Perspectives On Colour & ‘Race’ 

Race and colour

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Preamble: Over fifty years ago, somewhere in Sweden I was given a lift by an African as young as I was then. It later transpired the car hadn’t been tested, and the driver didn’t have a driving-license. The car skidded and crashed into the embankment; concerned Swedes crowded round to help. Quite dazed, the African asked me what had happened. Equally shaken, I reproached him:                                                             

“It had started raining but you didn’t reduce speed.”                                                                                                

“But why didn’t you warn me?”                                                                                       

“How could I? It was your car, and you’d given me, a stranger, a lift.

Thereupon he put his arm alongside mine, the one ‘black’ and the other brown, and said: “Don’t you see, we are closer to each other than to these [white] people? You could have warned me.” It was a lesson in third-world commonality.  (Often, Sinhalese and Tamils are so alike such that during times of anti-Tamil riots, Tamil identity has first to be ascertained before barbarity is unleashed.) End of preamble.


In what follows, I draw particularly from two books: Jeffrey Boakye’s ‘Black, Listed’ (2019) and Akala’s ‘Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire’ (2018). Boakye, a teacher of English, was born in England in 1982 to Ghanaian parents. In the book’s title, he breaks “blacklisted” into its morphological units and thereby alters its semantics to “listed as being black” (and treated accordingly). Alaka (Kingslee James McLean Daley) was born in 1983 to a Jamaican father and a Scottish mother. Both authors can be found in the Internet.

In reality, there are neither “white” nor “black” people. The paper on which we write or type is white but not the people classified as “white”. The novel A Passage to India suggests “pinko-grey” instead of white, while Boakye offers “pinkish beige”. But the dominant West has chosen “white”, associated with cleanliness and purity, and the rest of the world has followed suit. Similarly, there are no black people but shades of brown. But we have a penchant for sharp dichotomy: the guilty and the innocent, good and bad; black and white etc. Shades in between, nuance and complexity are mentally taxing and troubling. “The first problem with being black is that it is literally not accurate.” No matter how dark my skin is, it is not black in hue (Boakye). But ‘Brown and pinkish beige’ is not as neat and effective as ‘Black and white’. The connotations of black are almost invariably negative except, as Boakye notes, when with reference to expenditure and income one speaks of being financially “in the black”.  Note: the opposite of black in this context is not white but red: to be in the red. Black is not an adjective but a label which like some other labels (for example, ‘Tamil’) determines everything else. It’s an ideological construct.

During the centuries of Western imperialism and domination the two part division, ‘white’ (pinkish beige) and ‘black’ (brown), was established. Earlier, brown people were content with their colour, finding it normal and beautiful (Alaka). In ‘Song of Lawino’ by Ugandan Okot p’Bitel who died in 1982, Lawino tells her Westernised, arrogant husband that black is beautiful: let me dance before you, my love; let me show you the wealth in your own house. After the Haitian revolution (the only successful slave revolution in history) ‘white’ Polish and Germans who had aided the struggle were rewarded by being made legally black. In passing, the word “slave” is thought to be derived from the Latin Sclavus, Slavs often being forced into slavery in the Middle Ages. (This theory contested by Russian linguists and historians.) But with imperialism, whiteness became a metaphor for power: James Baldwin, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’. What mattered above all else was whether one was ‘white’ or non-white, as with being Tamil in Sri Lanka. US soldiers who wouldn’t socialise with their Afro American comrades-in-arms sometimes shared food with their German prisoners. 

Some Sri Lankans may be affronted at being seen as black but so it is. Extreme right-wing gangs on the rampage in the West do not make a distinction between very dark brown (black) and brown. ‘Black’ is a term for anyone who isn’t white (Boakye). Given power-structures, advantage and influence, the gravitational pull has been towards ‘whiteness’. Noel Ignatiev in ‘How The Irish Became White’ relates that the early Irish settlers in America with their experience of British brutality and exploitation in Ireland, sympathised with the Afro-Americans but soon understood where power and privilege lay, and so distanced themselves from African-Americans and their cause. Vijay Prashad in ‘The Karma of Brown Folk’ states that South Asians in America try to present themselves as “a model minority”, distancing themselves from ‘black’ people. I recall that in Sinhala a word of endearment was Sudhu, applied even to someone dark-skinned: if I’m not mistaken, the term means “fair”. If someone felt ignored, he would teasingly ask: Api kalu the? “Are we black?” Implying, “Is that why you don’t treat me better?” Again, whether the expression still has currency, I don’t know. As Chinua Achebe and others have pointed out, it is not only that the West claimed superiority but more that the non-Western world accepted and internalised inferiority.  To cite a simple, almost naïve experiment, there’s the well-known ‘doll test’: offer three dolls, ranging in colour from ‘white’ to brown and ‘black’ (dark brown): no prize for guessing which one will be chosen. 

British academic Martin Jacques (‘Guardian’, 20 September 2003) states there’s a global racial hierarchy with whites at the top. “Whites are the only race that never suffers any kind of systematic racism anywhere in the world. We are invariably the beneficiaries, never the victim.” (Martin Jacques moved to Hong Kong with his Malaysian-Indian wife and thought she would be happier there, not only because of British ‘racism’ but because she spoke fluent Mandarin. She fell ill; was admitted to hospital but, because of her colour, was fatally neglected. Jacques sued the hospital: his vocal and determined protest led to the introduction of anti-racism laws in 2008.) 

The irony is that those who are brown (dark or light) didn’t become that colour but that ‘white’ people lost theirs: our common ancestors are from Africa. DNA analysis of the fossil known as Cheddar Man, unearthed in Gough’s Cave in Somerset, indicates that the first settlers in what is now England were dark-skinned: Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum says that racial categories are imaginary. Indulging in counterfactual imagination, if the black (dark brown) and brown peoples had led in science and technology, and had gone to be the dominant powers, no doubt their colours would be admired. The 25th dynasty of Egypt’s pharaohs were black – more precisely, dark brown. The West has admired (one would say almost revered) and loved the art of ancient Greece but Martin Bernal in his ‘Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization’ demonstrates how much this art was influenced by Egypt and other non-European sources. But his work has not had the impact it should have had: the best way to sink a work is to ignore it; pretend it doesn’t exist. (I suspect this is what has happened to Commodore Ajith Boyagoda’s ‘A Long Watch’, the story of his imprisonment by the Tamil Tigers.) One must add that though Christianity originated in what we now know as the Middle East, it became a Western faith and was spread by the West – carrying Western beliefs, valuations and attitudes. In the Old Testament, of the three sons of Noah, Ham was cursed by his father to be “a servant of servants” (Genesis 9 : 25). This curse was used to justify such Western crimes as imperialism and slavery, Ham being presented as one who was dark-skinned, though there’s no mention in ‘The Bible’ that Ham’s pigmentation was dark. It’s yet another example of religion being used to justify racism and racial exploitation, be it Buddhists, Christians, Hindus or  Moslems (alphabetical order).

Olive-skinned Romans looked down upon people we now consider white, and enslaved them. “In Australia I met many people that to me looked white and yet they swore they were blackfellas – as Aboriginal people often call themselves – and the intensity with which they spoke about their blackness let me know that they really had lived blackness in the harshest sense Australia could possibly muster. How could this occur that people that literally have a ‘white’ complexion (but Aboriginal features) came to be seen as black?” (Akala). Sri Lankan Christopher Rezel, writer and journalist now in Australia commented, inter alia, in an email message to me: “being a 100% white Aboriginal makes no difference. First and foremost you are Aboriginal, irrespective of skin colour.” And this brings me to the subject of race.

Though in the past, some held to polygeny to justify the subordination and exploitation of others, most human beings now think that all human beings have a common ancestry. There’s but one race, the human race. “Advances in the study of genetics in the last few decades have destroyed the scientific basis of racism” (London Review of Books, 18 April 2019, page 19).  Belief in astrology is primitive and irrational but many still believe in it – much to the relief and profit  of astrologers. So it is with race and racism. ‘Race’ is the child of racism, and not its father (Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘Between the World and Me’, 2015). In other words, it’s racists who think in terms of, and create, race. As I have written elsewhere (‘The term “racism” and discourse’ in ‘Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches’), race is a fiction; race doesn’t exist but racism flourishes. Only those with money will say that money isn’t important; similarly, only those who are racially in the majority or have power who can deny the existence of racism. ‘Race’ is not scientific but it is social and political – and powerfully so. Professor Harari (21 Lessons for the 21st Century) writes that confronting people with facts, evidence and statistics has no effect because our views and beliefs are formed by “communal groupthink”. The ‘post truth’ era is not new: we’ve always lived in it. If something is found to be an untruth the next day, month or year then it becomes fake news but if it lasts for a long time, it becomes fact. So the ‘Mahavamsa’ has become fact, and even those who rationally recognise it for what it is – myth – subconsciously and emotionally subscribe to it. 

Racism is the practice of a double standard: one for ‘us’ and another for the other group(s): Karen and Barbara Fields, ‘Racecraft’. The feeling of superiority and the trampling of the rights of others is often based on a proclaimed sense of victimhood: “We are the victims.” “We were denied and robbed.” “Our attempt is only to balance the scales of justice.” “Our identity, and therefore our survival, is being threatened.” Nelson Mandela observed that ‘race’ and colour generate far stronger and virulent emotion than class solidarity. History shows us that the powerful tide of racism can sweep away class solidarity; indeed, in the name of race, people are willing to damage even their material welfare. I know individuals who were socialists but later in life proudly succumbed to racism. Even those who have chosen to live outside the Island, while asking for and enjoying equality in their new home, nourish racism in the Island. The Bible (Acts, 9:4) tells us that cruel and persecutory Saul changed dramatically, and has come down in Christian history as Saint Paul. But mostly it’s a case of Pauls becoming Sauls, racist and corrupt. Life is corrupting.

So what can be done? Emotion is stronger than reason; racism stronger than justice and decency. We are trapped within our group and group-thinking. Words are all we have but they are ineffective. Appeals to justice and our common humanity are ineffectual. There’s something fundamentally flawed in our human makeup. Humanity is beyond redemption; is doomed etc. But despair is not an option. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’  is rather like one in love who declares, “I can’t tell you how much I love you” and thereby hopes that it has, indeed, been said and communicated. In saying it’s hopeless, in claiming she’ll no longer communicate, no longer attempt to build bridges of understanding, Reni Eddo-Lodge does just that. There’ s no option to making the effort and several individuals – humane, principled and morally courageous – have stood apart from the mindless herd, paying a considerable price for their stand. In a message to Martin Jacques, I wrote: “Individuals like you have helped to make people confront their prejudices; to increase awareness, and so change attitudes and conduct. Our globe, planet Earth, rotates on its own but social change is the result only of human endeavour and action.” A luta continua.

Source:Colombo Telegraph