The poem, “Rime of the ancient mariner” by Samuel Taylor Colderidge tells of a mariner who, on a ship bound on sail killed an albatross, the “bird of good omen”. Bad luck befalls the shipmates, they run out of water, and they “blame the luck on the mariner, about his neck, the dead bird is hung”*.
White people have a dead bird hanging around our necks, that of the legacy of colonialism, which has resulted in a racist socialisation that not only manifests itself in being anti-”PC” but also, and even in anti-racist initiatives.
This reflection has been prompted by the “Exhibit B” performance that took place as part of the Dialogue festival in Wrocław. I’ll describe it as I experienced it.
Once we had showed our tickets we sat in a cafe (in the Browar Mieszkański), where people were allowed 25 at a time to enter the performance area. I was in the last group, which went into a small room, sat down and two women spoke formally to us about us not being able to take photos or talk in the exhibition. We were given numbers and my number was called first, so I was the first to go in.
The first part was an exhibition with skulls of antelopes and other animals, as well as costumes. There was a board saying what was in the part, which included “pygmy (male), pygmy (female)”. Indeed, there were two people standing still. I didn’t know what the hell to do. Should I say hello? Should I look at them? Feeling unsure, I went to the next part, which again had a living person, this time with a board about “asylum seeker” with height measurements, weight, religion and other personal details written on it. The “asylum seeker” stood still, looking at me. Again, I felt uncomfortable and moved quickly on.
Now, after giving our tickets we were given pieces of paper which gave a bit of info about colonialism in Africa and the “human zoos”, whereby Black people from Africa were showed as exponates in order to show white Europeans how exotic, undeveloped and backward they were. This knowledge in my mind, I decided to only briefly look in the eyes of those in the exhibition, not wanting to stare and be rude.
The exhibition went on and got more grisly, with parts related to slaves who had been killed in brutal ways, or heads from Herero people who had died during the genocide between 1904 and 1907 who had been cut off and sent to German scientists in order to “biologically prove” their backward nature. I continued to feel uncomfortable, even though this is a theme I know more about, the death of people trying to enter/trying not to leave the EEC/EU. The thing was, the people looking at me were not looking neutrally, rather, with emotion in their eyes.
In the last room were posters showing those who were playing in the performance. One spoke of the sense of “guilt” Europeans feel.
Here’s the thing, in my work I do anti-racist workshops, I’ve been involved in initiatives against prejudice (with racism forefront in mind) and I’ve openly spoken about the need for people from GB to deal effectively with their colonial past. Why would I feel uncomfortable? Is it guilt?
Unconscious racism among the “good people”
Well…I remember saying racist things as a child in the 1980s. I remember saying nothing when I saw racist things happen. There’s more to it than that though. I mean, I was quite young then, not reflected. Nah, there’s more to it than that. I remember how, when meeting people from the Solomon Islands in about the year 2000 I was all nice, buying them posters and generally speaking slower and louder to them, all from the motivation of being “nice”.
Once while attending a training about combatting anti-semitism, we were taught about one form of German anti-semitism whereby non-Jewish Germans may not feel comfortable when meeting Jewish people (from any country); this will be demonstrated through a feeling of being ill at ease, passive hostility or even being patronisingly nice, no matter what generation they belong to.
My theoretical knowledge about a non-Jewish German defensiveness about Jewish people became more real in this exhibition. Those who were looking at me were representing victims, and I as a member of a white society am representative of the perpetrators, in that I (a) was born into the western civilisation that did racist crimes and (b) as a result of my socialisation have acted “oddly” around Black people, even in my attempts to combat racism. I am not saying that I felt guilty because I thought that I made those things possible, rather, a sense of shame that I am part of the thought system that makes modern day racism possible.
Unconscious guilt among those who are “anti-PC”
Notice how so far I’m talking about myself. As the designer of the performance Brett Baily said, the main actors and actresses are the visitors. Indeed, on the list of the exponates was also written “visitor(s)”. Like how people from Africa have become a huge area of projection, this exhibition was about myself, about how uncomfortable I felt with feeling like a perpetrator. It is this uncomfortable feeling that I know with modern German anti-semitism that can lead to feelings of resentment or a desire to switch round the victim/perpetrator relationship; this is similar the many comments in online social mediums about those refugees who died in the shipwrecks at Lampusa were “to blame”, or that those to blame where those who were transporting them, instead of looking at an inhuman EU policy regarding refugees.
The German feminist Birgit Rommelspacher wrote in her excellent book Dominanzkultur that white people, when they meet Black people do not react neutrally, they’ll feel like they’re walking on eggshells, they have to watch what they say in case they get called racist, they are aware of the crimes done to Black people and therefore feel unconsciously guilty; they also know that racism still exists. Like with non-Jewish Germans when they meet Jewish people, this can take the form of hostility. A need to defend oneself from being “guilty” among young Germans is something I’ve heard many times when, it must be noted, no-one mentioned the need for those present to be feel “guilty”. It may sound far-fetched, but why would some white people take so much effort to defend themselves, I mean, if they’ve done nothing, they have no need to defend themselves. They could simply laugh accusations off.
The issue is not whether someone is guilty or not or consciously feels this sense of shame, it’s about that people have not dealt with difficult areas of the biographies of their families or nations and therefore the mere presence of representatives of the victim group can call into question their (or their familes’) sense of being “good”.
White people using Black people in advertising
In the aforementioned “Deutschland schwarz weiss” book Noah Sow gives excellent examples of how even attempts to seeingly make people “pro-African” can be racist.
Ah, right, so white children are educated but black ones aren’t, so Africa is one homogeneous place, so black means dirtiness (note the black coming off on the T-shirt).
It is here where, despite the fact that Poland didn’t have colonies (though the human zoos did get shown in Prussian-occupied Poland in Warsaw and possibly Poznań), Polish people cannot be left off the hook. Even if this is just a clumsy form of racism, the fact is that people in Poland have been influenced by the standard form of European racism. I mean, look at this advert, where Mike Tyson sings about not being able to control himself, is rough and wild, because “that’s how Black works”.
I am not writing about beatings ones breast, simply I am saying that it is possible to acknowledge the way in which we were socialised into racist thoughts without having to get all hung up about being “bad” people. Let’s chill. Our parents and teachers and others who influenced us were not necessarily arseholes.
* Yes, I am quoting the Iron Maiden song. I hadn’t heard of the poem before I had heard the song.