Checkkutty, Govindankutty and African American Hairdo

Sunday, 21 December 2008 20:39 by salim

That is a weird enough title I guess.

Last several months in the US were extremely exciting if you are a political junkie like me. My physical involvement in election was limited to a few days of volunteering with the Obama campaign. Intellectually though, I ended up reading not just things about current election, but also a lot of American political history. It was quite satisfying especially now that my side has won the election.

My days and especially evenings were filled with watching political TV shows and reading hundreds of political blog postings and except for a couple of times, I did not post anything in my blogs. This lack of activity would have continued further but for a very offending posting by someone I used to respect in my younger days.

Yesterday, Shobha forwarded a blog posting from Chekkutty's blog.(http://chespeak.blogspot.com/2008/12/barak-obama-and-skyscrapers-of.html). The specific post is by Govindankutty, a veteran journalist from Kerala.

What Govindankutty displays in his troubled lamenting about African-American hairdo is a total lack of understanding of the social reality in the US and an abundance of snobbery. I would have left it at a few private retorts between me and Shobha. But when I found that a whole bunch of other voices in the comments that mildly glosses over the blatant racism in his post, but praise him on his criticism on a rather outdated poem. (If the children's poem was taught in our schools, that must've been before I started going to school)

In his original post, Govindankutty has two issue with the African-American hairdo. First is that it is "revolting" to his "aesthetic sense" and the second is its unsophisticated tribal character. Then he wonders what would be the result of someone with this hairdo participating in a diplomatic meeting in the white house ("consider the prospect of someone with that kind of remote and ribald hair style sitting in the oval office..."), now that a black is in there! (Some of you might remember a New Yorker cover that, unsuccessfully address this hairdo issue http://abagond.wordpress.com/2008/07/20/michelle-obamas-afro/)

It surprises me that him and many of the commentators fail to see an utter lack of appreciation of diversity (or even xenophobia) in the above statement.

I have seen extreme bewilderment of many people in their early days in the US on seeing the overwhelming diversity of the population, especially if they are coming to any of the major urban centers. But, in most cases I have found this in people who come from relatively homogeneous societies. In every conversation about multiculturalism I boast about my inherent ability to absorb diversity since I come from India, Kerala. However, Govindankutty's statements makes me reconsider that statement. Are we as a society, incapable of appreciating diversity?

Reading further down, I see some pointers from his social interaction where he might have picked up his total "otherness" to afro-american culture. (It is not entirely correct to prefix it with afro. The black culture in the US is only partly African. There are so many other regions and cultures that contribute to the black cultural identity, and it is as diverse as any other subculture.)

He continues

"so i never ask anyone about the african-america hairdo. i avoided looking at them for more than a second. my son has warned me that it is not safe to have eye contact with any group of african-american" [lack of capitalization from original]

I am assuming that GK lives in northern Virginia. I would venture to guess that it is a gated community or an upper middle class development.

In his movie "Bowling for Columbine" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowling_for_Columbine) Michael Moore discusses at length the "white America's fear of the black man". Fear of natives and the "other" is one of the most prevalent aspect of American majority culture. Originally it was the un-sophisticated, unchristian native Americans who were a mortal threat. It later replaced by the threat from former slaves. Right now it has expanded to many others like the Gays, atheists, Latinos, Arabs, Muslims, etc. etc. In many places, we Indians are the "other", the Sand Niggers, Camel Jockeys!

Well, GK, it is ok to look at a black person. It is ok to look at a Latino or Gay. It is possible that there could be a similar feel of "otherness" from the other side too, but it is much less prevalent.

Many of the people who have commented in the original post are people I respect and have read with reverence in my formative years. It is so disappointing to see none of them realized this - I am using that word again - xenophobia even when continuing to discuss racial cultural insensitivities in early Malayalam poetry.

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