Words, words, words (‘Hamlet’, Act 2, Scene 2)
What follows arises from reading Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2017) by Reni Eddo-Lodge; born (1989) in London to Nigerian parents. The author clarifies that her decision relates to those whites (the majority) who refuse to accept there is racism in England. (In such contexts, rather than “racism” I have suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the more accurate and specific term “colourism”. Derrida wrote that some words are inappropriate but not having an alternative we use them, placing them ‘under erasure’: the word “racism” – again, in certain circumstances – is one of them.) Some of what Eddo-Lodge says is related to Sri Lanka.
Language is the most vital of human inventions. It’s Shakespeare’s genius that in ‘Richard 11’ when Mowbray is sentenced to life-long exile, he doesn’t lament the loss of family and friends; of a familiar and loved landscape but the loss of language. It’s through language that we communicate our thoughts and express our feelings. To alter and use words from a ‘pop’ song, it may only be words, but words are all we have. Words enable us, each from the island of our individual self, to attempt to build bridges of communication with other islanded individuals and groups. What we don’t encounter, whether personally or through language, remains unknown to us. For example, I’m a British citizen; I’ve lived, studied and worked in England; England is my second Heimat, and yet the following statement read just the other day, came as a surprise to me: “proportionally, Chinese people experience higher levels of fear and violence than any other minority group in the UK” (The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla, 2016, p. 43). One does not immediately accept this statement but a certain awareness is created. Eddo’s title reflects repeated attempts to communicate with whites, and failure: so too with Sri Lanka and the racial divide. (The inadequacy, if not failure, of language must particularly puzzle and pain those in the Humanities, more specifically, those in the discipline of Literature – Literature is made up entirely of language; and language, of words.)
Racism (Colourism?) is not a problem for white people, writes Eddo. For them, white is the norm and all other colours are a deviation: she dislikes the term ‘non-white’ because it suggests a lack. In an essay, ‘Forming blackness through a screen’, Eddo writes that white is neutral and invisible; that is, unnoticed. Similarly, being Sinhalese in Sri Lanka is not a problem for Sinhalese but an advantage. I turn to Martin Jacques, a British academic and his personal tragedy out of which something positive was extracted. “Like every white person, I had never experienced [colour prejudice] myself: the meaning of colour was something I had to learn. The turning point was falling in love with my wife, an Indian-Malaysian, and her coming to live in England… Colour is something white people never have to think about because for them it is never a handicap… but rather the opposite, a source of privilege” (Martin Jacques, “The global hierarchy of race“. The Guardian, London, 20 September, 2003, p. 23.) The last sentence can be applied to Sinhalese living in Sri Lanka. Jacques’ wife was sent by her law firm to Hong Kong: I suppose one of the reasons was that she was fluent in Cantonese. Martin Jacques accompanied her to continue his research into China; his wife fell ill; was admitted to hospital (it was in 2000, and she was thirty-three) but because of callous neglect caused by colour-based racism, died. In Hong Kong, when not in the company of her white husband, she had been subjected to an “in-your-face racism”. There is a global hierarchy of colour, at the top of which are whites. They are the only ‘race’ that never suffers any kind of systematic racism anywhere in the world. They are invariably the beneficiaries, never the victim but, even when well-meaning, they remain strangely ignorant of what people of colour encounter and experience: Martin Jacques, op. cit. Determined to extract justice, the grieving husband sued the hospital – and won. In a personal message to me dated 28 June 2010, he wrote that as a direct response to the outcry over his wife’s death, the Hong Kong government introduced anti-racist legislation, albeit in a weak form. “After blanket denial for ten years that the hospital did anything wrong…they suddenly sought a settlement – with some desperation. They never formally apologised – just threw in the towel.”
Within the hierarchy of skin-colour, there’s also created a hierarchy of shades of skin-colour. Members of non-white but light-skinned ethnic groups look down on those who are shades darker. Centuries of Western imperialism and domination in various fields projected a feeling of inferiority on non-Western peoples. But the real damage, as Achebe observes (Morning Yet on Creation Day), is when non-Western people accept and internalise the negative image projected of them. Going back more than half a century to the ‘Ceylon’ I knew and loved, I recall an indignant Sinhala, rhetorical, question: “Api kalu the?” “Are we black?” (“Is that why you are ignoring us?” The implication is that had we been black, it would have been justified to slight us.) Skin-lightening creams still sell well in various countries, and some Sri Lankan marriage-notices proudly state that the prospective bride is fair-complexioned. ( En passant but not without significance, Sinhalese tend to think that Tamils are much darker complexioned.)
There are many reasons for Eddo’s sense of the futility of words; of talking. Most of us are islanded within our own individual and group experience: it’s because Martin Jacques married an Indian that he gained an insight into what it really is to be a person of colour in a colour-conscious (‘colourist’) society. On his first visit to India, E M Forster, best known to South Asian readers as the author of A Passage to India (1924), was the guest of Indians, and so gained an insight into the contempt with which his fellow whites, imperial rulers, treated Indians and anyone who was not white.
But inter-racial marriage can have an opposite effect: there are examples of Sinhalese men married to Tamil women being rabidly racist; virulently anti-Tamil. Perhaps, this is to declare that, despite their marriage, they remain Sinhalese? Perhaps, they feel the need to assert an identity and commitment that Sinhalese married to Sinhalese may not feel driven to proclaim? We human beings have a remarkable ability to live with contradictions ignoring, denying or rationalising them: marry a Tamil but hate and be hostile to Tamils. (Elsewhere, I have termed this “exceptionalism”: the claim that a particular individual is an exception, thus justifying and maintaining group-prejudice and animosity.) On the other hand, inter-racial marriage can lead to understanding, and understanding to sympathy, indignation and even to protest.
Sinhalese settled outside the Island expect decent and fair treatment; expect full rights as citizens and equal opportunity. Yet some of these same individuals will vociferously and vehemently advocate subordination and exclusion when it comes to the minorities of ‘the Paradise Isle’. Though non-white, they expect; get and enjoy abroad what they deny to others at home. They may welcome the banning of hate-speech where they live but spew racist poison in “blessed” Sri Lanka. They may extol abroad Buddhism’s lofty compassion and noble non-violence but, in Sri Lanka, use Buddhism to justify, to sanction – even to sanctify – violence and hegemony.
Eddo, trying to engage white people in dialogue on the subject of colour found she was seen as one of those angry black people who is a threat to them. These whites often saw themselves as historical victims, in danger of being taken over. As in Sri Lanka, history is ignored and factual statistics disregarded. Those who think and behave on such lines, indulge in what’s termed ‘rationalisation’ in psychology, related to the ‘defence mechanism’. They see themselves as righting wrongs; of suppressing in the present so as not to be oppressed in the future. Eddo points out that ‘racism’ (here, based on skin-colour) is not always overt or crude. Further, there are English people who say: I have friends who are people of colour; therefore I can’t be a racist. But inter-racial social association and personal friendships in themselves alter nothing. As Henry Thoreau (1817-1862) reflects in his essay, ‘Civil Disobedience’, it doesn’t help if you are against slavery but do nothing about it (emphasis added). Former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brother and members of their government; officers and soldiers of the security forces may well have had Tamil friends. If so, it did not have the slightest influence on their actions. Inter-racial association, by itself (emphasised), does not alter or help to dismantle systemic, structural, racism. Of course, this calls into question the true nature of proclaimed “friendship”.
Altering and applying Eddo’s observation, those Tamils who have the opportunity and yet do not discuss their racial experience and situation with Sinhalese friends fail to make a positive contribution. Eddo found that to talk about the colour problem with whites made her become the ‘problem’. The focus then was on her as a difficult, over-sensitive, person and not on the problem! Similarly, to say to Sinhalese friends that there is injustice and suffering; may make you the problem. On the other hand, because Tamils remain silent on the subject, there is unawareness and the continuation of injustice and pain. Of course, this applies only to Sinhalese who are neutral, either unknowing or indifferent to what has and is being done in their name: there are many others, racists, who work proudly and gleefully towards hegemony.
There are several reasons why most Tamils remain silent on the subject, vis-à-vis their Sinhalese “friends”, embarrassment and feared estrangement being the main two factors. It might also be a sense of futility: “What the use? It’ll have no effect, and only be a matter of loss without any gain”. They wish to retain the pleasure and profit of socialising; to continue to enjoy the benefits of contact – be that contact professional, religious, business or even academic – I write “even” because in academic circles one fondly expects a greater degree of reasoned, free and frank, exchange. (“Fondly” is here used also in the earlier sense of “foolishly”.)
Language is vital; it’s the (emphasised) main means by which we humans attempt to reach understanding and yet, time and time again, it fails to have any effect. I say one thing and people hear something else, regrets Eddo (p. 215). Why is it so? Is it because our prejudices are so deeply rooted? Is it an inability to examine our stance; think on new lines; accept the possibility of having been mistaken? Is it a failure of imagination and empathy? We have made wonderful progress in science and technology but our human nature, its fears and insecurity, hasn’t changed; hasn’t progressed. I have suggested to students that while we see through our eyes, we actually see with the mind. Our eyes are passive instruments; our minds are active producers. For example, loving Tamil family-members on the one side, and racist Sinhalese on the other will see the same Tamil individual but “see” her or him quite differently. The winsome baby or little child who involuntarily brings a smile to the face can, in another context, be butchered – as happened during the horrible anti-Tamil pogrom of July ’83 and later. Several places and incidents, throughout the world and throughout time, provide examples: there is no shortage of instances of appalling cruelty when it comes to our species. Perception is paramount. And perception has finally to do with the mind than with the eyes: what’s seen is determined by the mind, and not by the eyes. And the distinction Eddo writes about is one based on skin-colour: it’s immediate and visual. But it’s not skin-colour; it’s not ethnic difference but what we, consciously or not, bring to the “seeing” of it. Does the above help to explain why language so often fails?
All we have are words but, ironically, the attempt to create understanding can lead to a worse misunderstanding; even to taunts, denigration and increased hostility. The electronic media is a great help but, at the same time, it can be a grave danger in that response can be a knee-jerk reaction rather than a patient, carefully thought-out, answer. Often, what’s important is neglected and the respondent fastens on something trivial or peripheral. Discussion is degraded into the scoring of cheap (if not vulgar) “debating points”. As Charles Darwin wrote, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”. There’s at present a notable rise in nationalism in various parts of the world, and nationalism is almost invariably a concomitant of racism – see, post-Brexit Britain, and post-Donald Trump USA.
Language often fails us but it remains our prime means of communication; of sharing our thoughts, wishes and feelings; our pain and hope. Reni Eddo-Lodge writes that resignation, defeatism and silence are not an option. Silence will not alter things. We have to fight despondency; hang on to hope (p. 222). However tired and discouraged we may feel; however futile it may seem, we have to return to words. Words, words, words (Hamlet): they are all we have.