Is Sir Simon Schama ‘a racist’?
Well you heard what he said ‘bloody blacks’… it’s obvious that he is, isn’t it! Are you perhaps a racist for supporting him… I think you are!
That’s how it goes… isn’t it?
Look if you are not on the right side ( my side) you are on the wrong side… and if you are not for us, with us, then you are against us… and if you are against us then… it would be right and proper to destroy you.
That is also how it goes in the mind of many people… just looking around at the world tells you that much…
So I should say that I am not supporting Sir Simon Schama, I know nothing about his personal views on anything and I am not a racist… but giving an alternate reading.
It is interesting to see how quickly someone, who is a ‘name’ even I have heard of, with intelligence, position, money, influence, status, by using some words unwisely can be undone, erased, annihilated by the zeitgeist.
If you search the Internet you will find many plaudits for him e.g. from Penguin books:
In inimitable style, our greatest historian and master storyteller Simon Schama makes an irresistible case for the power of art and its necessary place in our lives…
Of course it is possible that at the moment he holds racist views (at least he is unlikely to be accused of being anti-Semitic!)…but to deduce that with certainty of a definite conclusion from what was said – from the words – may well, in my opinion, be a mistake.
Certainly to define and encapsulate him in that simple conclusion would be a violence to the undoubtedly manifold ways in which he interacts, has interacted with the world, and will do in the future…but this view, which will be held by many, will put a limit on his freedom to interact with the world as before, as he is seen, objectified through the eyes of those who view him as a racist.
Following the interview he has already resigned his prestigious professorships…
From his point of view perhaps, rather than this indicating guilt, it is just wise to stop digging when you’re in a hole… attempting to explain may sound like weasel words… he may not know why he spoke as he did.
Certainly universities need income and adverse media publicity is potentially damaging… especially under the current economic climate… so continuing may not have been an option.
I heard on the radio that he can be controversial and it may be that as people listened they linked something he has said in the past with his recent response to a question. We are very good at making links to that which validate the conclusions arising from our ego’s desire to pigeonhole for simplicity and stability…. polarising this incredibly complex and dynamic world into ‘good and bad’ ‘right and wrong’.
I haven’t heard him make any controversial remarks and had no prejudice when I listened to him speaking… and what he said, as I heard it, did not lead me to conclude that he is a racist.
How can you say that?… What he said was was so bad that the BBC have to give a warning before repeating it!
Well I’d like to put your notion into question…using what I understand about how we make sense of the world using words …and also the way my mother own mother used similar words!
From a deep dharma point of view it is a mistake to define anyone as ‘something as such’…a knowable entity…’a racist’.
At the moment his potential, all that he has shown in the past and all that he may become in the future is seemingly devalued, negated or erased by that word. The words he spoke, also the word he responded to, carry a deep meaning for some… although both were were sounds arising and passing which could be interpreted (or not) in different ways.
These words that he used have now been used to define him; the way they were interpreted by some, form the building blocks of the virtual prison into which he has been placed… but both this illusory prison and the prisoner are the fruit of our own creativity arising from patterns of thoughts which we appropriate as ours because they make sense to us.
As we identify strongly with these thoughts, fusing our life energy with them, we become preoccupied, fascinated and taken over by them. Then, as we identify with them more strongly, perhaps confirmed by the belief that ‘everyone else is thinking the same… so that must be right’, these thoughts form beliefs and then certainties…then absolute certainties, incontrovertible…
So we become imprisoned by our fixed views… we cannot see it differently.
Going ‘under the power of the word’ is an emprisonment … the word itself does not have power beyond what we project onto it, what we give to it. However, in this world, what is deduced from a momentary display can be used to define a being… reification – the making of things, entities- occurs.
Once we have an entity, a ‘thing’, we stick what we think it is, a label, onto it and from then on we relate to the label which we ourselves imposed as though it were identical to that to which we had affixed it.
On the basis of the label a persons value can be taken, not ‘as a given’, but dependent upon whether or not it is in accord with our own viewpoint.
So what happened to me when I heard his words following the warning?
Initially I had heard it in such a way that I was surprised that anyone was making a fuss about it.
Huh…he said ‘bloody blacks’… are you nuts?
No, let me explain.
He was reacting (perhaps more strongly than he realised at the time) to that the suggestion that the treatment of ‘blacks’ by the ‘whites’ was genocide…
As an intellectual he will know the definition of genocide… as a Jew he will feel the definition of genocide…
Genocide has a definition of a ‘deliberate extermination of a race or other group…’
and that intention led to the appalling atrocities suffered by people of his religion, his friends and and family under the Nazis.
This is very different to the intention and attitude of many ‘Whites’ towards the ‘Blacks’ in the slave trade, and since.
Although effectively there is annihilation by objectification here… and the atrocities arising from that use of others as a utility in service of another’s power and wealth – the satisfaction of their desires… resonates similarly… deliberate annihilation of a race or group was not the aim of the ‘whites’…
The death of a slave might be seen as an inconvenience, an irrelevance, a pleasure, or a suitable punishment… but as the slave’s function was to work, and money had changed hands for this, it would be incorrect to suggest that death was, generally speaking, the intended outcome.
I suspect that it was the imprecise and incorrect use of the word genocide, to which for him much emotion attaches, that caused anger to move through him… and express itself with expression of the word ‘bloody’ before Blacks.
It may have been, you could say, intellectual annoyance at the stupidity of the suggestion… showing a low level of understanding of the ‘meaning’ of words… particularly for him a word which was redolent with particular meaning.
Whoever suggested that genocide was appropriate to the situation… maybe felt that in their bones, because of its heinous nature… however the dictionary in Sir Simon Schama’s head, I’m sure, is very precise.
As a professor he teaches, no doubt with rigour, and if one of his students had come up with this notion that the appropriate word for these different situations was genocide, he would be putting him straight… no doubt.
His (my reading) anger/ irritation at the suggestion led to the use of the word ‘bloody’ before ‘black’… rather than saying ‘I get bloody annoyed by people misusing the word genocide. You can see from the large numbers of people surviving that an intentional annihilation did not take place.’
The context however was a within a public debate, with the mood of the times following the tragic death of Mr Floyd… and what he said is open to interpretation…
So how has my Mum helped me to this different reading? Because it was her voice that I was listening to as he spoke…
She would say ‘get out of the bloody way!’ ‘shut the bloody door!’ etc. ‘Bloody’ clearly had nothing to do with the ‘door’ or ‘the way’ ( the object following the word)… it had to do with the fact that she was angry and frustrated… and this is how she expressed it.
I think Sir Simon Schama was doing the same… because of the emotions running through him at the time he didn’t have the space to respond and say ‘hang on a minute… that word ‘genocide’… you know that has a particular meaning which I don’t think fits here. Let me explain…’
So we can be with what occurs very clearly… or with increasing levels of definition, of certainty, of emotional and karmic obscuration…
I wish him, my mother, and all…well and ease, allowing all tensions and rigidities is to dissolve in their spacious ground.
Shelley’s poem Ozymandias
referenced by James long ago…referring to king Rameses… who was the subject of an interesting programme about on radio four at 1.45 today 3rd July… links with this if you’d like to follow it up on ‘listen again’ or whatever you use.
Photo of Rameses borrowed with thanks from seeingthepast.com
Impermanent and illusory…is the display of the mind.