Some five years or so ago, Dr Watson who invented the DNA came out with a theory in which he tried to convince the Western world that he had discovered that, contrary to opinions held so far, the mentality of black people was inferior to that of their white counterparts. Many people criticized him because it was felt that he was ushering in a dangerously slippery new concept into human relationships that politicians and even society itself would be at a loss with how to handle it.
Among those who seriously opposed Dr Watson were Keith Vaz, MP, who is Chairman of Britain's Home Office Select Committee and the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. Today, that eminent scholar has been proved wrong. Recent data in the UK shows that Nigerian and Chinese children are the best performing students in England. So, I was quite amused when I read Orville Lloyd Douglas' self-pitying article in the Guardian newspaper edition of Saturday, 9 November, 2013 titled 'Why I hate being a black man'.
Douglas felt the way he did because every time he sat on a crowded street car, bus, or subway train in Toronto, he knew he would have an empty seat next to him. But no white man ever took those seats. None of them wanted to sit close to him. They would rather stand up on coming into the train than sit next to him. For him, it was like a broken record. He didn't mind having the extra space sometimes, but at other times he felt awkward, uncomfortable, and annoyed. He sure had good hygiene, dressed appropriately, and minded his own business. He finally thought he had found out why people might fear being around him or in close proximity to him: he is a black male!
Douglas is convinced that although Canadian society presents multiculturalism as its approved base for social interaction, the truth is that Canada has a serious problem with the issue of race. He didn't realize it until his sister said to him: “Orville, people are afraid of you. You are a six foot tall black man with broad shoulders.” He was quick to agree: his sister must be right. People didn't sit next to him on the street car, the subway or on the bus because they were afraid.
Then Douglas goes on: “There is a discourse that black people engender: that black is beautiful. But the truth is, the image of blackness is ugly – at least it's perceived that way. There is nothing special or wonderful about being a black male – it is a life of misery and shame. Honestly, who would want to be black? Who would want people to be terrified of you and not want to sit next to you on public transportation? Who would want to have this dark skin, broad nose, large thick lips, and wake up in the morning being despised by the rest of the world?
A lot of the time I feel like my skin colour is like my personal prison, something that I have no control over, for I am judged just because of the way I look. Not discussing the issue doesn't mean it is going to go away. In fact, by ignoring the issue, it simply lurks underneath the surface. I believe a dialogue about self hatred should be brought to the fore in the public sphere, so that some sort of healing and the development of true non-label based pride can occur. Of course, I do not want to have these feelings, to have these dark thoughts about being a black man. However, I cannot deny that this is the way I feel. I don't want to be ashamed of being a black man; I just want to be treated as an individual based on the content of my character, and not just based on the colour of my skin.”
The problem with some black people like Mr Douglas, I think, is that they are suffering from a complex – inferiority complex. I initially thought this man could as well have been a spin doctor on the payroll of some extreme rightists who are bent on fostering race superiority on the world. Then I said to myself this cannot be. We live in a democratic world – where majority opinion rules and laws are put in place to protect the interests of the minority.
Douglas actually reminded me of the same experience I had when I lived in Toronto as a student in the early 1970s. Exactly the same experience of people getting into the couch I was sitting on in the train, turning to look at me and deciding to stand up rather than sit next to me. For the first six months I felt really “rejected” and I was depressed. When I could no longer tolerate the level of “discrimination”, I complained about it to one of my flat mates, a Guyanese by the good name of William.
I was embarrassed when William burst into laughter. I asked him why he was laughing when I had just told him about something that was intensely bothering me. William said to me: “my dear, no one is discriminating against you. In fact you are the one discriminating against yourself.” I was miffed. I asked him how he meant. He said: “OK. When next you get into the subway (the train station), buy a copy of Toronto Sun or any other newspaper, lie down fully stretched on the seat in the train, and when you come home, tell me what happened.”
Over the months, I had developed some level of trust in William, so I just did as he suggested. The train stopped and people came in. They looked at me quite relaxed in the train. Possibly, they weren't comfortable with that. One of them politely asked me if I could sit up so he could sit. I pretended as if he was bothering me, sighed and reclined half way. The next stop, people came in again, and it was like someone signalled them with his eyes. One of them who appeared to speak for others asked if I could sit up so they could sit. By the time you knew it these guys were comfortably seated next to me, practically squeezing me in at the end of the seat. The “magic” worked.
From then on, I realized that in big cities like Toronto you've got to be smart, to survive. I have continued to adapt that theory in various ways, and it has never failed me.
On a more serious note, there are issues that transcend the colour barrier into the realm of humanism. That is the lesson Jesus taught his disciples when he told them about the Good Samaritan. In the contemporary context, if for instance Mr Douglas, being a black man was there when a car knocked down a white man and the white man was bleeding profusely, what would he do? Would he pass by and say: “I am sorry, I can't help you because I am black and you are white” or would he call an ambulance because the life of a human being is at stake? Obviously, in a scenario of this nature, the idea of black and white must be subjected to the issue of humanism. So, the colour idea is not important in a case like this. What is important is that a human being is in need of help and another human being is able and willing to offer that help when it is needed. The challenge is in understanding that, as human beings, we need each other.
If politics is not to be the dirty game many people believe it is, then politicians across the globe have a duty to help humanity de-emphasize the things that separate and tear us apart in order to focus on the things that bind us together as one great human family.
Again, there is something here that Mr Douglas missed, which may have contributed to his misery. It is known as “city mentality”. That is basically the way city dwellers live, the way they come about their decisions and all that. When you come to London for the first time, for instance, you may discover this. Some neighbouring elderly English ladies who see you along the street may begin to tease you: “oh..., that African?” Contrary to what you may think initially, in the real sense, they are not being derogatory or looking down on you. In fact, you may have attracted to them to the extent they want to establish a relationship with you. But first they would want to know your self-estimated worth – how much you worth in your own estimation. It is part of city mentality.
In your naivety you may think: “these women are racist. Who do they think they are anyway?” The fact here, and my good friend Douglas may like to know this, is that your loss is their gain. If you see nothing good in African people, if for you blacks are another piece of furniture, those from other ethnic groups who have city mentality will not only buy into the idea, they will capitalise on it and make sure they are on top of the game.
But you can accept the challenge and think positively. “Yes, how I love my Africa, the land of sunshine, the land of black gold and diamond...” When your mental attitude is so geared and there is no place for self-loathing in your vision of life, you will begin to see how warm English ladies can be. They will not only appreciate you, they would want to be closer to you because they know you are city wise and that they can enhance their own knowledge by associating with you. You have the right attitude to self esteem.
Talking about self-esteem, I once had opportunity to ask an English friend of mine who worked with me at a Japanese bank close to Monument Station in London if he had ever had cause to regret being white. John was quick to answer. He told me he not only regretted being white, he regretted being British. I was puzzled. I asked why he felt so bad about who he is. He said British people had an attitude. He loathed his fellow British people because they were so arrogant and they felt they are the smartest people on earth, even though they were far from being that. I didn't exactly think so myself. I felt that John's German wife was influencing him somehow.
Again, take this incident for example. I was to work at the United Bank of Switzerland (UBS) near Barbican Station one evening. I alighted at London Liverpool Street and hailed a black cab to the place because I was running late. It wasn't the first time. Ordinarily it would take about £4.00 to the place. But on this occasion, I had a different experience. The driver never explained to me that the nearest road to UBS was closed due to road works. He had to take a longer route and by the time you knew it, the meter was reading £12.00 – and yet we hadn't got to our destination! I was furious. I angrily told him to let me off. He stopped and demanded his £12.00.
An altercation between us went something like this.
"It is £12."
“And why would I pay you £12.00 when I am used to paying £4.00 or a maximum of £4.20 for this journey?”
“Well my friend, that's what the meter reads.”
“No, you deliberately wanted to rip me off, that is why you drove through a longer route.”
“Listen, man, there was work going on at that road. What did you want me to do?”
“At-least you should have had the courtesy to tell me so before we moved from Liverpool Street.”
“I was in no legal obligation to do so.”
“You know what?”
“You are a bloody black monkey.”
“Me, a black monkey?”
“Yes, and you know why? Because your skin is white but your mind is black.”
The can driver laughed and laughed and finally accepted £10.00 which was all the money I budgeted for the evening for transport and dinner. He must have thought: "I haven't seen the last of this 'funny' Nigerian." Sure enough, I met the cab driver days later and he instantly recognised me. We have since become friends.
Douglas believes that “we espouse 'black is beautiful', but the true image of blackness is ugly. If we confront our self-hatred, maybe we'll have real pride.” Fortunately or unfortunately, real pride can only come from what you can do for others, not what you can do for yourself, or worse still what others can do for you. The only meaningful way to "confront our self-hatred" is by being useful to humanity at every given opportunity. The point is that being white or black is not a guarantee that everything is OK. Whether black or white, we still lack, we still need. We still struggle to better our lives. We still hassle. The bottom-line is that there are things that go beyond the colour barrier into the realm of humanism. And we need to seize every opportunity to be useful to our fellow humans.
Emeka Asinugo is the editor of London-based Trumpet newspaper