In class, we discussed institutional racism in the context of “Nervous Conditions”. However, while we briefly mentioned the concept when we were discussing Lumumba during our most recent class period, we did not note any specific examples of institutional racism that we may have observed in the film. So, I wanted to address a case of institutional racism from the film that really caught my attention, perhaps due to the pure audacity of it.
In the beginning of the film, Lumumba had to go to a government office to receive his “civilized persons card.” While this was a brief the scene, I believe it is a blatant display of institutional racism by the Belgian government for several reasons. The first being somewhat on obvious in that only the black Congolese citizens were required, by the government(the Belgians) to obtain the card if they wanted better paying jobs and more varied positions. But a more subtle reason confirming that the Belgian government, as an institution, is subjecting the Congolese to institutional racism, is that by issuing these cards, they are assuming that because of their race, the black Congolese people are uncivilized. This assumption has led to several instances of racism during the Belgian rule over the Congo, the issuance of the cards being just one of them.
Furthermore, I think that Peck included this short scene to illustrate just how powerful the colonial rule was over all aspects of one’s life in the Congo. This is evidenced in that even Lumumba, who appears both intelligent and civilized, is required to get a “civilized persons card,” proving that no black citizen, despite what their status or position in their community may be, is above this ludicrous system.
Though Tambu doesn’t spend too much time talking about white people, her changing view towards them is very telling of her awakening to the colonized mindset. Towards the beginning of the novel, she is wary of white people, knows very little about them, and is disgusted with how they look. As she is educated at the mission, however, she is slowly conditioned to accept white people’s definition of beauty.The very first time that Tambu has direct interaction with white people begins on page 27. Tambu describes her thoughts upon meeting an elderly couple:
I did not like the way they looked, with their skin hanging in papery folds from their bones, malignant-looking brown spots on their hands, a musty, dusty, sweetish odour(sic) clinging around the woman like a haze”
It feels strange to read a white person’s race described as a character trait, as opposed to simply being accepted as a given. Upon reading this line, I was reminded of a Buzzfeed article I had just read entitled “If White People Were Described Like People of Color in Literature.” This article uses satire to call attention to the overt exoticism and objectification of people of color in Western Literature. “He looked at her longingly,” the article jokes, “as he imagined her exotic, mashed potato skin laying gently against his.” This is quite shocking to read because we are so used to having diverse, complex descriptions of white people in literature that don’t have to resort to the nearest food group to be relatable. Similarly, Tambu shocks us in the way in which she describes the elderly couple. She has very little experience with white people, so she measures their appearance in accordance to her culture’s beauty standards, rather than Eurocentric beauty standards, of which she has no knowledge. Finding their appearance rather lacking, she is wholly disgusted and makes no secret of it. Until she meets younger white people at the ministry, she is convinced that all whites are ugly. She only allows the whites to have a single story, just as they do to her. In comparison with Tambu’s prejudice, however, we see how dangerous the single story is when combined with a position of power. Tambu cannot hurt the white couple for thinking they are ugly, yet Tambu’s entire future rests on their opinion of her. But by allowing naive Tambu to uphold her single story of white people, Dangarembga continues to flip dangerous literary traditions on their heads, challenging us to question those traditions.
When Tambu goes to the ministry school, she meets many other whites, young ones, and concludes the ones with
…smooth, healthy, sun-brown skin…took away all of the repulsion toward white people that had started with the papery-skinned Doris and her sallow, brown-spotted husband…it was good to discover that some Whites were as beautiful as we were. After that it did not take long for me to learn that they were in fact more beautiful and then I was able to love them.”
This quote is a bit of a euphemism because it hints at darker themes. She begins by allowing that some whites could be beautiful, provided they conform to African standards of beauty by having darker skin. After time, however, the social and academic atmosphere of the white- run ministry convince her that they, after all, were far more attractive than Africans. Although Tambu’s language suggests this transformation is a positive one that she is able to accept and love the whites, the underlying implications are chilling. It is all too clear that her ministry education is conditioning her to uphold certain racial hierarchies, including the Eurocentric standard of beauty.
A large part of retaining power over colonial and post-colonial states includes retaining a strict hierarchy. The rules in which beauty and attractiveness is one such hierarchy that can be devastating to native psyches and self-esteem. This can be devastating to a young girl like Tambu who, beginning to internalize society’s emphasis on female beauty, is then led to understand that she can never be truly beautiful due to her race. Although going to the ministry school provides Tambu with great mental growth, the education she receives comes with a colonial conditioning that removes her people as the center of her worldview and replaces them with whites and white institutions.