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     Volume 2 Issue 38| September 26, 2010|


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Last & Least

Culture whitewashed

Dr Binoy Barman

“Take up the White Man's burden
Send forth the best ye breed
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need.”
--Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man's Burden”
“Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect
and remove from our land but from our minds as well.” -- Frantz Fanon

The common meaning of the compound verb 'whitewash' is 'to paint walls white with lime mixed in water'. The whitewashed building gives a fresh and new look as all taints are hidden under white hue for a period. The word as verb also means to defeat a player or team completely, especially giving little chance to score points. So we may find in cricket England being whitewashed by Bangladesh, or in tennis Maria Sharapova being whitewashed by Sania Mirza. Here the meaning is metaphorical. If we extend the metaphor a bit more, we may talk of political or social system being whitewashed. When 'culture' is collocated with 'whitewash' the meaning takes a new dimension. It indicates the interaction of two cultures whereby the dominant one exerts its ominous influence on the meek and weak one.

There is another shade of meaning hidden in 'whitewash'. The humorous mind ought to discover it. 'White' is a racial colour. The Europeans, the white people, conquered and ruled the world from the sixteenth through the twentieth century. The way they ruled and the impact they left can never be dismissed from the minds of the ruled. The white powers have shattered the governance of the colonies, weakening their economy. They have also changed the social and cultural patterns of geography, to the propensity of defilement. The indigenous lives and livelihood have been badly affected by the unwelcome wave. In Chinua Achebe's term, everything fell apart, since no order existed. The older generations died with shock but the later generations somehow accommodated themselves to the new systems brought about by the rulers. That is the new meaning of 'whitewash'. The world we inhabit now is literally whitewashed in this sense.

A culture is whitewashed often through imperialism and colonialism, very obviously. When a land is occupied and ruled by another nation for a long time, its culture tends to be changed, losing self-esteem and forming undue respect for the rulers. From the native perspective, the culture gets corrupt, drifting away from its indigenous traits. The corruption occurs in a slow poisoning process. It ensues from a 'megalomaniac effect'. The culture of the rulers poses to be superior to the culture of the ruled. By virtue of power, primarily political and military, the ruler norms always get an upper hand in the land ruled by them. The natives attempt to wear, eat, walk, talk and even dream like the rulers. Some even give up their forefathers' faith and are converted to the rulers' religion. This creates a scope for the quitters to integrate with the outsiders marking a distance from their own root.

Of course, economy plays an important role in cultural whitewash. The rulers are revered because they are rich. They are respected because they look more polished. They are praised because they earn better and spend greater. They can buy what many of the natives can barely imagine. The possession of property and money makes the rulers adorable in the eyes of the ruled. The ruled desire their pity for a job and a decent living. The gloss in the economic demeanour of the rulers elevates them to the status of 'deity' in the ruled domain. The rulers take the role of alms-giver and the ruled the alms-recipient. The rulers take the chance to treat the ruled virtually as slaves, who lack the backbone in their torso to protest. The superior remains superior and the subordinate remains subordinate. Gayatri Spivak's 'subaltern' can never gather power to occupy the centre stage. They wallow in the mire of racist hatred coming as a colonial legacy. The embarrassment of racism is ironically expressed in Wole Soyinka's 'Telephone Conversation' in which a black African talks to a white lady for renting a house:

“THAT'S DARK, ISN'T IT?” “Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blonde. Friction, caused
Foolishly, madamby sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven blackOne moment madam!”

The scar of cultural whitewash is prominently found in the psychology of the ruled population, whose thinking process is totally changed, as an impact of prolonged foreign dominance. The ruled suffer from an inferiority complex, prompting them to follow the superior gestures. Gradually they master the behavioural norms of the rulers, not as much to win the favour of their 'lord' as to overcome their own inferiority. They start to hate their old relatives and love the new ones. Through this attitudinal change, the distempering of culture, a post-whitewash phase is completed. The whitewashed mind is brainwashed. He has no opinion of his own, but looks to the ruler's face for a verdict in all affairs. If the ruler says 'yes' then the brainwashed will echo 'yes'; and if the ruler says 'no' then the brainwashed will echo 'no'. He is too much dependent on the nod of the ruler -- a sycophantic dependency, indeed.

Postcolonial critics have long been drawing our attention to the fact that the colonised culture needs to be purified with some radical remedial measures. Decolonisation would be brought about through social as well psychological reversals, bleaching the colonial stigmas. The colonial culture is toppled with a new order of indigenous norms. New laws are enacted and new literature is written with the purpose. But it often takes a long time to neutralise the effects of whitewash. The longer the colonial history, is the more difficult the neutralisation. Sometimes it may be impossible to neutralise at all if the effects are too deep. In that case, foreign elements are naturalised, resulting in a kind of 'hybridisation', as observed by Homi Bhabha. In a situation of naturalisation/hybridisation, hostility is not strongly felt, as there is no agent left to carry the sentiment. All by then have been subdued. The oriental 'other' of Edward Said becomes too crippled to face the occidental grimace. Frantz Fanon's polemic cannot whiten the black skin and pull down the white mask. His decolonisation campaign only raises an outcry as he himself acknowledges: “The white man is sealed in his whiteness; the black man in his blackness.”

Bangladesh was ruled by England for about two hundred years and Pakistan about two and a half decades. It is certain that the culture here has undergone a severe whitewash, by the two colonial forces, a little more by the former. We may look for its symptoms. Whenever a Bangladeshi comes across a white person in any place, his/her mind is filled with some sort of 'foreign reverence', although it does not usually occur the other way round. What is the reason? The reason is whitewash. We go for English music, English movie, English fashion, because they are 'white'. The colour has eaten into our mind, making us derailed. We feel gratified talking, eating and wearing 'the white way'. In our subconscious has been set up a lord's chair for the white. We can no more scratch the real colour under it. It is lost forever. The consequence is that in every respect we now need the dictation of the West. We feel uncomfortable without their back patting.

The whitewash has created a deep crisis particularly in our education. We have no educational system of our own. Whatever we had in past was swept away by the white tide. We have now the educational institutions built in Western patterns. Our students read the books coming from the West. We are enlightened by the borrowed knowledge. The person who has not got Western education is not considered a gentleman. The person who has been able to fetch a degree from any university of America or Europe is the king, no matter how little he may really know. They eat the cream of globalise corporate job market. The certificate in his hand is what matters most. The foreign degree is overvalued while the local degree is undervalued. This is a blatant consequential manifestation of whitewash. Everybody wants a white certificate so we find mad rush for outgoing. People are ready to spend a sizable amount of money for this. They do not even hesitate to surrender their morals. It is sheer madness, which is only to continue through centuries ahead, unfortunately, without any remedy.

The whitewashed culture is deprived of sound growth. It is dwarfed by the colonial storms. It loiters under the military boot helplessly. It forgets to dream to stand upright and touch the sky. It only enjoys a Bonsai existence. It remains sick in form and function. Regrettably, there is no effective way of recuperation. So it is doomed to suffer as that of ours does.

(The writer is Assistant Professor and Head, Department of English, Daffodil International University.)

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