The Atlanta Black Star published and article entitled Not All Peaceful: 13 Racist Quotes Gandhi Said About Black People. Now, I’m not very familiar with this publication, but I’m giving it a serious side eye right now. Why? Well because I’m not exactly sure what their endgame is here. Surely when it was posted on Facebook, the responses were along the lines of shock and dismissal. The “article” itself was just a slideshow of quotes accompanied by pictures. But to me (and I could be wrong), it seems that they were trying to portray Ghandhi as a huge hypocrite.
The problem is though, is that neither history or people are that simple. The nature of history is that we examine past events through our modern understanding. This is not a bad thing. It just is what it is. It is very difficult, perhaps impossible even, to truly understand all of the circumstances, the environment and all of the other various factors that were an influence upon a particular historical figure or event.
Blacks in the 19th Century
Almost all of us are familiar with the general nature of slavery. How Africans were enslaved, transported across the globe, and subject to incredibly cruel treatment at the hands of their masters. However what many of us do not fully understand (or choose to dwell on) is the view that not only non-Africans had of Africans and their descendants, but even the psyche of the Africans themselves. Thus you have this sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in regards to not only the inferiority of Africans, but of the inhumanity of them. And this was key. Because in order to control people, you have to have some sort of impact on their self-esteem. Both the master and the slave must believe that the African is the lesser man in order for the system to work. But this view can’t exist in a vacuum. It must be perpetuated throughout every level of society; so that the distinction is clear. And all of the products of a “civilized” society must also reinforce this. Religion, science, economics….everything must embrace this view of distinction and hierarchy between the races.
This is why that even with the abolition of the legal enslavement of Africans around the globe by the mid-19th century, it took almost another entire century for African to even step foot on equal social ground to non-Whites. There had to be an entire cycle of the dying off of an older generation. It took time for the new generation to break down and recreate all of these tainted philosophies and attitude in regards to racial inequality. This process if ongoing, and still is not complete.
Too often African slavery is discussed on a macro level, equating the system and its effects across all of the locales where it happened. But this is not the case. Yes, the enslavement of Africans occurred in the United States, the Caribbean, and South Africa. But the effects of this enslavement, both on the Africans and on their respective societies, was not exactly the same in each place.
Indian Indentured Servants
While many people are aware of the existence and history of the enslavement of Africans, far fewer people know about the European countries’ employment of indentured labor after slavery was abolished. Britain, with India under its rule, now had access to many impoverished subjects in India who entered into work contracts, almost completely ignorant of what they were getting themselves into. They had no realization that they would be shipped thousands of miles away from home. They did loosely understand that they would work for several years (5-10 years seemed to be the norm). Then would receive (what seemed to them) fair payment for their efforts. However they were not told that they would need to subsidize their trips back to India. That they would essentially be occupying the same barracks and receiving the same paltry provisions that the newly freed African slaves recently occupied before them.
Racism – It Made the (19th Century) World Go ‘Round
The indentured labor system exported millions of Indians around the globe. In fact, it was the first large-scale dispersion of natives from the Indian subcontinent to other parts of the world. Nonetheless, Mahatma Ghandhi was not an indentured servant. He was born into a middle-class family of merchants and was educated as a lawyer in London. He relocated to South Africa to practice law. It was in South Africa that he saw the unsavory conditions of Indian indentured servants. He identified with them primarily on the grounds of shared ethnicity.
“Your Petitioner has seen the Location intended to be used by the Indians. It would place them, who are undoubtedly infinitely superior to the Kaffirs, in close proximity to the latter.” – Mahatma Ghandi
People bristle at Ghandi’s liberal use of the word ‘kaffir’, which in the modern South African vernacular, is an offensive term for Black people (similar to how the words ‘negro’ and ‘nigger’ stand today in the United States lexicon). Yet we understand….perhaps because it is familiar to us….the liberal use of negro and even ‘nigger’ in historical American literature. Ghandi was a product of British education; a system with perpetuated the idea of distinct and significant differences between the races. It seems that in an attempt to decry the injustices made against the indentured Indians, Ghandi also denigrated the Black South Africans.
History Via Rose Colored Glasses
The media (books, movie and television) does an incredible job at painting one-dimensional views of people. Of course there are exceptions to this rule. But modern media especially has a clear objective and slant it seems. Historical figures, celebrities, athletes, you name it….are not infallible gods. In spite of contrary belief, they are human and quite capable of not only making mistakes, but learning and growing as well. I have no interest in taking a personality snapshot of Mahatma Ghandi at age 25 and say “Here you go — there he is.”. Just like I wouldn’t do it with Malcolm X….or with Bill Cosby. Perhaps I might do it with Janis Joplin or something…since she died at 27. But let’s be real.
One person cannot only not be perfect, but they can’t fight everyone’s causes as well. This same Atlanta Black Star published a very similar piece on Abraham Lincoln. Again, I fail to see the end game here. If you want to publicize the fact that Abraham Lincoln did not believe in equality among the races, then by all means, you have the right to publicize this…especially if you are doing so to promote historical accuracy. But if your goal is to downplay the fact that slavery was abolished on his watch — that he was elected as a Republican president whose party’s stance was the eventual termination of slavery in the United States. So while you don’t have modern Black people hanging up pictures of Abraham Lincoln in their living rooms like they did a century ago (and trust me, that’s a good thing), most Americans will still place Abraham Lincoln among the list of “good” American presidents.
Like Lincoln, Ghandi harbored deep, well rooted feelings in regards to the concepts of race, people-hood and patriotism. For these men and for that time, races were distinct and different from each other. Because Africans had been the lowest classification of race in the European dominated world for many centuries, Indians were of course superior to them. However Britain would not have been able to control the Indian indentured laborers if they began to think too highly of themselves. And perhaps that’s what happened. In less than 100 years, the practice of indentured labor fell apart at the seams for the British. Indians began to see themselves as more than just British subjects who were literally subjected to the fulfilling the best needs and interests of the Europeans, and not themselves. In this aspect, Ghandi was right to specifically call out the British on equating his people (the Indians) to Africans. “Look at what you did to them…how they are regarded. You will not do the same thing to us!”
I’ve always said that it is not the greatest crime in the world to be a racist. In fact, I believe that we all have racist tendencies and it’s more of a travesty to be in denial about this. It is also a travesty that to this day, the non-White people of the world allow themselves to get bogged down into dwelling on our differences. We are so eager to look down our nose at the next brown person….almost as a knee-jerk reaction to what the European colonial powers did to us for centuries. We need to stop this. Instead of judging Ghandi for his racism, we should instead use his racism as an example of how not to relate to each other. We don’t live in vacuums and pain and injustice know of no racial boundaries.