Stumbling on Racism

One of the main reasons for starting this blog was to comment on examples of misguided racial thinking in politics, journalism, poems, books, films, conversation—anywhere, really. The point? I’m not a fan of just calling people out for the sake of it, but if it can serve a higher purpose—getting people to think more imaginatively about their identity, their assumptions, their uses of language—then maybe it’s ok. The first post was about the Hilary Benn; this second one is about an article in the Observer.

In the Observer’s 2015 Poetry Books of the Year, Kate Kellaway says that finding a “poem that works” is like “stumbling upon a pearl”. On one level, I know she’s just deploying a tired cliché: it’s difficult finding good poems and, when you do, it feels kind of miraculous. But I can’t help finding it bizarre.

Screenshot 2015-12-11 12.29.13
The pearly queen herself, Elizabeth I, fingers dangling ominously over the Americas.

Pearl diving, for most of its history, has been a hazardous activity. So much so that, after conquering large swathes of modern-day Venezuela, the Spanish refused to get their feet wet, instead forcing slaves to dive depths of over a hundred feet, in sharky waters, to gather them. As the pearls started flowing back to Europe, they became synonymous with wealth and power in the 16th century (see right).

So how do you just stumble upon a pearl? Well, it means not stopping to think how it got there, let alone reflecting on the (probably) enslaved peoples who risked death to prise it from the seabed. It means shutting your eyes to centuries of colonial violence and subjugation. I guess what I’m trying to say is: it means writing like Kate Kellaway.

Is that unfair? It’s a throwaway line from a piece of classically breezy, end-of-year journalism, no doubt composed in the time it takes to polish off a cappuccino. Her last piece was an interview with Simon Callow, and it wasn’t for the International Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

So yes, I’m probably being unfair. But it immediately reminded me of the extent to which white writers are afforded the freedom to shut their eyes to history, and to write—and have published—whatever they want.


Kellaway next goes through some of her favourite collections of the year, singling out Australian poet Les Murray’s “wry, subtle, matchless voice” (yawn) and the work of Andrew McMillan, whose “homoerotic… febrile, tender” poems refuse “to be ignored” (for those not in the know, the OED defines “febrile” as an adjective ‘that, being basically meaningless, was invented for the use of poetry reviewers’).

I don’t want to sound too negative. Kellaway’s description of Sean Borodale (his latest collection a profound meditation on stewing apples and making damson ice-cream) is both pithy and definitive: “He is a marvellous poet,” she says, “a man who knows his artichokes”.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a favourite of many this year, gets three excruciating sentences. Despite the fact that (take note) “polemical poems seldom work”, Rankine’s “eloquent militancy about racism is arresting”. Minority groups with the temerity to hold dissenting views—or just opinions—have long been dismissed as militant, so this sounds awfully patronising. I also hate the jangling military metaphor placed alongside a policing one (“arresting”) which, again, seems to reinforce the impression that this piece was less conceived and written than excreted, in one vowel movement, onto the page.


The two sentences of lavish praise for Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade are what stay with me, though. This is what Kellaway says, in full:

And Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade—a volume that slipped through my net—has oriental poise, reach and artistic precision. A poet to watch in 2016.

What’s wrong with that? you might ask. So she says “oriental”, which is a bit like something your granddad might say, but it’s clearly meant well. She’s complimenting her!

At this point, I should say something about racism—not least what it is. You might think this is somehow obvious or beyond asking. I disagree. Racism is often discussed in terms of how it operates—hate speech, violence, cultural appropriation—with the aim of various campaigns (like UEFA’s “No to Racism” campaign) being to get people not to say or do racist things. There’s nothing wrong with this (and much that’s good) but the assumption, as with telling a child not to stick their fingers in shit, is that explaining the reasons why will only take too long or prove unpersuasive. It’s a lot easier just to say Don’t do it!

The problem is, a person can avoid saying or doing “racist” things without coming any closer to understanding—or believing in—the point of it. Hence a community that appears peaceful and tolerant one day can descend into violent conflict the next. This occurs with painful frequency in Indonesia, where my mum is from; in a country spanning almost 14,000 islands, with around 360 ethnic groups speaking over 700 languages, the unity suggested by shared nationhood is often nominal. Everyone pays lip service to the shared principles of Pancasila (emphasising the “just and civilized humanity” of all Indonesians) but when times get tough heads are liable to roll.

Rather than just telling people not to be racist, then, it might be better to say that oppression and discrimination imply (perhaps rely on) a generally accepted idea of what race is. This doesn’t exist. “Blacks”, “Asians” and “Orientals” aren’t delineated, homogenous groups. Racism happens when people refuse to acknowledge this, when they ignore the intersecting matrix of language, religion and tradition in favour of an abstract belief in ethnic clarity. Our response, the only one, has to be a wholesale change in attitudes: a move to see race as something constructed, on a person-by-person basis, out of endlessly variable stuff (that’s right, not skin tone or skull size or how good you are at chemistry but vague, non-specific stuff).


To get back to Kellaway: what galls me about her line on Howe isn’t just her choice of words, but that she even thought of them. What if a sub-editor had picked up on her dicey use of “oriental” and taken it out? No matter. Those three remaining adjectives—“poise, reach and… precision”—would have still been there, settling like a fine silk robe around the invisible contours of her prejudice.

In case it’s not obvious, Howe is of partly East Asian descent—this is obvious, of course, because no white (male) writer would ever be referred to as having “oriental poise”. A white writer is free to shut their eyes to history; a non-white writer has to always be seen as its product.

In Loop of Jade, Howe writes about the journey she made from England to China in her mid-twenties. Being for the most part raised and educated in Britain, her knowledge of China—and of Mandarin—was, at first, fragmentary and intimate (likewise, the only bits of Indonesian I know are those phrases my mum would say while tucking me in or waking me up). Her perspective was less “oriental” than occidental, you could say, like that of anyone brought up within a Western cultural framework throwing themselves into an altogether non-Western one. But the poems dissolve such simple binaries; they’re about what it feels like to be in two—or several—places at once, trying to create an identity out of multiple, conflicting heritages. They escape, in other words, the nylon mesh of Kellaway’s cliché net.

In the last poem in the collection, ‘Yangtze’, Howe describes—or imagines describing—the submerged world created by the building of the Three Gorges Dam: underwater cities; a “ghost forest” with “water for sky”. I don’t think the fact I’m also mixed race gives me a special insight into this poem, or any other. The metaphor is blatant: it’s a floating city, unmoored, full of roots that won’t take hold. And the empty houses, she asks, “what is it/ they fill with?” Not memories or possessions anymore, certainly not pearls, but more of nothing. Howe’s book won’t end with a character looking into the sunset and saying, with sudden resolve, “I think everything’s going to be just fine.” No amount of “poise” can reconcile East and West, the warring parts of the self. As she says in the same poem, “journeying is hard”, but when we accept a lack of obvious resolution we’re forced to exist in uncertainties, to become truer versions of ourselves. Howe thus comes to see herself as both English and Chinese, or as both separately, or as a whole new thing: herself.

Lazy journalism like Kellaway’s doesn’t simply pander to orientalist stereotypes but narrows the scope of what it means to be a person. Just as our “molecules are shuttled to and fro,” says Stephen Dedalus, “so does the artist weave and unweave his image.” Those besotted with ethnic clarity would rather people’s images stay put, or, if absolutely necessary, they’d reserve this kind of shape-shifting for white artists alone. It’s for them to stumble upon and later dispense pearls of wisdom. But Howe’s work won’t be fixed; it concerns the hard, universal work of weaving and unweaving the self. It raises the kinds of questions about identity everyone should ask.

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