Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Gibbs and Racism

In a weird way, I'm grateful that I haven't been able to write about this episode until tonight. The weight of my school work precluded any decent attempt at addressing this issue and, by extension, obviated a knee-jerk reaction that is somewhat typical of the blogosphere. I've had time to think it over and consider everything (fairly) carefully.

Let's start off with the very basics. Just so everyone's on the same page, here is a youtube of Gibbs' remarks. And in event that (a) your internet connection is too slow to play youtube clips or (b) you haven't followed this in the news at all, here is what Gibbs said (at least as far as I can tell):
Fucking bunch of fucking animals! Bunch of hyenas, fucking go back to the zoo! Fucking Pakistanis.

Again, just to be clear, Gibbs was directing these comments at a group of spectators who were apparently giving Paul Harris a rough time on the boundary. Needless to say, the two Pakistani batsmen at the crease heard him too. These are the barebone facts of the case.

Were the comments racist? I guess that depends on your definition of racist, doesn't it? I hate
articles that lift definitions from dictionaries and use them to ostensibly add to the gravitas of a piece but in this case I think it's necessary. This is what the American Heritage Dictionary has to say about the word "racism":
1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.
2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.

Now, based on that very narrow defintion of racism, Gibbs' comments were not racist. This is for the very simple reason that "Pakistani" is not a race. It is a nationality. This is not to say that there are no adjectives out there that describe both a nationality and a race ("Chinese", "Indian" and "Arab" do both), just that "Pakistani" is not one of them. We're too young a country to encapsulate a race. So under this definition, Gibbs would have had to say "fucking brown people", "fucking sand niggers", "fucking towel heads" or "fucking muzzies" for it to be racist. He didn't, so his comments weren't racist, merely terribly offensive.

As I said, I think that definition is too narrow and fails to capture within it a lot of what people instinctively regard as racist. Let's go to another set of criteria, this time proposed by Malcolm Gladwell, only the best non-fiction, non-academic writer out there. In a post on his blog a few weeks ago, Gladwell put forth a prospective yardstick of racist comments based on three measures.

First, content. What was said? Was it specific or general? Was it simple name-calling or a pointed, accusatory generalization? Was the racist comment "Nigger" or "Black people are dumber than white people"? According to Gladwell, the more specific a comment is, the more racist it is.

Second, intention. Was the comment malicious? Was it meant to be harmless? By this measure, me making comments like "Fucking Mohajirs, why don't you go kill some PPP-walahs today?" to my Mohajir friends (which I do all the time) is more acceptable to Gladwell than someone who actually means it. Obviously.

Third, conviction. Does the comment accurately represent the offender's views? Was it made in anger? Was it made when drunk? Was it made in some other stressful situation in which one might reasonably conclude that the person "didn't mean it, yaar"? By this measure, a written, edited article in a newspaper is more racist than a black guy yelling "Fucking cracker" in a bar fight.

To these three criteria, I would add a fourth. Gladwell touched on it in a later post, using terms like "context" and "power". My preferred term is "history" which gets at a very obvious facet of racism: the sociological relationship between the racist and the victim. The word "Nigger" when said to a black by a black guy means something entirely different when it is said by a white guy. The word "Paki" when said by an Indian means something entirely different when it is said by a Brit. An anti-semitic remark by an American will be treated very differently if it's made by a German. This measure differs from the first three in one important respect. To use social science lexicon, the first three are nominal variables and the last is an ordinal variable. In other words, the first three are, generally speaking, of the yes/no; is/isn't; there/not there variety. By contrast, this last one is a measure of rank or degree.

If you consider only the first three criteria, Gibbs' comments weren't particularly racist. First, it was somewhat specific, but not incredibly so. Certainly the "fucking Pakistanis" part of it was just petty name-calling. Which one of us doesn't say stuff like "fucking [insert nationality here]"? I for one do it all the time and would certainly like to think I'm not a racist. What about the "go back to the zoo" part? That was kind of specific (implying that Pakistan is a zoo/Pakistanis are uncivilized animals) but again, not to an unimaginable degree. Second, I don't think the comment was malicious - it wasn't meant to hurt anyone. You may disagree, but that's my interpretation of it. Third, it was said in anger and frustration, or in other words, mitigating circumstances could be cited. So, by Gladwell's three measures, the Gibbs tirade wasn't that racist.

What about "history"? On the face of it, there's nothing there. South Africa never colonized Pakistan. They never denied us our chance to vote (nope, we can handle that one pretty much by ourselves). They never raped our women or imprisoned our men. Furthermore, Gibbs is colored. He's not white, so any attempt to pigeonhole him as a "typical racist South African" is also futile. In short, even the fourth criterion seems to favour Gibbs.

However (tell me you knew there was a "however" coming), I think the point to be made about "history" is that collective memories retain the right (rightly or wrongly) to perceive events and categorize people the way they want to. So, for example, someone might not think of Gibbs as "colored" but as "South African". Furthermore, they might think of "South African" as "Western" and "Pakistani" as "Muslim". Do you see where I am headed with this? Seen in a different light, Gibbs comments are incredibly racist. They represent the worst of Muslim-world perceptions of Western insensitivities to our people and our civilization. For the record, that is not how I'm treating this episode. What I am saying is that just as judging beauty is the right of the beholder, judging racism is the right of the victim. One man's offensive comments are another's racist comments. That's just the way it is. That is why to assert, as one South African writer does, that "Gibbs was stupid, insensitive, abusive, and derrogatory [sic]...but he wasn't racist" is just stupid. I don't know where the line between abusive and racist is; what I do know is that Neil friggin' Manthrop is not qualified to tell Pakistanis whether or not Gibbs crossed it. That decision is each individual Pakistani's - some, like me, may think it wasn't racist, and some may think it was. It's our prerogative and no one else is allowed to quibble with what each individual Pakistani thinks.

I've actually found the South African reaction to this hilarious. It's amazing what a spectacle one is treated to when a famous personality from a country that practiced apartheid is accused of racism. Have you seen how defensive, fidgety and counter-attacky they became in the fall out of all this? Gibbs' dad came out all guns blazing, Fanie de Villiers called Pakistanis "the worst fans in the world" and the general tendancy was to bring up Shoaib's and Asif's doping case in "retaliation". Wow, you think we touched a nerve there? The only analogy I can think of is, imagine a guy who was gay in high school, then found a girlfriend in college and proclaimed himself straight. He went out with a couple more girls, graduated college and found a job. Then at an office party, he seemed to be having a really long, meaningful conversation with the new Italian guy. Sharing drinks, laughs and pats on the back, they were obviously getting along well. While he makes his way to the bathroom, you run into him and politely ask him about the new guy. In response, he gets really angry, his face flushes with anger, he grabs your shirt by the collar and yells, "I'm not fucking gay, ok?! And if you ever fucking mention that shit again, I'm going to kick your fucking ass, got it?" Damn, dude, chill out. Why so touchy?

Anyways I can't imagine a more respected and honorable man than Richie Benaud to adjucate on the matter. If I'm making a prediction, I'll say Benaud keeps the suspension right where it is: two Tests. That's just a hunch, though given my history with predictions you'll probably be better off betting money on any outcome other than a two Test suspension. Let's see what happens.


Anonymous said...

It's sort of disturbing that the first "negative" thing you thought of when trying to come up with a suitable analogy for APARTHEID, was someone being gay.

You can defend yourself and your analogy in a lot of different ways, but I think (and always will) that it displays a tremendous subconscious bias against homosexuality.

Ahsan said...

not at all! the point in using someone being gay is the shame that comes with it for a lot of people (ted haggard for example).

Anonymous said...

And ofcourse the new guy at the office party with whom he is getting along very well is italian.. hehe

Omar said...

That was a good article right up until you used the gay dude who became straight analogy. Not because I think you have a "subconscious bias against homosexuality", but because I think you could have done a better job at providing a comparison. This one really trivializes something that was a huge issue. Obviously South Africans are extremely sensitive about the racism tag because they have had to deal with it very personally and only recently have they begun to escape its stigma.

Also maybe there is an element of history to South Africa vs. Pakistanis. While Pakistan was not a country at the beginning of the 20th Century, many ancestors of its future inhabitants were there. There were Indians, Hindus and Muslims working and living in South Africa and were subjected to the same sort of abuse to all "coloureds". For ref. please see "Gandhi".

Aaah. well. what do I know. I'm just a musican who thinks magenta shouldnt be a color :)

Ahsan said...

so, basically, NO ONE liked my analogy. i'll admit it wasn't one of my best ones...normally my analogies are bloody brilliant but i guess it wasnt to be this time.

on the bright side, i actually got a prediction right.

Anonymous said...

OBA's gay.

But was not a proponent of apartheid.

I'm not sure which is worse.

Ahsan said...

please keep inane comments to a minimum. thank you.