Monday, 15 April 2013

Fighting racism through literary texts

 One of the most valuable contributions of Afroeuropean literatures is the commitment of many authors to undermine stereotypes and prejudices, which weigh not only on relations between Europe and Africa but also on interpersonal relationships between individuals and on the daily lives of European citizens perceived as foreigners according to racial criteria presented in the form of cultural essentialism. This is an antiracist commitment voted not only to counter the blatant and violent racism of right-wing extremism, but also to implement a process of deconstruction of the structural racism of European and Western imaginary, as it emerges in language, thought, representations and in the dynamics of interaction, a hidden racism as it is revealed also in the so-called 'positive' stereotypes on Africanness. This commitment operates at two levels: on the one hand through an analysis and an explicit reflection on this phenomena, and on the other hand, implicitly, by means of alternative representations that ‘disturb’ the expectations of readers (especially those who perceive themselves as non racist) and thus come to undermine certain prejudices.
An example of the first modality, that of explicit reflection, can be found in Fatou Diome’s La Préférence Nationale, a collection of stories whose protagonist is an educated Senegalese young woman working as housemaid in Strasbourg. In the first place the text reflects on how Black people in Europe are easily deprived of their individuality and seen as a prototype of the African as it exists in the collective white imaginary inherited by centuries of racist conceptions: “The face is an airport, an entry, and its décor never reveals the labyrinth it hides. The face, receptacle of genes and cultures, a racial and ethnic identity card. So that is why they looked at me so much: the whole of Africa, with its real or imaginary attributes, had engulfed me, and my face was not mine but its window on Europe.” The human face as an airport, therefore anonymous in principle, not revealing what is inside, the net of interconnections. The African face as deprived of that mysterious identity, a face denied that complexity of interconnections. The face not of an individual but of a continent, and not a continent in all its richness but a continent in all its poverty, reduced to that homogeneous image which hardly ever corresponds to anything realistically African. In the second place, Diome constantly reminds the (white) reader that it is all too easy to dismiss racism as something belonging to the past, as most white people’s perception is, in fact, distorted: “When one has the nose of Cleopatra and the skin of Anne of Austria, one does not feel the racism of France with the skin of Mamadou”. As a servant in private households, the protagonist of the stories, considered by her employers an ignorant savage, unmasks the worst sides of human nature, which are often not visible in more public spheres, and can thus conclude: “I assert that all Freud’s study on the human being is approximate because he addressed people convinced of his intelligence; yet people in the social sphere do not reveal themselves than when they consider you totally unable to think and make judgements. If Freud, armed with his knowledge, had adopted the apron in society, he would have learned more and better about human nature.
An example of the second modality, alternative representations that ‘disturb’ the reader’s preconceptions, can be found in a beautiful short story by Chica Unigwe, “On the train from Leuven”. Two women sit on a Belgian train, face to face. One is the narrator, a young woman from Enugu (Nigeria), the other a white Flemish woman. The white woman is eager to socialise and starts asking questions, although hers are assumptions rather than questions (and rather arrogant ones). She has been to Africa once, she says, and she has learned some Swahili. She assumes her fellow traveller, being African, must speak Swahili. Informed of the contrary, she still doesn’t give up and insists in showing up her knowledge (which is in fact limited to the one sentence - Naomba unipe pesa - for ‘friend give me money’), and cannot hide her disappointment (even anger) at not getting the expected response: “But you are African, she accuses… Surely your language is similar to Swahili. Her voice rises a bit.” She assumes that what she has seen, as a tourist, is representative for the whole of Africa, and, consequently, assumes her fellow traveller is surely better off in Belgium: “You like it here because this place is rich, ja? Houses are bigger, ja? not huts, like I saw in Africa.” She assumes all Africans are poor and carefree, she assumes she knows all about the person in front of her: “… you, she continues, looking at me as if I were some trophy she has picked up, you look like you do not have a care in the world. Just like the people she saw in Africa, she says. The women were always singing, the children always playing even though they were all barefoot and wore torn shirts and some had no clothes on at all. Africa, she says again, no stress. Then, she adds in a giggle, no dress, no stress.” The story proceeds alternating the white woman’s stupid (but unfortunately quite widespread) assumptions about Africa and the stream of thought of the narrator with her memories of back home, which are surely very far from matching the image the white woman has in her head, as well as with her reflections on her present life and with inner responses she does not bother to externalise, such as: “I do not tell her that Africa is a continent, like Europe is” or “I do not tell her that I have never seen a hut in my entire life”. The tale is all the more bitter since the white woman’s preconceived image of happy carefree Africans sharply contrasts with the deep sadness engulfing the narrator, who, as we learn in the end, is coming back from a medical appointment, having been just then announced that she has cancer. In this story, therefore, Unigwe skilfully dismantles the prejudices of people who do not generally conceive of themselves as racist. As I have had the occasion of experiencing, by using this story in several university courses, this strategy actually works. As sympathetic white readers are confronted with a caricatural representation of their own assumptions, they are forced to reflect upon the absurdity of stereotypes (even so-called positive ones) and upon the arrogance of Eurocentric attitudes in the interaction with Black people.

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