Tuesday, 27 March 2012

What Do We Choose to See?

Sometimes there are events that start you thinking. Events that stay on your mind, greet you first thing in the morning, linger in the fragments of dreams that dissipate as you wake, fade only as you fall asleep. Racism in the United States—highlighted in the events around the killing of Trayvon Martin—jar and disturb. Even when viewed from across the ocean. Especially when viewed from across the ocean, because somehow my own gaze is sharper and clearer when I am not in the middle of a society that is deeply racist and just as feverently denies it. Electing Barack Obama as President did not wave a wand over the racial ills in American society and make them disappear. He remains the exception, not the rule. Racism has not gone away.

I am white. I only get glimpses of what it is like to live as a person who is not white in contemporary American society. My god-mother (yes, African-American) was a founding member of the National Association for Black Social Workers. My god-father has recounted how a desegregation of southern universities in the United States meant that his state opted to pay for his education in another state, at another university, rather than have him attend their institution.

I remember attending a conference in California with an African-American colleague. She was looking about with a wide-eyed gaze, a bright smile on her face, the look of someone who has just discovered something amazing and wonderful. She tried to explain to me: to look around me. How many people were white? How many were black? For the first time in her life, she said, in a public place, there were people of colour in great number, and she felt this immense relief, that she could relax, that she did not have to go about girded and braced against the ill-will and even outright hatred she faced as a matter of course in her daily life as a person of colour. I probably would not understand, she said, but she would do her best to let me see the world through her eyes. I did my best to understand and felt and feel profoundly grateful that she took tremendous pains to show me into the world of a person not white in America.

Shani King has written about the racism that permeates American society in the context of inter-country adoption of children. He identifies five narratives that ribbon their way through the legal discourse on intercountry adoption, including narratives of rescue and humanitarian motives. He has developed a concept, “monohumanism” where “MonoHumanism is fundamentally the notion of American culture as a superior one in comparison with all non-American peoples and cultures...What MonoHumanism represents, more specifically, is the notion that the United States has substituted its own view of all non-American peoples or cultures for positive knowledge of them, facilitating the creation of the Western identity of self as the normative center. The narrative of identity that accompanies MonoHumanism subscribes both universality and superiority to Western knowledge and discourse, which effectively results in the exclusion and displacement of the knowledge and dis-course of historically oppressed peoples.” He argues for the process of “dismantle[ing] the concept of Monohumanism...”

It strikes me that much of his critique of the discourses of intercountry adoption might easily be applied to the discourse of indigenous rights. How much of that discourse is inclusive—albeit unstated—of the ideas that run through Monohumanism? How consciously do writers about indigenous rights and issues pay attention to the pratfalls of a monohumanistic (or however this concept might be labelled) standpoint that might run through their ideas and writing?

Until recently, no one spoke very openly about racism in America. Now perhaps the society is confronting this in a move long over-due. It is an easy subject to seek to avoid because it is uncomfortable and disturbing. But as my African-American friend told me, I had the option to close my eyes to it. She never did.

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