The long walk back

Manny’s adolescent, crass comment on their current state of affairs brought an abrupt pause in Selma’s disconnected ruminations. Both realizing there was no quick fix for the situation they had encountered, they turned around and began their retreat to the dysfunctional hotel on the Sarphati Straat.

After a prolonged intermission of silent walking, Selma began again.

“ I recently read some articles about racism in a journal”

“Really? How timely.”

“Indeed. They were written by an American Historian by the name of Ann Stoler.”

“Did she sound like she knew something the rest of humanity is still working on?”

“ Well she introduced the concept of aphasia as a metaphor for the cultural inability to recognize things and give them proper names.”

“ aphasia?”

“Yes. aphasia. Especially in matters that come from the colonial past of some Western countries.”

“ Did she include Salt Lake City and the rest of the US in that mega-scheme?”

“ I don’t remember, but I think she should have.”

“Well it’s changing, but I think we’re still mostly a western country.”

“Using this notion as a hypothesis, she analyzed an news item in the Netherlands in November 2011.”

“ What happened?”

“ Two young black Dutchmen were arrested for wearing a T-shirt with Zwarte Piet is Racism printed on it.”

“ I imagine that provoked a lot of political yelling and screaming.”

“ Apparently, for a long time now there has been a debate in the Netherlands as to the precise nature of this blackface. Many Dutch deny any talk of Black Peter being a portrayal of a black person. Instead they offer associations that are hard to grasp.”

“ I don’t get it. How could anyone not see the connection?”

“In order to try to understand why the Dutch generally fail to make this connection Stoler makes a plea for going beyond the idea that Zwarte Piet is racist. And using the notion of cultural aphasia, she suggests that professional ethnologists re-associate this connection and make it known to the general public.”

“This raises some disturbing questions about what it means to know and not know something at the same time.”

“And about what is implied because it goes without saying, or because it can’t be thought, or because it can be thought and is known but can’t be said.”

“ You mean it’s not a matter of either/or?’

“ Exactly. It’s sort of like making a distinction between stubborn ignorance and/or sudden knowledge, and it has to do with the clogged and confused spaces in between.”

“ I’ve got some of that right now.”

“OK. Here’s the deal. Some changing cultures of concealment have failed or chosen to remove racism when they disconnected their history of racialised privilege and wealth. It’s a disconnect between words and things. So some folks are not able to recognize things in the world and give them proper names.”

“ Got it! That’s “aphasia” in that culture’s collective history brain, right?”

“ Yep!”

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