The Collegian
Wednesday, April 14, 2021

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MARGINS: Inferiority as a Weapon of Inequality

<p><em>Graphic by The Collegian</em></p>

Graphic by The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian. 

In his 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden,” Rudyard Kipling suggests that it is the duty of white Europeans to civilize the world. This colonialist attitude, which was common in the 16th through 19th centuries, was shared by many Europeans and was a motivation behind their exploration and colonization of lands unfamiliar to them. 

Consequently, Europeans influenced the development of many cultures around the world by introducing European ideas into the customs and traditions of indigenous tribes. Additionally, much European contact with these tribes involved exploiting them for labor and taking their raw materials.

Europeans twisted scientific theories to support the idea that Black people were inferior. This was an effort to maintain the social hierarchies that kept white people on top. To this day,  these discriminatory theories and practices continue to be used to marginalize Black people and non-white ethnic groups in fields such as medicine and academia, as well as to limit their opportunities in areas such as property acquisition and wealth accumulation.

White people, by numbers, are becoming one of the smallest ethnic groups. Despite this, because white Europeans shaped the world to benefit themselves, it comes as no surprise that anyone not deemed part of the white minority faces discrimination today.

In his 1952 book “Black Skin, White Masks,” Frantz Fanon dissects the construction of Black identity based on his experiences in mainland France and Martinique, a Caribbean island formerly part of the French empire and now an overseas region of France. There is a widely applicable theme in Fanon’s writings: that inferiority is a driving force behind all forms of injustice and persecution. 

Fanon writes that inferiority is apparent in both the dominant and non-dominant segments of any given population. Within the dominant group, fear of inferiority manifests from feelings of insecurity. In contrast, within the non-dominant group, inferiority is rooted in feelings of dependence on the dominant group. Ultimately, this allows injustice to thrive in any given society.

Fanon writes that feelings of inferiority within the dominant group can promote injustice by pushing members of the group to scapegoat non-dominant groups. The dominant group transfers its fears to a minority group, allowing it to justify any maltreatment of said group. 

One example of a non-dominant group being scapegoated by a dominant group is the historical use of perceived innate traits of Black people to justify slavery and other atrocious practices in the United States. The traits used to justify the scapegoating were largely rooted in differences between African and European societies with regards to sex.

European societies, particularly between the 5th and 11th centuries, placed significant value on chastity. This was largely due to the Christian church associating sex with the original sin between the 400-1000AD.  During this time period, the church also categorized other forms of sexual behavior, such as masturbation and non-penetrative sex, as sinful. Consequently, sexual abstinence before marriage became synonymous with piousness and moral virtue. These are stances that most denominations of Christianity maintain today.

In contrast, African tribes often had culturally-approved sexual practices vastly different to the European ideal of chastity. For example, the Wodaabe tribe in West Africa has a tradition called the wife-stealing festival, during which men wear makeup to impress women; in return, women can choose any man they fancy for sexual or romantic relations, regardless of their marital status, during the weeklong festival. Due to the prevalence of culturally approved  sexual practices in other African nations such as Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Namibia and Angola, it is likely that  Europeans encountered them many times.

After observing cultural, sexual practices such as these during their initial interaction with African tribes, European explorers concluded that Black people were inherently sexual and promiscuous beings. 

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Consequently, when Africans were taken to the U.S. during the slave trade, they came to represent perverse sexuality, leading to Black men and women being heavily sexualized. Black men were perceived as violent, hypersexual beings who would rape white women, while Black women were perceived as promiscuous beings who would seduce white men. Vestiges of these stereotypes still continue today, often reproduced through media representations of Black people.

In attempts to dominate Black people and their perceived sexual deviance, owners of enslaved people robbed Black people of their agency through physical and sexual abuse. Slave owners raped enslaved people, bred them like animals and sold their children. Such abuses demonstrate that when the dominant group in society begins to perceive a non-dominant group as a threat to its superiority, it begins to enact measures to negate the threat and prevent the social hierarchy from being challenged. 

These measures also result in material gain for the dominant group. For example, by breeding slaves, the slave owners ensured a steady stream of bodies available to work on their land, particularly after the Slave Trade Act 1807 that prohibited the import of slaves.

Making the non-dominant group feel lower in status, via acts such as disrespectful or stereotypical representation in media or discriminatory laws and treatment, further promotes injustice by reinforcing the idea that the non-dominant group is not worthy of the same rights as the dominant group. This results in the non-dominant group becoming dependent on the dominant group for validation.

In “Black Skin, White Masks,” Fanon writes, “the confrontation of the ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ men brings about a special situation — the colonial situation.” The colonial situation, which entails a group wielding political, military, economic and/or social power over another group, is an example of a non-dominant group relying on the dominant group for validation because the dynamics in colonies were such that people could ascend up the social hierarchy based on how much they could assimilate into their colonizer’s culture. 

Also, the oppressed group's dependence on their oppressor perpetuates the cycle of oppression. For example, Indigenous rulers in British and French colonies who sympathized with their colonizers were often rewarded with prestige, whereas rulers who were hostile were alienated from the system.

Consequently, Fanon argues that in societies marked by political, military or socioeconomic imbalance, actions by non-dominant groups are geared toward seeking approval from the dominant group -- or, as Fanon calls it, the Other, because they reside in higher a sociocultural and political realm that is mostly inaccessible to the non-dominant group.

However, when the marginalized group stops seeking approval from the Other and tries to achieve equality in its own right, the Other resorts to actions that impose an inferiority complex on the marginalized group, reinforcing the idea that the group is lesser. In other words, when a marginalized group begins to challenge the status quo, the Other does everything in its power to suppress the group.

These attempts to impose inferiority on non-dominant groups explain why most struggle to assert their personhood turn violent: The dominant group weaponizes tools that promote feelings of inferiority and dehumanize the non-dominant group, thus justifying the use of atrocious methods against the non-dominant group without reproach.  

For example, in March 1960, in apartheid South Africa, the South African police, backed by the government, opened fire on citizens peacefully protesting the Pass Laws intended to control the influx of Black South Africans into metropolitan areas, which were regarded as white South Africa. This resulted in 69 people dead and 180 injured; the event became known as the Sharpeville Massacre. 

Similarly, during the 1929 Aba Women’s Riot in Nigeria that protested British occupation, violence was used to suppress protesters, resulting in the deaths of 50 women and the injury of 50 more women.

Actions to induce inferiority work by eroding the self-esteem of the oppressed group such that the group begins to either venerate or fear the oppressing group, thus leaving the dominance of the oppressing group unchallenged. 

Summarily, inferiority stirs up uncomfortable feelings in people, often leading them to look for external ways to combat that fear of inferiority. Too often, those external ways involve scapegoating and oppressing a non-dominant group. 

In this day and age, ignorance is a choice, as most people have access to news and other sources of information. The events of 2020, including the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. and the Lekki massacre in Nigeria, showed how much we need to understand the foundation of the world we inhabit. Because the modern did not arise spontaneously — it was constructed with a goal in mind. 

Inferiority is one of the building blocks used to create the modern world, and people all around the world are indoctrinated into hierarchy-based belief systems from a young age, such that they become a part of their identity. Although the examples above are largely racial, similar hierarchies can be seen in other social relations, including class and sexuality. Given the interconnectedness of inferiority with other social issues, as well as its weaponization by power structures, we must understand how it works within the dynamics of different groups of people and eliminate manifestations of inferiority complexes created by these power structures wherever possible so we can create a more equitable society. 

Contact contributor Abdulghaffah Abiru at ghaffah.abiru@richmond.edu.

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