Bigotry is nothing but Trading Poverties
“I cannot believe that she thought I’d have time for her on the same day”, she spluttered.
I nodded along. There was a time when I would have agreed wholeheartedly with her. I did not any more but I wanted to be the good friend who does not judge, so I nodded and listened.
“This is what happens to them when they come from the home country. They have no value of time. No wonder the country does not progress!”
I had heard all of this before. Indeed, I had even run support services for businesses trying to get a foothold in the west by explaining this difference to them.
“One does not just land up in the English speaking world (proxy phrase here) and try to seek appointments for this week or the next”, I would say.
“Your presence does not get you priority. Your planning does. The values here are different, and you are the outsider here – so they will keep you waiting”.
They fumed, but they listened.
“They respect their diaries more than they respect you”, I’d explain to them as they tried to not look hurt.
After all they had made the effort to travel half way across the world. They had brought their presence, the weight of their wonderful product and organisation with them to the actual place where things could happen. This was far more respectful than sending a dry email as a proxy for an ambassador, and should be valued more. Not so. This was twenty years ago, and everyone learnt to play the diary game. In the end, the diary was the winner.
My outraged friend too adopted the ways of the winner, she adopted the diary. After all, she too wanted to look like a winner.
And a winner is time poor, is she not?
A person who has control over their own time is far richer than someone who is time poor. The time poor person is beholden, and not an owner. A time poor person is sliced up into slivers of the clock. A time poor person is often overloaded, and so has to be hyper organised. A time poor person has fewer resources, and so has to do so much on their own, without support, and so has to give time to these jobs, and have nothing left over for choice, or change. A time poor person is one who does not have the power to say no, and consequently is unable to say yes to impulse. A time poor person is dependent, not independent. And so vested in this poverty, that they cannot see any other way.
To be rich is to be able to own your own time. The grandest people in the world will always have time for you within minutes if they so choose. It is their minions whose time they command who will not be able to offer such grace. It is those who have been colonised by the diary, and what it stands for who cannot offer the freedom of ‘now’, because they have none.
It is, now that one thinks of it, one of the artefacts of colonisation. And one of the binds of the gods of efficiency.
Once I was asked to explain this difference to an investor from the west. When explaining ‘our’ ways, for my skin is brown, I realised two things. That for some of them, I will always be the exotic orient, or some form of that, on the other side of the ‘us’ and ‘them’. Not just because of the colour of my skin. But because, and this was the second realisation – that I understood both. Both sides were ‘us’ to me. And they could only understand one story. They only understood their own ways and could not see beyond. This, I wondered, was racist maybe, (They were lovely people), I wondered for a moment. But then I realised, they merely poor. They had a poverty of cultural inclusion, even of cultural imagination. Those who understood only one story, stood on one side of the divide. “Our people of our ways”. Those who could understood multiple stories stood as alien.
Their poverty of stories was all they had, and in order to hold on to their self esteem and confidence, they had to hold on to their poverty and glorify it. The ‘one story’ people needed to feel strong, and I could see them trying to tell me how right they were in their ways. Just like my friend, their poverty of time, made them feel superior. Now they had two poverties they tried to use as currency – poverty of time, and poverty of stories.
(The corporate world continues to suffer these two poverties, and so it finds itself toxic, since one is fighting to be poorer. Oh, a poverty of choice and agency too. )
Since I was asked to explain these bizarre, illogical ways of the alien ‘other’ – see how they traded me down right there- I tried to explain.
“In the city I come from”, I said patiently, “we do things in sequence. When one is done, we move on to the next. We are flexible, and each of us carries on with our main thing as we wait for each other. We find ways to offer grace, respect and hospitality – and to build communities in the overlap of meetings. It’s a segue, an inclusion. Not a slice and exclusion. We do not stop mid way through a negotiation, or a conversation, just because the clock is our master. We do not make the process our master, we respect the person in front of us, and the purpose is the master.”
This confused them. It confused most of the others who had been colonised into the supremacy of the clock. Clock, and time, both human constructs that now ruled us. It seemed.
“Does this not mess up your diary?”, they asked, puzzled
“True, it does”, I replied as I added – “It’s lucky that the diary does not have feelings. It does not mind being messed up”, I joked.
I decided to land this plane. “People work in sequence. They protect their ‘me’ time in the mornings, start late. And then build for agility, flexibility and fungibility with social time. We often invite our colleagues and business associates home to continue work. They are friends and extended family too. ”
This much was enough and more, I decided.
I was in danger of trying to defend one culture and place it in opposition to another. I decided to back off. Simply because to engage would be to waste my time, and if I wasted it, I would lose it. And then, not have enough of it. Why would I do something that made me time poor? Why would I want to join their poverty lines?
I backed off, not in fight or flight, but in the interest of being richer, in time.
I would not trade in time. I would not join their games just because they pretended that their games were fun and better. I would not get trapped into their little boxes that limited my agency over myself. I would not exchange my ways for theirs.
(Sure, I would reach every meeting on time, and start and end every class to the minute. But those were chunks of my choosing, those that I decided to trade. I would not put all of myself in their baskets)
They were trading their notions of arranging work against the ones that were my heritage. I did not mind that. But it bothered me that they were placing their ways as superior. As winning ways. Not realising that they had to set them up only because they were time poor.
They were trading their poverty against my riches, and calling me inferior. I do not call this a game. I call this bullying.
It is not the first time that poverty trading has been used to create divides between ‘us’ and ‘them’. All supremacy rests on this divide, and on making their own poverty look like a virtue. Think of the grand battles between countries without warm and pleasant water – and the dignity of the wash. People with plenty cannot find themselves respecting others who use toilet paper. Peoples who are water poor find themselves building constructs such as toilet paper and lauding its superiority. Poverty Proxies are traded.
So the entire supremacy game rests on Poverty proxies.
One creates the myth of value around these proxies to make up for the lack one finds. And then, pushes these proxies onto unsuspecting cultures who were utterly unaware of the poverty. This is the curse of privilege – if you do not know what that poverty is, you will not even realise what proxies were brought in to cover it up.
You are lulled into thinking that this is a shiny new wonderful thing. I am reminded of the shiny pieces of glass that were traded by the Settlers. Worthless baubles to compensate for the lack of true value. For the settlers brought nothing but disease and their own greed and need. To claim what was not theirs, they had to create a proxy to trade. They created these pieces of glass as shiny proxies, pretended they were of value, and traded them for real value, accreting real value for gain.
Money too, incidentally, was created this way. It started off as a lack, a poverty of cash or anything of exchange to value. A proxy was created – an IOU, a promissory note. As it gained currency, it began to be called currency, or money. It was merely a promise, a piece of paper, a proxy far more than its real worth. As long as promises are met, or backed up with real value, it is not fraud.
These poverty proxies were also used for supremacy where there was none. Neither value, nor fair exchange, nor supremacy. Racism began so, with the fraudulent glorification of colour, or the poverty, the lack of colour. The lack of colour was wrapped up, and presented as a pretty bauble. A proxy compensation for a lack. These compensations that are mere cover ups then pretend to be ‘better’, and ‘superior’ and then try to establish that ‘our’ ways are better than ‘yours’. To strip out these poverty proxies is the job of decolonisation.
I am reminded of how unimpressed both the Chinese and Indian Mughal emperors were with the gifts brought to them by the travellers from the west. They had seen it all – travellers, ships, maps, baubles, mechanical instruments, and more. Each set of gifts from the settlers to the Emperors proved to be too poor. So poor that mere portraits were accepted but not to the glory of the outsiders, but as a gesture of compassion to the islanders with little to give.
The trade in poverty proxies played out here too – the lack of gifts was translated into the notion of corruption and bribery. The same people who had taken gifts to the courts of Spain, they called those gifts and called these bribery. (True corruption is a whole other culture and system, here we talk about established ambassadorial practices, and how these failed – of poverty proxied as a good). This was another poverty proxy game at play. Their own lack of valuable gifts was renamed, and the cultural customs of the other side assigned a negative value of bribery and corruption. The equation asserted was clear – what we lack is their bribery. We are better. Ugh, no, you were ignorant and rude.
Poverty of cultural sensitivity, poverty of good taste, of having access to fine stuffs, of gems and other riches of value – all these poverties were covered up rapidly. First by desperately writing home to ask for more funds to make up for the poverties made visible and then, by creating other myths of greatness by looking for things that could set them apart.
They found colour, and assigned fraudulent value to it here. Just as they had called baubles valuable, they called white skin valuable. In no sense was it valuable in that climate – it burned too soon, it was uncomfortable and it showed emotions rather rapidly (and had to be covered up in moustaches, stiff upper lips and a lot of brustle – gruff, often violent hustle). Colour, or the lack of it, they pretended, was superior. A poverty proxy that they traded. Another racism begun with the fraud of a poverty proxy.
No one can deny, nor do they, that slave trade in America began with a lack of honest, hard working labour for the cotton and corn they wanted to grow. The poverty of honest and willing labour started so much suffering inflicted on others. By othering them, and riding on the poverty proxy of colour supremacy.
The method is simple. Poverty is outed, a proxy created, the proxy asserted to have value, the trade of the proxy in exchange for real value. A few exchanges later, the fraudsters have real value in their banks. Now they really have power. Voila, and it is begun.
Time and again we have traded with fraud valuations pitched to us, not realising that these were proxies for lack, for sheer poverty. With time, with water, with skin colour and so much more, we were fooled into mistaking the lack for value. Because of the misdirection to a proxy. What was a natural difference, now became a difference in race, class, culture. Lines were drawn so battles could be fought. Us and Them are created, fighting for supremacy, fooled by Poverty proxies. For that is all that all racism is – a trade based on poverty proxies.