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Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Book and a Film Frame the Discussion of Racism and Discrimination


Sometimes it seems as though we look for differences between peoples as a means of making ourselves feel superior, set apart, better than. To fail to seek similarities as a means of uniting us as humans leads only to war, discrimination, and, for many, lives of unimaginable despair. Our guest blogger CHRISTINE WEEBER introduces us to a film based on a novel and a novel that deal beautifully and thoughtfully with the topic. Thank you, Chris! -- Rosemary

Racial and ethnic divisions and hierarchies separate people all over the world, not just in the U.S. We increasingly recognize these as barriers to overcome and not simply accept but, in public conversations about race, we tend to get stuck in the racist/not-a-racist dichotomy. Two works that successfully get us beyond this dichotomy are Nowhere in Africa, a German film written by Caroline Link based on the autobiographical novel of Stefanie Zweig, and Small Island by the Jamaican Brit Andrea Levy.

Both of these stories are set in the context of World War II. In Nowhere in Africa, a Jewish family escapes Nazi Germany in 1939 to live in Kenya, then a British colony. Small Island traces the story of two Jamaicans who migrate to the Mother Country, i.e., England (Jamaica was a colony until 1962), in 1948. In both, the authors capture the complexities of migration, displacement, and loss of home, as well as the day-to-day grit of racial and ethnic oppression. In addition, we get to know people who are “racist.”

In Nowhere in Africa, Walter Redlich and his wife, Jettel, move to an arid, rural farm in Kenya with their five-year-old daughter, Regina—a far world from their middle-class life in Germany. Walter learns Swahili and humbly works alongside local Kenyans—a position he didn’t have to accept as a white man, given British dominance. Young Regina forms strong bonds with the cook and local Kenyan kids, becoming more and more Kenyan as time goes on. Proud Jettel despises the locals, tries to keep her distance and distinction from them, and attempts to force them into subservient roles.

Jettel is a privileged, prejudiced European woman who looks down on the “dirty” Africans. But through arguments with Walter and ever-worsening news from home, she is forced to confront the irony and vulnerability of her position as a Jewish refugee. She is forced to search her soul for a different identity than elite, white westerner.

In Small Island, the two main characters have no choice but to deal with the racial box they are thrown into. Hortense and Gilbert grew up in Jamaica learning the King’s English but, in moving to post-war London, they are surprised to find England does not want them. This, despite that Gilbert fought in the British Royal Air Force and Hortense is a schoolteacher.

Queenie, their white landlord, is the only one in her neighborhood to take in Jamaicans. Her neighbors despise her for it. Bernard, her husband, is away serving in the Royal Air Force and takes a few years to make his way back home. When he does arrive, he says, “I didn’t defend my country to give it over to them.” Unlike Jettel, he resists change. As for Queenie, she has a greater surprise in store for Bernard than simply her rebellious room renting to “coloured” people.

Through both of these stories we enter the lives of people who inhabit different sides of the racial divide—and some who have lived on both sides. We get to know people forced to navigate racialized societies. And we get inside the heads of so-called racists—and, in the case of Jettel, to watch her work her way out of that label.

By walking in these people’s shoes, we can feel the almost gravitational pull of race and ethnicity, and it becomes clear that this pull is maintained by more than those few we might call racists. Neighbors, bosses, and government employees are among those who enforce racial codes in England. In Kenya, British settlers and government officials uphold the country as a British colony.

Our conversation deepens. We are forced to ask ourselves, when confronted with change, with “difference,” and with power inequalities, how will we react? Will we cling to a real or imagined status quo? Or will we change, grow, adapt, and learn new ways of being? How do our choices affect us and other people?

CHRISTINE WEEBER works as a freelance writer and editor. She holds an MA in cultural anthropology, a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies, and a BA in English Literature and Philosophy. Her master’s thesis focused on white South African immigrants in Colorado. She recently won the Great Lakes Story Contest for her piece Breaking Skin (see her website). Her essay, “An Unladylike Journey,” appears in the popular anthology Solo: On Her Own Adventure . For more, see http://www.christineweeber.net/. In the photo, Christine is teaching her nephew one of her favorite pastimes.


Kathy Leftwich said...

In the "Boulder bubble", we think racism is a thing of the past. We all live together in harmony, but we are mostly alike. The reality is that other places are not so harmonious, and the challenge is how to change that. The success of Barack Obama is both surprising and heartening.

Anonymous said...

In the "Boulder bubble," we fail to notice that one third of the childred entering Boulder schools need help with English. That according to my former neighbor who taught ESL in the grade schools. Amazing.

Janet Grace Riehl said...

"Nowhere in Africa" is the kind of film that I'm glad to see get more exposure and knowledge to offset other film representations of the continent in films such as "Blood Diamond" and "The Last King of Scotland." While these films are well-made and depict crucial issues, a soul-searching film like "Nowhere in Africa" goes to a deeper, human place, not reaching for dramatic crescendos to keep it going. Thanks for this in-depth discussion here.

There's a category on my blog "Ah, Africa" which some of your readers may enjoy exploring as it slowly builds.

Janet Riehl
"Creating connections through the arts and across culures."

Anonymous said...

This was a great essay on racism...My opinion differs. Ms. Weeber touches on poverty but I think it is the real heart of the matter. We suffer far more from economic and cultural prejudice than that of color of the skin. A black candidate for the U.S. presidential race is evidence of this - a true contender.

My husband is not Caucasian, however, his economic status means he receives more favorable reception than a poor Caucasian would. Helping people get educated and rise out of poverty may be the key to what appears to be racism. I think Affirmative action went a long way to get this jump started. It may be something that needs to be altered now. It has done the hard first part and now it is often blamed for reverse discrimination - a cure that creates another ailment. Affirmative action may need some tweaking in order to not create resentment and further divisions.

It is time to address poverty/hopelessness as the next enemy of man-as-one. Poverty stricken people often resent the wealthy and the wealthy are afraid of the poor (history says they'll rise up) Thanks for sharing this thought- provoking article Rosemary! Thank you for the article Ms. Weeber!

Karen Albright Lin


Anonymous said...

Nice article!

Interesting how being a marginalized minority or a privileged one is a matter of context. Refugees usually have downward mobility; for example, the Indians forced out of Uganda.


Donna D said...

Nowhere in Africa is a wonderful film, I'd put it in my top 10 favorites.

Thanks for the reminder and the thoughful essay. I just finished the book People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks which touches on a lot of the same issues. When I was a kid growing up on Long Island in a culturally diverse and somewhat racially diverse school district, I thought racism was a thing of the past, too. Then I moved to the South. Wake-up call!

From where I stand religion also plays into the hate that is so prevalent, especially in this decade. Lately I've seen some antisemetic comments on a blog I read regularly. It's quite disturbing that humanity is still so ready to succumb to hate of anything "other".