Black Skin, White Topi

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BIAS AND THE SOCIAL ORDER[image, unknown] The heritage of colonialism

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Black skin, white topi
White civilisation and European culture have played curious tricks on the races of the South. The colonial experience and colonizing languages loaded with prejudicial attitudes, have turned what is called the ‘black soul’ into a white man’s artifact. Tarzie Vittachi looks at the values behind Western dealings with the Third World.

THE EARLIEST and most memorable expression of colonial conflict that I know, was the passage of words between Prospero and Caliban in The Tempest:


Abhorred slave,
Which any print of goodness will not take,
Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but woulds’t gabble like
A thing mos brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
With words that made them known: but thy vile race,
Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good natures
Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou
Deservedly contin’d into this rock,
Who had deserv’d more than a prison.

Caliban is the indispensable servant who, as Prospero says a bit earlier, must:

Make our fire,
Fetch our wood; and serve in offices that profit us.

But mark the biased attitude with which Prospero justifies his racist values: Caliban’s ‘vile race’ was teachable, but it was inherently incapable of 'goodness' or of taking 'any print of goodness, being capable of all ill', because — pity apart — the truth was that Caliban was savage and brutish by nature.

Caliban’s response is prophetic — and almost contemporary in its appropriateness:

You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse: The red plague rid you,
For learning me your language.

The ‘red plague’: echoes of Churchill, John Foster Dulles, and their current counterparts in Washington and London, who marvel at the facility of the ‘left-leaning’ slave races in the South. to challenge the authority of the master race by recourse to its own language.

That verbal duel points to the very source of bias: The wish to exert power over other people and the need to secure it for ever by confining the slaves to their island rocks by chains, by immigration laws and, most effective of all, by language loaded with prejudicial attitudes. There is another quotation which drives the point home, a more recent one etched on my mind. This, from Henry M. Stanley, who delivered a lecture to the Manchester Chamber of Commerce which welcomed him from his return from Nyasaland, where he presumed he had found Dr Livingstone:

There are 50 millions of beyond the gateway to the Congo, and the cotton spinners of Manchester are waiting to clothe them. Birmingham foundries are glowing with the red metal that will presently be made into ironwork for them and the trinkets that shall adorn those dusky bosoms, and the ministers of Christ are zealous to bring them, the poor benighted heathen; into the Christian fold.

There they were, the people of Africa, waiting passively, even eagerly for the commercial and evangelical powers of imperial England to come over at the risk of life and health to those torrid climates on their civilising mission of teaching Africans about the benefits of international trade — prime land to mine for minerals and grow coffee on, in exchange for trinkets made in Birmingham and textiles made in Lancashire, and the uplifting values of the white man’s religion (Jesus Christ was of course, an Englishman — rather like Dr Grace). Commerce and religion were instruments for
attaining and retaining power. But, of course, they had to be given an ostensible moral purpose — clothing the naked, illuminating their inner darkness, etcetera, etcetera.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that this top-down zoological view of the people of the southern hemisphere was essentially a matter of colour. It was really a question of power because, at the same time, the same elitist attitudes prevailed towards the poor and powerless in Manchester. That is why the workers in Lancashire welcomed Mahatma Gandhi as a comrade even though he had destroyed their livelihood by launching an India-wide boycott of imported textiles. Skin colour was only a superficial mark of differentiation, which made the Calibans of the world more easily identifiable as a race apart, a strange breed of abhorred slaves to fetch in firewood and perform menial offices for people with power. The pattern of bias did not always work against people of darker colour. The index of prejudice moved along the spectrum of material power. When the mongoloid world was powerful, the bias was against the poor browns, blacks and whites. When the Arabs were swarming around the Mediterranean with their powerful armies, the popular notion was that black was divine because it was impenetrable, and mysterious, ergo divine — while white was transparent, clear, ergo, profane.

Dr Albert Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his medical and missionary efforts in the rain forests of central Africa. The prize was an entirely Western recognition for his work and beliefs, summed up in his book ‘On the Edge of the Primeval Forest’: ‘The negro is a child, and with children nothing can be done without the use of authority We must therefore, so arrange the circumstances of daily life that my natural authority can find expression. With regard to the negroes, then, I have coined the formula: 'l am your brother, it is true, but your elder brother'.

In the hey-day of classical colonialism, the prevailing bias against the lesser breeds of the southern world was hardly ever questioned. It was even reinforced by the popular understanding of evolutionary theory, which enabled those who wielded power to vindicate their hegemony over their victims by reference to ‘scientific’ authority, much as the medieval European monarchs vindicated their Divine Right to rule by recourse to theology and hierarchical priestcraft.

What is important is to realise that Prospero and H. M. Stanley’s stereotypes of the South persist strongly in our day and age, continually bolstered by the prejudicial lenses of the media. Here is an ugly example from the London Times of June 18, 1982, which smears the Argentinians — who have prided themselves on being the whitest of the white in Latin America — with the same tar-brush customarily used on the wogs East of Suez:

Colonel Ian Baxter in charge of their (Argentinian troops at Port Stanley) removal said that they had spent the night in the town hall and left it like a 'cow shed' using it as a lavatory and sleeping there. They had also slept in a junior school and left ammunition and soiled clothes scattered around the classrooms.

Fact? Possibly. But why is it important? Why report it at all, except to convey the idea that Argentinians are uncouth barbarians. Did men at war, whatever ethnic group, behave any differently at Ticonderoga, Gallipoli or Burma? Isn’t war a brutish, dehumanising experience for everyone —winners as well as losers?

Half a millennium of colonial bias is evidently too deep-set in the mind to lose in 4O years of decolonisation. That is why the stand-off between the North and the South characterised by rubrics such as New International Economic Order, New World Information Order, Global Negotiations, the Law of the Seas and so on, is unbreakable. It is a massive non-meeting of minds. But what is even more deplorable is that these international stereotypes are replicated within the poor nations, among people of the same country. There is a North-South division in almost every nation between a numerically small, but powerful elite and the numerous but powerless people. The old colonial biases which determined imperial relationships, are rooted deep in the mentality of the ruling class — whether they are soldiers, lawyers, doctors or business people, or a combination of them. The imported civilising mission of the past, is now called ‘development’, which, for years meant high dams, highways, and hifalutin notions of trying to transform poor countries into tropical versions of Europe and America. Only recently many have begun to realise that it will not work, that internal colonialism will not do any better than the external variety did over 450 years, and that unless they heed the voices of the villagers about their own future, no improvement is possible.

Unfortunately, the old bias of believing that people in power know what is best for people without financial or academic authority continues to bedevil their best intentions. So, they decide according to the prevailing international wisdom that they must train village people in the advantages of ‘community participation’ in development — ignoring the enormous reality that rural people have managed to survive only by cooperating with one another, and that there are no greater experts in poverty than the poor. So, they decide that what the villagers need is more schools, but their bias is set towards the quantity of education, rather than its content. The result, of course, is that the schools keep on turning out more and more clerks as the old colonial system did and, since there are no jobs for clerks, the mass of unemployed — and unemployable — swells each year. So, they decide that rural people must be given 'appropriate technology' such as 'better' kerosene oil lamps or more fuel wood, when what they want is access to the electric power lines carrying power from the hydro works in the hills over their heads into the towns.

The residue of colonialism is very difficult to remove from the human mind. It squats there, solid and unbudgeable, and will probably not go away until another generation passes. I remember asking a reporter on my newspaper in Colombo to report on a Trotskyite mass meeting.

I wanted a 'colour' piece, a crowd story. He began his report: ‘As Dr Colvin de Silva roared into the microphone the crowd shook like aspen leaves.’ I asked him: 'When have you ever seen an aspen? What’s wrong with a tamarind? Doesn’t it shake enough for you?’ The poor man was stunned. He hadn’t realised that aspen leaves may not be a universal metaphor. The English idiom was stamped indelibly on his brain. Prospero had endow’d his purposes with English words and my colleague had not yet learnt, as Caliban had, to realise his profit on’t and curse his masters.

Tarzie Vittachi who is Deputy Executive Director of External Affairs, UNICEF, is also a journalist who has had a number of clashes with authority — whilst editor of the Ceylon Observer, author of Emergency ‘58 (detailing Sri Lankan race riots and subsequently banned), and editor of The Asian.

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New Internationalist issue 115 magazine cover This article is from the September 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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