On Whiteness

I don’t live in America so I’ve never had a problem with white people.

I live in a country where white people are the minority. They no longer hold seats in government or the public sector, they no longer run the prestige schools. They live in their little enclaves, mind their own businesses and, generally, stay out of the spotlight.

So, white people have never been a threat to me. Because of this, I am not afraid of them. I did not grow up thinking I needed to be suspicious of them. Life has not programmed me to expect the worse from them. They might be a little different from me, but they’re just people.

This unassuming attitude of mine extends to white folks wherever they are found, including the United States.

To be honest, though, there have been times when I’ve felt other, less charitable emotions toward American whites. Like, after watching the movie, The Butler. An Indo-Trinidadian friend and I went to see it in cinema and, when the lights came up, we looked at each other with tears of rage in our eyes. Struggling for words, I said, “I wish I could…just… go out and lynch a bunch of white people.” And then she said, “Oh my God, yes! I’m so glad you said it. I feel like I hate them right now.” Note the conditional words: “right now.”

After reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, after watching the movie, 13th, and the movie, All the Way (about President Lyndon Johnson’s struggle to pass the Civil Rights laws), I’ve felt a temporary surge of anger and outrage toward American white people. It dissipates over a few days though. Why: because I don’t live in America. I have the luxury of time and distance from the influence of white people. Also, I’ve always been able to rationalize that those stories and movies are all historical, way in the past, America is not like that anymore. The most compelling evidence of this is a two-term mulatto President. By the time I get on a plane to go visit America, I’m singing like Steve Perry, “So now I come to you with open arms.”

But lately, since January of this year, I’ve had to change my mind about some things. If America can elect a self-professed bigot, then perhaps I need to revoke my presumption of the innocence of American white people.

The media gurus keep saying it was the poor, disenfranchised whites who voted for Mr. Trump – as if they are the only ones to blame. Really? Well, these people were enflamed, marshalled and corralled to the polls by rich, entitled whites of the Republican Party. And what of the whites in the middle – the moderates? It seems to me that they let this happen. It seems to me that a good chunk of them don’t feel they have a responsibility to do anything about racism and bigotry. They don’t believe in white privilege, so they don’t understand their own power.

I also need to revoke my presumption that things have changed since the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s; and my presumption that by virtue of America becoming a more cosmopolitan place, more cosmopolitan values are at play today. I only recently decided on this, after watching coverage of the white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, Virginia. The fact that there was violence at the second march, that someone was killed and many others injured, is heartbreaking. But, unfortunately, it was not entirely unexpected. Death by racism seems to be on the rise in America these days.

The other thing that strikes me about the Charlottesville marches is how emblematic they are of a bigger cultural dissonance – one that reaches far beyond the United States – and sits at the heart of what white privilege means in this world.

At the July march in Charlottesville, the BBC ran a photo of young Klansman, in white supremacist uniform, but sporting dreadlocks. Now, I have no problem with a white person wearing dreadlocks. Locs have been worn, in one form or another, by almost every civilization in history – and usually among spiritual sects. However, dreadlocks are most closely associated with black and brown cultures. As far back as 2500 BC, the Vedas, Hinduism’s oldest scriptures, depict the Hindu God, Shiva, wearing locs. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs also wore locs, as we know from carvings, artifacts and even exhumed mummies. And in modern times, locs have been the most recognizable symbol of Rastafarianism, a religious movement which grew in the ghettos of Jamaica during the last century due to the popular teachings of Marcus Garvey. Rasta life is focused on an African-centred lifestyle, the coming of a black king, the Abrahamic covenants and Nazarite Vows of the Old Testament. In short, Jesus will return as the Lion of Judah so rastas wear locs to symbolize a lion’s mane and to await the Lord’s return. Even the word “Rastafarian” comes from the given name of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia: Ras Tafari Makkonnen.

At the August march in Charlottesville, the white supremacists showed up bearing the Tiki torches which are now common-place and commercially available at any of America’s superstores. Tiki torches are of Polynesian origin, used in religious ceremonies to pay respect to their goddess of fire and light. They are also used as festive decorations in several Southeast Asian cultures. Whichever way you look at it, tiki torches come from brown people.

At all of these neo-Nazi gatherings, the swastika flag is pervasive. Growing up in multi-cultured Trinidad, I have seen swastikas lit up during the Hindu religious festival of Divali. A friend of mine, from a spiritual Hindu background, gave me an explanation. Wikipedia pretty much summarises what she had to say: the swastika is an ancient religious icon used on the Indian subcontinent. The word “swastika” comes from Sanskrit (Devanagari: स्वस्तिक), and denotes “conducive to wellbeing or auspicious”. The clockwise swastika is a sacred and auspicious symbol in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. In Hinduism, the clockwise symbol is called swastika symbolizing surya (sun) and prosperity, while the counter clockwise symbol is called sauvastika symbolizing night or tantric aspects of Kali. In Jainism, a swastika is the symbol for Suparshvanatha – the 7th of 24 Tirthankaras (spiritual teachers and saviours), while in Buddhism it symbolizes the auspicious footprints of the Buddha.

Again, brown people thing.

To me, these Charlottesville marches are a perfect example of the acquisitive nature of whiteness. White people have the privilege of rifling through black and brown cultures and then cherry-picking what they like and what they don’t. They keep what they want, then deride us for the rest. Oh, and they don’t just borrow. No, white people have the privilege of converting black and brown spiritual and religious symbols to their own use and benefit. They can actually erase and invert our meanings, till what was a symbol of universal peace becomes a symbol of war – against us.

Best yet, white people’s privilege means they get to take Christianity, a religion which started in Arabia, a religion which centres around a wooly haired, bronze skinned man, and twist it into a reason to hate Arabs. They get to build whole political campaigns based on these abusive inversions. On these principles, they get to tear down our gods and elect their own demi-god of gold.

When American whites do these things, they attack black and brown people everywhere. Not just in America.

2 thoughts on “On Whiteness

  1. It’s an interesting article but again just like hatred and racism has been ignored in The USA this article would lead one to believe such attitudes don’t flourish in Trinidad. India nd African relations are strained and the little group of white are still thought of as better.

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