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POST-RACIALISM AND IMAGES OF SAVAGES

 

By Nicolette Bethel

 

Tuesday, November 11, 2008.

 

Don’t tell me — the horse is almost dead, and there’s no sense in flogging it much more. I know. The thing is, while you may think that I’ve made my point about race and related subjects (several times over), there’s still one more contribution I’d like to make.

 

I’d like to catalogue the images that were associated with — and that associated us with — savages and savagery. The reason? They haven’t gone away at all. We use them today. And we use them on ourselves.

 

A lot of the time, it’s not a white-black thing at all. Most of the time, we’re so comfortable with the images of savages we’ve inherited from our slave-ridden, anti-Enlightenment past that we take them for granted and think of them as fact.

 

By naming them, maybe we can begin to erase them once and for all.

 

So here goes. A savage was considered to be a lower form of human being, a creature that stood between “man” and “beast”, a sort of link between the rational and the instinctive, bestial world. This concept remained constant over the roughly four hundred years that non-Europeans were being coerced into being Europeans’ servants and subordinates, although its origins were considered to be different.

 

At first, the difference between Europeans and others was believed to be religious in nature. In the beginning, the debates were held over the existence of the savage soul. Early imperialists justified their actions in one of two main ways, and both were hotly contested at home.

 

On the one hand, the people of the New World were soulless beings, existing halfway between animal and man (rather like angels existed halfway between man and God).

 

According to this reasoning, their eradication was a holy cleansing, and many native Americans were murdered in this vein. On the other hand, though, the people of the New World were believed to have souls, but inferior and sin-ridden ones. According to this reasoning, the imperialists’ job was to save them, to convert them and baptize them and turn them into Christians.

 

Later, though, the differences were considered to have a scientific basis. Debates were held over the place of these people in the evolutionary ladder. Although the discussion had changed, the place of the so-called “savage” had not moved at all; non-Europeans occupied different rungs in the so-called “ascent” of man. Careful attention was paid to slotting the right group of people into the correct place in this staircase of progress.

 

Europeans, quite clearly assumed to be the most advanced of all “races”, were at the top, and looked down upon everybody else. But who was closest to them? Were the Chinese, with their ancient wisdom and their revolutionary inventions, like paper and gunpowder and noodles, the next most advanced people, or were the East Indians, with their ancient religions? What about the “Red” Indians? The Africans? The Australian Aborigines and the Pacific Islanders?

 

Generally, the criteria used to assign people to their place on this staircase of progress were simplistic, almost childish. Oddly enough, in many cases the amount of clothing a group of people wore entitled them to be classified as more or less advanced.

 

Civilization was measured by the covering of skin, while savagery was associated with nakedness (the one exception to this, of course, were those groups of people classified as “Eskimo”, who couldn’t help but cover themselves from head to toe).

 

In many other cases, the kinds of dwellings that people built were also considered to be markers of civilization — whether a society had something that could be called “architecture” was used to separate man from savage. Other things, like types of technology, land use patterns, modes of subsistence, and religious systems were used to classify groups of humans into degrees of civlilization; and even today, we use these very criteria to think about “progress” and “backwardness”.

 

Farms that grow one or two crops and sell them to other people are considered to be more “modern” than farms that grow everything that individuals need and sell a little bit to get cash; these are thought to be “backward”. The use of fertilizers and pesticides and tractors are markers of “progress”, while more ancient (and sustainable) technologies — like mixed-use farming, shifting cultivation (otherwise known as slash-and-burn agriculture) and natural weed and pest control are considered to be reactionary and anti-modern.

 

Even more insidious — and even more widespread — was the almost unspoken association of the intellect with whiteness and the body with negritude. And this is something that still flourishes today.

 

I could talk about Black American culture, but I don’t need to; it’s alive and well in the Caribbean as I write. In contemporary Bahamian society, using one’s brain is considered “soft” or “white”; using one’s body — whether it be for sports, or for fighting, for sex, or for working on construction sites — is black and manly.

 

To carry the association further, and to state what many of us believe in our hearts to be true: white people make better scientists and inventors and writers and academics, but black people make the best athletes and dancers and lovers. White people might be rich, but black people can fight. White people are cold and calculating; but black people can feel.

 

On the other hand, white people are compassionate and “soft”, and want to give everybody rights they don’t deserve; black people are tough and know that punishment is far more effective than understanding. White people are smart, rich, and weak; black people are stupid, poor, and strong.

 

I could go on, but I’m running out of space.  My point? That these are all images that were invented to justify the domination of groups of people, and not truths that we must live by.

 

People are people, and fundamentally people are all the same.  The differences are superficial; underneath, we are more alike than we think. We don’t need to remain bound by the images of savages that have been imposed upon us. It’s time we invented some civilized images of our own.

 

Nicolette Bethel is a Bahamian writer, blogger and academic. She holds a PhD and MPhil in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and a BA in English Literature from the University of Toronto.

 

She left academia to assume the position of Director of Cultural Affairs for the Bahamas Government, but continues to teach part-time. She also writes a weekly column for the Nassau Guardian

 

You will find articles by her here.

 

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