Published: Friday, April 19, 2013

Food for Thought

My Other, My Self

food01The covert racism evoked by the fatal combination of poverty and perceived racial inferiority sometimes manifests in the most unexpected places. And all too often, it comes full circle. In the further adventures of one of the world’s most popular women, Oprah Winfrey visited India some time ago in a programme titled “Oprah’s Next Chapter: India”. During a visit to a slum, Winfrey met a five-member family – two parents and their three children – who lived in small 10 x 10 feet room.

Although the children were all attending school (and there was an LCD TV in the room), she was insensitive enough to ask the children if they didn’t feel that the “tiny” room was “too cramped”. She could just as well have checked out some of the many ghettos and trailer parks in the US, if she wanted to see large families living in cramped conditions. Winfrey then followed up that cringe-worthy comment by asking their father an emotionally-loaded question about whether he was happy and satisfied, unsurprisingly eliciting a tearful response to the effect that the man wished that he could provide a more comfortable life for his family. After reducing him to tears, Winfrey lovingly placed the cherry on top of this particular sundae saying that she knows how awful it is for children to see their father cry. If she knows, then why make him cry?!

That was not the only instance during the programme when she revealed a different side to the personality that Oprah Winfrey is known – and admired around the world – for. The slum visit was followed by a high society extravaganza that included an encounter with the first family of Bollywood, the Bachchans, and a meal hosted by one of the richest families in Mumbai. Observing the feast laid out before her in silver thalis, Winfrey said, “So I hear some people in India still eat with their hands”. As Rajyasree Sen observed in her article, with some exasperation, it’s hardly unknown for people in the US to eat with their hands, particularly when they are scarfing down their pizza, hotdogs or tacos!

Perhaps the most peculiar thing about this whole story is the fact that Oprah’s own life story – which includes an impoverished childhood as the offspring of a single, teenage mother in the American South- should have ensured that she would recall just how much of a problem poverty is in her own country. But I suppose everyone needs someone to “other”. Anyway, under the circumstances, Oprah’s advice to the oldest daughter of the slum family, who had said that she would like to go to London to study further, was less than convincing. The superstar told the young girl, “No. Come to America, it’s a lovely country. It’s the best.”

I remain uncertain – to say the least – about the accuracy of her statement, not least with respect to wider attitudes to race. A snapshot of the inequalities that persist can be seen in the treatment handed out to the white perpetrator of the shootings in the Aurora cinema hall in 2012.Despite the fact that James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 70 more when he opened fire in a crowded movie theatre during the premiere of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises”, his lawyers entered a plea of “not guilty” against the 166 charges filed against him.

The decision was a surprise given the fact that his lawyers had repeatedly alluded to Holmes’ mental illness – leading to speculation that the defence team would most likely pursue an insanity strategy. The audacity of Holmes’ defence lawyers’ approach clearly signals their conviction that this was a defence that could be pulled off.

food02Holmes’ mother is a registered nurse, and his father a mathematician and scientist. He was himself a graduate student of neuroscience, before he dropped out. All of these factors – along with the fact that he could afford a defence team that pulled every possible delaying tactic out of the bag – meant that he was likely to be in a far better position than any African-American man who found himself held up on similar charges.

And of course if this had been a Muslim or Arab shooter, it’s highly unlikely that a mental health defence would even be considered viable option. “Not guilty” might just about be feasible if a black or Arab shooter’s defence lawyer (and in most cases, they would be likely to have just one lawyer!) was trying to argue that it was a case of mistaken identity – certainly not otherwise.

Interestingly enough, there was considerable speculation that Holmes had converted to Islam after spending some time in jail. Despite scrutiny by various media organisations, no conclusive evidence could be found of his supposedly conversion. But his bearded appearance in court, along with The Daily Mail’s breathless insistence that a source inside the prison had confirmed that he was following a “Muslim diet” and studying the Koran, lent further credence to the allegations. The reality is that despite this news almost certainly being untrue, the actual motive behind making such claims essentially lay in “other-ing” Holmes – in denying that a white, nominally Christian man could do such a thing (although any number of others before him have done just that). The fact that anyone could believe such an obviously sensational piece of news, says more about the willingness among a large segment of the American public to harbour such bigoted attitudes towards those whom they perceive as being different from themselves.

And it is worth noting that it’s not only psychotic killers who bring out the racial divisions and double standards in contemporary America. Take the case of Keith Bardwell, a local official in Louisiana, who refused to marry an interracial couple despite the fact that his actions clearly broke the law. According to Bardwell, he routinely inquired about whether a couple who were proposing to marry belonged to different races; and if so, he had always refused to perform the ceremony because he was “worried about their children’s futures”. One of his concerns for the children may also have been based on the idea that mixed race marriages have a greater chance of failing. But why any of this was any of his business remains a mystery.

Louisiana Democrat, Senator Mary Landrieu said, “Not only does his decision directly contradict Supreme Court rulings, it is an example of the ugly bigotry that divided our country for too long.” Notwithstanding the fact that Bardwell’s behaviour was illegal and unconstitutional – and that worrying about the unborn children of interracial couples is probably an activity best left to the parents of those children – the best rejoinder on this subject, in my opinion, came from Bill Quigley, director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Justice, who said of Bardwell, “Perhaps he’s worried the kids will grow up and be president”!

Sources for this article include Associated Press, BBC, Firstpost India and various other Internet sources.