Ethnic discrimination, can we blame racism, brought on by colonialism?

There should be no discrimination against languages people speak, skin colour, or religion. – Malala Yousafzai


We all know what discrimination looks or even feels like, being treated unfairly for what you look like, how you speak, what you say you are, where you are from, what your skin colour or ethnic background is, or whether you are a man or woman.
Some definitions of discrimination are:

• treating a person or particular group of people differently, especially in a worse way from the way in which you treat other people, because of their skin colour, sex, sexuality;
• an act or instance of discriminating, or of making a distinction;
• bias or prejudice resulting in denial of opportunity, or unfair treatment regarding selection, promotion, or transfer;
• discrimination is the act of treating a person differently – negatively or positively – because of that person’s race, class, sexual orientation or gender or any;

Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity is most often based on prejudice, which means forming or having an opinion not based on what you experience or see, but what you are told. It most often leads to stereotyping of a group of people or even a whole population of a country.

This is not a scientific or facts based column, but a train of thought, which is meant to reflect on our attitude to people who are distinctly different from us.

Discrimination based on ethnicity brought on by prejudice can be blamed on the era of colonialism, which brought on racism.

How did it get started?
Colonial era racism

From the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, European powers quickly expanded abroad; therefore they established numerous colonies and reliable navy bases in the Pacific, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. The European powers were able to establish colonies with the support of industrialization. European contact with South Africa began in the fifteenth century with Portuguese traders, but accelerated by the seventeenth century when the Dutch began using the Cape of Good Hope as a fuelling station.

Soon, Dutch settlers began to get ahead of themselves, and were so focused on gaining more land and began to push the original inhabitants aside. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the British had also established themselves at the Cape, and they began to impose a much more formal style of imperial rule on both Afrikaners and Africans. British desire for natural resources, slave labours and political dominance brought about long-term effects to South Africa, the negative effects include widespread racial discrimination and economic exploitation, but there were few positive effects which were the advances in agriculture, mining industry and education.

Racism and colonization were interrelated. Colonialism, justified racism (feeling superior) resulted in the conquest of African nations. The colonists believed that Africans had to move from their “primitive” existence to a modern European one. Africans were seen as backward mainly due to the racist ideas of Social Darwinism.

Racism and colonialism were symmetrically related in Africa under white rule. Both drew a line between the “superior” white man and the “inferior” black man.

Besides the predominantly economic justification for European colonization of Africa, the race factor stands out distinct. The slave trade which preceded colonialism had confirmed the thesis among Europeans that the black race was an inferior one. The need therefore to “civilize” these inferior peoples was often advanced as one of the major justifications for European control of Africa. This notion fed heavily on a new theory called social Darwinism which appealed to imperialists.

Social Darwinism, Racism and Colonialism in Africa

Social Darwinism, a term coined in the late 19th century to describe the idea that humans, like animals and plants, compete in a struggle for existence in which natural selection results in “survival of the fittest.” Social Darwinists base their beliefs on theories of evolution developed by British naturalist Charles Darwin.

This great intellectual force lent support and justification to European control of Africa. This theory appealed to imperialists all over Europe who later put it to good use in Africa which in their view belonged to Darwin’s category of the “weak.” The result of this experiment was the surge of colonialism or the scramble for Africa. In his book ‘Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics and Society’, Marvin Perry establishes the link between social Darwinism and colonialism in the following words.

“In the popular mind, the concepts of evolution justified the exploitation of lesser breeds without law by superior races. This language of race and conflict, of superior and inferior people, was widely expressed in western states.”

Even before social Darwinism took hold in Africa in the form of colonial rule, European states had advocated reforms to select the best breeds for the greater task of empire building. “When working men proved unfit to serve in the Boer war” says Perry, British imperialists became advocates of health and education reforms to improve the British race so that it could rule the empire.”

Ethnic discrimination during the colonial era

Throughout the colonial era ethnic discrimination based on social Darwinism and superiority of the European colonizers remained a dominant feature. It led to the massacre of the Herero and Namakwa people in Namibia, the mutilations in the Belgian Congo. It also led to the most ingrained ethnic discrimination, the policy of ‘apartheid’ in South Africa.

Justification for racism was easily found in colonial Africa as in the statement that one white man was equal to more than hundreds if not thousands of Africa. Therefore the white man’s interest should be first and foremost. Thoughts like led to the land deprivation.

In colonial Africa the black skin was viewed with suspicion. As a result, Africans had to carry identification badges before entering into “white quarters.” In Kenya, the black man carried the “kipande” as he sojourned on the land his ancestors. It was the same in Algeria and Southern Rhodesia. In other cases, the black skin was enough to attract police brutality and all forms of discrimination sanctioned by colonial laws.

In the eyes of the French, Africans simply had to move from their “primitive” stage to become assimilated and flogging was also employed to realize this goal. To ascend the hierarchy of civilization had to think, eat, dress and behave like the French. Anything less than this was tantamount to inferiority – with all the inhumanity that came with it.

What later emerged as the anti-colonial struggle or decolonization was, in its proper context, Africa’s war on racism. This was Africa’s way of restoring her dignity stolen under decades of racist oppression. From the independence of Ghana in 1957, each newly independent African country entered into history as an additional success in the general struggle against white domination of Africa. This explains why the fall of apartheid in South Africa was celebrated as one of the most significant events of the 20th century.


Most people do not consider themselves to be ‘bigoted’ and may be unaware that their attitudes or behaviours could be deemed prejudiced or discriminatory. As such, it may be important to begin from an assumption that people will recognize themselves as prejudiced. Even people who consider themselves tolerant and are consciously non-prejudiced can have implicit bias which is instinctive and often activated without being recognised.

Our true nationality is mankind. – H.G. Wells

*Ato Bob is a former Dutch Diplomat who now consults with various NGO’s on African issues. He lives in Rotterdam and may be reached on