Tuesday, March 9, 2010

O Que É O Racismo, Afinal?: What Exactly Is Racism At The End Of The Day?

Perhaps you have shared this experience when visiting the ‘western world’? The persons of South Asian descent there have an uncanny way of locating you in the crowd and staring, if even for a moment, at you. Finding these looks rather disconcerting, I complained to a friend some time ago that I had no idea how to respond to these, at times searching, glances. I had no idea what these glances were supposed to mean. How was I to respond to them?

The route to response was suggested sometime yesterday at a seminar that bore the title of this column. Speaking at the seminar, Brackette Williams, an anthropologist based in the United States, drawing from the experience of coloured persons in the United States, suggested that those glances were in fact glances looking for acknowledgement. A racist society, or a society that discriminates against certain kinds of persons, has the effect of negating the existence of that person. Perhaps this society doesn’t even have to be consciously discriminatory. The mere fact of being a minority results in a situation where one does not feel that one’s being, one’s existence is acknowledged sufficiently. When one coloured person looks at another, especially in contexts where they are the minority, these glances then, are glances that are looking for acknowledgement. To not acknowledge these glances, Williams elaborated, was to participate in racism. Williams pushed the concept a little further, when she argued that it didn’t matter if we were too busy thinking about our failing finances, if we were lost in our own world. When we failed to acknowledge that glance, we were engaging in racist behaviour.

Sitting in the audience, recognizing the truth of Williams' observation, I sank somewhat into my seat, feeling like Judas at the Last Supper. When we do see those glances and choose to look away, or not acknowledge them, what we are doing is refusing to acknowledge a relationship between ourselves and that person. What we are trying to do is to distance ourselves from ‘those people’. We can justify this distancing to ourselves. Invariably, it is one created by or justified by class. And yet, after Williams' observation, how can we not acknowledge that at the end of the day, it is about race?

Williams' observations, forced a recollection of Kiran Desai’s observations in her book The Inheritance of Loss. Observing on the antics of South Asians as they queue up before the U.S. Embassy, to apply for a visa, she points out how those from the upper rungs of this society, distinguish themselves from the socio-economic ‘lower orders’ of their society. This distinguishing is achieved through the looks of scorn for the ‘lower orders’ lack of English, manners or some other civilizing feature. It is achieved through our dress, or it is achieved best of all, through the rich, cultivated tones of our ‘posh’ accents. Desai perhaps captures it best in the phrase where she describes how Biju struggles to get a visa to the U.S. After successfully pushing himself forward “he dusted himself off, presenting himself with the exquisite manners of a cat. I'm civilized, sir, ready for the U.S., I'm civilized, ma’am. Biju noticed that his eyes, so alive to the foreigners, looked back at his own countrymen and women, immediately glazed over, and went dead”.

Class is such a cunning way in which we mask our own racism. And we often do not have to traverse to foreign climes to practice this racism. Read Rochelle Pinto’s book, Between Empires for a discussion on how the nineteenth century elite Goans in Bombay sought to distinguish themselves from their more vernacular brethren who populated the Coors in that city. These elite Goans, westernized to an extent of being able to justifiably see themselves as ‘European’, marked themselves out from the other Goans in the city. We continue those inherited practices today, when we turn our nose up at the Tiatr, at the language and the literature produced by those who write Konkani in the Roman script, and when we shut our ears to Cantaram.

Social scientists claim that Racism is a particularly difficult concept to elaborate because one can never pin it down. This is perhaps because race and racism is one of the foundational concepts of the international order that structures our national and local existence as well. It is the systemic logic that manifests itself in even the smallest actions we undertake. These contemplations apart however, we do now have an explanation for the, until yesterday inexplicable, glances shared between coloured persons as they pass each other in the streets of the ‘western’world.

Therefore, for the times that we have erred in not acknowledging our brethren in the street; mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

(A version of this essay was first published in the Gomantak Times on March 10 2010)


halfwitted said...

Nice post J; I couldn't agree more..


halfwitted said...

I couldn't agree more, J. Now lets chase away some Indian tourists from our clubs and shacks; oh wait, there's none of them any more.. ;p

Daniel said...

Hi Jason,
Nice article and thoughts. However, I cannot say that I fully agree with what Brackette Williams says. Not in that generality. There might be situations where such looks are looks searching for acknowledgement by those who feel overlooked, ignored and by getting a straight return-look from a race-co-fellow they receive the much needed outside confirmation of their existence.
However, I sincerely doubt that this is the normal or general case. I don’t want to be to scholarly, but I would like to draw on social identity theory – a branch of sociology and social anthropology – and social psychology saying that central elements of collective identity are identifications with a group, behavioral elements and a group affinity. This leads you to positively identify with a people who you identify as belong to the same group (which could be farmers, divers, or South Asians). Most people have a natural interest in “what is this fellow xyz doing here?”

One well known effect of racism is that it fosters the ethnic group identity of migrants. I.e. when they encounter racism migrants tend to feel more as one group. This, obviously, strengthens the group identification and the staring… but my point is: it is by no means necessary. In particular for South Asians – as is my observation. Generally, in India staring at somebody, reading overtly the book, personal notes, etc of the person sitting next to you, is not considered to be strange. I find there is a strong curiosity … and the feeling that this is not really intruding. I don’t say only in India, but we don’t have to go into comparisons. So, if you give someone a reason for his or her curiosity – either by being very different or by being apparently of the same group – and if the other person feels that the curiosity is not unwelcome – generally assumed among compatriots – her or she might try to connect in that way.

I hope this comment is not getting to long. One last personal anecdote from the gora perspective. When I see a German (which would be my national group) abroad, my natural instinct should be to bond with this person. However, since I don’t identify too much with that group (as many internationally-oriented middle class Germans do), I have a tendency to not look, to not bond, to not display curiosity. And sometimes I feel that I have to justify this because it’s somewhat ‘wrong’.. On the other hand, if I walk though Delhi and I see Italians, or Africans, or while walking through New York I see Indian-looking persons (there are one or two of that sort), I feel I should bond by making eye-contact and say a blink-hello. The problem with the latter two groups (African Black and Indians) is that even though I identify with them, they don’t identify with me…. :-)

Selma said...

Brilliant Jasu, absolutely brilliant. Ironically, my own column this week is to be about racism as a rascist incident just happened to me today in the bus. Wish I could call and tell you about it.

Luis said...

yes..definitely brilliant piece! well done!

David said...

a big theory for an intersubjective subtlety, that may be a search for recognition, or not, or only sometimes, or also, and also lots of other things. why would 'race' be the critical category here? The same phenomenon seems to be observable in lots of intersubjective contexts and situations where you seem to recognize something in the other that ... See morereveals something to yourself, that throws something back to yourself (Freud's definition of the uncanny by the same, word that you use). Racism always seems to me the weakest of all possible explanations, cause it is not in most contexts about 'race' that is phenotypical 'markers' of your body

Jason said...

@ David - I dont think race is always about phenotypical 'markers' of the body. Thats what Brackette would say is the basis of what she calls candy-coated racism. Race IS to my mind, one of the fundamental blocks of the international order, that manifests itself universally - all the way down to the local. I will write somethig on this point before the end of March, will pass it on to you and those interested. till then, kisses!

Snehit said...

guilty as charged, and somewhat unrepentant.

All this is fine, but presupposing a racist society in the background is a must. What happens when there isn't one (re:new york)?

I always encounter people who expect an acknowledging gaze to reinforce their sense of identity. But then, aren't they ghettoizing themselves? Putting up the walls? Defining the "us" and the "them"?... See more

Isn't it fair to abstain from this eyeballing act then?

Luis R. said...

Ah, Jason, intelligent, lucid and ...well, er, provocative ... But aren't the social games people play in order to mark or assert their social class legitimate? I mean, some people are more intelligent and prettier and richer and why shouldn't they show it? Why should they play the game of false egalitarianism? I think some things are exactly what they seem.

Constantino Xavier said...

Jason: if you haven't yet, read "The Karma of Brown Folk" and other writings by Vijay Prashad, who has touched upon many of these issues you address, albeit in the context of the US. Abr