What’s racism? This is not a question about the manifestations of racism, the tangible actions that can be pointed out, that can have an impact on other people. It’s a question about the step or stage before that. What are the feelings people have that can be classified as racism and that might or might not materialize in action later on?

When people see another fellow human being of a different skin color, ethnicity, religion, etc, what do they feel? Is it disgust that drives them to choose another seat on a bus? Is it fear of something unknown or foreign to them? Is it a sense of superiority that fuels their call for stripping this ‘different’ person of his/her rights, or not giving them those rights in the first place? Is it just a feeling of discomfort due to a mix of fear, disgust and superiority?

Today, racism has become an unacceptable term. Even those who are racist don’t want the labeling.  They often find excuses and explanations to justify their actions as logical reactions, rather than bigotry-fueled stupidity. Something along the lines of “I’m not a racist, but I don’t like those people taking our jobs.”

Even though there remains a long way to go, many countries have outlawed racist practices. Prejudice and intolerance have, to a large degree, been confined to social and communal circles rather than legal texts. It still can be argued that the same members of a generally intolerant community are the ones that write and amend its laws, which means that traces of bigotry can be found in legal systems.

It’s a valid argument that I agree with, but what I’m trying to demonstrate here is that with more confines on the tangible display of racism, it’s the feelings that precede the action that count. Sometimes racism remains just a feeling, evident only through passivity, probably due to illegality or general unacceptability of it. Which brings me to my starting question, what’s racism? come

The purpose of this post is not to express my opinion; I’m seeking answers, clear or vague. This curiosity is fueled by a story I’m writing that slightly covers the issue of racism, but was initially spurred by a friend’s experience:

My friend and her friend, both Egyptian, discovered a carpooling website in Germany and used it to travel across the country. They split the cost of the trip with the car owner, who also avoids driving for long distances alone. After the initial pleasant small talk, the trip looked promising. But it was short lived. The driver just stopped talking after learning that the two women with him are Egyptian. And for the rest of the 500 km trip, there were hardly any conversations, as the man kept his responses to one-word answers.

After playing the incident in her head several times, my friend concluded that the reason for the man’s sudden change in attitude towards them is racism. What I’ve tried to figure out since hearing this story is this man’s feelings. Was he disgusted to figure out that his companions were from an African country? The Middle East? Was he suddenly afraid of them when learning of their nationality? Did he feel that he’s sharing his personal space with two women of an inferior race, unworthy of his company?

All definitions I’ve come across so far point to a sense of superiority. The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines it as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” and “racial prejudice or discrimination”. There is more here.

I’m inclined to think that there’s more to racism than a sense of superiority, whether such feelings are expressed or not. What do you think?