Anupa and I were watching “The Butler” last week. The opening scene where a white foreman at a cotton plantation casually destroys the life of a young black worker by raping his mother and murdering his father in cold blood (in that order), made me wonder “What year is this?”. 17th century? Even as recent as the 19th century? It couldn’t have been any more recent than that given that slavery was made illegal formally throughout the United States in 1865.
But no. This was set in 1926. That’s just 88 years ago! If this film had any semblance of historical accuracy, it was simply astonishing. How could it continue even after the institution of slavery had ended? The reasons were explained later. How the law and juries never convicted white people committing crimes against blacks. How policemen wouldn’t arrest them.
The film then shifts to around 20 years later where the protagonist works as a butler for white men at a hotel. He has to endure people talking about how it was a disgrace that blacks could go to the same schools as the whites and how intermarriage was unheard of and there should be a law against it. Segregation was of course the normal way of life both in government offices as well as on private property.
The first thing that came to our mind was “This is way worse than the lower castes had it in India during this time”.
Later when his teenage son fights for civil rights in the 1960s, whites dressed in Ku Klux clan sheets burn the bus, they have to endure being locked away by the police, repeated beatings…all for demanding the right to go to the same schools. And the discrimination was open, widely prevalent even in cities and in educated otherwise liberal households.
That was just half a century ago.
We had to pause the film for a while, slack jawed in amazement. The first thing that came to our mind was “This is way worse than lower castes had it in India”. The Indian Constitution outlawed discrimination on the basis of caste right from inception. And while the caste system in India refuses to die down, all things considered I would any day rather be a lower caste in India during this time than be a black person in the United States.
Fast forward 50 years.
The lot of blacks in the US has improved immeasurably. Yes there are still attitudes about them that are prevalent in certain pockets, and yes there is still income inequality. On the other hand, “The Butler” ends with the protagonist watching Barack Obama take the oath of President of the United States just 8 years ago. From a state of total oppression where blacks and whites weren’t even allowed to go to the same schools, travel in the same bus, or go to the same toilets, let alone date and intermarry, there is now an atmosphere that this is slowly dying out. Change happened in one lifetime!
In the US, it’s now extremely impolite to refer to someone’s skin color in a derogatory manner. People still use the word “black”, but not in a bad way. It’s like saying “New Yorker” or Democrat. The word “Nigger” has all but died out. Everyone is extremely politically correct and while some argue that this doesn’t mean anything, I beg to differ. Being politically correct means you know what is right and what is wrong even though you dislike it. That knowledge comes through and passes itself on to the next generation.
And where does India stand in the same time period? People still brazenly talk about caste without any sense of shame. Marriages are openly conducted on the basis of caste. People are still looked down upon. Reservations still continue unabated and are actually growing in steam. Instead of moving to a state where everyone is blind to caste, we’re becoming even more aware of it!
What gives? Why this disparity between emancipation of underprivileged groups between India and the US? The answer in my opinion, is tradition.
In India, many abuses and violations of human rights are justified in the name of “tradition”. There are those who hold tradition even above basic decencies. It’s easy to justify something with a catch all phrase and paint those who want to do the right thing as being “against Indian culture”.
Beliefs and attitudes are hard to change. But tradition is even more resistant to improvement
The US is a relatively new country. As a result, it’s traditions are still forming or are non existent. If anything, factors like Freedom of Expression are now part of their tradition. So while they had the segregation of blacks and the inhuman treatment of slaves, they never called for its perpetuation in the name of tradition. No, they had other excuses. “Blacks are inferior”, “They’re not as smart”, “They’re not full human beings”, blah blah. But these are merely erroneous beliefs which, while resistant to change, can be countered with education, and better knowledge. Prejudice by itself is fragile given that new generations are constantly springing up.
But tradition…no, that is not so easily overcome. As we’ve seen, even the most educated and intelligent people are fully capable of consulting caste when it comes to important matters. The ill treatment of women amongst otherwise intelligent people is justified using the “traditional” argument. If you’re wondering how ignorance and enlightenment can live side by side, look no further than tradition.
Ironically, it is we Indians who puff up our chests with pride while blaring our horns about our great “culture” and our rich history, while being completely blind to the fact that it is in fact our greatest hindrance. We are being held back by customs and practices that would have withered away eons ago were it not for the continual drilling of these “traditions” into the heads of each successive generation. It never gets a chance to die a natural death.
I’ve heard people mock others for being “deracinated” or having been “uprooted from their culture”. The truth is that we have to get deracinated if we want to progress. We have to uproot ourselves and build up again – this time in a new mold. One that more accurately reflects the values of the 21st century. Equality. Freedom. Individuality. Knowledge. These are values that are alien to many aspects of the old traditions and it’s high time we threw them over and created new ones.