Black, White, And Brown | by Dr Murali Sivaramakrishnan

by Aug 22, 2011All Articles

In a statement put up on its website, the US Consulate said: ‘Yesterday (Friday) at a Study Abroad Orientation Program at SRM University, Vice Consul Maureen Chao gave a speech describing positive memories from her own study abroad experiences in India 23 years ago.’….Chao said when she came out of the train after the journey, her skin got dusty and dirty and, after a pause, added that ‘I became dirty and dark, like a Tamilian’, landing herself into an avoidable controversy. Indo Asian News Service– IANS – Sat, Aug 13, 2011
R. K. Narayan, the Indian writer in English, has an excellent essay on drinking coffee. During one of his sojourns abroad, when asked by his white hostess at a fast food zone, quite innocently whether he wanted his coffee black or white, the writer suddenly became self reflective. Why black or white, why not brown, like our south Indian coffee, served with sugar, hot and steaming? After all, why should there be such a strong demarcation between white and black? Aren’t we conveniently ignoring the gray/brown area wherein the two intermix and commingle?

Narayan’s musings are indicative of a serious issue that cuts across culture, land and history. The question of black and white and black or white still resonates in our midst—B lack or White ?

In Pondicherry , for instance there is a clear-cut demarcation between the white town and the black town . Although people actually seldom refer to the non-white part as black many do take pride and prestige in referring to the white area as White! This as with many other things in this part of the world reveals but the colonial hangover that still persists in us even after the last English or the French or the Portuguese have left, whether it is Goa or Pondicherry or the rest of India . The shadow of the Raj still looms large and the white or black question as yet persecutes us—sometimes overtly as in this case, and at other times covertly, quite subtly, nevertheless, profoundly. Eitherway there is a certain hegemonial precedence and preference for white as something more desireable and valuable.

The world is host to a large number of people of different skin textures, They think differently respond differently live differently dependent for the most on the geography of the part they inhabit. Of course human beings have evolved differently in different parts of the globe. Even if Darwin were right not all apes evolved into humans that’s for sure! Some evolved faster some a bit slower and some have been stunted in their growth. Just as animals and birds vary according to climate and altitude and nearness to sea or mountains, human beings also vary. In any case, no element in nature is essentially or intrinsically more valuable than any other! Nature, in all democracy, has been benign in granting this conglomeration of innumerable elements and chance – that is life– with sufficient protective measures and survival strategies inbuilt, not in any way, qualitatively superior or inferior! Skin is therefore not a mere outer cover it is an intimate part of nature—perhaps the very point where outer nature begins permeating into our inner nature! And making distinctions of difference based on that is so very unnatural!

Basic Science tells us that it is the chemical substance melanin that supplies the pigment: less or more of its presence makes for dark or tan or fair colour of skin. Where there is abundant sunlight the skin colour goes darker, the lesser the sun’s rays the fairer the human skin. Just as animals and birds have evolved different textures and colouration in different parts of the world humans too have evolved differently. This obviously has nothing to do with high and low culture nor does it have anything to do with ranges of beauty. However the common man and woman are made to believe that the fairer the skin the more attractive it becomes! Such imbecility! Such simple brains that innocently fall prey to this belief!

Our mass media that caters to the transnational market culture of the present serve to add to this stupid notion too, and continues to perpetuate the imbecility. Capitalizing on the tender sensitivity of the common folk the market is flooded with discolouring unguents and medications—pathetically the poor unthinking folk gravitate toward the commodity that would beautify them by making their skins more fair ! After all, the major objective of globalisation is this homogenization—let us all look like the tragic hero on the pop bandwagon– Michael Jackson, who despite being of black origin, powders his face and hands with so thick a white paint, that he disfigures himself pathetically! Such is the force and power of the message of white, even when he sings lustily of history, past, present, and future!)

No one perhaps pauses to consider the tremendous varieties of skin textures in the world that range from pale white through yellow, chocolate brown, deep brown and deep black. Each people have their natural requirement, of course barring those with biological disparities. The entire cause and concern for fairer skin as a sign of greater beauty is certainly farcical. As with many things beside, our contemporary world is deviating from sense and virtue quite frequently!

Some clever brains would argue that white has always been considered to be pure and black its opposite, as contaminated and impure. Much could be said in favour and disfavour of this argument. History and myth are of course human creations. There are many exterior and interior factors that often go into the creation of each tenet of human belief, whether it be legendary or facets of history.

There is a Vedic mantra that goes like this: asato ma sat gamaya, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya, mrtyor ma amrtam gamaya! ( usually this is translated as: lead me from untruth to truth, from darkness to light and from death to eternal life! ) One is tempted to equate asat (untruth) and mrtyu (death) with tamas (darkness). However, on closer scrutiny one recognizes that the prayer could also be read to indicate the passage through untruth, darkness and death into truth, light and the eternal state. They are not mutually exclusive binary categories, but mere extensions that are complementary to one another.

Dark tan and light tan are naturally necessitated skin pigmentations. Discriminations based on that are inhuman and unnatural. Worse still is the situation of the poor dark skinned folk who are made to believe that theirs is qualitatively lower kind of skin and so rush to whiten the same using the unguents of the capitalist markets! Perhaps such is the force and power of the strategies of Capitalism that they are blinded to truth and act in conformity ever so willfully! The presence of the colonial hegemony is not far to seek. Black is opposed to white as undesireable. Then of course brown is a shade less preferable. Our south Indian coffee is brown—neither black nor white. But few pause to seek the differences in taste and life alike!

Then there is the other extreme: taking a jingoistic stance identifying oneself as black or brown and differentiating the other as belonging to the imperial race. Racism in its extreme sense! In Africa it surfaced as negritude — a certain social, political and philosophical confederacy basing itself on the identity of the strength of black ( skins, white masks!) However, in time, recognizing the swing of the pendulum to the other extreme as a mere yet sub-conscious repetition of the politics of imperial insubordination in reverse, many of its early intellectuals like Wole Soyinka retracted their stance and drifted away from its trajectory. In our own part of the world the Dravida movement is a strong subversive and protest movement seeking a different order and identity based on ethnic difference. And so is the Dalit movement. Nevertheless, the ever-trivializing mass media that our popular television channels have evolved into, even go to the extent of reducing and undermining the essential power of these political movements by parading film songs like: karuppu tan enakku pidicha coloru ! (it is black colour that I like most!) in a most innocent manner. It does not require a great deal of imagination to visualize a slim and shapely fair-skinned female ( maid-to-order manufactured under the western cultural imperial imagination!) dancing to an ethnic drum beat proposing her likes and dislikes in a mixed medley of debased English and anglicized Tamil! (O great sages of the classical language I seek your collective pardon! Do not turn your eyes homeward!)

Black, brown, yellow, white—many are the variations of skin tones in the world. But the tension that the discrimination evokes has currently gone beyond the reach of the cultural fabrication of good and bad, desireable and ugly, right and wrong, life and death. Perhaps one can only turn away from all these and murmur the words of derision of the old wise Doctor Johnson (pardon, all postcolonial critics!), uttered in another context: “ Ignorance, madam, ignorance !”

19 August, 2011

Dr Murali Sivaramakrishnan is Professor and Head, Department of English Pondicherry University Pondicherry India- 605014

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