13 May 2023

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Jan-Erik Olson is the man associated with what is called the Stockholm Syndrome. He took four hostages during a bank robbery in 1973 and eventually the victims not only developed a bond with their captor but even defended him in court. This matter of a victim of abuse developing psychological connection with the abuser is labeled a ‘contested illness,’ because validity is hard to obtain, the sample sizes just being too small.  

Extrapolations are possible of course. And indeed sample size is not a problem in all cases. For example, it is pretty evident that peoples colonised or in other ways subjugated do develop a certain fascination for the oppressor. They even end up as defenders of the oppressor or apologists for oppression.  

This is erroneously called the ‘Uncle Tom Syndrome,’ thanks largely to the misrepresentation of the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ in the earlier movie versions; Stowe’s heroic Uncle Tom, loyal to slaves in hiding and eventually beaten to death, was distorted into a man who would sell out his race to curry favour with white people.

The term has stayed, though. The condition too. In all conditions of subjugation. Especially in colonial and post-colonial context. Kalu Suddas there were and are, suffice to say.

There’s a flip side and it’s Frantz Omar Fanon, the Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist and political philosopher hailing from Martinique who is best known among those who identified and studied the condition. Fanon’s in ‘Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (Black Skin, White Masks)’ and ‘Les Damnés de la Terre (Wretched of the Earth)’ published in 1952 and 1963 respectively, speaks of the condition of victims being taught to and learning to hate themselves.

Fanon contends that colonialism distorts people’s self-perception. Bombarded relentlessly by negative references and description, they begin to believe the oppressor’s version of their reality. They who are hated, detested and despised eventually begin to hate, detest and despise themselves. Shame and self-hatred are not easy to live with. So, Fanon argues, ‘black people try to become “more white”.’ Wealth alone won’t do it. Remember Michael Jackson? And this engenders further shame and consequently demands further vilification of self and greater love for the oppressor in the endless struggle for acceptance and, hopefully, emancipation.

We see this even today. People bend over backwards to ridicule and vilify anything and everything even remotely associated with who they are or who their ancestors were simple because the oppressor(s) vilified and ridiculed them for centuries and they just cannot take it. It is so much easier to agree in the belief that agreement would open doors or qualify them for membership in the exclusive club(s) of the oppressor(s). Doesn’t happen, but imagination is a powerful thing; mimic the person who vilifies and you can fool yourself into believe that you are no longer victim.

Loving the oppressor is part of the story of course. Love, they may believe subconsciously, also grants membership, enables migration to a different and privileged social class. Doesn’t happen really. There’s the Royal Family and there are subjects. There’s the elite and those vilified by the elite.  

සුද්දෝ වෙත්
කල්ලෝ වෙත්
සුද්දත්වය ලබා ඇත් බැව් සිතන
ඔවුහු කළු සුද්දෝම වෙත්

සුද්දත්වය නොලත්
එනමුත් ලැබෙතැයි සිතන
කල්ලෝද වෙත්
සුද්දත්වය සඳහා
කල්ලන්ටම කල්ලත්වයටම ගරහන
සුද්දත්වය නොව කළු සුද්දත්වයවත් නොලබන
සුදු සිහින දකින කළු ජීවත වලට ඇහැරෙන
ඔවුහු මිහිපිට අපා දුක් විඳින්නෝ වෙත්.

There are those who are white
and then there are blacks
who believe they are white —
kalu-suddas they are
through and through

There are also blacks
convinced that they can be white
and to obtain whiteness
deride blacks and blackness

Denied whiteness
denied even kalu-suddatvaya
untold is the suffering
of those who dream white

and to black lives wake up 

Wretched of the earth. Black skin, white masks. Two excellent examples of titles telling the story. That’s our story. Don’t believe me. Go watch some of the English satirical plays performed at the Lionel Wendt from time to time.

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart