The past has a ripple effect on the present. Unless we know who we were, we cannot know who we are.
Aamer Rahman, an Australian-Bangladeshi comedian, sheds an ingeniously skewed perspective on the value of history in his ‘Reverse Racism’ bit that now has over a million YouTube hits. By flipping the history of colonialism, he brings to light many of the power dynamics we take for granted in today’s society.
He speeds through the highlights of colonialism, arguing that the only way he could be a ‘reverse racist’ is if he went back in time and convinced the leaders of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Central America to occupy Europe and steal their resources (and set up a trans-Asian slave trade).
His irony-laden history lesson gets even more poignant when he suggests that those leaders ‘set up systems that privilege black and brown people at every conceivable social, political, and economic opportunity, so white people would never have any hope of real self-determination.’ And, ‘just for kicks, subject white people to coloured people’s standards of beauty.’
Rahman’s alternate Bizarro World holds up a mirror to our own accepted notions of how things ought to be. The supremacy of the West over the last few centuries was by no means a foregone conclusion. It came on the heels of Europe’s very Dark Ages, a term that is itself loaded with the conception that nothing of any worth transpired during that period. Truth is, while continental Europe was in its Dark Ages, Asia was at a cultural apogee and the Middle East was a global hub for new knowledge.
The fact that we don’t learn this in school is no accident. It is reflective of Rahman’s ‘systems of privilege’ that modern Western history deliberately includes no mention of the scientific, philosophical, and cultural heritage it owes to the Middle East and Asia.
For almost half a millennium – from the 15th to 18th centuries – while most Europeans were living in gutter-ridden mud streets, the Ottoman Empire was a beacon of shining sophistication, and Indian maharajas lived lives so lavish that their individual wealth would have surpassed that of whole countries on the Continent. But, it was a Chinese invention that would change the fate of the West – and the rest – for with the introduction of Chinese gunpowder to the Continent, Europe was able to lay siege to the entire world.
In a way, colonialism has been more of a European obsession than that of other continents, who chose the paths of isolation, in the case of China, or of inclusion, in the case of the Ottomans.
Nevertheless, the point here is that even a simple understanding of the contours of history can radically change our perspective on our world. Why is European Renaissance art considered a global standard today when Chinese art has the world’s richest heritage? Why is English the lingua franca today when Arabic was the language of learning in Europe until 500 years ago?
What we are today is a result of what happened yesterday. Questioning why things are is the only way to understand who we are. Rahman’s comedic bit subversively questions the ruling power dynamics of today’s society, and silently asks the right question: ‘why do things have to be the way they are?’
The unspoken answer, of course, is: ‘they don’t have to be.’