White privilege and universal relatability in The European Tribe by Caryl Phillips
“In a situation in which history is distorted, the literature of its people often becomes its history.”- Caryl Phillips
When Caryl Phillips made this statement in his work, The European Tribe
, further reading of the novel would reveal that he took this to heart as a writer, as he confronts issues of national identity, self identity, and the role of history in the novel. Indeed, much of the excerpts in Phillips’ The European Trib
e read as nonfiction, a historical account of European relations, Imperialism, Moroccan current events, historical facts about the Holocaust, and much more. His work reveals similar sentiments of anger and disapproval toward Imperialism and Western culture that Jamaica Kincaid does in A Small Place.
Kincaid points angry fingers at both her own country for continuing to depend on tourism after independence, and at the Western world for continuing to exploit her home country, seeking human capital in the service industry as a replacement for slavery. However, Phillips employs tactics well beyond the genre of travel narrative to seek relatability before providing his argument, linking story after story of geographical locations and their pitfalls in order to clarify universal truths and address universal dilemmas.
Of course, the critique of the Western world is not a secret he keeps until the end of the novel. Even the title, The European Tribe,
implies that Phillips is incorporating different histories, and chooses to view Europe as a group to be looked at from the outside in. He reduces the rejection he feels in each corner of Europe to an overarching, collective ignorance that pervade all of Europe’s history and relations. Phillips is depicting the usual common place racism embedded in history and present day culture alike as the “other,” as the “strange.” By doing this, he brings into question the absurdity in Europe’s continuing lack of respect for a group of people who are increasingly becoming a presence in Britain. The European Tribe is indicative of all of Europe being united in their exclusiveness toward other cultures, other residents of their once “pure” nation-state.
While pluralizing all of the European cities he encounters to one group, reducing their discontent with other ethnicities to one overall form of ignorance, he points out complexities that continue to distort the common view of minorities. For instance, Phillips provides particular examples that elucidates a phenomenon that reminded me of the psychological concept, the “stereotype trap.” This trap describes the way in which someone who is stereotyped instantly is treated a particular way according to that treatment. In fact, the theory suggests that it is that treatment that ensures a response from the victim, which sometimes perpetuates the stereotype itself. As this occurrence is illustrated in Phillips’ hostile interaction with the racist, Norwegian security guards, so he goes on to articulate the phenomena that if a person “is told in many differing and subtle ways that he is nothing, he will give nothing in return.”
While Phillips clearly seeks to criticize Europe’s generalization and pluralism when identifying other cultures by calling his novel, The European Tribe
, it dually spoke to me as a message to remain universal. As he says in his article, Necessary Journeys
, his struggle with claiming his identity came out of a need to bind himself not only to a tribe or clan, “but to the human race.” He believed that “the more vigorously one resists a narrow view of self, the more one sees.” Indeed, his education’s inability to provide him with successful black writers is reminiscent of a subjective history book that is always written by the victor. What about the “alternative histories?” The women’s history, the workers’ history, the African American history, have all seemed to go unrecorded, or at least, unremembered. He identifies with other ethnicities and minority groups who have been outcasted by society, such as the Jews and the Holocaust. This paints an optimistic future in which every group that has been pushed to the margins of society overcome differences to unite as the other, and become the majority.
As he stated in his article “Necessary Journeys,” that appeared in The Guardian
, he knew that, “the contemporary social, political, and cultural milieu of Britain would inevitably, and rightly, find its way into my work, but I was keen that at its center would be the human heart.” While Phillips follows the tradition of many travel narrative writers by incorporating his personal story to exemplify the issues he confronts in The European Tribe
, he asserts a hope in making the struggle of identity under rigid social conventions a universal issue, which speaks to generations and issues well beyond what he could have imagined. Not only does Phillips provide an account of a black man in Britain, but Phillips addresses the complications inherent for anyone living in the 21st century. With globalization, technology and the internet, all of our identity, despite race, goes beyond the confines of where we live. We have access to any genre, any kind of film, read different things, and so forth. Indeed, the “media colonization” that he speaks of is challenged by the fact that most people have the ability to write, post photographs, and videos of their world. However, this might indicate a new phase in which, while there is a plethora of opportunities to have a voice, it is still more readily available to the countries and locations that can afford the technologies that allow new modes of expression.
Personally, what differentiated Phillips clearly anti-imperialist sentiment from that of Kincaid was how relatable Phillips journey was with my own travel experience. For instance, Phillips’ experience in Casablanca instantly made me think of my time in Morocco. While in Marrakesh, everyone I met had explained to me that there was the Old Medina, reserved for the hustling Berbers who acted the old fashioned part, and the “New” Marrakesh, which was described as the newly renovated, “European” half of the city, that was safe for tourists to go clubbing at night. I always thought it was odd that such a contrived city plan defined the authentic-looking Marrakesh. At first glance, the city appeared so foreign at the town square, exactly like Phillips experience in Casablanca, where beggarwomen sit “bundled up in doorways… babies sucking at their large, dry breasts, the women’s hands jutted out like thick obstacles.” But after a few hours around the medina, one could accidentally stumble upon the other half of the city, clean of traditional attire and instead dressed to the nines in “clean concrete and glass.” This was the instance in which I could relate to Phillips sentiment where a Westernized, European model of the future city “existed in the face of disorder, underdevelopment, and unimaginable misery.”
Similarly, upon reading Phillips’ excitement to test out being the only Black man in travelling through Norway, I chuckled at my experience in small villages in Ecuador, when children would point openly and yell, “Gringa,” as if I was their discovery. I felt like a celebrity, and imagined I was the first American they had ever seen. My relating to Phillips quickly disintegrated as I realized I would never, ever have that true experience of being the first of my kind someone has seen. No matter how rural I have gone, the friends I had yet to meet and strangers that had yet to stare at me in what I perceived as wonder did not think of me as an alien creature. They had seen me on billboards, on television screens, in newspaper scraps, or Coca Cola advertisements.
By the end of his accounts, I related to Phillips enough through his travels and his problem of identity that his angry call to arms against the Western world, neocolonization, and my white privilege seemed like an inevitable resolution to the problems he frequently faced. He condemns Fascism and its popularity as a resolution to political crisises, “with its simplistic racial equations for complex socio-economic problems.” I couldn’t deny feeling sympathetic and in agreement when Phillips points the finger at his well educated colleages for the “blind bigotry” that ensues. Indeed, it is hard for me to get into a classroom that is completely willing to bring in the issue of class relations and economic problems in the United States. Instead, the argument shifts to social issues easily. Students my age get uncomfortable, and reject the notion that they are privileged in many ways, that it is easier to pull themselves up by their bootstraps than the majority of America. My particular white privilege is even further enforced by a “powerful history” “a secure sense of collective identity.” (127) These truths, or “issues,” make NYU students uncomfortable for the most part. The refusal to admit the inequality of our own position, the inequalities they have been long told that the United States is an oasis from, are too uncomfortable for them to confront. I agree with Phillips; nothing will change unless this influential group of intellectuals is willing to discuss it.