If Gandhi Was a Racist…

By Guest Columnist Apr 28, 2008

By Rend Smith Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, leader of the first and only nonviolent social justice movement to ever liberate a country–is suspected of not having liked black people. Evidently, people intimately familiar with the spiritual leader’s life already knew this, I, however, discovered this fact today, courtesy of a press release that landed in my inbox this morning– one promoting a book called "Gandhi Under Cross-Examination." According to the press release, the new book reveals that, among other bigoted actions, our favorite civil rights hero promoted segregation in Durban, South Africa. "The local post office had two doors," the press release explains, "- one for blacks and Indians and another for whites. Calling it an ‘invidious distinction,’ Gandhi successfully campaigned for a third door for Indian use only." I don’t plan on reading this book. As a matter of fact, I wish I could somehow un-read the press release. I have no idea whether the claims the book makes are true (though a quick Google search reveals they most likely are). But since the semester I took a college philosophy course dubbed "Gandhi: Truth and Nonviolence", I’ve indulged in the fantasy that the pious Hindu and I would’ve gotten along upon meeting–that shaking hands warmly, we’d have looked into each other’s eyes and found instant kinship (being a writer involves fasting and sewing your own clothes, after all). The idea that, if such a meeting had actually taken place, the word Kaffir might have pulsed inside the holy-man’s head as he gritted a smile at me and neglected my outstretched hand, is one of the more disturbing realities i can conceive of. The severe tax of self-aware blackness is that one will– upon careful historical examination–lose a lot of heroes. It’s not that it’s impossible to separate the good that icons did from the bad they may have felt. No. Immanuel Kant was still a brilliant philosopher, Woodrow Wilson a gifted president, Mahatma Gandhi a faithful leader. Regardless of what they might have felt about the brownness of my skin, I still admire them. But there is a difference between admiration and hero-worship. Admiration is a calculated appraisal of a person’s deeds, while hero-worship is more personal. It’s romantic, in fact. A person will gently drift to sleep thinking about their heroes, write poetry about their heroes, hang on to items their heroes once touched. The prerequisite for these feelings? That the figure they revolve around not only deserve to be the subject of these passions, but have once been capable of, in some way or another, if the time and circumstances had been right, returning them. I’m not going to read that book. Rend Smith is a freelance writer who has been employed by the Antioch Review, the Dayton City Paper, and the Hill Rag. He has won several awards and two grants in connection with his work.