The Sunday Leader

Sri Lanka: Racism And “Exceptionalism”

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Lay then the axe to the root
(Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791)

We must make sure our children are free of racism

The following is apropos an interview with  A. Sivanandan, published in New Left Review (London, Nov-Dec 2009 issue, pages 79-98) under the caption An Island Tragedy: Buddhist Ethnic Cleansing In Sri Lanka.  Steps towards ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka,  Sivanandan claims, were taken immediately after independence by the government of D. S. Senanayake: one of his first measures as prime minister was to disenfranchise the plantation Tamils (p. 83).

Sivanandan was born in 1923, studied in Colombo, entered the University of Ceylon (then situated in Colombo), married a Sinhalese, and spoke the language fluently.  As a consequence of the anti-Tamil riots of 1958, the family left for England (and walked into the anti-non-white-skin Notting Hill riots of late August and early September).  Sivanandan went on to become director of the Institute of Race Relations (London), and editor of the highly-regarded journal, Race & Class. Sri Lankan readers may know him best as the author of the novel, When Memory Dies (London, 1997).

Sivanandan states that until the anti-Tamil riots of 1958, he had “no sense at all of being a Tamil” (82). When I was aged about 14, and a boarding-school pupil at St. Thomas’ College, Gurutalawa, involved in a dispute, a fellow pupil taunted me with Para Dhemmala (foreign Tamil). I was puzzled because ethnic classification then had no significance to me personally, as an individual. (See, Sarvan, ‘An extract from a personal memoir’, The Sunday Island, Colombo, 5 July 2009.) Being Tamil didn’t matter to me. It was a fact but without importance, like living in this town rather that, or preferring to swim rather than play cricket for the school.

So it was with German-Jews in the first decades of the last century. They saw themselves as Germans who also happened to be Jews — that is, until the Nazis came to power, and a Jewish consciousness and identity were brutally forced upon them. Difference and the resulting variety are welcome in nature, and when one travels as a tourist but not, it seems, in ethnic terms in one’s own country, particularly within certain lands where, obsessed with racial and / or religious “purity”, “impure” actions are committed: Nazi Germany, the Balkans and Sri Lanka come to mind.

Poisoned with racism

In Sri Lanka, children and young people politely address those much older as “Uncle” or “Aunt”, even if the person is not related. Sivanandan recalls that in 1958, seeing someone he didn’t know in the house of his (Sinhalese) mother-in-law, he asked his eldest daughter, aged about five, who that uncle was. She replied in Sinhala: “That’s not an uncle, that’s a Tamil” (p. 87). Horrified that his own daughter had been poisoned with racism, and at so early an age, he decided to leave the island.
Some years ago, while teaching in the Middle East, I was friendly with a Sinhalese family. Their daughter – let’s call her Nalini – was about 12. One day, as I walked into their home, little Nalini met me at the door with a worried, earnest, expression on her face: “Uncle, is it true that you are Tamil?”  Her eyes asked I should deny and reassure, say that someone was teasing her. It was as if she’d suddenly been told that I was, in fact, a paedophile.

This brings me to what I term the “exceptionalism” of racism and racists. What was the reaction of Sivanandan’s daughter when she understood that her own father was Tamil? What was the child told by the others?  I don’t know, but it could have been something on the lines of “But your father is different.  He’s not like (all) the other Tamils”. True, he’s Tamil but not one of those Tamils in general whom we distrust and dislike; want to expel or subordinate.  “He’s a Tamil but not a Tamil Tamil: you know what we mean?”
He or she is turned into an exception, serving only to prove the rule, to confirm the generality. Those individuals whose life and conduct confound the racist (or religious) myth and image are made exceptions so that  stereotypes, unquestioned and unchallenged, continue to have their justification and existence. In this way, racist attitudes are preserved and perpetuated. (See the blanket suspicion of, if not hostility to, all Moslems where, in a mode known as ‘Block Thinking’, a varied reality is fused into one indissoluble unit.) So it is that, even those who are suspicious of (if not hostile towards) Tamils in general may have a Tamil friend or friends; socialise, and be of mutual company and help. The contradiction, the inconsistency, is “rationalised” away on the basis of their friend (or friends) being an exception.

No-win situation

It’s an almost no-win situation: if you behave, you are seen as an individual, made an exception; if you don’t, then not just you, but the entire group is blamed. In the very early 1960s, a young man in London, I was befriended by an elderly English couple. Once when I asked them whether they visited the West End, they reacted with alarm: “Oh no, dear Charles. They’re far too many foreigners there.” Having got to know me as a person, they’d forgotten not only that I too was a newly-arrived foreigner but that I was non-white. To them, I had become an individual tree, and no longer part of the vague wood: threateningly out there, all around them, sensed rather than actually encountered and experienced.

Did Sivanandan’s daughter and Nalini, in later life, question adult attitudes or did they, utilising “exceptionalism”, continue in their culturally inherited prejudice? It is not easy to call into question the world of those one loves and respects, if not admires: to think independently, differently from them, becomes rejection and, worse, betrayal. It is difficult, very difficult, to extirpate group prejudice because its roots are spread wide and deep in the collective soil. (Varying the metaphor, about 90% of an iceberg lies below, and only 10% is visible above the surface.) But it’s by no means impossible, as post-war Germany has shown, emerging from a period of “now done darkness” with relief, wanting to understand the past, willing to make amends in the present.

While an undergraduate at the Peradeniya Campus, one of my closest friends was (let’s call him) Wijesooriya.  I spent extended holidays with him at his parental home in what was then a little village off a little town. His mother was a personification of gentleness and kindness, wise and caring, yet ready to smile or laugh. It would not be an exaggeration to say she treated me as if I were one of her own family. Yet “Wije” told me that, while he was a growing child, she had related stories which portrayed Tamils not only as “the other”, but which created the image in his mind and imagination of the Tamil as trouble and a menace, to be distrusted, held at a distance and controlled.
She simply was not aware of the image of ‘the other’ that folk tales and folk history create; their effect on the mind and imagination of a child and, finally, on the hapless Tamil. Essentially kind, decent and good she was simply “innocent” (in the sense of being unaware) of the possible long-term effects of the stories she narrated, tales she told and retold simply to entertain her son. Folk history and stories help to explain the intensity of hatred, and the ferocity of attack, during successive anti-Tamil riots and pogroms. They form an unbroken line of suspicion, resentment and hatred from ancient times into the present.

No different

Wije joined Royal College and found himself in a boarding-house in Colombo where all the others happened to be Tamils. He told me of his initial unease at having to live with those of whom he had, entirely unconsciously, built up a very negative image. But to his surprise and puzzlement, he found them no different; was welcomed and treated as a friend. “Wije”, having the mind of a sociologist, did not attempt to explain away the contradiction between received image and impression on the one hand and actual encounter on the other by making exceptions of the other (Tamil) boarders. Instead, he thought about and questioned the values and attitudes of adult society, including those of his parents.

One can perhaps set up three categories, the first consisting of those who are racist in thought and nature. (Often, such individuals and groups, avoiding the opprobrium attached to “racism”, claim they are “nationalists.”) Then there are those from religion and politics who see advantage in stoking, and keeping alive, a negative image of other ethnic groups, religious difference being a component of ethnicity. The third group is made up of those who are not aware of the nature and degree of their prejudice. Here the work of Mahzarin Banaji and other researchers is apposite.

Our brain, like a computer, quickly processes data so that we can react, and get on with the business of living. We cannot, in daily life, pause each time and reflect but must “jump to conclusions”. The question, “What role does our implicit association play in our beliefs and behaviour?” led researchers to the Implicit Association Test — a concealed test where the respondents did not realise what was really being tested.  It was found that our attitude to aspects such as “race”, colour and gender operate on two levels. The first is what we (like to) think or believe is our attitude; the second is our unconscious but real attitude, that is, the immediate, automatic, association we make before we have had time to think.

We don’t choose to make unfavourable associations with one group, but it is very difficult to avoid doing so if that group (or contrasting object or category) is frequently, if not constantly, paired negatively with another. Indeed, it was found that even those discriminated against could come to share in this negative association. For example, it was found that people of colour who took the Race Implicit Association Test (Race IAT) in the USA had stronger associations with whites than with those of their own skin-colour. An Implicit Association test conducted on a sample of Sinhalese on attitudes to Tamils (as on those with a white or fair skin-colour) will be revelatory, illumining and sobering.

Of course, the association of all Tamils with the Tigers is damaging. An early step in combating “racism” is to bring about a realisation, an awareness or consciousness, of the extent and depth of group assumptions and prejudice. (I thank Liebetraut Sarvan, particularly for her comments on this section.) Self-examination, both at the individual and collective levels, will lead to a cleansing of the mind of ancient, inherited, prejudice.  Lay then the axe to the roots of the poison tree.

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