Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bummer of a Birthmark

According to the Bali Times (9/3-9/2010), "Bali Police Chief, Hadiatmoko, acted this week to stop police unfairly targeting foreigners (i.e. white people)--especially those on motorbikes . . . following complaints of harassment." And etc.

It's about time, right?

We all have our stories to tell--which of course is something that makes the case all the more apparent. In my first four months in Bali I was stopped four times in traffic and paid some 500,000 Rupiah for the infraction of . . . well, being white. The first time around you pay whatever the officer suggests, as you don’t know the game (the scam, that is). After that you learn to argue ever more forcefully, you learn to negotiate, you learn to dicker. You learn to carry no more than 30,000 Rupiah in your wallet, hiding the larger money elsewhere. You learn to speak more Indonesian. You learn to say "Hell no!"

The last time I was stopped, my wife happened to be riding on the back of my scooter. As soon as she took her helmet off, and the officer noted she was Indonesian, he said "Oh, okay," and went on his way.
One hardly needs strain at conclusions here.
I know something about this. I can sympathize. One never knows what to say these days, when to say it, or who to say it to. It’s a slippery slope is common conversation, a veritable minefield--for I well remember sliding down this selfsame slope not so very long ago when I mentioned to my stepdaughter, after receiving my fourth traffic ticket here, that now I knew what it was like to be a nigger.

Yes, I used the “N” word, and given that my daughter is half black in skin colour and all black in
allegiance, this was a mistake, a gaff, an affront of the first order.

“I can’t believe you said that to me,” she complained bitterly via Instant Messenger. “You of all people should have known better.”

I should have known better? Shouldn’t it have been she who should have known? She whom I had raised since the time she was in grade school?

How is it that a child can grow and yet so completely forget? How can it happen that our efforts are so easily slain by mere slogans?

Well, I had made an assumption--and we all know the old joke about assumptions, right? I had assumed that the spirit of my words would be automatically conveyed on that invisible, that mythical belt of relationship, that tale of the years, of love, of sacrifice. Yes, that selfsame tale told ultimately by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What matters is skin colour.

But wait . . . That’s exactly what I’m saying.

The officer here in Bali had made a series of assumption as well--that I was an easy target, a stranger in a strange land, and that it was likely, being a foreigner, that I could afford a substantial penalty for these unavoidable errors.
I can’t help but be reminded here of a Far Side cartoon I once saw. In the cartoon two deer are pictured conversing in the forest. One has a circular red and white target on his chest. The caption above his companion’s head reads “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal.”

We Westerners wear our own targets here in Indonesia, just as glaring, just as irremovable as that deer’s unfortunate birthmark.

Black or white or yellow or brown, being a target based on skin colour is creepy. It's disheartening, maddening, frightening, and insulting. You are reduced for the personal use of the man who misuses authority in his own greedy version of racial and cultural profiling--most especially because no ticket is ever actually contemplated nor given, for the only point is the transfer of the money in your wallet to his.

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