Syed Badrul Ahsan, associate research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, explores the politics of skin colour.
The colour black has been seared into the human consciousness as an embodiment of all that is negative, indeed is a manifestation of evil. White, in contrast, has consistently been representative of purity, of nobility as it were. That angels are not black, that fairies are iridescent white, that no prophet of God has ever been black – all of these have been enjoined upon us for centuries as the truth.
When you go back to such social history, you understand why a very large section of Americans, those who today are the Republican base behind Donald Trump, have never forgiven Barack Obama for being president of the US for eight years. It matters little that Obama is a scholar, was a brilliant student at Harvard serving as editor of its law review, and is a sophisticate. The simple truth is that he is black. Never mind that his mother was a white American.
When, therefore, we observe today four white policemen pouncing on a black American, one of them resting his knee firmly on the man’s neck until the life goes out of him, we are not surprised. It makes you wonder again why men like Mitch McConnell rudely dismissed Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court without giving the man a chance at hearings in the Senate. McConnell was averse to respecting black Obama’s presidential decision. We do not forget the lie, peddled by Trump for years, that his predecessor had not been born in America.
Trump would not have questioned Obama’s American-ness had he been white. And that explains why blacks, or African-Americans as we know them now, are always in trouble. The police, almost all of them white, cheerfully go after black men and women every time they feel there is a problem with keeping law and order. You think back on To Kill a Mockingbird, that seminal work by Harper Lee. Do not imagine that in today’s America, there are many Atticus Finches. There are the ghosts of George Wallace and Lester Maddox, those arch advocates of segregation, rising from their graves in America today.
The colour black, in case you have not noticed, has been a universal problem, across the ages. Here in Bangladesh, it is yet an era when young men ready for marriage and their parents are awed by the colour white. Brides of fair skin, no matter how imbecilic or ill-educated they are, have precedence over hugely beautiful women with dark skin. Rare are the tales of men who fall in love with dark or black women. Epithets none too friendly are hurled at them, verbally or in vicious silence.
Let your thoughts take in the South Asian subcontinent for a while. There is hardly any movie where the leading lady is black or has been born with a dark skin. The heroine, as she is known, must be fair, more beautifully attired and of course more elegant than any other woman in the movies. Even the mothers and friends of these white heroines are white. It is only the house help, that symbolism of uncomplaining, kowtowing service, whose skin conveys an impression of black. Ashok Kumar in the movie Meri Surat Teri Ankhen was black, ugly, monstrous in overall appearance.
Racism has been part of subcontinental psychology for decades. How else would you explain all those facial cream products promising fair and lovely skin for those not happy with being dark or black? You get the impression that the happiest people in the world are those in white skin, that black is forever a sign of individual and social degradation. Dark-skinned young women, at least a good number of them, are tempted into making attempts to peel away their original skin in favour of white through employing that cream pushed into their faces day after day.
India’s Dalit community, primarily defined by dark skin, has suffered despite B R Ambedkar. Gandhi was thrown out of a train in South Africa because whites looked upon him as a coolie. And the term ‘coolie’ has of course been another definition of men with dark skin all across the globe. But why are we forgetting the disdain with which Africa, that beautiful continent peopled by struggling black men and women, has always been looked upon by the fair-skinned world? It was, perhaps still is, the heart of darkness for men like those who hail Trump’s demagoguery.
And, yes, here in Bangladesh, it was horror for Pakistan’s patently racist ruling class contemplating a transfer of power to the electorally triumphant Bangabandhu in 1971. Only days into the announcement of the election results in December 1970, a senior Pakistan army officer stationed in Dhaka reassured his fellow-West Pakistani soldiers, ‘We will not let these black bastards rule over us.’ The rest of the story is known. Young, dark-skinned Bengali men in the Mukti Bahini made life hell for that officer and his ilk.
Ethiopian Jews, in dark skin, emigrating to Israel, have borne the brunt of racial discrimination. In China not very long ago, Africans were beaten up on the streets. In India, a few years ago, Africans were subjected to abuse and physical assault.
Back in August 1963, Martin Luther King Jr spoke of a dream . . . that his children would be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. In Trump’s America and around the world in large measure, skin colour continues to outweigh character content. The heart would crack in Dr King, despite the hope he held out in that long-ago summer.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is editor-in-charge at The Asian Age. His biography of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was published in 2013. Recent works include Glory and Despair: The Politics of Tajuddin Ahmad, and History Makers in Our Times. He contributes to Dhaka Courier, First News, Dhaka Tribune, Bangla Tribune, Our Time, Indian Express, Asian Affairs, and South Asia Monitor.