Racism, though long deemed to have been eradicated in modern society, is unfortunately more ingrained than once thought. It is not only centralized in America, where slavery was once a dominant issue, but it has roots everywhere in the world that humans have reached. As George Orwell recounts in his narrative, “Shooting an Elephant,” racism feeds upon numerous psychological factors. These are the same psychological factors that Memmi also outlines in his essay, “Racism and Oppression.” The intersection of their works, which is seen through tracing the psychological foundations of racism, provides a framework in which to examine this universal condition.
The first point of intersection between the two works is in Memmi’s declaration that “to be big, all the racist need do is climb on someone else’s back.” This someone else is the most obvious victim of racism: the poor, the weak, and the unfortunate. The racist does not try to oppress those who are known to be “strong,” as they know they cannot step on these people on their way to perceived superiority. Instead, they turn their attention to those who are already defeated, to the people who have all but given up fighting. These were the people who were the perpetual victims, never the victors. Hence, they focus all their racist attention on the people who, with very little effort, acquiesce to them, as they have already been shown to be defeated time and again in the annals of history.
And indeed, this is how the British came about to conquer the Burmese. When the elephant began ravaging the town, Orwell was called to restrain the animal, as “the Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against it.” If the people had no weapons to protect themselves from a creature they were in daily contact with and one that they knew could very well erupt in a rage anytime, then hopes for any sort of sophisticated weaponry to ward off their invaders is dim.
Furthermore, these people were very poor, living in “a labyrinth of squalid bamboo huts, thatched with palmleaf.” Contrast this with the homes of the Europeans back in their own country, which utilized advanced architectural technologies and materials. With the flimsy materials the Burmese used to build their houses, the Europeans knew that they were a backward people, one that history left behind in the past. As such, they realized that it would be easy to conquer and subjugate the Burmese.
However, Memmi’s point is refuted in Orwell’s realization “of the real nature of imperialism [and] the real motives for which despotic governments act” as he sets out to shoot the elephant:
…[The crowd was] watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East.
Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but I reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys…To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.
The white man, in this scenario, is the one who is now being controlled, manipulated, and even, in a way, subjugated by the Burmese. Through colonizing, they themselves have become the ones colonized. The Burmese people, instead of being the ones stepped upon by the British, have become the ones who are stepping on the backs of these “historically strong” people. As they know the British are fastidious about cultivating an appearance of power and authority, the Burmese exploit this weakness for their own advantage.
A second point that appears in Orwell’s literary work is that there exists “the surprising racism practiced by the oppressed man himself.” In theory, people who are victims of abuse and oppression should bond together, for it is through one another that they are able to weather the cruelty and subjugation imposed on them. In number, they should find strength. In practice, however, this fails to hold. Even the people who have been victims of racism can inflict and carry out the same kind of abuse on others and becoming racists themselves.
In “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell illustrates this reverse form of racism by depicting the various ways in which both he and his fellow Europeans were insulted and jeered at by the Burmese.
Being a “sub-divisional police officer of the town,” Orwell became the favorite target of the anger, ire, and anti-European sentiment of the Burmese. This is because he was extremely visible, going around the town as he went about his duties. Furthermore, it was his job to enforce the rules, which are made by the British Empire. Though the Burmese had no “guts to raise a riot,” they certainly carried out their insults in more personal ways.
One time, during a soccer match, Orwell was tripped by a Burmese player and the referee, another Burmese, simply looked the other way. The crowd roared with laughter, and the Burmese players, knowing they could get away with such an insult, continued tripping Orwell on the football field. As a result, whenever he was spied on the streets, insults were continuously thrown at him when he was already several meters away.
Finally, Memmi points to a universal conclusion about racism, that “everyone, or nearly everyone, is an unconscious racist, or a semi-conscious one, or even a conscious one.” It encompasses people from all cultures, races, and religions, including the most-liberal minded man, the most politically sensitive nation, and the highest-educated woman who do not necessarily fit into the mode of the stereotypical racist. Different people approach racism differently, offering differing logical reasons and interpretations, though it always boils down to the same thing – we are all guilty of being racists in one way or another, overtly or covertly.
Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” by presenting ideas that side with and vie for the Burmese people, can seem to be anti-racist. Indeed, Orwell explicitly states his disgust with the empire: “theoretically – and secretly, of course – I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.” Yet, Orwell is not the morally scrupulous anti-racist he paints himself to be.
Just a few lines after this declaration of being “all for the Burmese,” he describes them as being “evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make [his] job impossible.” His “greatest joy in the world,” on the other hand, “would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.” These sentiments, he said, were simply “the normal by-products of imperialism…”
On the other hand, if Orwell was one of those people whom Memmi described as being an unconscious racist, his fellow British were the fully-conscious types. When Orwell was discussing with some other officers his act of killing an elephant for killing a coolie, the younger men in the group responded that he was wrong for doing so, “because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.” For them, the worth of a human life, especially one of their colonized victims, is negligible compared to the worth of an elephant. It is simply another way of saying that the life of the people under their rule was not important.
Orwell and Memmi both present the universal problem of racism. Though they do not agree on all points, they do agree that racism comes at a huge cost, both for the racist and the victim.
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