Friday, December 18, 2009

peau noire, masques blancs...

“Out of the blackest part of my soul, across the zebra striping of my mind, surges this desire to be suddenly white. I wish to be acknowledged not as black but as white" ~Frantz Fanon

Dedicado a Sammy Sosa:

From the leaders of early slave revolts on to W.E.B. Dubois, Carter G. Woodson, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon, we have been passionately informed that the most devastating impact of the White man has been psychological. In their writings and speeches, they consistently cautioned us that,

“The key to the White man’s power and the major strategy used by him to remain dominant in the global power struggle of the modern world, has been in his uncanny ability to influence other people’s minds (cultures), and how they live and relate to one another”.

I am constantly reminded by interacting with different and travelling that the upper-class in Haiti teach their child French, not Kreyol, Puerto Rican elites send their children to Madrid or New York, not San Juan or Ponce, with it's distinctive tone and pronunciation of Spanish. Artists like Yinka Sinobare, of Nigerian descent, whose work critiques Victorian era British decadence and imperial policy, yet proudly an accept awards such as Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) and display it prominently after their name.

The intellectual assaults or the psychic violence aimed at controlling Black minds has surprisingly been well documented from at least 1829 when David Walker's "Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World" was first published in Boston. In the book "The Psychology of Blacks: An African Centered Perspective", authors Parham, White and Ajamu state that “The most daunting challenge that we face as African American people is not White supremacy ideology but a need for collective mental liberation". This is not to say that lives are not enriched by the collective cross-cultural exchange that has occurred in our era of Globalization.

However, when only one culture, when only one system of governance, language, "way of life", and customs are championed as the ultimate hegemonic prototype, you defeat the very diversity that is made possible by such as fluid, global exchange of ideas and thoughts. When you have predominantly one race, culture, or background in the seats of power, where one dialect or manner of dress is afforded a superior social power, the result is a denial of individuals outside of this power paradigm disavowing their own culture, their own history, their own phenotypical realities, to sometime dramatic effect.

Nigger, Coon, Jigaboo, Buck, Darkie, Pickaninny, Jezebel, Mammy, Aunt Jemima, Sambo, Buckwheat, and Uncle Tom are all powerful examples of negative racial stereotypes imposed on the psyche of African descended people from the outside. No other American group has suffered as many racial epithets as have Blacks generally. Whether in America, Brasil, or even Iraqi (yes, Iraq, there is an African-Iraqi population, read more about it, here) So who or what can honestly heal our deeply inflicted psychological scars? Who can really pay “reparations” on the Souls of Black Folk? Now, individuals like Sammy Sosa and the late Michael Jackson can do whatever they want to themselves. Companies like Vichy of Switzerland and Nivea of Germany can sell their Whitening products with advertisements such as the one below, toting the benefits of "whiteness" but unfortunately the schisms created by the systematic "lessing of" the beauty of the "other" leads to tragic consequences.

This problem is also prevalent in Latin America. For example, Brazil has the largest black population outside of the African continent at 90 million, which amounts to roughly half of its people. Yet, despite their conspicuous presence in society, black Brazilians face discrimination, poverty, and lower education and health standards than whites. According to a "racial atlas" created by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Federal University of Minas Gerais, 65 percent of the poor and 70 percent of the extremely poor in Brazil are of African descent.

In the Dominican Republic, Sammy Sosa's country of origin, people are overwhelmingly black: 90 percent have African ancestry, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Yet only 11 percent identify themselves as black. And as UN experts found, there is "a profound and entrenched problem of racism and discrimination against such groups as Haitians, Dominicans of Haitian descent, and more generally against blacks within Dominican society". Such problems surfaced in the early 20th century, when Rafael Leónidas Trujillo took over as dictator in the Dominican Republic and, despite his grandmother being Haitian, systematically killed, it is estimated over 20,000 Haitians in the Dominican Republic. He is also known to have bleached his skin (and wear platform shoes-but that is neither here nor there).

A strong anti-Haitian sentiment is rooted in the country's history. Haiti is a former colonizer of the Dominican Republic, as was Spain. Yet, Dominicans only celebrate their independence from Haiti. The government has engaged in mass deportations of Haitians and at present citizenship is denied to Dominican-born children of so-called "illegal" Haitian immigrants. But a large reason for this hatred of Haitians is a denial of Dominicans' own African origin. Simply put, sometimes it is difficult to stare at oneself in the mirror. For years, under the Hispanidad movement, the government of the Dominican Republic emphasized the nation's white, Spanish and Catholic heritage, and conveniently left out the black part.

The Dominican Republic is a nation whose hairdressers are known for their hair-straightening prowess and most Dominican women get their hair straightened. Although dark folks are the overwhelming majority, black skin, wide noses and 'pelo malo' (bad hair) do not fit the standard of beauty. So, hair relaxers and skin whiteners are in, and people will call themselves a number of things, such as Indian, burned Indian, Moreno and cinnamon - anything but negro (the Spanish word), or black. This is what years of submerging your culture will do. It is only through a combination of strategic humility and strategic pursuit of self-interest in a determined effort to raise black people’s development — individually and collectively — that our millennium-old image problem will be addressed. It means recognising that we are in a hole (literally and perceptually) and then using any means necessary to climb out.

So what, some would argue. Sammy Sosa wants to whiten his skin and some folks want a tan. The problem with using tanning as a counter-argument to whitening is that it is a false dichotomy. If one was to assume that skin whitening and bleaching are merely exercises in cosmetics he or she would be spot-on. But skin whitening is mainly about power, as even its defenders citing "age-old traditions" explicitly concede; by this I mean the relative power of white skin in a world still dominated economically, politically and culturally by European and American frameworks of assumption of what constitutes progress, success and beauty. Even though both artificial and natural skin-tanning are growing in popularity in Asia and elsewhere (while studying in Japan, there is a youth culture called 'ganguro', which literally means 'black skin' and hyper tanning salons but black race is exoticized in Japan in a very distinct manner, more akin to France and the 1920s with Josephine Baker than to the American system, in Japan the cultural differences between the Chinese and Japanese is a more apt comparison.

In his 1903 literary masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois made his case for the idea of a dual or “double consciousness” existing with the collective psyche of Africans in America. This false consciousness that Dr. Dubois wrote about really speaks to the confusion and ambivalence that Black folks experience every day in America as they search and struggle for their own meaningful sense of historical and cultural identity. Indeed the latter struggle and the problem of “The Color Line” are still with us in America more than a century later though no means only a localized phenomenon. Certainly, the U.S. is not immune from this color-coded mentality.

African-Americans historically internalized racism by pitting light-skinned blacks against dark-skinned ones, and using paper bag tests for admission to exclusive clubs. Black newspapers and magazines in the 1920s through the 1960s often featured advertisements for skin bleaching creams. Typically, with promises of "lighter, brighter skin," these ads blatantly associated white skin with beauty and success, and depicted dark skin as ugly. Meanwhile, people of color in America still fight against the Madison Avenue standard of beauty, which usually takes the form of a malnourished white blond fashion model with slight facial features.

The once dark-complexioned, undeniably African-looking Sosa now looks more like Ricky Ricardo from "I Love Lucy". As the late Nigerian activist and musician Fela Kuti would have said, it appears that Sosa is guilty of having a "colonial mentality". Throughout the African diaspora, black people internalized the racism they experienced under slavery and colonial rule. Bad habits are hard to break, and there is still self-hatred among black and colored people today. Sammy Sosa and others must realize that try as you might, you cannot bleach out your history.

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