Epigraph: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes.” “No, unhappy the land that needs heroes.”~ (Brecht)
Preface. St Augustine said he thinks he knows what time is but if someone were to ask him “What is time?”, he would find it difficult to answer. So it seems with the word “race”. We think we know its meaning and use the term with casual confidence. In literary theory, the Russian Formalists drew attention to the fact that language is the medium of literature, and one of the devices of literature was (through unusual use and collocation) to make strange the familiar and, therefore, draw attention. The terms “race” and “racism” need to be estranged and looked at because of their semantic shifts.
The attempt here is not to provide answers but to share some perspectives on race and racism: different perspectives at the expense of rigorous cohesion for which I apologise. I also admit I have filched bits and pieces from my earlier articles. Though set in motion by ‘How to Argue with a Racist’ by Adam Rutherford, someone who has “studied genetics all his adult life”, it’s not about Rutherford’s book. In passing, I wish Rutherford’s title had been, ‘How to discuss race with racists’. By “argue” it is implied that one side is utterly convinced of its position and seeks to defeat the others who are equally convinced of theirs. But to silence a person in argument doesn’t necessarily mean s/he has been convinced. Besides, as Darwin wrote, ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. May I say that by nature I dislike argument as much as I welcome frank discussion. Argument generates the heat of emotion but often not the light of understanding: argument, as one dictionary has it, means “the expression of opposite views, typically in a heated manner”. Argument can descend to, and end in, vulgar name-calling. The starting point for Socrates was that he didn’t know. This was not the doubt of a Hamlet leading to paralysis but an active questioning, probing, self-examination. Beginning in the late 1950s in what I had thought of as home (Ceylon), race and racism are not abstractions to me. What follows is about race in general though being written for a Sri Lankan readership, it draws on the Island. End of Preface.
The signifier “unicorn” refers to a non-existent animal. Similarly, the term “race” seems to be a signifier without a signified in the real world. But we are loose in our use of language. We speak of colonialism and colonies in instances where it was imperialism and imperial territories: Ceylon was not colonised, nor India. We perpetuate the mistake of Columbus by speaking of “Indians”, rather than of “Native Americans”. We say “Happy birthday” rather than, more precisely, “Happy birth-anniversary”. We talk of “black” (non-white) people, and sometimes of “the white race”. In reality, there are neither “white” nor “black” people. The paper on which we write or type is white but not the people classified as “white”. Fielding suggested “pinko-grey” instead of white, while Boakye offers “pinkish beige”: see bibliography below. But the dominant West has chosen “white” (associated with cleanliness and purity) and the rest of the world has followed suit through docility or simple laziness. Similarly, there are no black people but shades of brown. But we have a penchant for sharp dichotomy: the guilty and the innocent, good and bad; black and white; 14 million Jews and the rest of the world of almost 8 billion gentiles etc. Shades in between, nuance and complexity are mentally taxing and troubling. “The first problem with being black is that it is literally not accurate.” No matter how dark my skin is, it is not black in hue (Boakye). But ‘Brown’ and ‘pinkish beige’ are not as neat and effective as ‘black’ and ‘white’. The connotations of black are almost invariably negative except, as Boakye notes when, with reference to expenditure and income, one speaks of being financially “in the black”. (Note: the opposite of black in this context is not white but red: to be “in the red”.) I recall that in Sinhala a word of endearment was “Sudhu”, applied even to someone dark-skinned: if I’m not mistaken, the term means “fair”. If someone felt ignored, he would teasingly ask: “Api kalu the?” “Are we black?” Implying, “Is that why you don’t treat me better?” Again, whether the expression has current currency, I don’t know. But Olive-skinned Romans looked down upon people we now consider white, and enslaved them. “In Australia I met many people that to me looked white and yet they swore they were blackfellas – as Aboriginal people often call themselves – and the intensity with which they spoke about their blackness let me know that they really had lived blackness in the harshest sense Australia could possibly muster. How could this occur that people that literally have a ‘white’ complexion (but Aboriginal features) came to be seen as black?” (Akala). Sri Lankan Christopher Rezel, writer and journalist now ensconced in Australia, commented in an email message to me: “being a 100% white Aboriginal makes no difference. First and foremost you are Aboriginal, irrespective of skin colour.” To the chagrin of those Sinhalese who cherish a belief they are Aryans, extreme white right-wing groups will reject them unceremoniously because “Aryan” means “white” to them. (The Nazis narrowed the term Aryan, and even excluded Russians and East Europeans who are very much ‘white’.) Often in the Western press, particularly in the USA and UK, “race” means a non-white skin-pigmentation. In an article written many years ago, titled ‘The term Racism and Discourse’, I suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that a certain kind of racism be more accurately termed not “racism” but “Colourism”. For an instance of Asian “colourism” against Asians, see the personal and painful experience of Martin Jacques whose Indian-Malaysian wife died of neglect in a Chinese hospital in Hong Kong. (It’s argued that prior to the 1600s and the enslavement of Africans, white people saw themselves as belonging to a country rather than to a ‘race’. In simple terms, the enslaved were not Christian and, therefore, could be held in life-long servitude but as the slaves became Christian, another justification was needed, and it was found in whiteness. See, among others, Robert Baird, ‘The Invention of Whiteness’; also the essay by W E B Du Bois, 1868-1963, titled ‘The Souls of White Folk’.)
Though Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty idiosyncratically claimed: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean”, language is conventional rather than individual. So though I am careful to distinguish between colonialism and imperialism; though I refer to the autochthonous as “Native Americans” and not as “Indians”, I find myself writing about “black” and “white people”, sometimes with the added cautionary but clumsy phrase, “so called”: so-called white people. Another expedient is the phrase, “people of colour”, though not its opposite: colourless people.
Those who believe in race are unable to agree on the number of races presently existing: Rutherford estimates they range from just one (the human race) to about seventy. Shlomo Sand (2010. See, Sarvan, ‘Groundviews’, 07 March 2013) states that there is no biological basis for Jewishness, and that belief in a Jewish race is nothing but “racist pseudoscience”. Race is a social myth and not a scientific fact but “Zionist pedagogy produced generations who believed wholeheartedly in the ethnic uniqueness of their nation”. Shlomo Sand is Professor of History at Tel Aviv University and this book was first written in Hebrew for a Jewish readership. It’s as if a Sinhalese teaching at a Sri Lankan university were to publish a book – not in English but in the Sinhala language – questioning the fundamental assumptions of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. (Professor Sand observes that in Sri Lanka identity contains a very distinctive blend of ethno-nationalism with traditional religion where religion becomes an instrument serving political ends: pages 285-6). Permitting myself a digression, the popular (and legitimising) Sinhalese Buddhist belief is that they (like the Jews) are a chosen race because they and the Island were chosen by the Buddha and tasked with preserving Buddhism in its pristine purity. How this “purity” finds expression is debateable. The title of Professor Sand’s book (see bibliography below) is deliberately ambiguous: Jewishness is not natural and real but is an artificial invention. Another work by Professor Sand has the provocative title, ‘How I Stopped Being a Jew’. (Perhaps, the title should have been ‘Why I stopped being a Jew’.) Opposition to Zionist policy and practice, particularly against the Palestinians, is deliberately and incorrectly met as being racism, more precisely, as anti-Semitism. But there is no Semitic race (Sand). What prevails is but ethno-religious nationalism. Israel today is made ugly by “brutal racism” and a crying failure to take others into consideration (Sand, p. 76). Israel defines itself as a Jewish state but is unable to define who a Jew is: there is no Jewish DNA (Sand, 79).Professor Sand asserts that he can’t be free unless others are also free. “My own place is among those who try to discern and root out, or at least reduce, the excessive injustices of the here-and-now”.
Belief in race is troglodyte. All human beings “are of one and the same blood” (Karen and Barbara Fields). Genetically, women are far more different to men than black men are to white men (Rutherford). Individuals often share more genes with members of other races than with members of their own race, and so we should speak not of race but of “population groups” (Gavin Evans). But language being the invention and tool of human beings, I fear “population groups” will soon grow the negative connotative barnacles “race” has acquired at present.
Yet another synonym suggested for discredited ‘race’ is ‘ethnicity’. However, the latter term can testify to the resilience and mutability of racism, and the disguises it can adopt. Ethnicity is an aspect of relations between groups where at least one party sees itself as being culturally distinctive, if not unique. This sense of difference influences the perception and treatment of others. Though there are similarities and differences, the former are glossed over, and much made of difference. However, the boundary delimited by one cultural criterion – system of government, language, religion, social customs and practices – does not coincide with those established by other criteria. In short, “ethnicity” may be a Trojan horse bringing back disgraced racism. Ethnicity is a term to be used after careful thought. The term culture can now denote something essential, now something acquired; now something bounded, now something without boundaries; now something experienced, now something ascribed. Race as culture is only biological race in polite language. “Language is the source of misunderstandings” (Saint-Exupery) but language can also disguise and deceive. Finally, as with other terms bandied about, it’s a matter of defining terms and clarifying concepts. Take for example, the word “peace”: Is it peace for the conquerors only? Is peace merely the negative absence of overt war or the positive presence of harmony for all citizens which, in turn, is the product of elements such as justice and a sense of security? (Justice cannot be equated with Law because there can be unjust, discriminatory, laws.)
As with ethnicity, so it is with nationalism. It has been said that a patriot is one who loves his own while a nationalist hates all others. ‘Nationalist’ can be but a euphemism for ‘racist’: some nationalists claim that their group, and only their group, constitutes the true, real and authentic, nation. Racists reject a nationality based on law and legal status. Some Sri Lankans living abroad claim, often receive and enjoy, this nationality but vehemently and violently deny it to other groups in the country of their origin: there, they affirm, nationality is based on ‘race’.
As I have written elsewhere, though race does not exist, racism certainly does – and flourishes. Race is not the father of racism but its child (Ta-Nehisi Coates): it is racists, those who are race-minded, who think and react in terms of race. Racists create race. In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, ‘The Artificial Nigger’, a man asks his little grandson “What was that?” The innocent boy gives several wrong answers such as a man, a fat man, an old man until the grandfather educates him with, “That was a nigger”. As Professor Amy Chua notes, the majority projects itself as the norm; others are deviations and subordinate. African Americans are not allowed to feel American in the same way that many white Americans take for granted. “Sri Lanka” means for many “Sinhalese Buddhist”, and secondly Sinhalese Christians. Tamils, Muslims and others are beyond the including border. (The Buddhist scholar, Dr. K. S. Palihakkara, using figurative language, sadly noted: Soon after the death of the Enlightened One, the beautiful clearing he had made was overrun by the surrounding jungle, and now “almost all Buddhists practise more of Hinduism than Buddhism: page 109. If this is so, it obviates the question whether there are Sinhalese Hindus: Buddhists are also Hindu. After all, according to the ‘Mahavamsa’, the dying Buddha prayed to the Hindu god, Vishnu, to protect Vijaya and his followers who were bringing Buddhism to Lanka.) Some Tamils claim that only Tamil Hindus are “real” Tamils. (If, according to Dr Palihakkara, Buddhists believe in and practise much of Hinduism, then Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole, ever an individual and an iconoclast, argues that most Tamils were once Buddhists.)
Racism can strengthen the racial consciousness of a minority. Identity isn’t single and simple but multiple and complex but racism and ‘colourism’ focus on just one aspect, be it ‘race’ or skin-colour. I quote from an earlier article of mine: “The so-called assimilated Jews of Germany felt their Jewishness was accidental rather than important, much less essential. Several fought and died for Germany in the First World War: ironically, Hugo Gutmann, the senior officer who recommended Hitler for the Iron Cross, was Jewish. Soon Hitler and the Nazis made it brutally clear that the Jews were Jews and not German. One thinks of the early decades of the 20th century and those Tamils who worked ardently for (what was then) Ceylon’s independence. The following is slightly edited from my ‘Public Writings on Sri Lanka’, Volume 2.
There was a time when most, if not all in the Island, irrespective of language and religion, equally took a measure of pride and encouragement from ancient achievement, temple and lake; an equal measure of happiness in being “Ceylonese”; a time when Tamils described themselves as Ceylonese and not (as some Tamils tend to do now) as “Sri Lankan Tamil”. When in 1915, D. S. Senanayake (later the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon) and his brother, F. R. Senanayake were jailed by the British authorities, Tamil Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to England to plead their case. On his successful return, jubilant crowds placed him in a carriage, detached the horses, and dragged the carriage themselves. He was not seen as a Tamil who had helped free a Sinhalese, but as a Ceylonese helping a fellow Ceylonese… In 1925-6, when Bandaranaike, as leader of the Progressive National Party, set out the case for a federal political structure for Sri Lanka, he received no support for it from the Tamils (K M De Silva). Even after the trauma of Standardisation (“racial” quota) in relation to University admission beginning in 1971, and the Draft Constitution of 1972, the All Ceylon Tamil Conference declared, “Our children and our children’s children should be able to say, with one voice, Lanka is our great motherland, and we are one people from shore to shore. We speak two noble languages, but with one voice” (Nesiah, p. 14). In 1952, the Kankesuntharai parliamentary seat was contested by Chelvanayakam, as a member of the Federal Party. He was comfortably defeated by a U.N.P. candidate.”
Racism is a virulent force, more powerful than religion or class solidarity. I cite from an earlier article of mine: “Nelson Mandela observed that ‘race’ and colour generate far stronger and virulent emotion than class solidarity. History shows us that the powerful tide of racism can sweep away class solidarity; indeed, in the name of race, people are willing to damage even their material welfare. I know individuals who were socialists but later in life proudly succumbed to racism. Even those who have chosen to live outside the Island, while asking for and enjoying equality in their new home, nourish racism in the Island. The Bible (Acts, 9:4) tells us that cruel and persecutory Saul changed dramatically, and has come down in Christian history as Saint Paul. But in politics, it’s a case of Pauls becoming Sauls, racist and corrupt. Life is corrupting.”
As it has been observed, the trampling of the rights of others is often justified by a proclaimed sense of victimhood and vulnerability: “We are victims.” “We were cheated and robbed.” “We attempt only to balance the scales of justice.” “Our identity and survival are in danger.” The last is said even by an overwhelming majority in full control of the state and its apparatus. The struggle for equality by a minority group is deliberately miscast as an attempt at domination, and brutally suppressed. (As History shows, fear, whether imagined or real, can breed cruelty.) George Floyd, an African American, was murdered in May 2020 by a white police officer. The officer was found guilty of murder in April 2021 and is due to be sentenced. Mr Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe”, have resonated widely. His first-person singular “I” can be pluralised by oppressed minority groups who gasp: We can’t breathe freely!
Inter-racial social and personal friendships do not alter fundamentals, though they are touted as evidence of the speaker being above racism. As Henry Thoreau (1817-1862) reflects in his essay, ‘On Civil Disobedience’, it doesn’t help if you are against injustice but do nothing at all about it. (Among others, Thoreau influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.) Perhaps, the ruling elite in Sri Lanka, including military officers, have Tamil associates, if not friends: “I have a Tamil friend, therefore I am not a racist.”
Racism is not only stronger than class solidarity but also more powerful than religious affiliation: white Christians in the USA joined their fellow whites in enslaving or lynching black Christians. (If I am not mistaken, primarily Sinhalese Christians do not identify with Tamil Christians but with Sinhalese Buddhists.) A sacred text in one hand can do more harm than the knife or burning torch in the other hand. In fact, as Graham Fuller and others have shown, religion has often willingly lent itself to political and racist projects. Those capable of injustice and cruelty be they (in alphabetical order) Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews or Muslims transform those evils not only into the unavoidable but into the noble and, most importantly, the holy: sacred, therefore obligatory. Golda Meir asserted that Israel was brought into existence in order to fulfil God’s wish and promise. Similarly, “the Buddha chose the Island and us. Therefore, we have to choice but to dominate.” Rather on the lines of “Blame me on History”, we have “Blame me on the Divine”.
For Sri Lankan readers, the contradictions inherent in racism are illustrated by Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933).The Buddhism he carried to India and to the West was a world religion, a lofty and noble Buddhism which was not sectarian but broad and inclusive. But within Lanka, Dharmapala’s Buddhism was ‘racist’, narrow and political. (Compare those Sri Lankans living abroad who embrace multinationalism and multiculturalism but vehemently deny it to others back on the Island.) As Patrick Grant writes, Dharmapala lauded Buddhist tolerance and inclusion but believed in Sinhalese hegemony. He preached that Buddhism was universal, breaking down boundaries and hierarchies of race, colour, caste, kinship but promoted a racist Sinhalese-Buddhist fundamentalism, one which even excluded Sinhalese Christians: the true Sinhalese was a Buddhist. He urged young Sinhalese, following the Western example, to be scientific but credited the myth of the ‘Mahavamsa’ with literal truth (Grant). Evidently, the Anagarika was not troubled by cognitive dissonance. One of the factors leading to his break with Henry Olcott was that the latter rationally could not believe in relics while Dharmapala venerated them. Having viewed the Buddha’s tooth at Kandy, Olcott thought it was not that of a human being but was the incisor of an animal. However, Helena Blavatsky explained that it was, of course, the Buddha’s tooth because in one of his previous lives the Buddha was incarnated as a tiger: Steven Kemper, p. 82. (When I expressed surprise that the actual tooth had been exposed to Olcott, Professor Kemper, in a message to me dated 20 April 2017 wrote: “An exception was not made for Olcott to view the relic. A steady stream of British officials, including the Prince of Wales, had a chance to view the relic — both before and after Olcott’s visit. .The relic was once shown to a visiting Australian cricket team, I believe. The Kandyans’ animus was not so much the presumed Christianity of these foreign visitors to the Dalada Maligawa, but the treatment of the relic as a curiosity, as opposed to an object of veneration.”)
As I have written elsewhere, the “dreams” of some can become terrible and tragic “nightmares” to others. The Anagarika was an irredentist, an irredentist who wanted to recover a paradise that had never existed. In his “dream”, Lanka under King Dutugemmunu was a paradise: “temples, tanks, parks, gardens, public baths, resting houses for man and beast, hospitals – also for man and beast – free almonries, schools, colleges for Bhikkhus and nuns, gymnasiums, public baths. The Sinhalese people lived a joyously cheerful life in those bygone times…the streets were crowded day and night by throngs of pilgrims…The atmosphere was saturated with the fragrance of sweet-smelling flowers and delicate perfumes (Dharmapala, p. 324). There were “no slaughter houses, no pawnshops, no brothels, no prisons and law Courts and no arrack taverns and opium dens” (Dharmapala, p. 325).
Professor Daniel Goldhagen who taught Political Science at the University of Harvard sees racism leading to something much worse than war: eliminationism. Eliminationism is racism at its very worst: given the book’s relevance to the subject of racism, I quote at length from it. By this key term, the Goldhagen means the transformation, repression, expulsion or extermination of a group. Such a policy is implemented “only when the perpetrators are confident of success, owing to the overwhelming superior force they can unleash against defenceless people” who, though they are fellow countrymen, are seen as foreigners and inferior (page 361). The enemy is pursued and killed with veritable “glee” (pages 356 & 7). “They routinely talk to them, taunt them, conveying to them their belief in their deeds’ rightness and justice, and their joy in performing them” (page 170).
Multiple acts of savagery not only precede and accompany but occur after the death of the victims (160). Bodies are stripped naked, mutilated and displayed to men, women and even children. The perpetrators express joy, gloat and boast. “They mock the victims and celebrate their death” (180). Not only dead bodies but places of worship and cemeteries are deliberately desecrated. The rape of women is part of the display of power, intended to humiliate and visit shame, not only on the victims but collectively, on the group.
Eliminationists see themselves as reacting, rather than acting (page 442). Perpetrators view the victims as “having inflicted great injury upon them and their society” (pages 448-9). Eliminationist action is justified as being essentially retributive and, secondly, preventive of (imagined) future attack. The victims, and not the perpetrators, are seen as the “problem”: They are the cause. They are to blame. They exist. Eliminationists believe they are acting for their group, for a high and noble cause, and not for themselves (page 221). Horrible and horrifying cruelty is seen as obligatory, laudable, even “sacred”.
The aim of eliminationism is to homogenize society, to usher in some dreamed-of pure state. Eliminationists think on the lines of, “If W is achieved, then X, Y and Z will inevitably follow or be realized, and some kind of an ethnic and spiritual paradise will be realized”. Language and visual images conveyed in talk and discussion, newspapers and radio spread the notion that an entire (emphasised) group of people are subhuman and dangerous. Therefore, any study of eliminationism that “fails to give primacy to language and imagery” denies the fundamental reality of how people are cognitively, psychologically and emotionally prepared (313). Language is the soil that contains the seeds of action (page 342).
Such eliminationist attacks will not occur if the community in general disapproved, was shocked or expressed revulsion and distaste. In that sense, there is general complicity. An entire community contributes towards, and is responsible for, elminationism. The clergy is listened to with respect and credence, and has a powerful influence on the thought and actions of the people. They incite, absolve, make sacred. Places of religious worship are provided for meetings and planning; in some instances, for the storage of weapons. In the name of religion, irreligious acts are carried out.
Intellectuals and artists (through literature, folk songs, story, plays, and symbols) project the myth of a great, heroic and noble people victimised, in danger and having the need for defensive aggression and elimination, so that their true nature can, once again, find expression. Such works tend to be tragic, reproachful and, finally, hortatory: (Goldhagen uses the phrase literary and artistic mass murderers: page 346.) University professors, academics, intellectuals, journalists and artists are no different from the illiterate and the lowest in society (page 398). Indeed, enjoying recognition; having status and influence, they are far worse and culpable.
Soldiers, the paramilitary and policemen play a major role in elminationism. They constitute “pre-existing institutions of violence (page 103) and are either “the lead killing institution or in a critical support role” (page 102). During a period of conflict, other countries have difficulty knowing what is happening, and this gives license to the military to act as it pleases (page 285). Soldiers often feel rage because of the danger they face, and because “their comrades, loved ones and people” (page 455) have been killed, suffered injury or harm (page 455). They inhabit a brutalizing and brutalized world. (Jonathan Shay, in his 1994 study, ‘Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character’, records a US soldier who fought in Vietnam saying, “I carved him up with my knife. I lost all mercy. I couldn’t inflict enough pain.”)
Detention camps set up by the government and its soldiers are “a spatial, social and moral netherworld” (page 113) into which the perpetrators herd “a weakened, overwhelmed, unthreatening, and pliant population, including children” (page 441). “A principal operational purpose of camp systems is degrading the victims, to make them understand their subjugated, demeaned, and right-less state (page 424). Camps are “cruelty’s quintessential sites” and perpetrators create them in a manner guaranteeing the victims will suffer cruelty “regularly, daily and nightly” (page 433. End of Goldhagen quote.)
From another perspective, one can argue that racism is inherent and makes us, of all animals in the world, the most dangerous (Yann Martel). Indeed, we have made the planet and everything on it our “prey” (op. cit). Doris Lessing observed that there’s something in us that impels us to divide and separate. I’ve long felt there’s something fundamentally flawed in our human makeup. The French psychologist and psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), wrote of the mirror-stage in the development of a human being when, unlike with animals, it realizes that the image seen in the mirror is she, herself: that there is me here. The German word fremdeln: refers to a behavioural pattern in the development of infants, usually around the eighth month of life, in which a child develops a mistrust, dislike or fear of strangers. In a fundamental, biological, sense there is “Me” and everyone else is the “Other”. (But this does not throw most of us into some kind of existential angst because we construct what I would call bridging relationships: with parents, relations, friends, and through romantic and/or sexual love.) Is racism the result of the individual, rather than being single, seeing herself as belonging to a group, separate from, if not opposed to, other groups formed by other individuals? Does racism go back to our distant past when, armed with stones and sticks, we fought other animals and other groups of humans for our very survival? Professor Harari writes that tolerance is not a human characteristic, and a small difference in skin-colour, language or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group (page 18). Biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are negligible yet figments of imagination are transformed into cruel and very real social structures and practice (Harari, page 144).
Though not based on fact and science, “race” exists, and powerfully so, because it’s a political and social construct. Tisaranee Gunasekara, erudite and among the most trenchant of commentators in English on Sri Lankan matters, wrote that racism is universal. In the West, it is talked about but elsewhere, it’s a closed subject, hidden though in plain sight (message, April 2021). The answer is to “talk” about it, reasonably and calmly, avoiding vulgar abuse and name-calling. To the Stoics, the divine spark in human beings was reason. Voltaire (1694-1778) believed that though doubt is uncomfortable, and certainty can lead to criminality, progress can be made by the use of reason. Judgement is easy, while knowledge is difficult: John Williams. To my limited knowledge, Buddhism is a philosophy and, most importantly, a moral and ethical code. But a moral position, adopting a moral life, is based on reason. What has long struck me about Buddhist doctrine is its beautiful reasonableness (reason + able). Buddhist doctrine is above all one of reasonableness. No wonder most follow the Buddhist religion and not Buddhist doctrine. (In a message to me, Graham Fuller said that, though not a Buddhist, Buddhism has had the strongest influence in shaping his “most basic world and spiritual views”. He then went on to add: “I had initially tended to think that Buddhists were of course something of an exception to the bloody link between religion and violence. Yet I discovered in later years that in Sri Lanka and indeed in Myanmar, that Buddhists too fall prey to the same human instincts”.)
Apart from religious doctrine; apart from ethical and moral principles, empathy is needed to combat our racism. And a pre-requisite of empathy is a modicum of imagination; the ability to “put oneself in the shoes of another”. This imagination and empathy has been found lacking in philosophers, and even in academics teaching lofty, compassionate, literary texts. Those of the majority do not pause or care to ask what it would be like to be a member of an oppressed, subordinated, minority. In the early 1960s, John Howard Griffin, a white journalist, turned himself into an African American and travelled in the more racist southern states of the USA. The resulting book describes not empathy but lived experience. Perhaps in Sri Lanka, during times of most uncivil ‘civil disturbance’, some Sinhalese has had his racial identity menacingly questioned? Sri Lankan Tamils for their part must ask themselves, with absolute honesty, whether they are free of all vestiges of thinking, attitude and behaviour based on caste.
But racism is irrational, so how can it be deconstructed by reason? Can the irrationality of racism be disinfected and dispersed by the rational? After all, racists first form attitudes and beliefs, and then set about finding justification. Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475 BCE) famously said, “All is flux”, and the Buddha made transience one of his most important perceptions but, as has been noted, from another perspective, though some things change, some (unfortunately) don’t. Professor Harari observes that confronting racists with facts, evidence and statistics has no effect because their beliefs are not based on reason. Elsewhere he observes that tolerance is not a human characteristic, and that a small difference in skin-colour, language or religion has been enough to prompt one group of sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Professor John Gray has argued that the idea that history is a story of increasing rationality, decency and ethical progress is a myth.
Lines from a song popular during the time of the US invasion of Vietnam come to mind: “Oh when will they ever learn. When will they ever learn?” – what appears as a question is really a sad exclamation. However, Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, pointed out that the more hopeless a struggle seems, the greater the honour in not giving up. Of course, this applies only if the cause espoused is just. Nigerian born Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote that she no longer talks to white people about (what I term) colourism because it’s futile. In linguistics, the speech-act theory is associated with the philosopher, J. L. Austin but it can be argued that all speech and writing are acts, and Reni Eddo-Lodge in saying she won’t talk does precisely that. She acts by saying she will no longer act. (Members of Sri Lankan groups must also talk with each other: not accuse, shout and abuse.) Violence in any form, as Sartre noted, is a failure, the failure of human beings to resolve issues without resorting to the crudity of force. Language is all we have to combat racism. Goldhagen points out that the peaceful existence of several multi-ethnic, multicultural countries attest to the fact “otherness” need not necessarily lead to conflict. German-born Franz Boas (1858-1942), known as the ‘Father of American Anthropology’, insisted that on the basic unity of humankind. There was no natural hierarchy of races, cultures or languages. He acknowledged that rejecting traditional beliefs and stories “in order to follow the trail of truth is a very severe struggle”. He used the German word “Herzenbildung”, meaning the training of one’s heart to see the humanity of another.
Racists will argue that racism is natural, but don’t decency and justice – in short to be humane and civilized mean, among other things, the recognition, control and overcoming of our negative impulses and drives? In a message to Martin Jacques, I wrote: “Individuals like you have helped to make people confront their prejudices; to increase awareness, and so change attitudes and conduct. Our globe, planet Earth, rotates on its own but social change is the result only of human endeavour and action.”
Some works drawn on
Akala (Kingslee James Daley): Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire
Robert Baird: ‘The invention of whiteness’, Guardian, 20 April 2021
Jeffrey Boakye: Black Listed
Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass (fiction)
Amy Chua: Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Charles Darwin: The Descent of Man
Reni Eddo-Lodge: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race
Gavin Evans: “The unwelcome revival of ‘race science’”, Guardian, 2 March 2018
E. M. Forster: A Passage to India (fiction)
Karen & Barbara Fields: Racecraft
Graham Fuller: A World Without Islam
Patrick Grant: Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka
John Gray: The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths
Ananda Guruge (Ed.): Return to Righteousness: A Collection of Speeches, Essays & Letters of the
Ratnajeevan Hoole: Heritage Histories: A Reassessment of Arumuga Navalar
John Howard Griffin: Black Like Me
Martin Jacques: ‘The Global Hierarchy of Race’, Guardian, 20 September 2003
Steven Kemper: Rescued From the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World
Doris Lessing: The Golden Notebook (fiction)
Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Toni Morrison: The Origin of Others. (b) Playing in the Dark
K. S. Palihakkara: Buddhism Sans Myths & Miracles, Stamford Lake Publishers, Pannipitiya.
Yann Martel: Life of Pi (fiction)
Saint-Exupery: The Little Prince
Shlomo Sand: The Invention of the Jewish People.
How I Stopped Being a Jew
Charles Sarvan: Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Vol 2.
Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches
John William: Augustus (fiction)