[Sequal to “On Being Shaped By Racism“, written by Dr. Krishnan Venkatesh.]
My title is not ironic: through the many episodes of “Paki-bashing,” the confrontations on the streets, the name-calling and taunting, the subtle and not-so-subtle rejections, the fear and loneliness and self-hatred that racism brings to its victims, I have grown and become a better, more thoughtful person. For one thing, because of it, I have more empathy for the outcast, the refugee, and those who are persecuted for their difference. I have also become more resilient. Maturity often comes from absorbing criticism and even abuse, and then growing out of it — like some trees I have seen in the mountains, slender pines apparently growing out of granite boulders from which fortress no tornado or raging winter storm will ever manage to dislodge them. Oppression is unjust and nasty, but it can result in something good if it is reflected upon and used well — like bitter medicine, like instructive defeat in sports, like a stronger immune system after sickness. This is obviously not what racists intent; what they want is for you to stay small and frightened, but what they get is that they are the ones who stay small and frightened.
Many children who endure inexpressible torment learn to build rich interior lives both as a refuge from a perplexing and inhospitable outer environment and as a way to develop freely what in their social surroundings would be obstructed or scorned. Children of mixed parentage or from multicultural backgrounds often lean towards a life of writing or art, partly because they have become very good at creating inner worlds. I’m grateful for racism for getting me accustomed to solitude and its pursuits — notably, reading and writing, and keeping company with obscure classical composers. At first, solitude was mere loneliness, an avoidance of society — but with time this changed into a love of a much grander community, the one of great writers, spanning hundreds of years and dozens of different societies. No one in this greater community ever told me to get back where I came from, and even as a teenager, I could see that my world was a larger, more expansive one than the urban early 70s where my schoolmates seemed to be trapped and blindfolded. Of course, not everyone who has suffered from assault has been as fortunate as I have in discovering so rich a harbor, and I was lucky to be a teenager who could be nourished by Wuthering Heights and Jude the Obscure.
I also apparently learned to be tough inside — insouciantly ignoring abuse, easily dismissing the utterances of the stupid, and going on with my life and projects just because they were far more interesting to me than engaging with bullies. Later in life, I realized that I had inadvertently been cultivating Stoic equanimity in the face of things and people I couldn’t change. My parents, with characteristic common sense, told me that bullies only wanted to get under my skin, and the best response was to ignore them; besides, why should the negative opinions of someone you didn’t respect have any effect on you? Over the years I understood this more deeply: the pair of eyes on the high street glowering with hatred at you, or the obtuse and self-important authority figure taunting you — why should I desire approval from such beings, and why should their loathing affect me? This kind of reflection takes disciplined practice, but it is possible to cultivate through such practice mental freedom from other people’s prejudices. The Thai Buddhist teacher Ajaan Chah once responded thus to a student’s question about how to react to abuse: “If someone calls you a dog, there is only one thing to do: take a good look at your backside, and if you don’t see a tail you can’t be a dog. End of problem!” On the other hand, if you do see a tail, you recognize that they might be right, and you quietly thank them for showing them a side of yourself that you had been unaware of. What matters is the truth, and we don’t need to waste as much emotional energy as we do in perpetual defense of our own image. Cultivating freedom from our own prejudices is actually much more interesting than struggling against other people’s views of us.
I will never forget a conversation I once had with Lucy, a 94-year-old African-American woman in Chicago who had lived through every racial turbulence of the 20th century. When I asked her how she felt about the way people of color have been seen by those who identify themselves as white, she shrugged and calmly replied, “How others see me is not important to me. What’s important to me is how I see them.” Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius would both have bowed to this woman, recognizing that she was one who had achieved strength and tranquillity through lucid understanding.
I grew up in a tough place in tough times, and I appreciate now that I was being taught a certain kind of realism. England in the 70s had no societal ethos of respect for everyone; you were pushed, and either you pushed back or you were pushed further back. When I settled in the U.S., I was surprised that minorities would vocally insist on being respected, or on not being disrespected. If it is possible to get respect from others by merely requiring it, either by law or custom, then social harmony will be an easy thing to achieve. But what I have seen is that the thing called respect here is often only a social or political posture, an attitude to how society should be, but not an attitude towards the other person. Respect, like mercy, cannot be coerced; in reality, no matter what people say about respecting you, you have to earn it — not coerce it, but compel it. And you do that by striving not to be their equal — because those who don’t respect you will never think of you as their equal — but by being clearly they are superior: doing everything they can do but better, and doing more. Any minority person knows that the competitive burden is heavier for them than for white people; any woman knows that it is greater for them than for a man, just to earn the same salary. When you find yourself competing in this way, there are times when you wonder if this means you have internalized more deeply the contempt of the oppressors: to whom are you trying so hard to prove yourself? Is this another, more dangerous version of seeking to justify yourself in the eyes of the prejudiced, whom you fear but do not respect? The only exit from this cycle is to pursue excellence for its own sake, to know your excellence and fulfill it — and not just take the posture of asserting it without really grounding it, because in being content with the rhetoric of “respect,” you won’t even fool yourself. Instead of complaining about having to work harder to gain the same respect from people whom we don’t respect that much anyway, it may be better — even noble and aristocratic — to know that we have done so much more and have become so much more capable than those who take themselves for granted.
The other significant thing I realized as a teenage outsider, looking in through the windows and wanting to be invited in, is that in fact the house was constructed. Just as race is constructed — for who is “white,” who is “black,” who isn’t mixed, who is capable of knowing who their grandparents or great-grandparents had sex with?– so is culture constructed, so is nation constructed. Every culture is full of dissent, full of crazies and recalcitrants and originals, who are shoved to the peripheries and kept out of the definition; every culture claims ancient roots for practices that turn out to be a recent invention or appropriation; every culture is porous and fluid, and influenced by neighbors. The Scottish kilt was promulgated by an English Quaker industrialist; the Indian sari became ubiquitous only as a result of Victorian English prudishness, conquering parts of India where until the 20th-century women went bare-breasted. In intellectual tradition, the curricula that base themselves off Plato and Aristotle and German philosophers have a hard time seeing how Pre-Socratics, Plotinus, and Skeptics fit into the “West”: think about all those great authors who rarely get taught because they don’t represent some supposedly mainstream movement. Cultural outsiders can be more aware of the process of cultural formation, which those who feel themselves be insiders will take as self-evident and unquestionable. You see that no one has a culture and that indeed culture is not a thing to be had; rather, we might share a history, we might share certain practices through our history together, but we do not share history or tradition. The cultural outsider, the multi-ethnic stranger, that restless being without a sense of home, is a creature born of the destabilizations and unsettlings of modernity — a being who will always hunger for a home, but who can see that even those who claim to own a home are also really hungry for a home, which they secretly know they don’t have. Racists are driven by a deep fear of not belonging — hence their vehemence.
These are things I would not have learned so efficiently without my racists. They are only a part of who I have become, but a significant part of my ability to live with other people and to learn from them. Although I would not wish racism on my children, I am grateful for having seen it face to face and know that when they see it, they too will grow from the experience.
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Born in Malaysia in 1960 to a South Indian Brahmin father and a Hakka Chinese mother, Venkatesh was brought up in England and studied English literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he obtained First Class honors. He subsequently did postdoctoral work for over four years on Shakespeare at the University of Muenster, Germany, as a wissenschaftlicher mitarbeiter for the great Shakespeare scholar Marvin Spevack. From 1986-89 he taught literature and philosophy at Shanxi University, People’s Republic of China. Both his personal and academic background make him well suited to being a “bridge” between various traditions. Since 1989 he has taught at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, both in the two Western Great Books programs (for which the college is most famous) and was one of the founders of the unique Eastern Classics Master’s program, in which he has taught for 20 years. The program involves close study of the classics of China, India, and Japan, as well as rigorous immersion in Classical Chinese or Sanskrit for the sake of greater intimacy with the texts. Venkatesh has taught in all areas of the program, including Chinese and Sanskrit. From 2003-2008 he was the dean of graduate studies at the college. With Socrates in the Phaedrus, he is skeptical of the value of writing and therefore of publication and believes strongly in conversation as the most powerful mode of learning – the “writing in the heart.” St. John’s College has been an ideal academic home for him because of the shared belief in the power of discussion within a sincere community of learning. In the last decade he has spent a total of about two years in India. His recent areas of work have included the Pali Canon of the Buddha, the Japanese philosopher Dogen, and the mathematical books of Johannes Kepler. The lifelong companions at his bedside include Montaigne, Chaucer, Thomas Hardy the poet, Blake, Wordsworth, Zhuangzi, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Austen, Balzac, and Laxness — a beautiful fellowship.