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Can You Really Have a Clash of Civilizations Without a "Civilization"?

Race with the Devil

by FARZANA VERSEY

Anything that can walk on two legs and take a gladiatorial stance is being described as a clash of civilisations these days.

Andrew Symonds plays a mean game of cricket and can hit any ball that comes the way of his bat, but when some spectators during a match in Mumbai two days ago made what has been widely reported as "monkey gestures" against the Australian player, Indians were accused of being racist.

The International Cricket Council joined forces and a compere at an awards function where Symonds was being feted referred to the offensive hecklers as "idiots". He got the audience to give the cricketer a standing ovation. This is what the race issue has become: chicken soup for the soul.

It has its Deepak Chopra-like moments where victims turn aggressors and then back to victim again. Instead of lending a feisty fight, we are creating roosters. Some rational Indians are talking about how this behaviour goes against our culture. The problem is our culture smothers people with our peculiar ritualistic welcome of sandalwood garlands, lit oil lamps and red marks anointed on foreheads. We forget the era (history has indeed become hip and contemporary enough for a couple of decades to qualify) when women wearing the traditional ‘bindi’ were systematically abused by ‘dot-busters’. These same Indians who are being made to feel ashamed of culture would not have reacted in a similar manner had the person at the receiving end been a Black player or even a dark Brown one.

A small nose-stud had become a centre of a controversy a couple of months ago. An Indian woman who worked at Heathrow Airport for over a year was suddenly asked to quit because that shiny thing was deemed a health hazard; they put flesh piercing in this category. One fails to understand why they did not realise that for all the months that piece of jewellery could have harboured bacteria, created a hazard with the machinery and found its way into people’s food, which was the problem?

Amrit Lalji was of course incensed. This nose-pin was absolutely essential to her as a married Gujarati woman, she said. "I had always made it clear that I wear it as part of my Hindu faith." She is now back at work.

Last year Nadia Eweida was suspended by British Airways for wearing a Christian cross but later reinstated following condemnation by clerics and politicians.

There is the perennial problem with veils. And turbans.

Why have outward symbols of identity become so very important? Is it because there is a greater resistance to them or has the resistance stemmed from the over-enthusiasm of proponents to push the envelope, so to speak?

How do these factors become a clash of civilisations? There has been no renaissance, religious or intellectual, in recent times. One is not sure whether there is much by way of civilisation, as in civilised discourse and understanding, left. We have become archetypes, flag-bearers and agenda-holders of causes we have a fluttering acquaintance with.

When an Indian participant, the actress Shilpa Shetty, took part in the reality show Big Brother in the United Kingdom (which she ultimately won, largely due to the sympathy factor), Channel 4 received thousands of complaints for the discriminatory treatment meted out to her. She was called a dog, a Paki; her accent was mocked at, her cooking ridiculed. However, do these good people ever complain when those on the tube, in buses, in stores are called such names and worse?

Racism has become a celebrity endorsement of sorts. When Michael Winterbottom’s ‘A Mighty Heart’, a film on Daniel Pearl’s journey as seen through the eyes of his widow Marianne Pearl, was first out on screen, all people seemed to be concerned about was that Angelina Jolie who enacted the part was not Black enough.

The film crashed at the US box office, and to pat themselves on the back they started saying it was because the American people had spoken out against this discrimination. Hello? Rodney King, are you there? The thought that xenophobia and a complete disinterest in the subject could be reasons were ignored. Black groups had been protesting ever since the casting was announced. They believed that Marianne is a woman of mixed race and any Black actress could have portrayed her; using Jolie amounted to "whitewashing of history".

This is another kind of reductionism. Pointing out these differences too constitutes covert racism. The world over people make choices and it would be ridiculous to suggest that having made those choices they become racist. We all have our preferences, and were we to choose Black or White or Brown or Yellow it need not reveal our racism. But if we emphasise these, then it does point to the fact that we are not untouched by these factors entirely.

The film’s director has been incredulous about the reactions: "How would a Latina woman be more like Mariane, who’s French, half Dutch, half Cuban and a quarter Chinese. It just seems incredible generic, like a non-American is somehow more like another non-American than an American, which is kind of bizarre."

Problems get compounded with mixed race people: where do they really belong? Do they have to belong anywhere? Is mixed identity a new stereotype where we hear about better-looking, more intelligent cross-breeds?

Labels aren’t bad in themselves. For example, a blonde is a blonde. Now, if we go on the track of the ‘dumb blonde’ and ‘gentlemen prefer blondes’, then not only do we stereotype others, we in fact limit ourselves.

This is what the Black groups are doing. If cinema is part of culture, then must we stratify it to necessarily have the benefit of an authenticated history that they are talking about? Angelina Jolie’s ‘whiteness’ ought to be immaterial because she was performing a part; were she enacting the role of a homeless person would homeless people protest because she is a millionaire?

Indian racism is more complex for it is neatly compartmentalised into regions and sects. Those who still use the derogatory term ‘bhangi’ for their sweeper, who protest against quotas for backward classes, who have parochial mindsets and arrange matches for their children in the heaven of caste and class equations wake up to apartheid only when the superior ‘race’ in involved, be it economically or socially.

However, I am indeed surprised that the spectators did take on the White man, until now considered a knight. Is colour the only yardstick? In India we have far too many castes and languages, and each has a feeling of superiority over the other. I should imagine this would not constitute racism, though the Brahminical attitude towards the darker Dravidian race could well qualify.

Insecurity gets enshrined in our mental constitution. There is most certainly racism, Indian style. Blacks who come to India for good cheap education feel snubbed in public transport, in shops, in streets. Even in small cafes, a backpacking White will get better treatment than a decently-dressed Black. As Desmond, a Sudanese student, had told me, "We didn’t expect to be seen as savages. They tell us to our face that we are monkeys."

There have been frightening instances. One student was pushed out of a train, and he died. They therefore seek upward mobility by trying to become what they are not.

Why did Keith say he was an African-American in his first letter to me? Wasn’t this a lie only to legitimise himself? What was wrong in saying he was Nigerian?

The more open our societies are becoming the more we feel the need to look for corners to hide in. We find people who might even say today that Rudy Giuliani is da man. Something named with a sense of parody ‘The Freedom Center’ in Washington is dedicating a whole seven days to what it calls "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week". They are portraying Israel as the victim and there is a pamphlet titled "The Islamic Mein Kampf", which anyone with an iota of historical knowledge would agree can have no link. The Jews of Adolf were victims of the superior race syndrome; the Israelites are just land-grabbers with a nice Jewish lobby in the US to patent their money and their wry humour.

Giuliani is not interested in history. He is your today man and his bravery lies in showing his middle finger to political correctness. So he says aloud the words "Islamic terrorism" and thinks he is a warrior because he has used the term. "I am not offending all of Islam. I’m not offending all of the Arab world. I’m offending exactly who I want to offend and making it clear to them that we stand against them."

Now, should Osama be quaking in his knees and must Iraq wonder why Rudy the dude didn’t say it before so that they would not have had to go through all the stuff they did?

FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based writer-columnist. She can be contacted at kaaghaz.kalam@gmail.com