Race and rudeness

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Never mind who exactly it was, but around 15 or so years ago, a president claimed that his best friend was a black man. This claim was made in the midst of a charged debate about slavery and reparations. Presidents, world leaders, celebrities and other public figures sometimes have the luxury of picking and choosing their friends, especially when these choices are meant for public consumption—through inverting the unwritten codes and taboos of everyday social life such choices important people make in their personal lives serve the purpose of giving recognition to the fantasies and forbidden possibilities shadowing society. What’s more, while revealing the limitations inherent in relationships that are made across the social divide, these choices of friendship also confirm the difficulties, impracticalities and the necessities that determine the life of the average ordinary individual—if friendship is a matter of choice reserved for influential people, these choices show sections of people living in circumstances not conducive to such relationships that respecting the boundaries of the racial divide is commonsense. Our problem is difficult to formulate in an introductory paragraph—hopefully it will reveal its contours by the end of the article.

What is friendship? Surely, there’s no easy answer. Even while most of us believe that we know what true friendship is, and what the casual relationship arising from convenience and circumstance is, we would all agree that friendship is a tricky and complicated subject. Our friends are also people who end up disappointing us from time to time, just like on occasions we end up not living up to their expectations, often expectations that are entirely understandable and justifiable between friends. But despite its shortcomings and the quota of disappointments that friendship doles out to everyone, no one can seriously maintain that friendship is a myth or that it is merely a matter of convenience. Despite all the limitations, it still exists, and it is common enough to make us ask the question: what makes it happen? how does it happen? why? And what circumstances make it futile?
We all, many of us who read stuff like this article, have been raised on ideas of the individual and the choices that come with being an individual. Our formal education and the cultural ideas that have groomed us into becoming self-conscious individuals, confident about the choices we make in a world shaped by and for individuals, make it hard for us to see the prejudices and blindspots that come with the myth of the free rational individual. And these very blindspots lead us into situations where we end up having to make choices, like as though we have a choice, in social circumstances where we don’t have much of a choice. This is a contradiction built into the structures of our everyday life that overdetermines many of our routine encounters and relationships.

I don’t think it’s too much to maintain that rudeness is something that would make friendship impossible. But what makes rudeness possible and permissible? Why and how does it keep flaring up in everyday life? Also, is it possible to look at rudeness as something unrelated to good manners and courtesy and diplomacy, all attributes regarded as social assets and virtues? Lastly, how do we determine rudeness? how do we spot it when it happens in a grey area?

True friendship, it is commonly held, flowers between social equals. But no two individuals are equals; there are a number of variables that introduce inequalities in all situations of formal equality. And inequalities are often very conducive to the flowering of friendship—friendships based on dependence or friendships based on material needs are not inferior to friendships where these are not the ostensible reasons. Such awareness can be a hurdle to getting rid of our notion that rudeness is an individual trait or failing. And it may make us take personally what, on closer inspection, almost always shows itself to have sources far deeper than an individual’s personal traits. To give an example, husbands got away with rudeness to their wives only in circumstances where equality of social status was structurally a difficult proposition for a wife. Such social structures sparked off the routine rudeness of a confident or callous or overbearing or haughty husband. But when a man was married to a woman from a class superior to his own, or to a woman who enjoyed greater social prestige and status than him, the possibilities for rudeness on his part were not straightforward.

The sources of rudeness are often located on a terrain that we call society. This is the terrain on which everyday life, social intercourse ie, unfolds. This unfolding is not spontaneous or natural. If it is, or if it has a natural or spontaneous side to it, this is subject to the necessities of a hierarchy built on and reinforced on this terrain through everyday life and its practices. But this terrain is not an eternal immutable site. If it is immutable, then the immutable in it is subject to constant renegotiation. The roles, functions and privileges that come with a particular terrain are not reserved for any easily identifiable or seemingly homogenous group in society—like adult males, or white Anglos. On the contrary, such seemingly natural attributes like gender and race are socially and culturally constructed roles and identities. While such a point might seem ludicrous, if one takes the trouble to look back over a few generations it is hard not to notice that race or gender are both unstable, mutable and constantly changing social entities. Even the white Anglo: church, navy, military and other official documents dating back to four centuries or more show that the white Anglo was only almost half the size, physically, of our contemporary variety. We can all see today what the effects of a diet composed of large quantities of dairy and meat have done to recent generations of Indians and others who’ve been enjoying the benefits of a largesse made possible, among other things, through refrigeration, other techniques of preservation and modern transportation. Exactly the same can be said about gender too.

It is not the biological that determines, but the sociological that determines the biological. The biological core or substance or raw material is adapted to the needs of the sociological. The white Anglo is not really white any more. In a sense there has never been a white Anglo. There has been a group that, through a solidarity that it found necessary, labelled itself Anglo. The attributes that come with this label are and have always been up for grabs. This was something the Anglo sensed in the earliest encounter with the racial other. More, the Anglo sensed that the racial other sensed it too.

A race that is a class, a class that is a race. Racial solidarity, class solidarity, these phenomena yield to the strains of a time when boundaries that were drawn to demarcate them in times gone by are showing themselves up to be mere lines drawn on shifting sands. Multiculturalism, this is the creed that promises to take us beyond the evils and prejudices of the past, as white, black, brown and every other shade celebrate the diversity under the sun—on an Australian beach, or corporation, or university, or shopping complex, or radical left wing party headquarters, or refugee or migrant resource centre. Let’s now go looking for some rudeness.

One contradiction hounding and exposing the myths of modern society is the dogma of the individual. Two individuals interacting with each other in social spaces that have come into being through the needs of the commerce of contemporary life: democracy, equal rights, courts of law, institutions of governance, the free market, consumerism, educational institutions, other institutitions safeguarding the rights of free and fearless speech, banks that promote habits tied to life in the time of the seeming centrality of money. In the midst of all of this razzamatazz our free individuals run into each other, one an Indian, the other an Anglicised human being (Indian, Italian, Anglo whatever). It doesn’t matter to what degree one of them is Anglicised (ie their pedigree doesn’t count), so far as the other has come from another cultural zone, rudeness gets its chance.

Such encounters can begin and end with rudeness, from either side, or they are initiated with courtesies and a friendliness that comes with such courtesy. It would be a grave error to doubt the intentions of either party when such friendliness is given a chance. All is well so long as matters remain with the formal. When these two people find themselves straying further on, and on, encouraged by their mutual friendliness, situations crop up now and again where rudeness gets the better of the party who has the upper hand in society. This is not a personal failing. If it is, then that’s only the superficial exterior. The seeming exterior of our casual and democratic public spaces, like a pub for example, or a shopping complex, built as they are on the dogma of official equality, hide the realities of social and caste hierarchies that undergird Australian society. Not knowing the rites and rituals that should be second nature to those acquainted to using these public facilities to their best advantage can be a handicap that exposes one to the impatience or wariness of the other.

The ideology of individualism would have us believe that it is a matter of awareness and education: these things get better with better acquaintance. Yet only the worst cynic or bigot would doubt the good intentions behind the friendliness or courtesy that a white Australian or Anglicised Indian shows to someone just landed in Australia. The ideology of individualism promotes the myth that good manners is a matter of choice and training, and it can happen regardless of any social situation. Caught in the mesh of this myth the average individual has no choice but to swing between the extremes of courtesy and rudeness, or standoffishness. It is common among immigrants from the third world to complain about the rudeness of Aussies. It is also not uncommon to find immigrants from the third world who are enamoured with the good manners and courtesies that Australians are quite capable of.

Suppose you are in a radical left-wing party office in Sydney, and you find an Anglicised Indian woman there. A lawyer, doctor, senior journalist, professor or one of those things. She is quite friendly and keen to converse with you on matters related to culture, the downtrodden and the urgent need to empower them to fight the depredations of a rampant capitalism, and many other matters related to culture, race, identity, ethnicity etc etc Think now of an old fashioned Australian office, with little diversity, where you run into an Indian woman brought up in Australia. Think then that a friendship develops between you and such a woman. Think of the spaces and places where your style of familiarity provokes rudeness or a hint of it. If you already know that the so-called political divide of the right and left in Australia is a mere ruse to hide a greater and more profound divide of class and race, a divide that promotes many new alliances and hybrid formations, then you’ll also realise that the rudenesses that you encountered in radical left wing party offices are structurally located in a social site that nourishes and promotes the same in two allegedly different camps.

So long as one doesn’t assume too much familiarity, a familiarity that betrays a lack of understanding and appreciation of the unwritten codes of inter-personal exchanges that happen across cultures in Australia, so long as one plays the well-behaved, pliant Indian who needs to be shown around Australia, our cultivated ladies are unlikely to feel uncomfortable. But if one behaves like one doesn’t understand who’s who in the scheme of things in Australia, I mean if one behaves like one doesn’t quite appreciate the place for the exotic in Australia, rudeness can kick in. This rudeness stems from the fact that an Indian, sticking to our example, cannot be too Indian because in the structures of society that make possible our cultivated ladies one can only be so Indian. Also, the freedom and confidence one sees in such liberated and empowered women is structurally located in a system where rights are enshrined for those who possess the right attributes. Such attributes also call for appreciation and respect, which is not the same as respecting an individual or an individual’s Indianness. Such rudeness can happen between Indian men from different countries, but it is the gender divide across which the Indian male encounters the free Western woman that calls the bluff of the free rational individual. Such rudenesses are the compulsions of a social structure the Indian male tries to subvert knowingly or unknowingly.

To state the obvious, friendship, in the sense of a relationship between equals, cannot happen easily across a social divide. A social divide doesn’t reveal the nature and the extent of its contours to the naked eye. Unlike what our multicultural brigade would like to believe, and would like to have others believe, through their lifestyles and choices of friends that are made possible in the proliferating places of an antagonistic and intransigent divide, friendship is not necessarily what is expedient or convenient. While it can be this too, such friendships are not the last word on the matter.
It’s complicated. But why friends if there are no foes.

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