Quitting by their rules

18 March 2013

I tried to be cool about it but let’s face it, I’m not a cool guy. I got a comment from Anil Menon and it’s kinda like a drug when someone whose work you’ve read suddenly interacts with you. I mean I know that authors and professors are people, it just… kinda strikes close to home when they pop in to comment on my blog.

He made an interesting point about the betraying nature of someone in the in-group (in this case an Indian man) perpetrating colonization upon his own people. It got me thinking, strangely, about the relationship Whites had with African Americans for the worse part of a century from the mid-1800s to the late 1960s. From Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr, Whites (it’s dubious whether I should say “we”, since I hardly feel White but I’m evidently not Arab, so I’m in an existential quandary best suited for another time) dismissed Blacks who fought for civil and human rights and basic equality on the basis that they were inarticulate, cognitively deficient, and ultimately sub-human. It took the unprecedented eloquence of Mr. Douglass and later Dr. King (whose letter from a Birmingham jail happens to be my favorite piece of correspondence ever, incidentally) to convince mainstream empowered society to endorse civil rights for African Americans as well as Whites.

You may be wondering where the connection is. The connection I drew was the standard imposed on African Americans all the way up to today, which dictated that breaking free of the judgmental, biased criteria of White slavers required adhering to that criteria and excelling in it. What I mean is that, in order to make the case for freedom from oppression based on ethnocentric measures, people like Douglass and King had to play into those ethnocentric measures, coming off as well-spoken, articulate, and ultimately benign. In the same way, the only way India seemed to have out of its crushing judgmental white scrutiny was by demonstrating - through academics such as Kosambi - that India could meet the criteria of “White standards”. Only then would any argument not to be judged by that biased and unfair standard be entertained.

Essentially, even if you didn’t want to submit to their “game”, you still had to play it long enough to prove that you could, and only then could you “quit”. It strikes me that this may have been easier for India - with its existing written language, more familiar mathematics, and other advances (to which, frankly, the West largely owed its own advances) - to accomplish than Africa or the people in North and South America, who didn’t have a writing or number system which was easily comprehensible by the West (I’m not sure what writing or number systems African tribes had, but I’m more familiar with the base-20 system of the Maya and Aztec, and the ambiguous maybe-base-10 quipu system the Inca used).

This course in “Modern” India has left me with a lot of unsettling thoughts about the subtle ways we’ve persistently marginalized other cultures; more subtle than Jim Crow laws (to make an allusion to something a whole paragraph or two back), and even more subtle than the language we use to describe them as traditional or antiquated. It makes me wonder more about the subtle, sometimes unintentional ways we may dismiss, belittle, or oppress others. This will certainly be something I take with me, if I can.

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