Racism exists, not race.

How do you see yourself, how do you see others and how do they see you? And does that determine how you express yourself and whether you feel the need to conform? The physical exploitation of colonialism was underpinned by an entire system of beliefs, prejudices and stereotypes built around the idea of white superiority over people of colour. Many of these beliefs persist. It’s called racism, one of colonialism’s most enduring and pernicious legacies. This exhibition will show how race is not a ‘biological’ or ‘natural’ given, but a social construct. And because it has been constructed, it can also be dismantled. Can you step out of the box of your colour, origins and gender fashioned by the colonial hierarchy?

What is racism?

Racism is a power structure based on the idea that white people are ranked at the top of the pyramid, above black people and people of colour. Racism is fundamental to colonialism.

The emergence of racism

There’s no such thing as race, for there is only one human race. But even though race doesn’t exist, the impact of racial thinking does: as racism and discrimination. Europeans conceived the idea of ‘race’ in the 17th century. Scientists in the 19th century catalogued the appearance of peoples from all over the world and subsequently ranked them, linking the way people looked to aspects of character, intelligence, and morality. In this way some ‘races’ were labelled as bright and enterprising, while others were characterized as lazy, violent, or sensual. At that time race theory was accepted as a science. The prevailing view of black people and people of colour as inferior beings allowed for a justification of slavery and colonialism. As such race is a socio-political and legal construct.

Colonial wall charts

Please be advised: these wall charts feature terms with negative connotations that are no longer in use today. Therefore we don't use them. 

These wall charts are part of a series showing people from different parts of the world and how they looked. They functioned to endorse the concept of ‘race’ by emphasizing external characteristics such as a dark skin tone, hair, and eyes and non-European facial and cranial contours. Secondary schools and academic institutions used the charts for lessons in physical anthropology. Students learned how to identify ‘race’ based on physical characteristics.

Swiss; Switzerland, Zürich; pre-1986; paper, lithography; transfer 2006; TM-6264-1b, -2d, -2h, 3c

Zwitsers; Zwitserland, Zürich; voor 1986; papier, lithografie; overdracht, 2006; TM-6264-1b, -2d, -2h, 3c 

Contemporary racism

When the Netherlands finally outlawed slavery in Indonesia (1860) and the Caribbean (1863) it didn’t mean that everyone was suddenly deemed equal. Racist ideas and stereotypes persisted, so laying the foundations for many problems that still plague Dutch society to this day. Racism and stereotypes still feature frequently in photographs, paintings, advertisements, and exhibitions. But also in education, on the housing and job markets, in politics and at work, people still suffer exclusion, inequality and prejudice.

Institutional racism

This is one of the forms of racism that’s not immediately apparent, but which is encoded into organisational life and institutions and is structural and systematic. Institutional racism is not just the work of individuals, but forms part of the way in which organisational structures, routines and ways of working are ordered. We see it in the healthcare system, in education, on the labour market and in the media. Institutions all operate according to explicit and implicit rules, with traditions, behaviours and codes of conduct that foster inequality between people of different skin colours, cultural or religious backgrounds. This, too, is a legacy of the racist ideology of colonial times.

To learn more about racism, visit the gallery ‘Racism exists, not race.’