Friday, February 17, 2012

Discriminating the Self

(Rodney King being attacked in 1991 by the White Police)

Do artists still face social discrimination? Does the stereotypical image of an artist as an anarchist and non-conformist still rule the imagination of the larger public? The answers should be negative especially after the market boom and the self branding of artists as page 3 celebrities. If I use the liberty of spoofing the great poet, artists are the unacknowledged brand ambassadors of their own works these days. However, I should say that despite the greater visibility that the successful artists get today, a shabby looking artist or an artist with disheveled hairs and beard is often taken for a vagabond, social outcaste and at times, a terrorist.

(Bob Marley)

That means, an artist, if he or she wants to get social acceptance, should seen in branded clothes and sophisticated atmosphere. S/he should show higher level of confidence and added vigor in social mobility. It suggests that the stereotypical artist in rags has become an old story. Our paranoid society no longer wants an artist, in that case any intellectual in shabby clothes. If you have anything to do with the world, it seems to say, please wear good clothes, brand yourself and be visible everywhere. And remember, avoid the company of those people who are considered to be ‘failures’ and present yourself in the company of successful people or social climbers. Pretend that you don’t recognize your friends who have not ‘made it’ during the boom time.

I write this because I am morally agitated. I am morally agitated because still our society keeps double standards when it comes to the appearance of people. It has learnt to accept the corrupt and non-transparent if they are in good clothes, seen in expensive environment and in successful company. A talented person could be taken for a vagabond therefore a criminal only because he does not look ‘expensive’. This mentality comes from the belief in the common notion that ‘expensive’ looking people are naturally sophisticated and are incapable of committing crime. And even if they do, it is accepted as their right to be on the wrong side of the law. You may be talented but your talents should be contained in a good physique and wonderful clothes.

(Whoopi Goldberg in Color Purple)

An artist friend called me the other day and recounted an incident that he had gone through couple of days back and while telling me about it I could feel the tremors of his personal trauma. He was traveling in a train, with a reserved birth in a second class compartment. During the two days journey his right eye was infected and one side of his face looked swollen. On the third morning, as he was coming out of the washroom after nursing his smarting eyes, suddenly the ticket examiner grabbed him by the collar and tried to push him out of the running train. When he resisted and tried to walk away, the man kicked him from behind. Screaming and shouting, the ticket examiner displayed his moral responsibility for the society by saying the following words, “Scum like you spoil our society. Get out of the train.” My friend told him that he was an artist and has a valid ticket on him. But the man refused to believe it. He looked him from tip to toe. My friend is small by physique and he sports beard and long hair. Finally to wriggle out of the situation, the artist friend had to show him an identity card issued by the Lalit Kala Akademy to the award winners and show a few catalogues from his bag. The man apologized and vanished.

(Frantz Fanon)

I heard my friend in pain. And I could understand his pain completely. Dark skin and beard often arouse pity and revulsion amongst the people especially in the sophisticated crowds. If you are a celebrity, then anything would go; if not, you are the scum of the earth. The wretched of the earth are still identified by dark skin. I remember a couple of incidents in which I myself was put into thanks to beard and skin complexion. When I went to Oman, security took me away even after the clearance of my papers and X-raying of luggage, and questioned me thoroughly and checked me for ‘narcotics’. And surprisingly, the heavily armed security personal who questioned me with a hostile attitude was a black man of Afro origins! Six years back I was stopped at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi when I was collecting my baggage. They thought the bag that I picked up from the belt did not belong to me. I was not sophisticated enough to carry that bag!

(Malcolm X)

We live in a country with a history of mendicants and wandering minstrels. We live in the land of Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi. We have been taught to adore people who have sacrificed material security and embraced the life in the wilderness and of wandering. But growing influence of globalization has made us a race that hates its own roots and complexion. We are in a dangerous world and only hope is that there is still a minority that still upholds clear thinking, resistance and humanity as their life principle.


Sonia said...

very nice, Johny....glad that u raised this issue....

waswo x. waswo said...

Many years ago, when I first started doing a lot of international travel, it was very predictable that I'd get pulled aside by the customs inspectors at the airports. In those days I travelled with holes in my jeans and cut-off shirts that exposed lots of tattoos. I'd get pulled aside for extra questioning, searches (two times even full strip-searches) while most everyone else walked on through with no problem, except of course, as you say, the people with dark skins. I remember getting off a ferry from Seattle to Vancouver, and at the Canadian border it was only a Native American "Indian" guy and myself who got pulled aside for the usual routine. The Canadian Customs people asked how I was employed, and I told them that I wasn't at the time and that I was beginning a "trip around the world". They then demanded to know how I was supporting myself, and I showed them several grand in travellers cheques (this was in the days before widespread use of ATMs). You could see in their eyes how much they hated me. I'm sure they were thinking that anyone who looked like I did shouldn't be carrying that kind of money. It was like that in showing them that I had money I just made them more suspicious of my criminality. They let me go with the ridiculous warning, "We'll be watching you." Eventually I listened to the repeated urgings of friends and started to "dress up" while travelling and always wore long-sleeve shirts to cover my tattoos. It worked like magic. I joined the smiling well-heeled folks who walked across borders with no problem at all. But I think of the Native American guy and realize he could never change his skin as I changed my clothes. Even today I am conscious in airports of how dark-skinned people get pulled aside or get extra interrogation with more regularity. And it doesn't only happen in "white countries", it happens in places like India and Thailand too.

Muzammil Karim said...