You all know I’m a big fan of Kwame Anthony Appiah. I like the idea of moral cosmopolitanism. I think it might be the only way to effectively erode racism at its very foundations. I mean, what could possibly be better than learning about our global citizens and interacting with them in an engaging, non-threatening, un-threatened way?
Appiah invites potential cosmopolitans to simply start with watching one movie with subtitles a month. Just one. Just download one off your favourite movie store app, curl up with a bowl of popcorn and prepare to read. Right? Except, what if you can’t read?
Right, well then you can travel. Or you can try to make friends with people from other cultures. Or you can connect with people on the internet – oh, wait: You need to be able to read to connect with people on the internet, too, right? Especially with people from other cultures. Especially with people whose first language might be different than your own.
So does that mean cosmopolitanism is limited to the literate? And, by extension, does that mean cosmopolitanism is limited to those with the means to pursue it?
And then, of course, there is the problem of apparently culturally homogeneous groups racializing segments of its own society. Like the Somali clans Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes in Infidel. Or like websites devoted to ‘The People of Wal-Mart’ or tv shows like “Moonshiners” or expressions like “hillbilly” or “trailer park trash”. It’s nice to think it doesn’t happen here. I think for some people its kinda comforting to think that we have races called ‘white’ and ‘black’ and ‘Asian’ and ‘Native’ and that all of the cruel things we do to each other outside those race labels are just, you know, mean. Unless, of course, you happen to be poor and shop at Wal-Mart. Or you happen to be poor and living high up in the Appalachians. Or you happen to be poor and living on a reserve.
An interesting conclusion came out of my paper about the construction of race in Roman Antiquity. In a society as wealthy as Rome at its height, racist behaviours had absolutely nothing to do with the colour of a person’s skin, and absolutely everything to do with their relative wealth and their associated level of education. Doesn’t that sound familiar? If you are poor and you can’t read in an otherwise wealthy society, then it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white or whatever. It just matters that you are almost assured to be poor for the rest of your life. And you are almost assured to be ashamed of your circumstance. And, unfortunately, just like this word ‘race’ that we apply to aggregations of skin colour, nose shape, eye shape and hair type, poverty (and shame) is often passed down to our children, and their children, and so on.
So, here’s what I’m thinking: If you are wealthy and literate, regardless of your ethnocultural background, you have a moral obligation to learn something about your other global citizens. Read transnational literature. Watch movies with subtitles. Travel. And do all of these things with the goal of learning before judging. We are, all of us, people. And we’re all doing the best we know how. But the other thing? The more important thing? Be aware that there are hungry people, where you live. Be aware that they need to eat to learn. And understand that this thing we call racism, this thing that is dividing us and killing us and consuming all that is good, it can be overcome.
Reading has always been a political act. If you are descended from African slaves, you know that in your skin. Your mitochondria remember The Middle Passage, I assure you. If you are descended from Europeans, or Middle Easterns, or South Asians, there was a time for you, too, under Rome’s Emperors, or the Church’s mercenaries, or your fledgling nation’s misguided revolutionaries, which that bit of you passed down from the first mother your family tree ever knew remembers – when your impoverished ancestors were prohibited from reading. And how some of them, the bravest few, learned to do it anyway, and consequently saved your life. In all of the world’s cultures where there is money, where money has come to be valued so much, we have these groups of people who are reviled because they are poor, and remain poor because they are illiterate, and remain illiterate because they are hungry.
Reading is a political act, people. Spread the word.