Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Thumb in the Mirror

In Indonesia we stick out like a sore thumb, or more accurately, like a white thumb. Everywhere we go people stop what they are doing and watch us go, as if the circus has come to town. Children run up to us yelling, “Hey mister! Hey mister! What your name?” It feels strange to be a novelty when you’re used to being the norm.

However, our skin colour is not simply a novelty. In many economically developing countries ‘whiteness’ is a goal they are striving for. From pop music, to chic shopping malls, to skin whitening lotion and medical procedures. There is this sense that the ‘white man’ has it made. It is a racist ideology, one that ignores the faults and weaknesses of a society. And as a result of this striving we are losing something very important: the distinction of cultures. In response to the question, “why should we care about losing the culture of some remote tribe in the middle of the Amazon, or the Congo basin or the depths of Borneo?”, Wade Davis uses the analogy of a plane losing its rivets. In the long run it may not matter if we lose a rivet here or there, but eventually the entire plane will fall apart. And I would add that even if it doesn’t fall completely apart, who wants to fly in plane that is missing rivets?

This ‘superiority’ that is attributed to white skin seems to have stemmed from the days of colonialism; the race to grab all remaining land yet unclaimed by Europe and cultivate its land, ‘civilize’ its indigenous people, and ingrain European cultural values into their society. Cultural values that place the white man/woman at the top of the ladder. Although we’ve come a long way towards establishing equality and human rights since then, this mindset is still prevalent. I can see it in the men who give up the best seats at the outdoor market as soon as we arrive, the people who attempt to snap pictures of us with their cell phones as we pass, as if we’ve achieved some kind of celebrity status without doing anything at all. It’s in the minds of some of the women who act as if they are inferior to us by not looking us in the eye and the children who try to touch our arms just to get in contact with white skin. I’m tired of being stereotyped as superior.

In some ways it makes sense. Humanity will always judge itself in comparison to others. And when it comes down to it, western countries have achieved levels of health care, education and technological innovation, the combination of which is unmatched in most other areas of the world. But it has come at a cost. Our loss of community and interdependence with others and our inability to be content with what we have are side effects of our progress.

In a series of lectures by Ryszard Kapuscinski the idea of humanity as a mirror is presented. We will always compare ourselves to ‘Others’, and our curiosity about other places, people and cultures comes from an understanding that “to know ourselves we have to know Others, who act as the mirror in which we see ourselves understand ourselves better we have to understand Others, to compare ourselves with them, to measure ourselves against them.” This is where I find myself right now, using these people and this culture as a mirror and measuring myself against them. I’m holding my white thumb up to the mirror and, in contrast to the colonial mindset, I’m finding that in so many ways I don’t measure up.

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