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On Racism and Privilege

A conversation with a friend

What is it that I wanted to say here, about this raw topic in the age of Black Lives Matter, from a post-colonial country? Sitting in a Nairobi bar with a good buddy of mine, the chat turned to racism. Nothing original, but I want to add my voice for my own clarity of thought.

A copper-skinned man, David is well-placed to comment. As he describes it, throughout his life he's copped it from white-skinned, from black-skinned, and from his own South Asian community. "The Africans are just as racist," he says with a smile. "And the Indians – They're the worst."

Right. "Aesthetic representation" is great. But let's dig a little deeper...

Let me say from the outset that I am not a big fan of the "Stop Racism" message, any more than I am a fan of "Stop Fascism, Sexism, Slavery, Greed, Environmental Destruction, Ripping-Off-Old-People, Wife-Bashing, Pedophilia, or Cruelty to Animals."

When things are self-evidently wicked, does it advance a cause to banish thought of it? Let's call it what it is, by all means, but subject it to the antiseptic of scrutiny, and the ruthlessness of sunlight. No venal sin is good by definition, but it exists, and we must seek to understand why if we are to fight it effectively.

Nothing more powerful than an agreement to share dignity.

As a boy, David's Christian family was driven from their home in Pakistan's Punjab. He arrived a refugee to Mombassa Port, the ancient Swahili city that is Kenya's main maritime gateway. Eight years old, he remembers his sense of wonder at the high piles of smooth white elephant tusks laying port side.

David followed his teenaged passion for motorcyles, and became a highly accomplished technician. He made his long living in a huge, grease-filled tool Mecca he called his workshop, in the hideous tangle of the back blocks of downtown Nairobi, and managing fleets of vehicles for the UN and humanitarian NGOs in South Sudan.

 

"I had racism all my life, wherever I went. I got it from all sides, all communities, including my own. We're all racist at some level."

I like to like David. He has the advantage of a dozen or so years on me. He makes an effort to be cheerful, he's dedicated to the search for love, he's gritty and competent, mischievous and confessional, wayward and constant, unwedded to dogma, curious about the entire world and tirelessly ambitious for the satisfaction of his curiosity, even as tiredness frequently overtakes him.

His mind is constantly engaged by problem solving, whether puzzles of a mulish and self-opinionated 40 year-old diesel engine, the trickiness of a nascent business, human relationships, or his own connection to the cosmos, and the headlong rush of the infinite.

He's a good guy to ponder with, a mensch with an open mind and slow to take offence (almost oblivious in fact: I wonder if that is a result of a hide thickened by the slights, insults, barbs, and petty jibes of the sneering arrivistes of Nairobi, of which there are a lot because, let's face it, virtually everybody here is afflicted with arrivistism). So we talk racism.

Early childhood studies suggest that when born, we are all tabula rasa, or blank canvasses. More accurately though, we are daubed with lots of genetic smudges when we're born, ready to be joined and coloured and made whole by our upbringings (whatever we know about the role that genes play in our evolution, it appears that around half of our forging is due to inherited qualities).

Circumstantial conditioning (or 'imprinting') is such that if a newborn child is raised by wolves, the maturing child will learn to recognise wolf faces, and will lose the capacity to distinguish as easily between human faces, as it can between lupine features (a child is also easily discombobulated by masks). The wolf-suckling Romulus and Remus don't seem far-fetched at all.

The same is true of language. For the first 18 months, a child born of English parents will just as easily learn Khoisan (the "clicking" language), if that child is raised by the Bushman people, or snarls, growls, licks, snuffles, and grunts if raised by wolves. A little baying to the moon is wolf lullaby for little Mowgli.

Phonetically, children are certainly a blank slate until, fairly soon into infancy as a child begins to deepen their emotional connection with their protectors, we are able to create the sounds of our mother tongue, while shedding the innate capacity to easily reproduce the phonetics of other languages. They become entirely foreign to us, a Babel.

And then there is the gravitational pull of comfort.

As if chocolate, booze, fat, salt, sex, sleep, exercise (in the form of induced endorphins and other "happy" chemicals produced by the body) and narcotics weren't indicative enough, the smart-phone has taught us just how easy we are to hook.

A German Pointsetter (a hunting dog) and his owlet charge. Bruder from another mutter.

We gravitate to comfort, ease of use, and the familiar. We are addicted to feel-good, and we are repelled by the unfamiliar. In fact, we seem to be biologically predisposed towards a fear of the unfamiliar and foreign, perhaps as a matter of our primal development.

The point is that everything unfamiliar becomes more naturally repellant to us if it is foreign, a word which, etymologically, means 'outside.' That is, whatever is outside ourselves decreases in attraction because it fails to promise comfort and certainty (and no, I am not ignoring the innate curiosity of a child).

 

Again, it seems to be a matter of survival, or at least an element in the package of qualities we possess to help us navigate a typically hostile world of dark forests, stormy purple seas, and those who speak Barbarian and descend from the ring of hills around us.

Then there is facial recognition.

It is an established fact that the spectrum of facial recognition goes from zero to 100. Some people, such as those who formed the foundation of London's Metropolitan Police 'super-recognisers' unit, can recognise a face from a blurry CCTV part image, of just a cheek for example.

At the other extreme, there are mothers who endure Prosopagnosia: they cannot recognise the faces of their own children. And all of us have experienced the frustration of being unable to recall the face of somebody who peers smilingly into our own and asks plaintively, "But don't you remember we already met?" (as if they fear they are forgettable). I gave up being offended a loooong time ago at those who cannot recall my face.

It's also well-established that recognising faces between races is much harder. It sounds facile to even say it, but working in a multi-racial environment, I find it harder to distinguish between black faces, as opposed to white, and the reverse is certainly true, however indignant I might feel about that fact, and resent the lived experience!

The absurdity of this proposition, even whilst it's embedded in fact and experience, is even more outrageous and confounding as I look at the highly distinctive and characterful faces of Nelson Mandela, James Baldwin, Mohammed Ali, or Nina Simone, let alone the drop-dead gorgeous Black woman I'm honoured to be dating, all of whom are instantly recognisable to me.

So it seems that because of our biological developmental constraints – our fundamental limitations as human beings – we are at some level and in some way predisposed to 'racism', or 'othering,' or a fearful suspicion of anything with which we are not most familiar. Fear of outsiders comes more easily to us than the obverse.

The same is true in the animal kingdom, when we are surprised, delighted, touched, and silenced inwardly at the awe of cute pictures of typically hostile species joining up as soul buddies, or mothering the young of another. This is true because these exceptions prove the rule, that species in the animal world are generally invariably hostile to one another, or live in an uneasy and separated peace.

So, all of this is to say that there are a series of good (if unfortunate, given the history of human relations) reasons why our first reaction to the 'other' is one of rejection, fear, suspicion, or even revulsion.

There is good reason why people – saturated in their own ignorance – thoughtlessly explain away these primal urges, or instincts by coarse 'othering' – finding foggy reasons to dislike other people because of personal smell, their food and clothing, customs and ways, their hair, facial features, or merely their poverty.

There are, by extension, ugly, but rationally comprehensible explanations for our homicidal natures that rise to the surface so quickly in times of social stress and civil war. This is when racial groups and tribes are stirred to hatred by hectoring provocations that ascribe inhuman qualities to outside groups - cockroaches, vermin, bacillus, dogs, and parasites – slurs that guarantee revulsion.

After all, as the Pandemic has revealed so sadly (as if we needed to be reminded), you can convince people to believe in anything.

The Rwandan Leon Mugesera, sentenced to life in prison in 2012 for incitement to genocide

in a speech he delivered two years before the 1994 genocide that

claimed the lives of 800,000 people, mainly minority Tutsis.

(STEVE TERRILL/AFP/Getty Images). Too much othering, Leon.

So how is the battle against racism (and it is a battle I've fought all my life, beginning with understanding my own impulses) helped by earnest outrage, pontificating, or admonishing placards that read "Stop Racism Now!"?

Pointless.

Howling into the face of a person that they are This or That merely compounds resistance and provokes stubborn adherence. It suits the Twitter Age however, of stubby verbal and actual fingers poking accusingly into the faces of offenders, to call out the moral failings of others as a road to moral elevation, or as a means of 'virtue signalling.'

Such a futile curative against our innate tendency to racism only demonstrates an impoverished understanding of human nature.

A complicated guy: Radovan Karadžić, the former head of Yugoslavia's break-away Republika Srpska,

later convicted of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Which brings me to privilege and race.

Recently, a black colleague, an exotic and ferociously intelligent and impassioned woman with a long history of dedicated public service, publicly singled me out as an example of privilege and bias.

The privilege was an apparent reference to the colour of my skin and my nationality, and the bias (I thought) was a reference to the fact that I had been hired by a fellow Australian (a just reference to the very human tendency to prefer the company of those with whom we feel most comfortable).

Later in a bar, she approached me apologetically and asked me to accept that it had not been a personal attack (which anyway, I had understood as soon as the words had left her mouth earlier that day). For a few moments, we had the opportunity to download a little and compare notes.

I asked her if her parents had been refugees or immigrants? No. I asked her if they had endured discrimination from others in their own West African country? No they had not. I asked her whether her family had been victim to a genocidal programme? No, of course not. She knew none of those ingredients that had characterised my own family's entanglement with the 20th century.

The copper-coloured David, building boats in Lamu on the Swahili Coast, Kenya

In short, she was a child of a set of privileged conditions that had automatically conferred on her the benefits of status, protection, wealth and education, privileges that had positioned her for lifelong protected and prestigious employment.

Now, only an ignorant fool would assert that racism is the provenance of one race.

Equally, only an ignorant fool would pretend that through large parts of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, in large parts of the world, Anglo-Saxon people had not dominated people of other colours and races, a state of affairs concurrently increasingly buoyed by the emerging sciences through which people – very unfortunately – sought to explain this domination as somehow a part of the natural order of things.

Hitler and his gang were of course, the chief proponents and practitioners of scientific racism.

Yet here, as I stand in 2021, I can only say that while I cannot change the colour of my skin, and I would not wish another colour for the other, privilege is an endlessly shifting pageant.

A part of it is currently comprised of the colour of one's skin - a product of recent history, surely, with no intrinsic reason why an Elizabethan Briton should have felt themselves superior in the face of Mughal or Imperial Chinese cultural accomplishment.

Most privilege, however, is composed of luck. Fortunes rise and fall, privilege is relative (and there is no better place to see that in action than in the UN, where I believe a large majority of UN staff emerge from privileged backgrounds in their own countries), and where it thrives one day, it dies the next.

[There is another form of privilege, deeply hidden though all societies, which is related to corrupt, corrosive, and hidden networks of preferred in-groups – the classic old-boy network syndrome – and which ought raise an interrogation around deploying policies of radical transparency, promoted by the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, as opposed to 'positive' discrimination, which merely ends up instituting new forms of discrimination. This would prevent new in-groups, the formerly dispossessed, who take advantage of their discriminated status to capture and hold markets - which one widely sees in post-colonial countries.]

"Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose."

Me? I'm privileged because, despite the various disadvantages of my parents' origins and individual journeys (and, I would certainly argue, their considerable bouts of luck). I've got four limbs, I was fed with nutritious food so that I developed normally, I was raised in a peaceful and wealthy country, I went to school, got all my vaccines, and when I went through the usual disasters in life, I had fallback positions.

But most of all, I'm privileged because I'm grateful for what is a good life in comparison with so many others. And it seems to be that too often, those who cry "privilege" don't realise how lucky they are, and how grateful they should be.

Which brings me back to David, born in modest circumstances, a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by racism and certainly subjected to discrimination all through his life, and yet a man who is endlessly grateful for the good life he found, led, and celebrates every day.

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