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Culture and North-South Narratives of Superiority/Inferiority Part 3

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"Well, I am old enough to know an awful lot of people who spent most of their lives trying to be white. They wouldn't speak to me. They put everybody down. Nappy hair, funky music and Ray Charles – you know. They thought they were 'together', and then somebody switched the signals on them. Like one very famous singer with conked hair, really a kind of travesty of all popular singers you ever saw in America. All of a sudden the conked hair made him suspect and his friends looked down on him with great disfavor and he had to wash his hair and just let it be kinky and change his whole image overnight…..a whole lot of people suddenly got caught in the middle of the street when the traffic light shifted. A lot of them were brushed off the stage of history, as we would put it, never to be heard of again. It's funny, but it's terrible. It says so much about what the real aims of this Republic have always been, what the real price a black person has paid for being able to live here at all, you know. And no one has really ever managed to record that price except in music or some weird, unexpected places like the Negro church. If you actually try to take apart a black man's sermon and really understand what he is saying, it's kind of terrifying." (Baldwin in Rap on Race, pp.15-16). Baldwin's last sentence was very prescient, as recent events in the American presidential campaign have shown.
The conviction among many non-European peoples that European peoples are superior to them have led the former to indulge in some of the most ridiculous forms of cultural mimicry. Fernandez-Armesto has the following description of the lifestyle of the creole elite in Sierra Leone's Black settler community in the late 19th century: "they strove to acquire Sunday costumes from England and raised up a generation of dandies in stiff collars, bow ties, and 'primrose kids'….their capital at Freetown became almost as faithful a travesty as Dunedin, with garden parties, lecture circuits, 'mind-uplifting concerts' and a temperance union. At Sawyerr's Bookshop in the 1880s you could buy The Ballroom Guide and Etiquette and the Perfect Lady." Noting that, cricket is played on an erzatz village green, in the middle of Singapore, under the spire of an Anglican cathedral, Fernandez-Armesto remarked that no one could fail to be impressed by the strength of the British colonial legacy. However, he was not at all persuaded that such cultural mimicry was beneficial. "Most mime ends in burlesque. Even the most faithful colonial imitations of metropolitan societies produced warped or refracted images." (Fernandez-Armesto, p.405).
Winwood Reade, an Englishman who explored the Niger region in the 1860s, considered that the slave trade provided Africans with a painful, but welcome, escape from the darkness that was Africa. Nonetheless, he thought that, if they were given a chance, Africans could improve because "The negroes are imitative in an extraordinary degree, and imitation is the first principle of progress." (The Martyrdom of Man, p.316-317, 1872).
Although the English considered Indians more unfarthomable than any other people they had colonized, possibly because of the length of British colonial rule there, many Indians were so enamoured of England and English culture that they became virtual Englishmen. In his autobiography, Nirad Chaudhuri recounted his impressions of England as a boy and the confusion of feelings he and his friends had about that country. Taking a great interest in the Boer War, they were torn between their hope for a British victory and their hope for a British defeat. (The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, 1951). Some Bengalis in India went to great extremes in their admiration of Englnd and all things English. A section of the Western-educated class went so far in their snobbish imitation of English ways that, in the words of a Bengali writer, they became "denationalized and hyper-westernized." (J. C. Ghosh, Bengali Literature, p.113, 1948).
Some Britishers were openly contemptuous of natives who mimicked Britain to the extent that they had come to think of themselves as Britishers. Recounting how the Chinese in Penang had felt during the Boer War, a British sea captain commented: "pig-tailed, slit-eyed fellows talking about "we Britishers – our defeats – our successes': D----d cheek". (J. J. Abraham, The surgeon's Log. Impressions of the Far East, p.88, 1933).

The Post-Colonial Psychological Syndrome
Unfortunately, most peoples in the South have not only integrated, into their personalities and worldview, the negative opinions European peoples have traditionally had concerning them, but they have also adjusted their own attitudes and behaviour to accommodate those negative opinions. The integration, by non-European peoples, of Europe's cultural values, attitudes, and worldview in the colonial period had very damaging psychological consequences for them. Darcy Ribeiro has perceptively described some. "Europe exported to the peoples covered by her network of domination her whole cargo of concepts, preconceptions, and idiosyncracies about herself and the world and even the colonial peoples themselves……The latter were also degraded when they assumed as a self-image the European view, which described them as racially inferior because they were Black, indigenous, or mestizo and condemned to backwardness as a fatality stemming from their innate laziness, lack of ambition, tendency to lasciviousness and so on….Even the most enlightened strata among extra-European peoples learned to view themselves and their fellow men as a subhumanity destined to a subaltern role." (Ribeiro, pp.73-74).
Frantz Fanon applied his professional knowledge and experience as a practising psychiatrist in French colonial Algeria to brilliantly explain and analyze the psychological phenomenon of a colonized people who identified with their colonizers to such an extent that they came to adopt the latter's mindset. With clinical objectivity, he described the enormous damage such a development caused – the low self-esteem, the self hate, the lack of self-confidence, the cultural schizophrenia, the feelings of inferiority, and the ambiguous sentiments of Algerians towards their own people and their own culture. James Baldwin identified a very similar psychological impact on American blacks who had been humiliated for many generations by white assumptions about Blacks. "By teaching a black child that he is worthless, that he can never contribute anything to civilization, you're teaching him to hate his mother, his father, and his brothers. Everyone in my generation has seen the wreckage that this has caused." (Rap on Race, p.11).
Freud claimed that "people who feel inferior are right - they are." In that particular respect, Baldwin explained the psychological process that makes a dominated people come to integrate into their mental make-up the dominant's group view that they are inferior. He described the situation as a trap, the nature of which is such that members of the dominated group find themselves accepting that negative dominant group view of themselves without even knowing it. "You've been taught that you're inferior and so you act as though you're inferior. And on that level that is very difficult to get at, you really believe it. And, of course, all the things you do to prove you're not inferior only proves you are. They boomerang." (Rap on Race, pp.49-50).
Darcy Ribeiro has argued that much of the racial and social discrimination which currently infect Latin American peoples has its roots in the colonial "bipartition" between an upper category of "people" (people of European stock) opposed to a lower category of "animals" (non-Europeans), "which fixed in whites as well as Blacks and mulattoes, rancours, reserves, and repugnance, not yet eradicated. Its most dramatic effect has been the introjection into the Negro of an alienated consciouness of his subjugation, assimilated from the white man's viewpoint, which associates with the color black the idea of dirt, filth, and inferiority. This alienated consciousness, not exploitation, is what explains the social inferiority of the Negro." (Ribeiro, p.183).
Rana Kabbani, analyzes Vidia Naipaul's cultural alienation in terms of the colonial education he received. She argues that Naipaul's East is one that he had extracted from his education, "like any Westerner". "He saw mainly what he expected to see, what he had been taught he would see. The East was a construct that had been whole in his mind before he ever embarked on the joirney to it, and one that would hardly alter at all despite the journey taken…Naipaul uses his heritage to abuse its [the East] backwardness and prove his own sophistication. He is no longer of it: he has become rational, hygienic, educated, civilised." (Myths of the Orient, p.130, 1986).
Referring to the observation made by the Compte de Ségur, a French aristocrat and Russian prisoner of war in the Napeolonic wars, namely that he thought he recognized among the upper-class Russians he met an overweening pride of which one cause was a long-standing sense of superiority over neighbouring Asia, V. G. Kiernan remarked that that sense of superiority must have been all the more gratifying because it made up for the inferiority Russians felt towards Western Europe. The same principle applied in colonial and post-colonial societies which had modelled themselves on the colonial power, particularly where it included the adoption of Western canons of beauty. Much like Bernard Shaw's class-ridden England where no Englishman could open his mouth without having another Englishman look down on him, each colonial would necessarily feel inferior to Europeans and those of his compatriots who had lighter-coloured skin, or "better" hair, or more Europeanized features. However, he could take comfort in the superiority he felt over compatriots whose physical traits were not as close to the society's Western canons of beauty as his own. In such societies, every individual would constantly vacillate between feelings of superiority and feelings of inferiority, depending on the company he found himself in at the time. His personality would inevitably be a complexed, artificial, fragile, psychological construct which guaranteed a quasi-permanent personal insecurity and lack of confidence in himself. His life would be a perpetual see-saw between feelings of confidence and lack of it, between feelings of superiority and inferiority, between feelings of helplessness and power, between feelings of hope and despair. It would be impossible for a post-colonial society, composed of a majority of such individuals, to ever achieve sustainable development, for it would neither have the cultural confidence nor the sense of security to permit it to make crucially important decisions in its own interest, not in those of the North which it is so busily mimics.
In his book, Cannibals and Christians (1966), Norman Mailer described, with great perspicacity, the basic dilemma in which all minorities find themselves. Although he was obviously referring to the black minority in white America, his description is also valid for post-colonial peoples. Mailer argued that what characterizes the sensation of being a member of a minority group is that one's emotions are forever locked in the chains of ambivalence – the expression of an emotion forever releasing its opposite – "the ego in perpetual transit from the tower to the dungeon and back again." That metaphor sums up perfectly the psychological state of most post-colonial peoples. They have grown up in a state of cultural schizophrenia, viewing the world through the eyes of the culture and the people whose values and worldview they have adopted, and in whose language they have been educated – a language they must use in their dealings with the outside world. At the same time, they experience conflicting emotions that are generated by their indigenous language and culture, and their life experiences, which nourish an outlook that is fundamentally different from the culturally alien worldview they have acquired.
Europe’s colonial domination of virtually the whole of the South, taken together with its technological superiority, its relentless disparagement of the colonized peoples, and its destruction or marginalization of the latter’s cultural traditions, institutions, and indigenous knowledge systems led to a collapse of self-confidence, a loss of cultural bearings, and an intensification of feelings of dependence on the part of the colonized. No sustained development, whether political, social, or economic, is possible in the absence of self-confidence, at the individual level, and cultural confidence, at the level of the community or the society concerned.

With respect to such loss of cultural confidence on the part of post-colonial Africa, Basil Davidson aptly observed: "no solutions here [Africa] will be valid and enduring unless they can make good the moral dislocations - the moral wounds - that were inflicted by dispossession on the fabric of community, on vital dimensions of self-esteem and therefore of confidence. And, if this is so, then it may follow that a route to a genuinely democratic participation calls in turn for a reassessment of the lessons of the past. Not, let it be emphasized, in order to make any futile attempt to renew the past, but to consider what the past can say about valid and enduring forms of government." (The Search for Africa: A History in the Making, pp.288-289, 1994).

Lord Thomas Macaulay, the President of the Committee of Public Instruction in India declared, in 1835, that a single shelf of a good European library was worth all the literature of India and Arabia combined. Macaulay was convinced that the poverty of Indian culture made it necessary for Indians, who wished to be educated, to turn to that of England. Consequently, Macaulay's ambition was to create a class of Indians who was "Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect." (Judith Brown, Modern India: The Origins of Asian Democracy, p.75, 1985). That was surely a recipe for cultural schizophrenia. Moreover, Indians who became English in taste, morals etc. found that they were still despised by the British, which was very demoralizing for them. Candidly discussing that very problem in a lecture he gave to a gathering of his countrymen at Benares in 1866, an anglicised Hindu declared: "A man that has received a thorough English education is fit for everything that is good and laudable." However, he had only one serious grievance against the British, that "they look upon us as beings of an inferior order….Does not this sort of conduct….tend to demoralize us and to estrange us?" (Lingham Lakshmaji Pantlu Garu, The Social Status of the Hindus, pp.20, 28, 1866).
In the following extract, Darcy Ribeiro perceptively discussed very similar problems of demoralization, inferiority, and moral dislocation, experienced by Latin Americans who were not of European blood: "The Negro and the Indian who gained their freedom, ascending to the status of workers, continue to bear within themselves this alienated consciousness, which operates insidiously, making it impossible for them to perceive the real character of the social relations that make them inferior. While this alienated ethos prevails, the Indian, the Negro, and the various mixed breeds cannot evade the postures, which compel them to behave socially in accordance with expectations that describe them as necessarily crude and inferior and to wish to 'whiten' themselves, whether through the resigned conduct of one who knows his place in society or by selective crossing with Caucasoids in order to produce offspring of 'cleaner blood'. (Riberio, p.75).
Darcy's explanation of how Indian and black Latin Americans find themselves trapped into playing out the social roles allotted them by White Latin American Society is echoed by Baldwin's similar experience of America. "You cannot escape the pathology of the country in which you're born. You can resist it, you can react to it, you can do all kinds of things, but you are trapped in it. And your frame of reference is the frame of reference of white people, no matter how you yourself try to deal with it." (Rap on Race, p.26).
Palestinian Jews were possibly the only colonized people to have largely escaped that vicious cultural trap. British colonial rule had very limited social influence on colonized Jews. Unlike India, no class of Anglo-Palestinian Jews evolved, no Jews sought to become English "in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect", none wanted to become English ladies or gentlemen, none was prepared to discard his/her cultural values and traditions to permit them to better embrace those of the colonizer, as occurred with many of the indigenous elites in every single European colony. Nor did Palestine Jews create English-type schools for their children in which the language of instruction was English. Their school model was the pre-revoluntionary Russian gymnasium, and all school subjects were taught in Hebrew. Not having English as their language of instruction, Palestinian Jews avoided the insidious inculcation of the colonizer's worldview and having to make use of English expressions that would seem neutral or anodyne to a young Jewish mind but which might be loaded with anti-semitic meaning.
Unlike the elites of other British and European colonies, Palestinian Jews did not pine for invitations to Government House in Jerusalem or to the home of the local British Distict Commissioner. They kept to themselves socially. They did not even play cricket – that great bonding activity of the Empire and, subsequently, of the Commonwealth. Almost all Palestine Jews acquired a knowledge of the English language but it was acquired for exclusive use outside the home, not within it, nor within the Jewish community. That was why Palestinian Jews escaped the cultural schizophrenia suffered by all other colonized peoples. Their evident sense of security and self-confidence come from their religion and their language, neither of which was shared with their colonizers. The example of the Palestinian Jews (now Israel) as a healthy, well-adjusted, confident, secure people with nothing to prove either to themselves or to others, and who are perfectly capable of dealing with the outside world on their own terms and of withstanding pressure from the great powers to act in accordance with great power interests, rather than their own, gives a revealing insight into the complexity of the problem currently faced by post-colonial societies, which lack such a historical background. But it also gives the latter some pointers on how to set about tackling it.
Harold Pinter ended his acceptance speech for the Nobel Literature Prize he was awarded in 2005 with the following passage: "When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror - for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us. I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory. If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us - the dignity of man."
Pinter was not referring to the problems of the post-colonial world. He was making the important point that people sometimes find themselves in a situation that is only a mirage. What we see may have nothing at all to do with reality; it might simply be an image (an artificial construct) which will morph into another image or adopt another form or shape if we were to move the mirror even slightly (if we viewed it from a different perspective). But the truth lies right there behind the image, staring us straight in the face. We don't see it because we are conditioned to accept what others present to us rather than our own reality. However, we would get at the truth if we have the courage to smash the mirror (to change the accepted parameters or seek solutions outside of them). We could then proceed to define the real truth of our lives and of our societies. Indeed, we have a crucial obligation to do so. All that would be required of us is intellectual determination and political vision.
Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), the German poet and novelist, declared: "Each generation must write its own world history. And in what period has that been more necessary than in the present?" If writing their own history was considered so necessary for Goethe's generation, that necessity pales in importance when compared with the absolutely compelling need for the generation(s) of the post-colonial South to substitute their own version of their history for the self-justifying, fictive narratives which the North has cleverly suceeded in imposing on the rest of world, particularly the South, as our history and our truth.

Frantz Fanon declared in The Wretched of the Earth that "Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it." The essential question which we, in the post-colonial South must ask ourselves is whether we have fulfilled our mission or betrayed it. If we have the courage to give an honest answer to that question, perhaps the answer itself might prove to be the incentive we need to smash the mirror that reflects distorted images of ourselves and our societies, and recreate a more faithful image of ourselves. Then, and only then perhaps, we might have the cultural confidence to take our destiny into our own hands, and rewrite it.

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