You must see racism to see past racism

AP Lit just read "Heart of Darkness" and, in that spirit, welcome to the dark side.

Mary Mangual, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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Where I grew up, in a Catholic community in Southern Ohio, it was easy to be the most progressive neo-hippie in the parish. All I had to do was say that I thought of all people as equal, even if they were of another race, religion, or socio-economic group. Until I moved to Georgia I hardly knew anyone who wasn’t white, Catholic, and middle class, so when my peers and their parents accused those people of being lazy, morally degenerate, or heathen I was objective enough to see the gross generalization. When I moved to the South I was relieved to find, all conditions being statistically realistic, I was not a racist. Just as I had suspected, not everyone without a loud crucifix around their neck was a bitter, mean anti-Catholic. When I joined Academic Team, I was introduced to a whole world of literature. As I read about different cultures new ideas became more beautiful than unsettling. I no longer accepted that I would never be able to see through any other perspective than my own and I read to reassess the way I thought.

Over the summer I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with a class at GHP led by a gruff football coach. While I enjoyed the conversation and the showing of Apocalypse Now, I left the session without the specific insight I derive from the books that immediately become my favorites. When we started studying the book in Mrs. Withers’s class earlier this semester I was still trying desperately to finish my essay on the last book we’d read, Laura Esquirel’s Like Water for Chocolate. The paper compared her view on Latin American culture to that presented in Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. As the unit opened, the lingering books provided an interesting contrast. As I colonized Africa by day, I felt the consequences of Spanish imperialism by night. For a few days in class we went through PowerPoints meant to challenge the vision of The Middle East, Asia, and Africa that had been ingrained by Disney animators and high-end fashion advertisements. As I mentally went through the images that came to mind with the word “Africa,” I remembered a commercial I had seen for a documentary about babies around the world in which half-naked African women breastfed in a parched village. The film was rated PG for cultural nudity.

That night when I went back to the very long essay from the last unit, I spent my staring in front of the screen time trying to word my thoughts on One Hundred Years of Solitude. As a Catholic-school kid, subject matter was never lost on me. Writing about the more adult aspects of the book made me feel edgy, even though, unlike my elementary school English teachers, Mrs. Withers was not going to send me to talk to a priest. The still very immature side of me had a running ranking of the most scandalous books I had ever read. One Hundred Years of Solitude was definitely up there what with the rape and incest and the middle age man marrying an eight year old, but it didn’t have the confession-worthiness of what I considered the most adult book I’d ever read, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don’t read books just to shock, in fact, I read more “boring” classics that I do no-boundary teen and adult novels because I’d rather the author spend time developing characters than writing strangely psychedelic make-out scenes. The more I analyzed One Hundred Years of Solitude, in light of the Orientalism talk, I began to wonder what it was about the subject matter in One Hundred Years of Solitude that made it seem muted in comparison to the affairs in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I couldn’t get past the impression that it was just more okay for non-European cultures to go taboo. The things that happened in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo took place in a setting that was not that different from the world I lived in. The characters lived in modern cities with technology. They went to school and learned things similar to what I had. Yet One Hundred Years of Solitude took place in a South American town a very long ago. I pictured everything under a fairytale haze. It was reading the part of Cinderella when the stepsisters carve their feet versus watching the scene in Forest Gump when Lt. Dan loses his leg. One was more real than the other.

This time when I read Heart of Darkness I realized that Conrad’s technique, the way he plays with the surroundings, never shows where the evil ends. Everything is ambiguous. The cannibals are better than the imperialists. The river descending into madness is just as much inside the protagonists’ minds as it is the world around them. Even light hides evil. There is nowhere one can hide, wherever one runs it will be, waiting. I’ve always wanted to think racism is so absurd that it can’t be part of human nature as it is a bad habit people use to gain affirmation. But my feeling that Europeans should be held to a higher standard than “Orientals” came down to an unsettling assumption: “They don’t know better.” I don’t mean about superficial things like table etiquette or whatever, I hate to use rape as an example, but rape is destructive in any society, women in other cultures don’t feel less than women in ours do. They don’t have less dignity or less importance. It’s especially important to consider how these presentations are before a western society. The suggestion, in the case of this “cultural nudity” idea, is that when a western little boy gets a full frontal view of an African woman it’s not sexual like it would be if she were white. Rather he is being educated in the way others live. She’s so different that he would never consider her as a sex object. Like an animal at the zoo. Some differences in values can’t be overlooked, but the assumption of a western film organization that westerners make a distinction between taboos committed by people they can relate to and people they can’t, says that we have developed an inability to give the word “human” a universal weight. We have been conditioned to have less empathy for people we consider different and it’s so deeply rooted that we have made it a practical exception. The heart of darkness must be continually warded away. By ignoring it, we gain it.


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1 Comment

One Response to “You must see racism to see past racism”

  1. khail sims on March 31st, 2016 8:39 am

    you’re woke girl


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