Kerry Knudsen

Kerry Knudsen

Invented word has killed businesses

Let’s have some fun, today, and talk about racism. You know – the crime that can close your company and put you in jail simply by the accusation. There is no defence. Sexism, of course, is racism by sex.

In order to have an honest discussion about racism, I think we need to throw out the word. For one thing, it has no history as a word. It’s a made-up construct that means only what the person using it wants it to mean. My 1971 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) doesn’t even have racism in it. Not that I am against making up words. I once got an F on an anthropology paper for making up the word ism-mysticism and applying it to the social sciences. Humanists are a humourless bunch.

OK. So we have obliterated racism in one easy paragraph. Now, I think we should think about other cultures in terms of cultural memory. You can find both those words in the 1971 OED. Cultural modifies memory. We are good to go.

People (not all people) of African descent worldwide have a cultural memory. One aspect of that memory is slavery. Anthropologists will tell you Africans are not the only people ever enslaved. Christians in the Balkans had a rough time under the Ottomans. In fact, the Sultans were especially fond of blonde, blue-eyed slaves under the age of 10. Because of this, Christians in the Balkans have a memory, too. Oddly, they cannot call it slavery or genocide.

My own heritage is mostly Danish. My grandmother’s home town was Gilleleje (gıl’    lai). If you Google Gilleleje and Gestapo, you will see my culture has a collective memory, too. Like the relationships between other Africans and other Europeans, the collective memory of Danes about Germans goes back more than 70 years. Actually, if you read the article about the Gestapo and the caretaker of the Gilleleje church, that would be my grandmother’s brother. The entire story is recounted in The Rescue of the Danish Jews, and this October 2 will be the 70th anniversary. This is an example of collective memory. I was not there, but I “remember.”

Allegedly, some of the story of those days is myth or propaganda. For example, it is said Danish King Christian X and all the Danish population wore a yellow star to make the Germans’ edict forcing Jews to wear the star unenforceable. It is also said the story was made up by the Danes. Collective memory can be flawed. I can’t say. I was not there, but it sounds Danish to me. In fact, Goering was a humanist and Christian was not.

U.S. President Obama made a big show, recently, of visiting a spot in Africa where slaves were exported. He stood in the door where thousands had looked back to see their last-ever view of their homeland. However, as an anthropologist with a failing grade in ism-mysticism, I know there were very few Europeans on the other side of that door. The people that herded up captive humans and sold them for export were Africans of other tribes. The collective memories of native Africans are not all exclusively of exploitation by Europeans. As long as you have Google open, type in Rwanda, Hutu and Tutsi. You will see the word genocide.

Long before and far away, the Fulani tribe (sort of Cameroon/Nigeria, which is Obama’s ancestral home) converted to Islam in the late 1700s, started a jihad against the Hausa and won, exporting human cattle for profit to slave buyers through 1845. Ring a bell?

The collective memory of Danes is that we had nothing to do with that, and we are not sure the Germans did either. Who knows about the Brits? You know how they are….

My point is that I believe westerners, black and white, are almost perfect in their ignorance of slavery. I also know the allegation of racism against a business can be the kiss of death. In addition, it’s a made-up word, and a case can be made the pursuit of proof of racism is hurting the claimants even more than businesses, but not as much as it’s hurting society.

Let’s get away from the name-calling, and get back to working through differences the old-fashioned way. By the way … did you hear the one about Ole and Lena at the beach?


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