatment of people of color was, being reluctant to speak out against it, maybe out of ignorance (ie. they did not know the full extent of how their governments were oppressing and murdering people of color), out of fear (ie. social pressure, could be reprimanded by their governments), or out of greed (ie. white people, at least indirectly, benefitted from the oppression of people of color).
Ways in which we can now work to counter racist ideology is to speak of it more. By this, I mean that it is important to acknowledge the racist ideology that is still extremely pervasive in society, despite our reluctance to admit it, since that is the first step in speaking out against it. In acknowledging racism it is also important for people who have benefitted from these oppressive systems, at least indirectly, meaning white people or multiracial people, to recognize that they have in fact benefited from them. However, this does not mean that they need to feel guilty for these systems, as they are not the ones who created them, but they must recognize that they have a responsibility to amend them and work in solidarity with people of color to create a better, more harmonious society.