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The United Colors of America

February 2005
The United Colors of America


In the early seventies, the frail philosopher President of India, who bore an androgynous name ? Radhakrishnan ? a divine fusion of god and goddess, had a favorite anecdote that he enjoyed narrating while traveling abroad: When god first baked earth to create man, he was understandably impatient, thus coming up with an under-baked paleface. On the next try, being overcautious he ended up with an African. And then he got the hang of it, and made Indians.

Dr. Radhakrishnan was a brainy Brahmin of wheatish complexion, and hailing from an erstwhile British colony, must have derived a vicarious pleasure seeing his hosts wince at his racy, not so diplomatic after-dinner story. Dr. R had seen firsthand how the Brits could single handedly control rebelling Indian mobs, not with the superiority of swords or firearms, but with the imaginary might of their lofty skin shade. This deep ingrained submission to the white sahibs, a perverse human condition that pre-dated Stockholm syndrome, is perplexing when we look back today; but then so was slavery and all other forms of oppression. Subjugated masses in occupied colonies of Asia and Africa have suffered from a color inferiority; on the corollary, the fair-skinned patricians enjoyed a snooty chutzpah, fuelled by an illusion of supremacy over the uncouth coolies.

Malcolm X, in one of his signature virulent attacks on anything white, claimed that the white man cunningly gave demeaning synonyms to the word, black: dark, wicked, gloomy, dirty, soiled, and other despicable connotations. To extend a spiritual superiority, X continues, like a bull that has seen red, they went on to portray Jesus Christ in white skin, blue eyes, and at times, comically, in blonde hair.

We know of studies in the mid-twentieth century that proved colored kids preferred white dolls over dark ones. Color is not just skin deep; it runs deeper, into our red hearts and gray brain cells. Instinctively, and without malice, we tend to say, "I don't remember her name, but she was oriental," or "white." It's like the disturbing question in the old Indian play, Sharashayya, "Is a leper's heart also leprous?" Well, St. Francis didn't think so, but saints and sadhus are accidental mutants of our species, and don't belong to the mainstream.

History teaches us this phenomenon was not merely a color thing; it existed from time immemorial, a small clique trying to rule over the vast majority ? the primordial hunger for power ? the ultimate aphrodisiac, according to Kissinger. Through ages these power mongers have used various tools world over: race, caste, color, religion, and what not, to be on top of the food chain, so that like monkeys perched on upper branches, these primates could defecate on the ones below.

Our skin shade comes from the pigment, melanin, and poetically enough both light and dark hued folks have the same organic dye in their epidermis. The catch is there are two forms of this pigment depending on one's latitude. In the tropics, the dark eumelanin is produced as a biological shield against ultraviolet radiation, kinda like an in-built sunscreen. Conversely, those in colder terrains produce pheomelanin, which makes them fair. Fair? Maybe X did have a point after all. Growing up in India, I remember my well-tanned sister lavishly applying a popular Unilever product ? Fair and Lovely. Like the McDonald's ad, one is tempted to ask, "Did anyone say Michael Jackson?"

When Columbus lost his bearings on the high seas and landed on the wrong shore, thanks to his lucky stars, the local inhabitants were awaiting the arrival of a white skinned god. With a few beads and raw determination, the gritty Spaniard managed to establish his Queen's suzerainty over a rich, fertile land. Cardinal Desmond Tutu of South Africa once described a similar experience in his motherland. At one point, his people, he said, owned the land; but the white pastors came with their bibles, and they told us "? to close our eyes and pray, and we did. But, when we opened our eyes we had the bible, and they had the land."

But that's all gone now; nemesis has been catching up in most parts of the planet, yet ethnic hurdles still persist in some pockets. In Germany, Turks have to survive bureaucratic fire hoops to become citizens; Arab countries do not allow outsiders to own land, not to mention exercising of suffrage. Papa-Dodi, of Princess Diana fame, was refused British citizenship for some crummy reason, but the truth was they could not get over a camel-rider owning their sanctum sanctorum ? Harrods. We live in an advanced century, but jealousy and baldness still has no medicine, even with the advent of nanotechnology.

Whoopi Goldberg, a Malcom X in lower case, insists that no Caucasian has the right to call themselves American, for they are all European Americans, just like she is African American. This can get a bit out of hand, like a turbaned Sikh cab driver in Manhattan asking his Native-Indian passenger, "So you are Indian, but you are not from India?"

But for such minor snafus, we in the U.S. are far ahead in this noble pilgrimage towards mosaicdom; to make kingdoms and nationalisms pass�, like fountain pen and macho men. Yes, a melting pot, and certifiably so. Who else religiously releases postage stamps every year for Hanukah, Id, and Kwanzaa?

Dreamy immigrants from all over, before boarding Battleship America at Ellis Island, or later at International airports, willingly dropped their past to be born again, like snakes shedding their skin, and in some cases venom, too. Scores of brilliant brains and brawn melt in this cultural masala, and emerge like a seamless rare alloy, to the chagrin, and at times envious rage of the parochial locales they hail from.

We see this steady percolation ? of our nation becoming a microcosm of the planet itself ? on a mundane level, in our everyday life. Hispanic radio stations and TV channels mushrooming in large metropolises, like Quesadillas; Gyro joints run by Hmongs or folks from Kosovo; South Indians directing Hollywood movies and running for Congress; Chinese, Korean, and Japanese sign boards sprouting at malls and airports; newspapers in numerous languages being printed and sold in America, and on goes the list of osmosis.

Chris Rock captured it at the macro level with his pointed humor. "We know the country is changing when the topmost rap artist is a white man; when the top golfer is a black man; when the tallest NBA player is Chinese; when our baseball teams import pitchers from Japan; when the star speaker at the National Democratic convention is a Kenyan; when the Grammy goes to an Indian..." Welcome to the kaleidoscopic colors of America; the rainbow of hope, and an almost Utopian land, conceived in the daring philosophy that all men are created equal, irrespective of how they are baked.

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