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Rajeev Balasubramanyam © 2002

 

 
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IV

After the holocaust and the defeat of the Nazis it became unacceptable for the allied powers, the self-proclaimed opponents of racial theory, to use the discourse of racial theory. That was when the word ethnicity emerged - the Oxford English Dictionary dating its first recorded use as 1954 - as a substitute for race. However, to distance this new discourse further from racial theory, ethnicity came to refer to both racial and cultural uniqueness. And this set the tone for the Britain I grew up, post-Powell Britain.

To suggest that cultural difference can separate groups as rigidly as biological difference, is the same argument that the romantics used. It is the same, in effect, as genetic racism, and it is equally false, but it does not ostensibly refer to biology. This is post-holocaust political correctness. Its romantic legacy is clear. It is the same thing as white people imitating Eastern religious and cultural practice without understanding its meaning or social function, or even realising that it has a social function. The attraction is in its difference from their own culture, a difference that they perceive as rigid, unbreakable, and hence do not try to seek points of comparison or to understand. It reflects also the shift in the discipline of anthropology from racial classification to the description of alien cultures, as opposed to functional anthropology which examines why and not simply how. For the romantic anthropologist there is no why. They do it because the Other is incommensurably different. This attitude is very common among white liberals today. However, the cultural pluralist argument is a genetic argument. Cultural pluralists believe no culture is superior to another, but that cultures are uniquely different, that members of one culture, or nation, cannot possibly understand members of another. That they live in different worlds. This has to be because they are biologically different. There is no other logical cause. What prevents them from understanding a different culture? What creates these incommensurably different cultures? The answer must lie in the genes, unless your understanding of history is so radically misguided as to suggest that people have never mixed or changed, that hybridity has never happened. But even if you do believe this, why have cultures never mixed? It seems so easy. We are back to Darwin’s "separate species in effect". Powell was the same as Hitler, in effec, except Powell was a hypocrite and a liar. Hitler was only a liar.

Enoch Powell applied this discourse to black and Asian immigrants in England. Powell was a pure cultural nationalist, or cultural pluralist. While he called for racial inter-marriage, he simultaneously said the Asian community was incapable of it due to the practice of arranging marriages, and hence would remain a separate nation. He said that use of the word race was incorrect, that the issue was culture, which was the basis for nation, and that nations were unique and pure. "Nation is not a rational thing", he said. "What you belong to is a matter of feeling. Nor do I think it is correct to describe a sense of belonging to one community and not to another as "base". If you called it "fundamental" perhaps that would be more accurate".

So, for Powell, communities, cultures, could not mix. This is why he warned that in ten or fifteen years time "the black man will had the whip hand over the white man" and that the nation was "literally mad" to let in people who were so different. So, logically, the solution was repatriation and to prevent immigration. Even more logically, if the blacks and Asians are here to stay, then social exclusion is the answer to prevent them from getting the whip hand.

Powell changed the discourse of racism in Britain forever. He took the biology out, and put culture in its place, but the conclusion is the same. He did not need to say it; whites all over the country decided that they would perform their national service of excluding alien communities, and encouraging voluntary repatriation, by terrorising them, destroying their property, and, by simply killing them.

Others, the educated classes usually, espoused a more elegant solution, equally logical. If blacks and Asians wanted to stay then they could not remain culturally alien and separate. They had to assimilate. They had to give up their culture and become like the whites. This, they claimed, could prevent the rivers and blood, and also, presumably, keep the whip out of the black man’s hand.
The distinction between assimilation and violence applies equally to differing colonial policy across Africa and India, and to different types of racism. In Africa indirect rule was substituted for direct rule, genocide and brutality for the creation of an African ruling elite. at In India this was not the case. A class of assimilated, often English educated elites was formed, the Macaulayites or brown sahibs. They assimilated not only English culture but also Victorian prejudices, a hatred of their own kind and of the lower classes, qualities essential for ruling elites. In Britain, Asians have tended to assimilate more successfully, to be perceived as less of a threat to the system than blacks because of this colonial legacy.

V

On the playground, when I was a child, I heard words like "nigger", "coon", "spear-chucker", "black bastard", and "nig-nog" directed at me. While perhaps a little confused, this is the language of biological racism, which, despite post-holocaust political correctness, was still used in private, the playground in a white school being a private space for racism. In the same way, after it became unacceptable for Victorians to speak of the working class as a separate race, they would still do so in private, amongst each other and, when they could get away with it, to the working-class themselves.

Racial insults directed against Asians tended to be of the anti-national variety, having their origins in colonial India, land of the assimilated elites. Hence, "wog", "paki", "stani", "curry-muncher". Insults and jokes directed at Asians tended to refer to culture and not race: joke about food, dress, language, corner-shops. As I child I decided that the more assimilated I became the less abuse I would receive. This didn’t work, because they also had the biological argument in reserve, and, in any case, my parents had spent most of their lives in India and it was far harder for them to assimilate than it was for me. Assimilation, as stated, requires more than simply imitating English cultural practices and abandoning one’s own. It is also an ideological and political transformation. It helps to ridicule one’s own culture and people, to make racist jokes just as the whites do, to be self-hating, ashamed of one’s skin colour, determined to eradicate any trace of difference. And never, never complaining about racist injustice, either because it isn’t injustice, or because it does not exist. Assimilation is root and branch. There are all too many examples of black children trying to remove their skin with knives or leaping into baths full of boiling water in order to become white.

VI

I left school having assimilated to a high level. I had had to, to survive, or so I thought at the time.

I decided to spend a year travelling before university. I don’t know whether I was aware of my need to start down the path to counter-assimilation, but that was what I spent my sixteen months doing. I went to Zimbabwe, South Africa, Spain, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Jordan. I encountered racism in many places, but I also made close friends who were not white or assimilated, and I lived in communities which were exclusively non-white and unassimilated. It was enough. I began to encounter myself with the construction taken out.

My path to counter-assimilation begun, I went to Oriel College, Oxford to study politics, philosophy and economics. Oriel College is perhaps the most right-wing of all Oxford Colleges, and is the closest I have come to living within a fascist institution. It was around this point that I began to become angry.

Oriel College’s benefactor and most heralded alumni is Sir Cecil Rhodes. Oriel College faces onto Oxford’s High Street, from where his statue towers above the pavement. Rhodes was a major player in the scramble for Africa, and he sought to bring every part of the world under the control of the Anglo-Saxon people, ‘to paint the map red.’ For this purpose, he established Rhodes Scholarships to enable (at that time white) citizens of commonwealth countries to study at Oxford and to form a secret aristocratic elite. Traits most desirable in Rhodes Scholars were, in his words, ‘smugness, brutality, unctuous rectitude, and tact.’ This doesn’t, by any means, apply to all Rhodes Scholars today, but it did apply to many of the people I met at Oriel College.

During my time at Oriel College, I heard, on a huge scale, the biological argument together with a spoonful of imperial romanticism and quite a lot of Powellism. It was the biological argument that amazed me the most. I suppose I had expected the rest, but not racist genetics! And all this from Britain’s future ruling class!

I left Oxford so angry that I was barely able to function. I received a scholarship to study for an M.Phil in Development Studies at, of all places, Cambridge University. But free money is free money, and I went, did not study, and wrote my first novel. By then I refused to pay even lip service to the Oxbridge system. I understood it. While a liberal aristocratic tradition exists of disinterested study, right wing Oxbridge, as embodied by my former college, is about prejudice and conditioning, about the creation of Rhodes’s "unctuous elite". This returns us to the upper middle-class side of Powellism, assimilation.

At Oxford you are virtually taught upper middle-class cultural norms, and you cannot escape them. It is a story well-documented in the sixties, that of the bright working-class eighteen year old who arrives at Oxford, loses his regional accent, becomes accustomed to ruling class manners and prejudices, and becoming alienated from his former self in the process. For blacks and Asians, it is a process identical to that which created the Indian ruling elites during colonial times. Overseas students who are successfully assimilated can return to their countries and take up their position in the neo-colonial system as ministers, civil servants, World Bank officials, and economists. British blacks and Asians can become lawyers or bankers, or, more "unctuously", work in the media, presenting a politically compliant image of black and Asian Britain to "the nation". This is dangerous.

The media actively seeks black and Asian spokespersons who will write books or newspaper articles, or appear on TV, claiming to "represent their communities", whilst pandering to racist prejudices and misconceptions. They become virtual heroes to white liberals who can scarcely control their excitement at hearing a black voice telling them exactly what they want to hear. Look, they can say to dissenting black and Asian voices, it is true!

This system of community representation may appear to be subtle and nuanced, but it isn’t. It is crude, and obvious. As established, racism has no actual justification, but it requires its apologists nonetheless. And what could be more effective, in multicultural Britain, than black and Asian apologists for racism, black and Asian patriots who feel they have to loudly declare their loyalty to their nation before saying anything else, whose agenda is to persuade the audience that they are "like them", who affect racialised sentimentality and exoticism, or embrace the rhetoric of cultural pluralism and deliberately accentuate stereotypes. Some spokespersons are less assimilated than others, some attempt to "play the system", by telling the whites what they want to hear while cherishing a secret agenda of truth and openness. A dangerous game, the same game played by so many Labour politicians. They began with principles, gained power, and when it came to action saw that there was nothing left of their principles any more. They had become power, and were enjoying it.

VII

So, having written my first novel, In Beautiful Disguises, I decided that I had to set a novel in Britain. There is no such thing as catharsis in literature, or, I believe, in life, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could set a novel in Britain wherein I would liberate my imagination as I had done in my first novel. I realised that rather than turn the lens onto hatred, and onto racism, I should simply incorporate it into my story, into the reality imitated in my fictional world, as I might include a chair or a street or a city. There was no need for any rigid demarcation between fantasy and reality; let the two merge, I decided, as they do in life. Fiction requires a borrowing of the codes of reality, as the author perceives them, and, for me, racism is an indelible part of reality, as are love, hatred, war, death. To fixate on it would be for me to become racism, to become the reverse side of the racist construction of the other, to make my life a narrative of resistance to something external to me, that predated and limited me, made me two-dimensional and caged. I wouldn’t do this. But neither would I deny reality.

The important thing was that I accepted the reality of racism, but not the fantasy of racial difference. This is no such thing as race. There are, of course, superficial physical characteristics found in localised populations; skin colour, shapes of eyes, nose, lips, but, not only do these account for less than 0.1% of our biological make-up, but they have no necessary relation to our more socially significant genetic characteristics; muscle size, intelligence, personality.

In Britain many people get it the wrong way around. They accept the fiction of race but deny the reality of racism. Racism is social exclusion. Race is its invented justification. Even Hitler agreed. "I can think of no such thing that I can call rac", he said, "but for me, as a politician, it serves my purposes very well". I am not a politician. The concept of race is of no use to me. But the concept of racism forms an unavoidable part of my reality.

Britain remains a racist country, with a government that behaves, more often than not, in racist ways, with a racist press and a racist history. This is undeniable. The biggest genocides in the last millennium have been against racially demarcated groups: the black holocaust, the death of fifty eight million Africans in the trans-Atlantic slave trade; the death of up to fifty million colonial subjects due to the socially engineered famines of the late nineteenth century; and the Jewish holocaust. And yet, the only holocaust we ever hear of in Britain is the holocaust effected by the nazis, because, in rhetoric at least, this is the only one that the British opposed.

Britain has not even begun to contemplate or accept its own past. The slave trade and the late Victorian holocausts have to become part of the national psyche, of collective memory. We need a generalised historical awareness of them, and then racism will become easy to avoid in day to day existence. As it stands, it is tremendously difficult for the average white Briton to avoid racism, whether conscious of it or not, and equally difficult for the average black Briton to avoid at least a degree of self-contempt and political assimilation. These are constraints that we did not create. They are historical and institutional, and there is little we can do about them. This is our reality, one of holocaust-denial. It is simply staggering how little consciousness of this exists, how effective is the stranglehold of the British conspiracy of silence. It is barbaric, and indefensible, and it persists, and persists, and persists.

In In Beautiful Disguises, my heroine dreams of being a film star, but instead, after running away from home to escape reality, finds herself working as a maid. She tells the reader a story from The Mahabharata about Arjuna, the Pandava, who, with his four brothers, is forced to spend his thirteenth year of exile in hiding. If they are discovered then they have to return to the forest for another thirteen years. Arjuna takes on a woman’s identity under the name Brihannala, and teaches dancing. However, when the Kauravas invade he throws off his disguise, takes up his bow, and fights, returning to his original warrior’s self. My heroine reflects: "The point of the story, as I saw it, was that a warrior is always a warrior, even when he’s disguised as a woman, or a servant. And a film star is always a star, even when she’s a maid. The problem was that Arjuna had been born a warrior and had chosen his disguises on purpose. I had been born a girl, as Ravi kept telling me, and not a star, and I had never really wanted to be a maid."

My heroine analyses the story in a different way, too. "There is an alternative interpretation. Perhaps Arjuna had been born a warrior, but deep inside himself he really wanted to be a woman, and a dancer. So when the opportunity came he grabbed it with both hands. But if that was true, then why did he go back to killing people for a living? I had a horrible feeling the answer had something to do with duty, but at the moment I wasn’t interested in such things".

This is what I mean by life becoming a narrative of resistance. If it is unreasonable to expect someone to merge his sense of self with an imposed identity, is it reasonable to expect a person to spend his entire life resisting this identity, attempting to throw it off, to substitute it with another which, in the worst of all cases, would be that of "Asian representative", or "race writer".
In the end, if we are honest, I am not certain that such a thing is even possible. This reminds me of a second story from The Mahabharata, where Dushana attempts to undress Draupadi in front of the entire court, but Draupadi appeals to Krishna and so, with every layer of her sari that he removes, another appears, and another, and another.

I hate racism; I hate having to live with it. It confuses me with its infinite variety of disguises, with its history of obfuscation and distortion. It resembles some hideous beast that has been starved for hundreds of years and is now demented and crazed, barely recognisable, virtually mythical, and incapable of anything but destruction, whether it is acknowledged or not. This beast has wounded me, and I cannot imagine not being angry about it. But I cannot destroy it. I simply have to live with it as best I can, without trying to wish it away, or to eliminate it. This task is beyond me. Otherwise I will become like Dushana, tearing at Draupadi’s sari for the rest of his life.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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