Words, words, words (‘Hamlet’, Act 2, Scene 2)
What follows arises from reading Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2017) by Reni Eddo-Lodge; born (1989) in London to Nigerian parents. The author clarifies that her decision relates to those whites (the majority) who refuse to accept there is racism in England. (In such contexts, rather than “racism” I have suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the more accurate and specific term “colourism”. Derrida wrote that some words are inappropriate but not having an alternative we use them, placing them ‘under erasure’: the word “racism” – again, in certain circumstances – is one of them.) Some of what Eddo-Lodge says is related to Sri Lanka.
Language is the most vital of human inventions. It’s Shakespeare’s genius that in ‘Richard 11’ when Mowbray is sentenced to life-long exile, he doesn’t lament the loss of family and friends; of a familiar and loved landscape but the loss of language. It’s through language that we communicate our thoughts and express our feelings. To alter and use words from a ‘pop’ song, it may only be words, but words are all we have. Words enable us, each from the island of our individual self, to attempt to build bridges of communication with other islanded individuals and groups. What we don’t encounter, whether personally or through language, remains unknown to us. For example, I’m a British citizen; I’ve lived, studied and worked in England; England is my second Heimat, and yet the following statement read just the other day, came as a surprise to me: “proportionally, Chinese people experience higher levels of fear and violence than any other minority group in the UK” (The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla, 2016, p. 43). One does not immediately accept this statement but a certain awareness is created. Eddo’s title reflects repeated attempts to communicate with whites, and failure: so too with Sri Lanka and the racial divide. (The inadequacy, if not failure, of language must particularly puzzle and pain those in the Humanities, more specifically, those in the discipline of Literature – Literature is made up entirely of language; and language, of words.)
Racism (Colourism?) is not a problem for white people, writes Eddo. For them, white is the norm and all other colours are a deviation: she dislikes the term ‘non-white’ because it suggests a lack. In an essay, ‘Forming blackness through a screen’, Eddo writes that white is neutral and invisible; that is, unnoticed. Similarly, being Sinhalese in Sri Lanka is not a problem for Sinhalese but an advantage. I turn to Martin Jacques, a British academic and his personal tragedy out of which something positive was extracted. “Like every white person, I had never experienced [colour prejudice] myself: the meaning of colour was something I had to learn. The turning point was falling in love with my wife, an Indian-Malaysian, and her coming to live in England… Colour is something white people never have to think about because for them it is never a handicap… but rather the opposite, a source of privilege” (Martin Jacques, “The global hierarchy of race“. The Guardian, London, 20 September, 2003, p. 23.) The last sentence can be applied to Sinhalese living in Sri Lanka. Jacques’ wife was sent by her law firm to Hong Kong: I suppose one of the reasons was that she was fluent in Cantonese. Martin Jacques accompanied her to continue his research into China; his wife fell ill; was admitted to hospital (it was in 2000, and she was thirty-three) but because of callous neglect caused by colour-based racism, died. In Hong Kong, when not in the company of her white husband, she had been subjected to an “in-your-face racism”. There is a global hierarchy of colour, at the top of which are whites. They are the only ‘race’ that never suffers any kind of systematic racism anywhere in the world. They are invariably the beneficiaries, never the victim but, even when well-meaning, they remain strangely ignorant of what people of colour encounter and experience: Martin Jacques, op. cit. Determined to extract justice, the grieving husband sued the hospital – and won. In a personal message to me dated 28 June 2010, he wrote that as a direct response to the outcry over his wife’s death, the Hong Kong government introduced anti-racist legislation, albeit in a weak form. “After blanket denial for ten years that the hospital did anything wrong…they suddenly sought a settlement – with some desperation. They never formally apologised – just threw in the towel.”
Within the hierarchy of skin-colour, there’s also created a hierarchy of shades of skin-colour. Members of non-white but light-skinned ethnic groups look down on those who are shades darker. Centuries of Western imperialism and domination in various fields projected a feeling of inferiority on non-Western peoples. But the real damage, as Achebe observes (Morning Yet on Creation Day), is when non-Western people accept and internalise the negative image projected of them. Going back more than half a century to the ‘Ceylon’ I knew and loved, I recall an indignant Sinhala, rhetorical, question: “Api kalu the?” “Are we black?” (“Is that why you are ignoring us?” The implication is that had we been black, it would have been justified to slight us.) Skin-lightening creams still sell well in various countries, and some Sri Lankan marriage-notices proudly state that the prospective bride is fair-complexioned. ( En passant but not without significance, Sinhalese tend to think that Tamils are much darker complexioned.)
There are many reasons for Eddo’s sense of the futility of words; of talking. Most of us are islanded within our own individual and group experience: it’s because Martin Jacques married an Indian that he gained an insight into what it really is to be a person of colour in a colour-conscious (‘colourist’) society. On his first visit to India, E M Forster, best known to South Asian readers as the author of A Passage to India (1924), was the guest of Indians, and so gained an insight into the contempt with which his fellow whites, imperial rulers, treated Indians and anyone who was not white.