Rajpal's Column

27th May 2001

Might is right; but white is also right

By Rajpal Abeynayake
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Jhumpa Lahiri was from India. Her book, the Interpreter of Maladies, won an O. Henry award, and has been getting so much attention from the American press that she now almost feels as if she belongs in America.

That's almost funny, because in the first place, she started writing because she felt like an alien in the new country. In a recent interview she said, "I looked different and felt like an outsider. There is nobody in this whole country that we are related to.''

But, she says, "the ink hasn't dried yet on our lives.'' She had to go to Culcutta, to discover her creativity.

But now, people like Lahiri are being told to hold a blow drier and force the ink on their lives to dry out. This is how it is done:

In countries like Austria, there are swift moves to legalise the concept of a "dominant culture.'' 

There aren't several ways of putting it. The bottom line is that there is insecurity among whites in countries in which there are vast immigrant populations . Now, this is an old story, and there is no need to embark on another recapitulation of stories about virulent neo-Nazi activity and all of that.

Neo Nazism was not state sponsored. But, what's emerging now in Europe in particular is a more legitimate statement that the dominant culture in Europe cannot and should not be challenged. 

One aspect of this legitimisation is to say that it is better to be part white than be totally black brown or yellow.

So, there is a move towards a societal celebration of acquiring a certain whiteness/a certain Caucasian-ness at least by way of default.

In another way, it means that people like Jumpa Lahiri will have to write a different kind of novel. Lahiri has been writing about alienated Indian people in America and about things like love and miscarriage during a power cut, in the middle of winter somewhere in middle America. This way, she says she became "an interpreter of the maladies of belonging.''

But this sort of thing must remain in storybooks. Politicians and the Caucasian ruling caucus in many of the Western nations have made not too subtle attempts now, to indicate that white is the dominant culture, and that there is no such thing as a dark American or a brown Austrian.

What influences this sort of thinking and through which conduits it is made to emerge is difficult to say. But, take a recent cover article in a well known international news magazine for instance, where the author of a piece about a Chinese-American of mixed race parentage asks, "why do you have to go looking for your Chinese roots, because you, looking like a white, can enjoy all the privileges that come with whiteness?''

Now, ostensibly of course, that question, as well as the entire slant of the article is that there is empathy for the person of mixed parentage and her desire to track down her roots. But, while that empathy lies on the surface, the subtle message of the article, which viewed as a whole is not a subtle message at all, is that having Eurasian features is all very chic, and that somehow, you have to acquire a certain whiteness to be passable in these Western societies. 

The problem is where did all the "political correctness'' go? These publications may be squeamish about calling a black man a black man; there is a tendency to use the euphemism of Afro- American, even rather self consciously.

But the new celebration of Eurasian features and being "Eurasian'' is a way of getting round all that bothersome political correctness. There is a certain amount of the "positive'' which is written into this celebration of "multi-colouredness.''

Concepts such as "the vast melting pot'' reverberate in such themes, and therefore, it is difficult to recognise such writing on the face of it as being totally politically incorrect.

But underlying it is the new message, which is taking root with people like Heider in Austria championing the cause. But, in fact, people such as Hieder and Australia's Pauline Hanson are themselves being held out, as fringe elements who are a nuisance, by the Caucasian ruling caucus. 

It is true that the Hieders and the Hansons represent the fringe in the way their politics is being done. But, their influence on the mainstream has been such that the mainstream has adopted their message, and pushed it with more political finesse that it is not even instantly recognisable anymore.

So therefore, the subtle legislation of the concept of a dominant culture (euphemistically clothed course) in countries such as Austria, and the creation of the social consciousness that 'white is not everything, it is the only thing.'' 

The message is a cross border message, it appears now, even though our own societies are just brown or black and not chocolate. Take the clothes advertisements of a very famous ready-made apparel merchandiser in this country. Notice their highly successful advertising campaign? The models, who are made out to be so much larger than life that you cannot possibly miss them, are all Eurasian. From Hong Kong or wherever they are, they are certainly not Sri Lankan, Indian or Chinese. Maybe the truth should be out. Since they can't be all white in this land, it is better to have them half white, right?

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