Flesh, eyes, skin—the physical and the psychic—have shaped the language of racist violence. In Indonesia, too.
RACISM grows from a festering sore. Traces of psychic wounds exist as a result of latent paranoia and anxious politics. This is why racism can appear wild and irrational, but at the same time it is able to be strategic and formulate rationale.
Every now and then that festering sore—infectious—causes fever and delirium. It seems this is what makes ‘racism’ explode into terrifying action that makes the discourse of hatred like constant delirium.
The world has witnessed this over and over again.
Nazism, which set out to cleanse Germany (and Europe) of Jews, was only one of the most famous examples. The sore had begun when Germany, which had lost WWI, had to sign the Treaty of Versailles that disarmed and utterly humiliated them. At the time, most Germans were ill and poor after the bombs and guns. Germany easily became a field of anger, hate and suspicion.
That wounded field—a huge festering sore—was what Hitler cultivated: hatred towards ‘them’, towards the ‘not-us’—formulated as the Jews, or Slavs, or communists. The climax was the darkest cruelty of the 20th century: the extermination of six million Jews, including the use of gas chambers.
We know what happened in Germany also happened in other places, in other times.
November 8, 1898. Election day, which became a day of extreme tension in Wilmington, North Carolina. Blacks there were flourishing both economically and politically, and even the state government was formed on behalf of the ‘Negroes’. The election that day seemed set to continue the improvement of the Black population.
But, for the previous month, Whites—who wanted to protect their ‘racial superiority’—had campaigned bitterly attacking the Black candidates, expressing paranoia and acute unease. They formed armed patrols that circled Wilmington.
And the intimidation worked. Their party won.
Even so, the day after the election, Whites gathered in a general meeting and made a declaration. The citizens “do hereby declare that we will no longer be ruled and will never again be ruled, by men of African origin.” They demanded the resignation of the mayor and chief of police.
The next day they marched to the office of The Daily Record newspaper, which was led by a black journalist. The building was burnt down. It did not stop there, the whites then shot blacks in the street, including children. Around 100 people were killed.
Meanwhile, a group of white citizens occupied the City Hall. They made threats, with arms, demanding the officials give up their posts. They even toppled the elected mayor and replaced him with their leader.
A week after this coup d’etat, all black prominent citizens and businessmen were evicted from Wilmington.
In Washington DC, the federal capital, no one took action. This 19th century blatant political robbery succeeded, and was soon forgotten as nothing uncommon. It was only in the 21st century that it became widely discussed. Even though, as we know, this still did not stop paranoia, hate and even murder.
“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass,” Baby Suggs says in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. “Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out…”
Yes, ‘flesh’, ‘eyes’, ‘skin’—the physical and the psychic—have shaped the language of racist violence. In Indonesia, too. In Bukan Takdir (Not Destiny), an analysis of the image of Chinese in the Indonesian archipelago since the 19th century, written by Widjajanti W. Dharmowijono, we find this document:
“The Mongols who wander around here with the name Chinese, are still a model of ugliness…ugliness not so much based on their vulgarity and sloppiness…but their disgusting expression. The entire Chinese history, the entire character of their civilization, their religion and their view of life can be read in the Chinese face: the history of cowards and liars: the character of a civilization that knows no movement other than that of tethered cattle in the field…”
This document was written by a Dutchman in 1884—who could not differentiate ‘Chinese’ and ‘Mongols’, who saw Javanese as ‘like monkeys’ and Negroes as being like ‘dumb beasts’. He was narrow-minded, but not alone.
As Robert Nurks den Joengere wrote in his Op Java, langs kruisweg en slingerpad; kritische pennekrassen, we find implicit the Dutch sense of anxiety—and jealousy—in the Indies at the time towards the prosperity of the ‘Chinese’. We read: “The Chinese have become stronger and more evil.” They no longer only “extort the natives, but also the Europeans.”
This sentence was repeated in the 20th century. Not word for word, but it showed that post-colonial Indonesia had its own distrust, paranoia and latent psychic wounds. ‘Riots’ that destroyed and looted the possessions of people labeled ‘Chinese’ occurred repeatedly. In turn, distrust, paranoia and psychic wounds were formed among them too.
Of course, racism is not only one directional, and not in one group alone. And it is not going to disappear.
But we cannot give up. There are parts of the present that must be rescued, because today is always proceeding towards the future.