ASA 10: The Interview

All right, I know that many of you have no idea what the title means. And it doesn't matter terribly. I'll decode: ASA stands for Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth. I'm currently attending a conference in Belfast and am struck by the centrality of one recurrent theme: the theme of peace, of terror, of reconciliation.

Of course it's no accident that these themes recur in Northern Ireland, where the peace settlement is gaining history of its own. What is striking me, though, is that Europeans (and others) are deeply engaged in the process of peace and reconciliation, so much so that they have provided fertile ground for study at the anthropological level. Again, I realize that that doesn't mean a whole lot for many of us, but I'll do my best to explain.

Maybe, first, I'll try and explain why this concerns me. part of it is the sense -- which I'm finding remarkable -- that groups of people who perpetrate mass injustices, violence, terror, oppression on other groups of people are now for some reason taking responsibility for those actions, are now working out a course of reconciliation, attempting healing so that their states, their societies, can move on. For example: the Australian government officially apologized to the Aboriginal people for their oppression during the early colonial period; the South African government carried out Truth and Reconciliation Tribunals in the post-apartheid period; the British government recently apologized to Africa and the Caribbean for their involvement in the transAtlantic slave trade.

What was very interesting for me, though, was a paper on the effects of injustice and abuse of power given by Vincent Crapanzano on the plight of the Harkis of Algeria in the post-independence era. What interested me was that his study actually uncovered the process of hurt as well as the potentiality for healing, and in this way it helped to illuminate concretely for me what is questioned by so many on this side of the world -- why, since slavery was abolished so long ago, and since colonialism has been eradicated, we still talk about the legacy of both. Answers to that question were provided in these papers, which showed fairly coherently what happens to a group of people in the aftermath of brutality and oppression, and how healing does not occur as soon as the offense has come to an end. It showed how healing must be a conscious, engaged, moral and difficult endeavour. And it showed it in anthropological terms -- that is, by pondering the possibility of cultural universals, untying the question from the too-easy myth of "race", and talking about human processes.

And this is important to our part of the world exactly why? Well, while I'd hope that it was pretty obvious to people reading, I'll spell it out. Two reasons.

First: as a people, as a "nation", we have not dealt with our own hurt and victimhood, our own history of brutality and oppression. We have not talked about what it meant to be enslaved or marginalized in our own country, about what it meant to be separated into "natives" and "residents" and although the generation of people who were faced with the concrete reality that their skin colour or cultural heritage limited what they could achieve, what they could do, is aging, the psychological residue of that lingers on in every doubt that we raise, collectively or as individuals, about what Bahamians deserve, or can do.

And second, as a people, as a "nation", we are actively engaged in oppressing another group of people, in some ways as radically and as blatantly as we ourselves were oppressed in the past. And ignoring that fact will not make it go away. We must learn that oppression is not only a product of "race"; being here in Northern Ireland, I recognize forcefully that whiteness is not a barrier to oppression, and I am reminded -- as though I'd ever forgotten -- that denying that people of the same race can oppress one another (black Bahamians vs black Haitians for instance) does not mean that oppression does not occur. What it means is that we lie about it, that's all. And if we are not careful, if we do not learn from others, we are running the risk of perpetrating, over time, the kind of victimhood that divides nations.

I will write more about this, but first I want to get hold of the papers that were presented at this conference and read them to internalize their observations. I just know this. We need to gain a sense of consciousness as a nation about oppression and victimhood. We need it to walk into the future with clear eyes.