‘A White Wife and A White Life’: The Goal of the Colonised?
‘In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.’
A recent article on the Al Jazeera News website by Sudha G. Tilak titled Whitening Cream: Fair deal for India’s Women? –took me back to the days growing up black in the US; years before the hay days of the US Civil Rights Movement when, as a small boy of five, I wished I was white.
Being a Black American baby boomer, I lived and survived the period during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s when former slaves were attempting to cast off the yoke of Anglo-centric history, and their less than illustrious self image; to give birth to a new type of racial and historical identity. In the court case that made segregation illegal, Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Thurgood Marshal (a future Supreme Court Justice) argued against the affects of Neo-Colonialism (the psycho-social conditioning on an colonized people to continue to exploit them after subjugation) and its manifestation in the US Jim Crow Laws (ordinances which legally enforced racism in American society). Among his arguments he cited was the Clark’s “doll test studies” which showed that black girls when given a choice between white dolls to ones their own color, they preferred the white ones.
The finding of the study merely confirm what most people of color knew, Blacks in America would rather be anything but who they were. Ofcourse, now that the white man officially acknowledged he mentally messed up his former slaves (I suppose a necessary thing at the time since we wouldn’t listen to each other), a remarkable change began to take place in the way society saw them and how they saw ourselves.
As a result, Blacks, the most highly educated(achieved to overcome discrimination) but marginalized segment of the US population, were now rejecting the white aesthetic and attempting to reinvent themselves.
Like many others, through learning a true history of the world, I was able to discover myself and destroy the myth of my mental and cultural prison that viewed me as less capable and less human than my white counterpart regardless my years of study or training. That the history I had been taught; my self image was a result of a white wash that had been going on for hundreds of years; which deleted any positive image of significance for anyone but the white man.
Little did I know, I was about to learn the last lesson, akin to the one astronauts must have surely learned when they saw themselves floating above the earth from their fragile tin can in space. They had obtained the prospective of being outside where they were from and who they were. The answer to the questions: what was the wizard doing behind the green curtain? What was the real deal?
I finally got the answer when I moved to the Middle East.
Arriving in the Emirates in my 50’s, I thought I had finished my soul searching: I had rebelled against the person society taught me I was and had achieved ( through Islam) the ‘being’ Allah created me to be. I wasn’t African or European but saw myself as an American and something else unique; something more.
In the Emirates, I used to visit a post office that had a very attractive Emirati woman working behind one the counters. Characteristic of many Emiratis, she had dark skin and African features—which one would expect, since many Emiratis were descendent from Yemeni whom regularly married Somalis and other Africans. What was most vexing for me on my visits was that she seemed to wear makeup like she was playing a Geisha for a Kabuki theatre troop. Her eyes were a strange blue color that I was pretty sure did not occur in the range of blue eyed people. This wasn’t the first time I saw dark skinned Emirati women ‘white-faced’ before. I had taken my family out for a McDonald’s lunch and witnessed what appeared to be a whole family of dark Emirati women (obviously of African descent), face to hands covered with makeup that was an obvious attempt to lighten their complexion. It was then I began to notice the drug stores sold bleaching creams and had it conveniently displayed like they were selling a lot of it.
This type of behavior is common among many people of color growing up in a society that is either Anglicized or have been dominated by European colonialism (most infamously, the Dutch in Africa and places like Indonesia; the English in the Americas, India and other places Fareast and the unforgettable French as in the French Belgian Congo) sometime in their history. Emiratis were dominated by the British (as well as most of Arabia). Like most of the people that had been pushed around or directly subjugated by them, they were made to feel that whites were inherently superior to people of color. This impression wasn’t due to superior numbers or fire power but a psychological conditioning engineered through institutions setup under the pretext of educating and civilizing– but what it really did was teach that the ‘white’ gene; the white culture and the western way was superior to their own. This is commonly known in the history of such things as Racial Darwinism.
From firsthand experience growing up as a black person in a culture that subjected me (through Education) to an anglicized version of history where white people were the only significant players in national and global history; science and their physical form was the standard for human beauty. Those among the ‘conquered’ were educated to see the dominating culture as superior to their own. Those who had similar physical characteristics to Europeans would be considered ‘attractive’ and were assumed intellectually gifted compared to those who did not. This may be the reason why most third world ex-colonial holdings (Africa, India, America, etc.) regard whites as a more authentic westerner (American, Brits and South Africans) than blacks and others who were born and raised in western society. On this account it should come to no surprise to anyone that the first black millionaire in the US was Gloria Walker, a woman who made her money as the inventor of a method to straighten a black person’s kinky hair so it can be combed in the fashion of white people.
Although the Arabs on the Arabian Peninsula were never directly ruled by the British; their political and societal framework was largely a result of their manipulation in a divide and conquer strategy; pitting one group against the other– and even creating false ideologies and differences with the occupied populations to weaken the effort to formulate national institutions unfettered by their design. This strategy was also employed by the Dutch in South Africa (notably also in Indonesia until the Japanese drove them out as a liberating force during WWII. Afterwards, the Japanese were reputed to have been responsible for establishing the country’s world class education system and were instrumental establishing the country’s independence) as well as the Brits in numerous places all over the world; including the Middle East.
Outside the Islamic Muqtubs and Madrassa (schools), the precursors of modern Education institutions that exist in the region today are based on a British model—which exalt their methodologies and practices of contemporary British Education as superior to all others. Anglicized and heavily based on English culture, the affected Arab schools were converted to programs that conditioned those that attended them to the superiority and legitimacy of the European or western way of life.
The aim was to remain in control long after their so called ‘independence’ was ever achieved. As Rashid Khalid writes in his historical and political account of the region (and specifically Palestine under the British aided Zionist occupation in the 1930’s) in his book The Iron Cage.
The books tells in explicit detail how “the British …saw it as essential to avoid giving the Arab majority national or representative institutions, or any access to state power.” To do this they created false institutions based “(on)a peculiarly form” of “invented tradition’” and beliefs. Mixed with elements of Islamic rituals, over time “the Muslims” would “consider these social new religious institutions their own.
The British were quite successful with this technique in India; they were able to start splitting Islamic groups and manufacture sects through various avenues. In one instance, they were even able to convince the Muslims to call themselves “Muhammadans” and follow a British English language rendition of the Shari’at. This type of socio-psycho conditioning and its web of self derision and conflict are the tools of Neo-colonialism, which then and now, pluck the strings of western design for the purpose that it was always created to do—exploit the resources of the ‘heathens’ under the guise of bringing the benefit of ‘modern civilization’.
In other places in the world, most colonial occupations were first initiated through the opening of missionary schools, which due to their meticulous organization and programs of indoctrination, were able to get the indigenous inhabitants to see Europeans as superior. These schools were considered more useful than traditional (native) Education because they allowed participants to derive more benefit in the society under colonial rule.
In the Gulf, because Education isn’t truly valued (or understood culturally) in the 50 and so years the oil wealth made the Arab 21st Century dream and all its trappings possible, the classroom was replaced by the ubiquitous media fabric of commercial advertising, a conduit for the snake oil of fashion, technology and false reality interpreted by movies.
What I saw in those Emirati women through the visor of my ‘space suit’ I made from the struggle to be free (my alien cultural prospective) was their relatable need for self-value and worth in a society that had no clue there was a problem; perhaps because, to those with fair skin and straight hair (the normal ones; the chosen ones), there wasn’t.
The Road to Freedom
Oddly enough, the history of contemporary English and European Literature is a testimony to English writers and philosophers of yester-year and today and their resistance to Colonialism and Neo Colonialism through discourse and art. Conrad, Stendhal, Jung, Steinbeck, Hawthorne, Marx, Blake and the many other bards of the human global experience. It united the conquered with their conquest and united the planet historically and intellectually in a way that few things could. They remembered and preserved the dark history of such times when “the sun never set on the British Empire” and the mental and physical carnage at the buffet of European conquest over the third world. By doing so, they were able to give those people whose cultures were perverted and destroyed the antidote to the mind-screw of European missionar-ism that lead to a place and a future far better than what they had lost. They weren’t all evil and their best and brightest use their talents to fight hard against the colonial mandate as illustrated in the following stanzas of a William Blake poem, Songs of Innocence and Experience (contrary states of the human soul):
The Little Black Boy
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but oh my soul is white!
White as an angel is the English child,
But I am black, as if bereaved of light.
…And thus I say to little English boy.
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy
I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our Father’s knee;
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.
My six years in the Gulf have taught me that the westernized Saudi and Arab in general tend to want the same thing the blacks grew up whom straighten their hair after slavery and the Indians wanted after Gandhi—a white wife and a white life. The difference between today’s ‘modern’ Arab and that American Blacks and Indians who had endured Neo Colonialism of their past is that they latter were able to intellectually acknowledge, individually and collectively (for the most part) divest in the colonial legacy of self hate and evolve out of that which a lot of Arabs seem to remain blinded to it. As I said before, for many it isn’t a problem.
The benefits of Neo-Colonialism are only realized when the afflicted group struggles against it and grows intellectually and spiritually beyond it. Ironically, whites who bought into the myth of their own superiority were the least to benefit its historical and cultural impact upon the world because, they were and often are, the last to let it go.
Implementing a program of English literacy and scholarship, and taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge that comes with it, will not only allow Gulf populations to see the damage Neo-Colonialism is doing to their national psyche but prevent the damage being done by its elements now feasting on the oblivious Gulf Arab consumer. In addition to the awareness of its destructive effects, through the study of history and literature, Arabs can find out how they can possibly benefit from such knowledge (i.e.: academic resources), avoid the wrong choices made by others under simuliar circumstances to improve the lot of their people and governments– not as a tool for multi-national conglomerates, but as equal and contributing members of an ever growing Global world.
As a friend used to say when mixing her favorite hangover cure with a dash of alcohol, “the tail of the dog that bit you” – that is, the antidote is in the cause of the illness.
As I can personally attest, freedom from this type of brain wash is a thoughtful; deliberate process that is an individual’s journey into his own psyche to find out who one really is in the scheme of things and history. This requires knowing something about not only your history, but the histories and philosophies of those you currently influence and are influenced by. According to Islamic thought, this was the purpose Allah made people different. It was not to hate but so they could get to know one another. Current Gulf Arab Education, to my knowledge, lacks this essential elements in their grammar and collegian institutional repertoire to join anything outside the ephemeral charade of the Gulf Council.
To a large degree, the required critical thinking and analytic skills for the Gulf to take the next big step to global membership can only be gained by yanking back the curtain; seeing the imperial wizard for what he is and understanding his methods. This seems to be a truism in the history of man—his spiritual and intellectual growth first starts as a struggle against others and ends as a struggle within the self. The Gulf States have now an opportunity to evolve through the struggle against the elements of Neo-Colonialism by beginning to purify their Education and media of western indoctrination rather than pursuing the European mirage of superiority as their own. There is no going back to ‘before’. There are only the gifts of the new spring.
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by Abu Muhammed
Abu Muhammed is an American Muslim in Exile. He has a B.A.in English; a M.A. in Education.