Saturday, August 18, 2007

We are not All Africans

I had an impassioned argument with a friend in an Iranian restaurant, across from a table of Arabic-speaking men, who watched us in amusement before leaving while the two of us tediously continued as neither would back down.

We were arguing about prejudices and noble as the topic was, my take on it was not particularly so. Ever confrontational, I decided to provoke my friend's right-on-ness by just coming out with this: "You're anti-Jew", followed quickly by, "You're anti-Israeli." The first is clearly slander, the second is for some a compliment.

Either way I was trying stupidly perhaps to provoke him - piqued as I was by his dismissive attitude to all things and people Israeli. I don't need to reiterate here that the Israeli nation is a vicious cunt. Fine, understood. My point rather was two-fold and as follows: that as deeply flawed as the Israeli justice system was, it was the only one in operation in a state that has obligations to its Arab citizens and prisoners as much to its Jewish ones, so sometimes human rights lawyers have to work with it, and remind it of its obligations under international law, re. for example, the legality or not of 'targeted assassinations'. It is therefore tiresome, to listen to dismissive snorts about the Israeli Supreme court and how wicked and useless it is, when for some that is still their only chance for some kind of justice.

The other point is just about how individual prejudice is a slippery thing and once you have told yourself that you are not racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, anti-West or whatever, you can be sure that your prejudice starts to slip out of your grip and slither in and out of your opinions without your awareness of it. So to not be prejudiced you have to start with this: I AM racist, I am anti-this or that, then keep a grip on it, think about the nature of your prejudice, why it is so pervasive, so tough to dislodge in a moment of anger or fear.

I sat on the bus yesterday and stared at three young black men, and thought how their blackness literally coloured all my ideas on them, how the absolute blackness one of them made him alien to me. I strained my ears to their conversation and tried to listen to what they were interested in. This is not only about race of course, this is about class. I'm sitting there alone with a copy of the New Yorker, and they are in a huddle and one of them says how schoolgirls these days will open their legs all day and all night... Cue my sense of outrage. And confusion. I don't like what they are saying, but I was actively listening to their conversation - observing them like some desperate anthropologist, trying to get a grip of another people. I feel like I don't know, but should, what gets these young working class black North London men out of bed each morning - is it like me, the need for the toilet/ the shock of another day where I must 'prove' myself (to who and why?)/ the fear of wasting time/ the need to 'get on'? When I tried to explain my instinctive reactions to my therapist, I thought I saw even she bristle at the implications of my comments: that I am 'a racist'. There are not only 'racists', there is racism and it is everywhere. Not purely as a source of white guilt, but as a real and divisive power dynamic that confounds and belittles our so-called best intentions.

The worse thing that can happen is that an intelligent white person can talk about how bad racism is, but react to a black person like they do to a grieving friend or colleague - they stay away for fear of saying the wrong thing, not wanting to deal with a potentially awkward and tiresome situation where their wit and interests might suddenly seem inappropriate. But racial division/mistrust, like death, is not just poetically tragic, it is ugly and messy and can bring out a lifetime of rage; it would be better to be there and get it wrong and offend each other and scream and cry if we are to make sense of it and be of any support to the other.

In the very same issue of the New Yorker there is a great review by Hilton Als of Amiri Baraka's 1963 play, Dutchman, set entirely in a subway carriage - a dance of desire and hatred between a black man and a white woman:

"Reading Baraka's script today is like watching an expert butcher at his bloody chopping block [...] take, for instance, Lula's characterisation of Clay, shortly after they meet: 'You look like you been trying to grow a beard. That's exactly what you look like. You look like you live in New Jersey with your parents and are trying to grow a beard. That's what. You look like you've been reading Chinese poetry and drinking lukewarm sugarless tea. (Laughs, uncrossing and recrossing her legs) You look like death eating a soda cracker.' Her analysis of Clay's pretensions is actually solicited by Clay: half-jokingly, he asks her to describe him as she sees him. Clay is complicit in his sparring partner's disgust. Would she express her contempt so gleefully if it weren't obvious to her - she is an animal who can instantly sniff out fear - that her whiteness and femininity matter more to Clay than his own 'lukewarm' manhood? ... Lula can claim her desire, but Clay cannot acknowledge his [because of the fear of the historically murderous response to miscegenation]. Lula has whiteness - which is to say, power - on her side... Still Hill [the director] overplays Clay's 'niceness', which does the role a disservice - or, more precisely, undermines what it could be... so that when, near the end of the show, he finally explodes at Lula ('I'll rip your lousy breasts off!) it feels more like am apologetic coda... than what Baraka intended: the outpouring of a soul filled with a rage that is too great to express or expel... Lula's performance is so profound an evocation of worldly disgust and self-disgust that one feels as if Hill were there, merely to feed her the lines. Whether she's eating an apple or taunting Clay or mocking his aspirations with bile and knowing ('You're an escaped nigger... you crawled through the wire and made tracks to my side') Lula tears into Baraka's blight, into the poetry he finds in the nightmare of being."

What Baraka chose to play not-so-nicely with in his prose, twisting the knife into his complacent audience, are the taboos of power, class, sexuality and human disgust, which is surely the only perspective from which we can seriously approach race. The writers who simply want to say, 'we' screwed over the blacks who we now find to be gentle, spiritual people, and we're sorry and must seek forgiveness and make amends is fucking us all over for a second time. That is not because the penitent stance of the 'we' is not felt to be genuine, but because it is not simply about confession of guilt and forgiveness and embracing the poor, it is about considering the profoundly reeking legacy of mistrust, contempt and resentment of the other. If we now say, but they are nicer people than us in the end it seems, then the long-standing resentment could finally be exposed as a form of cultural/racial envy - the flipside of superiority.

See July's Issue of Vanity Fair to get an idea of how Africans are now officially glamourous and soulful as well as starving and diseased. Thank God! Now we can place them, guilt-free, alongside Brangelina and adverts for anti-women's aging cream at $90 a 50ml pot. As two very good articles sent by our friend, Evy, make clear, the salvation of the white man or woman does not lie in the black people, nor does the 'black African' want to be saved by the self-consciously tough-speaking French president who declares he is no longer 'hung up' about the colonial past. This is yet another form of condescension.

From Uzodinma Iweala's essay, Stop trying to 'Save' Africa: "There is no African, myself included, who does not appreciate the help of the wider world, but we do question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one's cultural superiority. My mood is dampened every time I attend a benefit whose host runs through a litany of African disasters before presenting a (usually) wealthy, white person, who often proceeds to list the things he or she has done for the poor, starving Africans. Every time a well-meaning college student speaks of villagers dancing because they were so grateful for her help, I cringe. Every time a Hollywood director shoots a film about Africa that features a Western protagonist, I shake my head -- because Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West's fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West's prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems."

I know that some might respond with, "Well what the hell do we do then?!", the response is: talk like adults - trade insults and fears, fantasies and knowledge and expertise, then we can begin to see where we stand all of us in relation to the 'other'.

No comments: