A non-pedantic, civil musing on GovindanKutty and racial prejudices...

Saturday, 18 July 2009 21:51 by salim
(This post was written in collaboration with Shobha (http://www.chaaya.com) Last post was meant to be a comment and I was not really looking forward to write a follow up on that. But, it looks like I have to, as GK has posted a reply to it (which in itself could be a post) in the comments of the original post in question. (.(http://chespeak.blogspot.com/2008/12/barak-obama-and-skyscrapers-of.html. The comment is towards the end) As a good blogger, I should have left my reply in the comment section itself, but Blogger comments are very limited and I cannot put any formatting, links or pictures (ohh yes, I have one for this). So, I decided to make it into a post as well. There are several parts in GK's reply that I have objections about. []one, as human hue, white is superior to black. forced to make a choice, we would like to be white, not black. which is not to say that to like to be white is necessarily to hate those who have not been lucky to be white. My friend FT told me that I should not be pedantic and should not show resentment (she had it in all CAPS) when I am having a discussion. So, I will be very civil. So, this time, I will start with two stories. One is a native American legend. (http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/TheWell-BakedMan-Pima.html. Here is a more literary retelling of the story http://www.ralphmag.org/CM/cave-god.html). The short version of it is, that the creator made man out of clay and baked it in the fire. But Coyote the trickster fooled creator into baking the first one too little thus having a pale color and the second one too long, with a black color. Creator got very angry, sent the trickster away and made the perfectly baked red skinned man. The second story (I couldn't find a web reference to it), I think was "told" by our own VKN is about the dilemma of European missionaries in explaining the White God and Black Devil to African people. But, we don't have to look far to figure out the connection between the assumption of white as a superior skin color and its relation to social power structure. All we have to remember that some of the prime symbols of female and male beauty in Indian mythology have dark skin. I understand where GK is coming from and acknowledge that in Kerala, and probably in India as a whole, there is a tendency to consider white skinned people as more desirable than dark skinned. But, instead of realizing the social factors behind it, elevating it into a human reality is quite a stretch. I am sure the well known culture critics who have commented in this article could explain it in a more academic way than I could. "fondness for white as a human complexion is a, shall we say, psycho-social reality. if it is a curse for humankind, let us kick the god who made it so. lala har dayal once proposed that a chemical substance be made that can be injected into the skin to turn it white. that would have enlarged the scope of human choice, and solved colour problem in the flick of a finger, but that was not to be." Now, we are going even further to attribute a regional social attitude as a divine reality. (By the way, it is quite possible to bleach one's skin off all melanin and become white.) I don't know if I am reading too much to these two paragraphs, it seems to me that GK is suggesting that the only way for races with dark skin to succeed is by procreating with white skinned people and turning their offspring to white! two, diversity is all very good, we may even delight in diversity, as desmond tutu put it, but it is not good to make everything equal to everything else. I am a bit confused here. Diversity, by definition, is the opposite of making everything equal to everything else. It is the acknowledgement of the exact opposite, realization that everything is NOT equal to everything else. (I have to say, I am quite disappointed that I didn't even make it to the Romantics... It is just pseudo-romantic.) aborigines of nilambur forests, cholanaickens, live in caves and on wild berries and locusts, [...] do we say it is their style, it is their choice, and that their style, their choice, is as good as ours? no. i do not rate those environmentalists [...],as significantly sane. we need to allow ourselves the human right to exercise comparative cultural judgement." No one is questioning making personal judgments on comparative culture. It, as GK writes, is a human right. However, when that judgment goes further into making decisions (often autocratic) about the lives of the "other" culture, it becomes an infringement of human rights. Every societal group assumes their culture to be the right one, better than the "other". This, again, is a right of a people. I have the right to be a Nair and forage for fish and crabs in the streams when not fighting a fierce "war", and the Cholanaickans have their right to forage for wild berries. It brings up yet another example from the not so far in the past. As the new worlds being found by the middle age travelers, there was a huge "concern" about the lack of culture and morality among these newfound worlds. It probably was a very earnest effort from the part of the Missionaries that flocked to these African and South American societies to convert the unbelievers and aborigines to "civilization". But, we now know that, many of these "uncivilized" cultures were, in reality, were technologically and otherwise as much or even more advanced than the European societies at that time. A fine example is the recent researches into El Dorado and the discovery of Dark Earth. (http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Feb06/AAAS.terra.preta.ssl.html, http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2002/eldorado.shtml). One can, of course take the more colorful route of assuming all the achievement of these early civilizations are from visiting Aliens. "[..]do we want to become black and dress our hair like some blacks? like cholanaickens? we mouth a lot of praise for theyyyam but do we like to train our children as theyyam artists?" The question is never whether I want to braid my hair like "some blacks". (I would love a Bob Marley hairdo though. I am slowly getting there.) The question is about being me, and part of my culture is the right thing to do.

(This post was written in collaboration with Shobha (http://www.chaaya.com)

Last post was meant to be a comment and I was not really looking forward to write a follow up on that. But, it looks like I have to, as GK has posted a reply to it (which in itself could be a post) in the comments of the original post in question. (.(http://chespeak.blogspot.com/2008/12/barak-obama-and-skyscrapers-of.html. The comment is towards the end) As a good blogger, I should have left my reply in the comment section itself, but Blogger comments are very limited and I cannot put any formatting, links or pictures (ohh yes, I have one for this). So, I decided to make it into a post as well.

There are several parts in GK's reply that I have objections about.

[]one, as human hue, white is superior to black.
forced to make a choice, we would like to be white, not black.
which is not to say that to like to be white is necessarily to hate
those who have not been lucky to be white.

My friend FT told me that I should not be pedantic and should not show resentment (she had it in all CAPS) when I am having a discussion. So, I will be very civil.

So, this time, I will start with two stories.

One is a native American legend. (http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/TheWell-BakedMan-Pima.html. Here is a more literary retelling of the story http://www.ralphmag.org/CM/cave-god.html). The short version of it is, that the creator made man out of clay and baked it in the fire. But Coyote the trickster fooled creator into baking the first one too little thus having a pale color and the second one too long, with a black color. Creator got very angry, sent the trickster away and made the perfectly baked red skinned man.

The second story (I couldn't find a web reference to it), I think was "told" by our own VKN is about the dilemma of European missionaries in explaining the White God and Black Devil to African people.

But, we don't have to look far to figure out the connection between the assumption of white as a superior skin color and its relation to social power structure. All we have to remember that some of the prime symbols of female and male beauty in Indian mythology have dark skin.

I understand where GK is coming from and acknowledge that in Kerala, and probably in India as a whole, there is a tendency to consider white skinned people as more desirable than dark skinned. But, instead of realizing the social factors behind it, elevating it into a human reality is quite a stretch. I am sure the well known culture critics who have commented in this article could explain it in a more academic way than I could.

"fondness for white as a human complexion is a, shall we say,
psycho-social reality. if it is a curse for humankind, let us kick the god who made it so. lala har dayal once proposed that a chemical substance be made that can be injected into the skin to turn it white. that would have enlarged the scope of human choice, and solved colour problem in the flick of a finger, but that was not to be."

Now, we are going even further to attribute a regional social attitude as a divine reality. (By the way, it is quite possible to bleach one's skin off all melanin and become white.) I don't know if I am reading too much to these two paragraphs, it seems to me that GK is suggesting that the only way for races with dark skin to succeed is by procreating with white skinned people and turning their offspring to white!

two, diversity is all very good, we may even delight in diversity,
as desmond tutu put it, but it is not good to make everything equal to everything else.

I am a bit confused here. Diversity, by definition, is the opposite of making everything equal to everything else. It is the acknowledgement of the exact opposite, realization that everything is NOT equal to everything else.

(I have to say, I am quite disappointed that I didn't even make it to the Romantics... It is just pseudo-romantic.)

aborigines of nilambur forests, cholanaickens, live in caves
and on wild berries and locusts, [...] do we say it is their style, it is their choice, and that their style, their choice, is as good as ours? no. i do not rate those environmentalists [...],as significantly sane. we need to allow ourselves the human right to exercise comparative cultural judgement."

No one is questioning making personal judgments on comparative culture. It, as GK writes, is a human right. However, when that judgment goes further into making decisions (often autocratic) about the lives of the "other" culture, it becomes an infringement of human rights. Every societal group assumes their culture to be the right one, better than the "other". This, again, is a right of a people. I have the right to be a Nair and forage for fish and crabs in the streams when not fighting a fierce "war", and the Cholanaickans have their right to forage for wild berries.

It brings up yet another example from the not so far in the past. As the new worlds being found by the middle age travelers, there was a huge "concern" about the lack of culture and morality among these newfound worlds. It probably was a very earnest effort from the part of the Missionaries that flocked to these African and South American societies to convert the unbelievers and aborigines to "civilization". But, we now know that, many of these "uncivilized" cultures were, in reality, were technologically and otherwise as much or even more advanced than the European societies at that time. A fine example is the recent researches into El Dorado and the discovery of Dark Earth. (http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Feb06/AAAS.terra.preta.ssl.html, http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2002/eldorado.shtml). One can, of course take the more colorful route of assuming all the achievement of these early civilizations are from visiting Aliens.

"[..]do we want to become black and dress our hair like some blacks? like cholanaickens? we mouth a lot of praise for theyyyam but do we like to train our children as theyyam artists?"

Image019 The question is never whether I want to braid my hair like "some blacks". (I would love a Bob Marley hairdo though. I am slowly getting there.) The question is about being me, and being part of my culture is the right thing to do.

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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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