Daniela Gioseffi, On Prejudice: Ethnicity, Identity & the Literary Canon
ON PREJUDICE: Ethnicity, Identity and the Literary Canon by Daniela Gioseffi, excerpted from the Introduction to
ON PREJUDICE: A Global Perspective, edited by Daniela Gioseffi
(Anchor/ Doubleday: NY (C)1993 History counts its skeletons in round numbers.
A thousand and one stays at a thousand,
as though the one had never existed:
an imaginary embryo, an empty cradle,
an ABC unread,....no one's place in the line
....We stand in the meadow made of dead flesh,
and the meadow is silent as a false witness....
where corpses once sang with their mouths full of earth....
[Wislawa Szymborska, Poland]
Racism and ethnic conflict are again playing an intensified role in our dangerously over-militarized world, just as in 1944 when W.E.B. Du Bois wrote "Prospect of a World without Race Conflict." Du Bois knew what was happening to the Jews in Hitler's Germany, and he drew analogies between the dynamics of prejudice operating in that super-tragedy, and others, like the genocide committed by 18th century slave traders— in which over 5 million Africans were estimated to have died in bondage enroute to just the Caribbean Islands alone. Du Bois knew what all 20th century humanist sociologists concerned about the bogus science of Nazi "eugenics" were attempting to demonstrate. There is no primary physical or biological difference between Jew and German, African, European, or Asian, as all so called "races" of humankind are inextricably mixed, stemming from the same genetic pool originating somewhere over 250,000 years ago in the heart of Africa. We were all born of the same natural creation. Without earth and without water in combination, in short, without mud from which all seeds and living creatures grow, there would be no life anywhere on Earth. This is, of course, not an "Afrocentric" view, but biogenetic fact, having nothing to do with cultural values from any particular nation or with value judgments of any kind. It is ironic that neo-Nazi skinheads, or Ku Klux Klan defamers, talk of "mud people" as a pejorative term, since without the fertile mud of creation, no life could exist on Earth.....
"Me! I'm not prejudiced! I don't need to study prejudice! I'm free of it, or I suffer from it, so what do I need to learn about it?" We might tell ourselves. "All women and men are created equal. Prejudice is terrible! I already know that!" But we should be very wary of the belief that there is nothing more to learn about the nature of prejudice. It's clear--as psychology
explains--that none of us can be perfectly free of social prejudices, those subtle stereotypical reactions to surnames or cultural backgrounds or skin tones or eye slant or nose width and breadth or sexual orientation that are jumbled in the haunted attic of our psyches, causing us to make prejudgments of people before any evidence is in. As Charles Lamb--a 19th century anti-Semitic English essayist admitted in Imperfect Sympathies: "For myself, earth-bound and fettered to the scene of my activities, I confess that I do feel the differences of mankind, national and individual.... I am, in plainer words, a bundle of prejudices--made up of likings and dislikings--veriest thrall to sympathies, apathies, antipathies...."
Indeed, one of the most common themes of literature through the ages has been that of prejudice from Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to Isaac Babel's Karl Yankel or Chekhov's Rothschild's Fiddle to James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son or Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Beloved. World literature is replete with examples to support this premise of the theme of prejudice and no culture holds a monopoly on it. The vague unspoken suspicions we live with concerning each other, causes us to visit "the sins of the fathers" upon each other. We are certainly aware of the human rights crimes committed upon Blacks by whites and gentiles on Jews, but are we aware that prejudice goes the other way too and destroys much human potential--especially now when all humanitarians of every culture and background need to unite to save Earth from imminent destruction?
Are you a Jew who is suspicious of all Germans; or a Black suspicious of all whites? Or a woman who feels superior to all men? Or a homosexual who feels superior to heterosexuals? Are you an Asian who feels Europeans, especially all Americans descended from them, are inferior? Are you a person of African descent who hates or envies mulattoes? These are subtler reactionary prejudices less explored or articulated by the media, yet each requires a dissertation in itself. Say that you never subtly suspect all Irishman of drinking too much; all Blacks of being better rhythmic dancers or having more savage libidos; all Latins of harboring intense animal sexuality and being "hot tempered"; all Jews of being industriously stingy and overly bookish; all Italians of being connected to syndicated crime; all Japanese of being suspiciously unctuous or high I.Q'd; blonds of being dumber or having more fun; and brunettes of being capable of more manipulative evil--and one can conclude you weren't born on this planet. We need to face the fact that we all have stereotypic reactions in subtle ways, more subtle than these examples, but they exist because the human mind must generalize in order to think and name things, and thusly things become symbols of themselves.
Count Alfred Korzibski pointed out, long ago, that "Cow 1 is not Cow 2" with his Structural Differential and science of General Semantics, but we cannot ever completely free ourselves of making subliminal generalizations about the "otherness" of the other. Language communication depends on generalizing concepts into denotative words. My friend is a Lithuanian German woman, and she is brunette, and I am a Slavic Jewish, Greek Italian with Ethiopian ancestry and blond, but without seeing us, most people would guess our hair color to be the opposite. Some whites have large noses and full lips and some Blacks have small noses and thin lips. Some Jews look like Germans or Spaniards or Arabs or Italians, and Koreans and Vietnamese do not want to be mistaken for Japanese or Chinese. There are subtle differences in every being, unique from every other being, and still, despite the many mixtures in all our roots, we generalize about our nationhood, or cultures, or see ourselves as separate from others of other skin tones. We even manage to get "Coloreds" and "Blacks" separated and divided from each other in hierarchies of privilege in South Africa, in order that those possessed of the laws and the land might rule those who are dispossessed of their birthright. Blacks complain, too, that they discriminate among themselves according to skin shades, and ethnic Jews complain that overassimilated "Waspy" Jews look down upon them. Italians in America have come to be suspiscious of each other, because of media sensationalizing of "Mafia connections," and are afraid to congregate to defend themselves against this cruel stereotyping. Aided by the media such stereotyping of ethnic groups as criminals is a means to divide and conquer them, as Indian scouts of one tribe were recruited by European settlers to help defeat other native tribes, and Black African slave traders of differing tribes sold their own people to European slave traders. A few assimilated Jews sold information about ethnic Jews to Nazi sympathizers in order to save their own skins during the Holocaust, just as Italian-American male novelists and screen writers have learned to profit from Mafia stereotyping in a culture which will buy nothing else from them about their own people. These are desperate acts of the disenfranchised that amount to self-destructive race riots which burn down the neighborhoods of the disenfranchised.
Stephen Jay Gould wrote of an interestingly subtle form of prejudice in The Mismeasure of Man: After extensive ghetto riots during the summer of 1967, (in the U.S.) three (white) doctors wrote a letter to the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association: 'It is important to realize,"the doctors said, "that only a small number of the millions of slum dwellers have taken part in the riots, and that only a subfraction of these rioters have indulged in arson, sniping and assault. Yet, if slum conditions alone determined and initiated riots, why are the vast majority of slum dwellers able to resist the temptations of unrestrained violence? Is there something peculiar about the violent slum dweller that differentiates him from his peaceful neighbor?" We all tend to generalize from our own areas of expertise. These doctors are psychosurgeons. But why should the violent behavior of some desperate and discouraged people point to a specific disorder of their brain while the corruption and violence of some congressmen and presidents provokes no similar theory? Human populations are highly variable for all behaviors; the simple fact that some do and some don't provides no evidence for specific pathology mapped upon the brain of the doers. Shall we concentrate upon an unfounded speculation for the violence of some--one that follows the determinist philosophy of blaming the victim--or shall we try to eliminate the oppression that builds ghettos and saps the spirit of their unemployed in the first place?
Such subtleties of determinist attitudes operate even in the most civilized and educated circles, proving that the need for disseminating the truth about race and racial attributes persists even among the educated, though those who have a wide understanding of world history and culture are generally found to harbor less prejudice toward people of other cultures. This recent wisdom is causing some U.S. cities to require urban police to be trained in liberal arts. Studies show that education can succeed in helping us develop sensitivity and empathy for those of other backgrounds and cultures. Courses in conflict resolution and intercultural communication as well as a new multicultural approach to education are now being instituted, worldwide, in response to such studies.
Also, the need to foster the truth about racial attitudes has obviously given rise to a heated debate over multicultural curricula in the schools, as ethnic strife renews itself everywhere and the disenfranchised rise up out of their pain and claim the pride of their cultural accomplishments and the history of their resistance to oppression. Yet how many white children the world over have actually read Black slave narratives and understood the depth and breadth of slaveholders' brutality as history? How many have experienced narratives by cruelly colonized indigenous people telling of their lot--and their respect for the land and its resources--as actual history?
The raging debate among Eurocentrists and Afrocentrists and educators who helped to pioneer multicultural studies in the area of education is a ridiculous example of particularist exclusionism. Multiculturalists are considered too extreme by those conservatives who are angry Eurocentrists or those avengers who are justifiably angry Afrocentrists. For an interesting revelation of culture and history, one might look at Martin Barnal's Black Athena, a controversial but factual view on the issues. In 1990, Barnal helped to revive much forgotten and censored Black history which such Black scholars as W.E.B.Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, Lerone Bennett, Maya Angelou had been resurrecting for years within the Black community. Barnal did this within the same year that Diane Ravitch, an educator who has taught at Columbia Teachers College and served as a government official in education, was attacked by Afrocentrist and Eurocentrist alike. Ravitch presents a moderate view for all sides, though the difficulty for such views is that they cannot correct heinous wrongs with enough passionate intensity to satisfy wounded avengers, even as they may cause less conflict in the present. And so, the heated argument between the Afrocentrists--with their justifiable anger--and "threatened" Eurocentrists continues. But, the debate does not change the truth of what W.E.B. Du Bois said, at the outbreak of World War I about the pillaging of Africa being an important element of the roots of European imperialism.
To understand the problems involved in the curriculum debate imagine--just for one example--a young person seated in a classroom, and imagine if that young person happens to be Jewish, and he or she is forced to read the following description, by Henry James, of a Jewish ghetto in lower Manhattan:
I recall the intensity of the material picture in the dense Yiddish quarter.... There is no swarming like that of Israel when once Israel has got a start, and the scene here bristled, at every step, with the signs and sounds, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that had burst all bounds. That it has burst all bounds in New York, almost any combination of figures or of objects taken at hazard sufficiently proclaims; but I remember how the rising waters, on this summer night, rose, to the imagination, even above the housetops and seemed to sound their murmur to the pale distant stars. it was as if we had been thus, in the crowded, hustled roadway, where multiplication, multiplication of everything, was the dominant note, at the bottom of some vast sallow aquarium in which innumerable fish, of over-developed proboscis, were to bump together, for ever, amid heaped spoils of the sea....The children swarmed above all--here was multiplication with a vengeance; and the number of very old persons, of either sex, was almost equally remarkable; the very old person being in equal vague occupation of the doorstep, pavement, curbstone, gutter, roadway, and every one, alike using the street for overflow.... There are small strange animals, known to natural history, snakes or worms, I believe, who, when cut into pieces, wriggle away contentedly and live in the snippet as completely as in the whole. So the denizens of the New York Ghetto, heaped as thick as the splinters on the table of a glass-blower.... The advanced age of so many figures, the ubiquity of the children, carried out in fact this analogy; they were all there for race, and not, as it were, for reason: that excess of lurid meaning, in some of the old men's and old women's faces in particular, would have been absurd, in the conditions, as a really directed attention--it could only be the gathered past of Israel mechanically pushing through.
The Italians, "Negroes," and other "Aliens" described by Henry James in his essays on New York views of the Hudson, do not fare any better, and this is merely one example of many examples of bigotry in the canons of world literature, one might quote from esteemed writers like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Celine, Heidegger, that "minority" students might be forced to study in schools across the world which teach them nothing of their own cultural contribution to humankind. Indeed, even as authors, Mark Twain and William James (Henry James's brother) were decrying the U.S. war policy of genocide against Filipinos, Henry James was writing his biased descriptions of Blacks, Italians and Jews of Manhattan, whom he called "Aliens." We continue to use the phrase "illegal alien" with its ethnocentric bias today to describe people who are forced to our shores by colonial imperialist war crimes on the part of our own governments. Culture is always a "mixed bag," of humane and inhumane artists. What good is a literary canon, as a symbol of "The Humanities," if it is full of bigotry and is not humanizing, but merely self-centered and decadent? Of course, censorship must be outlawed, but there are questions that need to be asked of people who construct curriculums. Isn't a Black, Jewish, Latino, Italian, Cherokee or Sioux child better off reading one of the considered classic literatures of his or her own people? To gain the strength and pride in self that will serve him or her well through life! One can't help but agree with Amiri Baraka, African American writer and educator, and numerous others who have opposed the teaching of bigoted or narrowly cultured writers in the classroom--in favor of substituting writers who bring self-respect to children of all backgrounds. Especially since self-hatred or lack of self-respect, as has been discussed, leads to prejudice.
Yet, at this dangerous juncture, as we near the year 2000, after more than eighty centuries of art and human creativity, philosophy, music, poetry, social and biological science--we humans, considered the paragon of animals in our ability to think, named homo sapiens, meaning wise or knowing animal, persist, brutishly, in hating and killing each other for the colors of our skin, the shapes of our features, our places of origin on our common terra firma, our styles of culture or language, and most ironic of all our "religious" beliefs--despite the fact that all the great religions of the Earth teach the same basic tenant of the golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Along with love and death, our literatures remain full of expressions of the experience of repression and oppression known as prejudice, the prejudgement of the worth of people and things based upon insufficient or erroneous evidence lacking in objectivity and factual data. Prejudice in all its manifestations: xenophobia, ethnocentrism, sexism, androcentrism, genocidal politics and militarism, environmental and social racism, cruel colonization and cultural destruction, crimes of cultural exclusionism and expansionism, imperialism, ethnic wars and hatred of each other, is still the major focus of our literatures, our historymaking events and our nightly news in the global village as the stars of our common galaxy, light years old, and our satellites, new since mid century, beam down into homes everywhere in the global village--teach us, daily, that we are all of one race, the only one we've found in the galaxy, the human race, and we are all threatened with climate catastrophe now. To save everything, we need everyone, now, because it is better to light one candle than rage against the darkness! The Anthropcene Age is now upon us and we must take control with the technologies we have and know can save us. We must big goodbye to the Age of Fossil Fuels and Oil Wars and bid welcome to the Age of Clearn Green Renewable Energy and Sustainability. Our blessed Mother Earth, our Gaia, is the only teardrop of love and laughter that we know of or can reach to live upon in vast dark space. We owe it to our children to salvage Her habitability now!