I have always been perplexed about human cruelty inflicted on our differences, be it religious, class, color or customs. This perplexity overcame me again with recent uproars about race in the USA. Growing up in Holland, it was never an issue for me. I noticed at my boarding school that some boys from the Dutch Antilles kept apart, perhaps because they felt displaced, being so far away from their customary habitat. Some Indonesian boys belonged to my best friends. We used to make fun of one because he always took a bottle of water to his toilet because he was taught that washing his bottom with water was cleaner than using paper. It underlines how mean we can be about our cultural differences. Later on I had to admit his parents who taught him – and he who applied it – were right. Ever seen these smeared underpants of your kids?
In racism, the feelings of imposed inferiority are very individually felt and most strongly by those who had or have to endure it; and much less understood and not felt at all by those who were the “imposers”. I firmly believe that once a person has been hurt by this imposed inferiority, whatever the reason, his grief, hatred or disgust will never fully heal.
I think this is why in the USA colored people continue to raise their fists when someone white – even if it is rare – makes a racist remark. The “imposers” may have changed overtime, and even elected a half-black-half-white President. Note the fact that even though he had a white mother, he is still called BLACK, and not racially mixed or black and white. As soon as you marry out of the white race, you are kicked out of the tribe. How amiable!
The gradual decline in racial tension does not mean that the underlying hurt from past injustice will ever go away. It is something burned into a person’s soul. That person may forgive perhaps, but will never forget. For those, who were the “imposers”, it is easy to say, “Well, we have come this far now, and they should not complain anymore,” but the imposers never felt the imposed inferiority or were psychologically hurt by it. And that’s the quintessential difference.
I was made Catholic because of my mother’s religious preference and the whole protestant family clamped down on us. This may all have been overcome by now, but you don’t forget the moments when the put-downs were “imposed”. And although this is far less significant than racial stigma, this is the crux of the matter: you still feel the hurt.
If, therefore, politicians like Charley Rangel and others raise their voices when a racist comment props up again, however occasional it may be, my reaction is not “there he goes again”. Their base still feels that way. They would want him to comment on it to utter their eternal grief. Some feel it stronger than others, maybe, but the hurt is still there. The “imposers” never had that experience. So whites had better take it in good stride and incur the “inconvenience” of being reminded how ugly they once were. Leave it to less controversial black leaders proffering racial reconciliation to give a rebuttal.
The stigma of “slavery” is hardest to overcome (as compared to other human differences such as religion) because it affects a person’s dignity. It is reported that black people use racial slurs amongst themselves and do not get reprimanded for it, and that, therefore, when white people using them and do get punished for it, it is applying a “double standard”. That misses the point: the black person’s dignity was initially hurt because of white dominance and even though this may have been hundreds of years ago and not experienced by today’s black people, the stigma is still felt because it is an indelible sting stuck on your skin color. If they use it among themselves, it is because of an outburst of burned feelings or a way to joke about what they commonly feel, and what white persons can never feel, because they were not afflicted by it.
There is racial conflict in Africa, too. But it is mostly tribal. It can be very violent even in today’s age (Rwanda, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, just to name a few). This is not because of slavery. It’s because of being different, a subject of another column.
Modern slavery is still prevalent. It is rarely written about, or shown on TV, but it is a serious problem. But it does not “hit home” because it is “foreign”. When old national racial wounds are scratched open by some individual in the USA, even if most of the USA is not racist anymore, it makes big headlines and great talking points. The uproar is justified, as the phenomenon of making racist comments is totally out-of-order.
On the other hand, we should make occurrences like these opportunities to further heal the wounds rather than raking them open, as some people do. There is no use for prolonging the agony by harping on a major difference that is fading away. There must come a point where we can all share Martin Luther King’s dreams and not make it an issue anymore. I know, it easy for me to say this because I am “white”. But there are some leading black personalities who seem to agree and they should not be called “uncle toms” or “not black enough”. It is a two-way street where whites have to do most, but some black help can be pivotal. And that should be our goal.