Tuesday 2nd April
Imagine a little old white lady who feels a bit uncomfortable among black or Asian people. You’d probably have to call her feelings ‘racist’, wouldn’t you? After all, that’s what those feelings are based on. You could follow them further and discover perhaps that they are the result of ignorance, unfamiliarity and uncritically received ideas from a generation or two ago. But there it is, she’s an old racist, and lumped in with notions of Balkan ethnic cleansing, the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide and so on.
About a hundred years ago, Rudolf Steiner said something about the black races of the world having something of a childlike quality. This has been taken up more recently by people violently opposed to Steiner, and characterised as ‘disgusting racism’. Well, if it were said now, it would be pretty distasteful, and I would want to distance myself from such a remark as being full of the sort of paternalism that our grandfathers had about people of the old colonised nations. I’ve never been to, say, Africa, but when I think of individuals such as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Chinua Achebe or Credo Mutwa, I don’t think that ‘childlike’ captures them at all. And I don’t think that that attitude is typical of the people of all races and colours I know today who are serious students of the work of Rudolf Steiner, either. But the term ‘racist’ is applied by certain people not only to students of Steiner’s work, but Waldorf teachers, many of whom go no further in their studies of Steiner’s works than his educational writings and lectures. And it doesn’t help to know that Steiner had a very high opinion of children, and devoted the last five years of his life to founding a system of education that continues to grow and spread in the world. He was not of the “little children should be seen and not heard” school of upbringing.
But a hundred years ago, Steiner said this thing that has led to accusations of ‘disgusting racism’. What sort of moral atmosphere surrounded this remark?
I can’t speak for other German cities of the time, but I happen to know something about Hamburg, at the beginning of the 20th century. Where would you go in Hamburg to see African people? The University, would you say? Or perhaps the nearest teaching hospital? No; the devastating truth is that in Hamburg, you would go to the zoo. There was an exhibit there of African people, among the elephants, rhinos and so on. Living African people. Human beings on show as a curiosity among animals. It is a puzzle how anything said in the German language from that time could be free of the taint of the kind of racism that existed in that moral atmosphere. ‘Disgusting’ indeed. Whatever kind of racism might be said to be contained in Steiner’s remark, it does not descend to that level. Furthermore, the whole tenor of his work, rightly understood, is anti-racist, even though some of the things he said then would be thought of as racist today, now that we have gone through so many necessary revolutions in our consciousness. In fact, to characterise Steiner’s remarks as ‘racist’ are meaningless when looked at in the context of the time in which they were made. And a Dutch court of law came to the same conclusion when this question came up there several years ago. The accusations are not new.
I can think of a couple of little old white ladies, serious students of Steiner, who none the less never quite got rid of some of the racist attitudes that informed the culture in which they grew up, though they, too, would be horrified by the story of Hamburg Zoo above. Yes, the accusations are not new. But no doubt others will come, particularly from people in love with their own prejudices against the spiritual possibilities that Steiner opened up for the whole world, regardless of race, creed or colour.