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Dialog On Whiteness Studies

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“I advance it, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
— Thomas Jefferson, author of the famous statement, “All men are created equal.””Whiteness studies [is] a controversial and relatively new academic field that seeks to change how white people think about race. The field is based on a left-leaning interpretation of history by scholars who say the concept of race was created by a rich white European and American elite, and has been used to deny property, power and status to nonwhite groups for two centuries. Advocates of whiteness studies – most of whom are white liberals who hope to dismantle notions of race – believe that white Americans are so accustomed to being part of a privileged majority they do not see themselves as part of a race.”
— “Hue and Cry on ‘Whiteness Studies’: An Academic Field’s Take on Race Stirs Interest and Anger,” By Darryl Fears, Washington Post. June 20, 2003.”Whiteness is a derogatory name for Western civilization”
— Matthew Spalding, Director of the Center for American Studies, Heritage Foundation.”White American culture holds power to control resources, set rules, and influence events…It must give up the center…Colorblindness encourages silence that continues the status quo.”
— Jeff Hitchcock, Center for the Study of White American Culture”Many Asian/Hispanic immigrants regard white as synonymous with American, with belonging, with fitting in… They equate whiteness with opportunity and inclusion…”
— L.A. Times [1]“[T]he American education system (with strong reinforcement from the media) has bred a nation of what I will call ‘closet racists.’ Closet racists are unaware of their prejudices.”
— Paul Gorski

It is clear from the above quotes that the examination of whiteness is a hotly contested field even without introducing Indians into it.

This column is a conversation with Jeff Hitchcock, a liberal white American who specializes in studying white culture. I hope to bring Indians and Indianness into this vibrant debate, and to use whiteness as the context in which to re-examine various issues concerning Indian identity and culture.

But first I introduce the reason for wanting to do this. Every serious thinker in the world today must have an independent and deep understanding of America and its culture. While American pop culture is understood by many Indian intellectuals, one must look beneath this surface to discover the underlying reality of America. For example, a foreigner judging America on the basis of sports and entertainment could falsely conclude that blacks enjoy a high status in American society. The danger of being an outsider looking in is that generalized surface impressions become naively accepted as deep-seated truths rather than the superficial façade they truly represent. Far too many Indian writers have interpreted America by focusing only on its pop culture, where they disproportionately focus on symbols of postmodernity, i.e. such images as Madonna with a bindi or the latest belly-button of Britney Spears.

However, America’s institutions of power – government, business and church – are the true windows into her soul, and yet have not been adequately examined by Indians in the humanities. One must even go beyond the institutions and analyze the white culture, both codified and uncodified, both known and subliminal, by which these institutions operate. In understanding white culture, one must bear in mind that Middle America is distinct from Elite America of Ivy League cocoons, Broadway shows and The New York Times best-sellers.

For years, I have wanted to start a new discipline, which I had tentatively called Westology, to study the West in the same manner as Indology was started in the 19th century by outsiders to study India.

But luckily, I came across an exciting new academic field that already does much of what I had envisioned in Westology. This field is called Whiteness Studies (or White Studies), and is taught in over 30 US colleges. For instance, in Princeton University, an undergraduate course on Whiteness is among the most popular courses in the entire university, and the vast majority of students taking it are whites who want to better understand themselves.

In the late 1980s, an article by Richard Dyer appearing in Screen, a British film magazine, sparked great intellectual interest in the field. But Whiteness Studies gained academic momentum only after a watershed event where some students organized a highly successful academic conference on this topic in Berkeley, in April 1997.

A central concept of this discipline is white privilege, which has been defined as “a package of benefits, granted to people in our society who have white skin, which allows them certain free passes to certain things in our society that are not easily available to people of color[2].

In his speech, The New Abolitionism, Noel Ignatiev said, “Race is not a biological but a social category. The white race consists of those who partake of the privileges of white skin. The most wretched members share a status higher, in certain respects, than the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their support to a system…Just as the capitalist system is not a capitalist plot, racial oppression is not the work of racists.”

While reading the scholarship in this field, I came across an interesting research and outreach group, calledThe Center for the Study of White American Culture, and its co-founder, Jeff Hitchcock[3]. We are now developing a series of joint projects to study whiteness through the lenses of anthropology, mythology, etc., and the complex relationships that Indians have with it.

The reasons I consider it of paramount importance to understand white culture may be summarized as follows:

1. Whiteness as the cultural currency: Gazing at whiteness (rather than from it) enables one to better recognize that white epistemologies and worldviews are relative, not universal. This would help level the playing field between cultures as equals.

2. Expanding the epistemologies and worldviews: European culture’s systematic study of others for centuries became an instrument of power and led to representations that were spread as “universal truths and values.” Undoubtedly, white people’s epistemologies have made major contributions to all humanity, but they also need to be understood as being relative to certain experiences of certain people.

3. White persons’ identities: While some liberal whites champion the objective study of their identity and culture from various perspectives, many other white liberals resist being gazed at so intimately. This discipline remains largely ignored and sometimes even blocked. However, since whites are a small minority in the world population, and may become a minority even within the US (which depends on the extent to which non-white immigrants “become white” over time), it is imperative that they should know how others perceive them.

4. Human rights and peace: Lowell Thompson, who describes himself as the world’s first whiteologist, concluded that “the reason America still has a race problem was because we were studying the wrong race [i.e. blacks].” He advocates that scholars should be studying whiteness in order to deal with race issues, and not using white gazes to study exclusively black, Hispanic, Asian, and other cultures of color. Indian intellectuals who wish to promote multiculturalism must better understand the dominant white culture in order to help decenter it as one of many cultures.

5. Indians’ identity formation: Those Indians who are trying to become “whitewashed” must first properly learn about white culture to be able to mimic it authentically. Other Indians who are keen to retain and better understand their own non-white identities must understand how to interact with and negotiate with the dominant white culture as their equal “other.” As a byproduct, Indian scholars would advance the global project of understanding whiteness. This would also serve to “return the favor,” given that white people have studied Indian culture and civilization for centuries, and taught us many of the commonly accepted ideas about ourselves.

The goal of White Studies is to neither demonize nor glorify whiteness, but to understand it, and to give white culture its rightful place among the various cultures of the world. The idea is to show that though whiteness dominates by occupying the central spot today, it is neither intrinsically superior nor inferior to other cultures, and that its dominant position is the result of history. (See endnotes for some references on Whiteness Studies[4].

Dialog with Jeff Hitchcock
Rajiv: You have mentioned that the main power of whiteness is silence. Could you explain this?

Jeff: There is a concerted effort to keep discussion of whiteness out of public discourse. This begins with mis-education in our primary and secondary schools, and to a lesser extent, even in higher education. Mainstream media engages in a studied ignorance and selective forgetting. This makes it seem like whiteness is not really an issue, so innocent looking is the lack of attention paid to it. But raise the topic and you will witness a sudden flurry of repair work brought forth by self-appointed guardians of the status quo. Whiteness is a powerful, unseen, and sometimes vengeful force that permeates every part of our lives. White Americans enjoy the privileges of whiteness without having to accept the identity of white.

For people of color who are assimilating to whiteness to enter the mainstream, collaborating on the silence becomes a key requirement. They can reap rich rewards by pretending denial of the situation.

White culture creates the conditions it wants to hear; it makes it so it cannot hear what people of other races are actually experiencing. Through control of the media and suppression of alternate views, it demands unity on white terms and rewards both white people and people of color who police this demand.

Rajiv: What is at stake that makes this denial so important?

Jeff: Whiteness is not neutral. It looks out for its own interests. White American culture holds greater power to control resources, set rules, and influence events. This position of dominance is not an accident, but rather a product of our history, involving elements of economic and political struggle. In the past, this struggle included practices such as enslavement and genocide of people and cultures of color, justified by an avowed white supremacy that celebrated whiteness as God’s appointed agent.

Rajiv: Why is white privilege a problem?

Jeff: White American culture was created with a frontier mentality that encouraged a nearly ravenous exploitation and consumption of newly appropriated natural resources, and a disregard of those defined as not white. In our contemporary world, these elements of white culture are clearly becoming dysfunctional.

We need to accept that white culture cannot deliver multiracial comfort. It can only deliver white comfort. White culture cannot deliver multiracial safety. It can only deliver white safety. White culture cannot deliver multiracial community. It can only deliver white community. White culture cannot deliver multiracial justice. It can only deliver white justice. White culture must give up the center if multiracial justice, multiracial community, multiracial safety and multiracial comfort are ever to become central to our society.

Rajiv: I often hear liberal persons say that they are colorblind, i.e. they do not see any difference among persons based on color. But you and most White Studies scholars criticize the policy known as colorblindness. Why?

Jeff: Of course, colorblindness is far better than racism. But it is not good enough. Colorblindness says that race shouldn’t make a difference in people’s lives, and hence we should not mention it because mentioning it creates problems. But in practice, this silence preserves the status quo of white privilege.

White people who claim to be colorblind do not want to publicly see themselves as white in other than a superficial way. They know which box to check on census forms, but do not believe (or at least do not want to believe) that the status of being white has any effect on their lives. By this denial they absolve themselves of the need to undo the problems that history has given us. It is irresponsible to suppress the problems behind blind spots, just to avoid the discomfort that pops up. Structural change cannot be made using colorblind policies.

Whiteness forms the center of our society and as long as it does, we cannot have a society centered on multiracial values. The irony of colorblindness is that by not seeing whiteness, it keeps whiteness centered. In order to decenter whiteness we need to name it. White culture has been described as invisible, normative, transparent, raceless, and the undefined definer of others. These are all descriptions that come from within whiteness itself. Most white people cannot name whiteness.

Rajiv: In short, colorblindness leads to invisibility, which perpetuates the status quo. We started with silence as the source of white power. The vicious cycle will continue as long as we do not break it by examining whiteness explicitly and publicly.

Furthermore, colorblindness allows the closet racist to hide. Paul Gorski writes in The Language of Closet Racism: “[T]he American education system (with strong reinforcement from the media) has bred a nation of what I will call ‘closet racists.’ Closet racists are unaware of their prejudices. They have learned from text books presented to them by people who are supposedly knowledgeable enough to choose the best possible materials. They are trained, or more precisely, coerced into believing in ‘the system’…A closet racist is defined, then, as simply a person with racial prejudices who is unaware of those prejudices as such, usually because he or she has never been afforded the opportunity to discuss racial prejudices…”

Jeff: The invisibility of whiteness behind the claim of neutrality has enabled it to hide from scrutiny, and this has been misused by whites to speak for universal humanity. Ani explains it as follows:

“The Roman self-image as “world conqueror” and “savior” issues from an ego that does not confine itself to the limitations of a culture, a nation, or even a continent, but from an ego that views its boundaries as ultra universal. This is the counterpart of the intellectual self-image of the European as “universal man”…he, therefore, has the right to spread himself universally in order to “enlighten” the world.” (Ani, p. 253)”According to European nationalism, other traditions and earlier ones were expressions of mythological beliefs only: Christianity was an expression of historical fact. To this day, the most threatening appositional phrase that an avowed Christian can be presented with is ‘Christian Mythology.’ To accept its validity is to shake the ground of her/his belief.” (Ani, p. 141)

Warren Hedges writes:

“In order for white men to rationalize their privileges under segregation, they imagined themselves as transcending their particular self-interests and speaking for society as a whole. As Toni Morrison has pointed out, this meant presenting whiteness as something neutral – the blending of all colors that somehow transcends and contains them. The belief that white men represented society’s interests was at least as old as slavery in the Americas, but it had formally applied mainly to the wealthy. However, with the onset of universal male suffrage, first for whites, then supposedly for all men, the only way to maintain black disenfranchisement was to equate adult “objectivity” with all white men and “child-like” “irrationality” with men of color and women. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, racism in the U.S. was bolstered by political imperialism in the Philippines and economic and cultural imperialism elsewhere. White men, so the ideology went, were fit to be self-governing, while darker-skinned peoples needed help to be governed – the so-called “white man’s burden.”

Rajiv: Robert Jensen goes even further and blames liberals for helping perpetuate invisible whiteness. In his essay, White Privilege Shapes the US, he writes: “I don’t think liberalism offers real solutions because it doesn’t attack the systems of power and structures of illegitimate authority that are the root cause of oppression, be it based on race, gender, sexuality, or class. These systems of oppression, which are enmeshed and interlocking, require radical solutions.”

Let us move on to an even more controversial topic – the role of institutionalized Christianity in all this. (I differentiate between the teachings of Jesus and institutionalized Christianity, and focus only on the latter.) Please give me your views on the following quote from the Center for Democratic Renewal’s summary of their analysis:

Presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan at the 1992 Republican National Convention said: “Our culture is superior to other cultures, superior because our religion is Christianity.”While the Klan is seen as being against all who are not white, radical conservatives like Pat Buchanan or religious leaders like Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition prefer to advocate for Western civilization and Christianity. [They] see themselves as threatened by a non-white, non-European-dominated future America.White supremacist beliefs, though largely invisible to the majority of the American public, regardless of race, are at the heart of the American experience. The persistence of these beliefs suggests that the racial myths and stereotypes common to white supremacy are integral to the maintenance of the U.S. social order.Sometimes the tenets of white supremacist groups can be helpful when they reflect, epitomize, crystallize or even clarify the perceptions of a predominantly white Christian society. Each of these beliefs is a reassertion of European nationalism and its successor, American nationalism. White supremacy, assuming its own universal value and superiority, justifies the aggressive imposition of its own assumptions on other peoples and cultures.

The invisibility of white supremacy masks how violence and the threat of violence guarantee its durability. White people assert their moral right to use violent force whenever their group interests are threatened. People of color have no equivalent moral right to defend themselves against European aggression, especially when such aggression is done in the name of “law and order” [and nowadays, in the name of “human rights.”]

This paradoxical belief has been a powerful weapon with which to steal and exploit land and other natural resources, to defend slavery and racism, to condemn lesbians and gays, and to deride all who are not Christian. Those who are not white or Christian are expected, at best to merge into the dominant culture and political system, or worst, to remain invisible and not to challenge white Christian hegemony. Outsiders seeking acceptance are constantly pressured to prove themselves, to suppress their indigenous culture, and to assimilate into the “mainstream” to achieve upward mobility.

White supremacist beliefs are perpetuated through a series of social conventions irrespective of political boundaries. Organized white supremacy makes prevailing attitudes of prejudice appear moderate and reasonable: it normalizes everyday injustice. For example, a 1993 study commissioned by the National Science Foundation found that racist attitudes and stereotypes are rampant among whites, regardless of political affiliation.

Most white supremacists in America believe that the United States is a “Christian” nation, with a special relationship between religion and the rule of law. Because racists give themselves divine permission from God to hate, they often don’t see that their actions are driven by hate; they claim to “just love God and the white race.” If they are religious, they distort Biblical passages to justify their bigotry. A popular religion called Christian Identity provides a theological bond across organizational lines. Identity churches are ministered by charismatic leaders who promote racial intolerance and religious division. Even for those who are not religious, “racist” to them means being racially conscious and seeing the world through a prism of inescapable biological determinism with different races having different pre-ordained destinies.

Jeff: Mel Gibson took extraordinary pains to assure the historical accuracy of his recent film, The Passion of the Christ, even to the point of using Aramaic as the language in the film. So it’s ironic, though in many ways not surprising, that he chose a white actor to portray Jesus. “White,” of course, was not a term in use two thousand years ago, but clearly Jesus would have been of similar appearance to people of the region in which he was born and spent his life. In today’s world, people who are described as “white” do not fit that description.

Christianity is a broad and diverse faith community founded on the teachings of a man of color. The message of universal love brought forth by Jesus, and later institutionalized by Paul, makes the race of people irrelevant. Love of God and acceptance of Jesus as Savior transcend worldly distinctions. In the worldwide Christian community, which includes a vast number of people of color, Christianity has done much to bring spiritual uplift.

Yet there is a discomforting history of association between Christianity and whiteness. Why would Gibson use a white actor? If race did not matter, but historical accuracy was paramount, why not use an actor who reflected Jesus’ time and place and local culture? Gibson set the terms of his work. The burden is on him to explain this contradiction. Still, we can speculate. In the United States (I have far less knowledge of circumstances in Europe) Jesus has commonly been portrayed as a white man, often with long, gently curling, blond hair. The message is clear. Jesus is like “us.” In the 1990s this played out another way here in New Jersey, one of the most diverse states in the United States. A black actor was chosen to play the role of Jesus in a well known annual public performance of a passion play. A public outcry resulted. Many were outraged, though also many condemned the bigotry the public outcry revealed. Still, in one of the most liberal states of the United States, in one of the most ethnically mixed regions of that state, a substantial number of white people fervently believe there is a clear and necessary connection between Jesus and whiteness.

Our history tells us that the English identified first as “Christians” in early colonial Virginia, and that “white” emerged as a common identity among these same people only after three or four generations of settlement.Christian identity, then, is the historical precursor of white identity in the culture that is now the dominant one in the United States.

The “Jesus is like us” equation is used by white Christians to justify dominance of people of color. Put another way, if you are not like us (i.e. a person of color), then you are outside of Jesus’ protection, and either we are entitled to bring God’s will to bear upon your circumstances, or you are unworthy of humanistic concern. The worldly translation of this sense of entitlement often entails appropriation of resources from people of color, and the assertion of power and control of their cultures.

Rajiv: Mel Gibson merely continues an established practice. How did Jesus “become white” in the mainstream? The painters of the Italian Renaissance found that the market was larger when Jesus was depicted as a European, and later he was also made blue-eyed. Elaine Pagels and other scholars explain how various pagan rituals, images and myths were appropriated into Christianity and the original cultural sources erased and the cultures often genocided. Today, we see yoga becoming subsumed into white culture and Christianity.

So a key success factor of white supremacy has been the skillful management of its symbol portfolio. This is a multi-faceted management system:

  1. Others’ symbols of value are appropriated in the same manner as land, gold and natural resources have been appropriated. This symbol appropriation continues today even by liberal white scholars: my U-Turn Theory explains this.
  2. White symbols are continually upgraded by association with “goodness.” So whiteness and Jesus get conflated. As part of image damage control, Abu Ghraib atrocities were not interpreted as a “Christian crime,” whereas similar episodes from other religions are invariably named with “Islamic” or “Hindu” hyphens. Timothy McVeigh and hundreds of other heinous criminals who are white Christians are not explicitly branded as “Christian terrorists,” but merely as generic individuals who broke the law.
  3. New white Christian symbols are constantly being added to the portfolio, recent examples being Lady Diana and Mother Teresa. These symbols of goodness become marketing campaign brands targeting people of color. They are promised a boost in identity by association with the “superior” brand.
  4. Downgrading others’ cultural and symbolic capital is as intense as ever. Christian as well as liberal white scholars (along with their Indian cronies) obsessively denigrate Hindu deities, practices and culture under the guise of using “theories.” It is shocking how prevalent this has become in the mainstream liberal academy. The personal risks of pointing this out run high, because the establishment intellectuals hunt in packs.

You seem to locate the start of whiteness only from 17th century America. I agree that that was when “white persons” entered the vocabulary. But Marimba Ani and other African scholars trace the origins to the 4th century, when Roman Emperor Constantine appropriated Christianity for Empire building.

I have synthesized various scholars’ versions of Whiteness History into a series of four “releases” of whiteness as cultural operating systems. Release 1 is where Marimba Ani locates it: Roman Imperialism incorporates the religious zeal of monotheism, a unique combination. She explains this as follows:

“Politically, the Roman ideology was the perfect counterpart [of Christianity]…These formulations posited a perpetual opposition between those who did not share the ideologies expressed and those who did. Both statements contained justifications and directives for the “conversion” of and “recruitment” of those outside the cultural group with which they were identified. Perhaps, the single most important ingredient shared by these “brother” ideologies (actually two arms of the same ideological weapon) is their vision of the world as the “turf” of a single culture. Any and everyone presently under the ideological and political control of the Christians and Romans was fair game…The synthesis [between Roman Imperialism and Christianity] made political sense…The two ideologies, put to the service of one cultural group and espousing compatible values and objectives worked hand in hand, to command the same allegiances, to conquer the same world.” (Ani, pp. 129-130)

Release 2 is simply the external expansion of Release 1, i.e. the spread of militaristic Christianity as the first pan-European common ideology. Here is what Marimba Ani writes:

The Roman Cooptation: Two Imperialistic Ideologies:
“Christianity was a more refined tool [than paganism] for the selling of European imperialism…As the imperialistic goals of these fledgling Europeans expanded, the various modalities of the cultural structure grew out of sync with one another. If they had not been reshaped, readjusted to form a cohesive unit, Europe would have failed…The European institutionalization of Christianity was something akin to a technological advance. It added the element of proselytizing that much more suited the objective of imperialistic expansionism within which those objectives could be hidden or camouflaged. Xenophobic, aggressive, and violent tendencies were molded into a more subtle statement that packaged them in a universalistic, peaceful, and moralistic rhetoric…Christianity helped to define who the “others” were in a way that fitted the European progress ideology. Making a Roman, a Briton, a Frank, and so forth into a “European” would not be easy, but it was the order of the day in terms of European development…Christianity achieved the unification of the new European self…It helped to redefine European imperialism as universal imperialism…European civilization has been so successful in part because of its ability to outward direct hostility…The destructive tendencies within are so intense and so endemic to the culture that it must continually be redirected. The cooptation of Christianity represented such a redirection of aggressive energy…Pagan religions were aggressive but not expansionist [and hence unsuitable for Roman imperialism].” 
[Ani, Marimba, “YURUGU,” pp. 169-170]

Corey Gilkes explains the same process as follows:

“The history of Christianity is the political history of Europe. With regard to the influence that Christianity has had upon ancient and medieval Europe [and ultimately the Americas] it is quite fair to say that the Church has left a legacy, a worldview that permeates every aspect of Western European-centered societies. Today, even though most Western societies can boast of a separation between Church and state, their very laws and cultural traits have been shaped in no small way by early ecclesiastical authorities. Actually, what the Church has done was to harmonize these cultural traits that have characterized European societies since primordial times… There is no doubt…that Christianity unified Western Europe in ways that transcended the narrow confines of tribalism. That it sought to include everyone through its message of a universal brotherhood…However, there is another side to this story; one that is by no means as romanticized as it is often made out to be. Exactly how the Christian Church went about unifying and transforming Europe, if one looks at it honestly, is shameful to say the least. Christianity, as defined by Rome, Greece and to some extent Asia Minor, brought religious intolerance to a level never before seen. It provided justification for the taking of other people’s lands by cleverly disguising ethnocentrism and an expansionist ideology in a message of universal brotherhood. Ironically it used this universal brotherhood message to maintain a hierarchical structure that saw Europe and European-centered societies at the pinnacle while the conquered lands and peoples occupied the lower rungs…”
[“Orthodox” Christianity and the birth of European Nationalism, by Corey Gilkes
http://www.trinicenter.com/Gilkes/2002/0902.htm]

Release 3 is where you locate whiteness: At this point, I change the term from Proto-Whiteness to Whiteness at this point. (Ani divides Release 3 into two releases, one starting in 17th century America and the other being the Protestant Reformation.)

I agree with Ani that though whiteness was unnamed before America, its groundwork had been laid in proto form by Emperor Constantine. What do you think of the following flowchart of the history of whiteness? Release 4 is the latest version that started with Barry Goldwater and has become the dominant mainstream culture[5].

Jeff: Yes, it looks like a very clear presentation of the cultural evolution of whiteness. To some extent the question of when and where whiteness arose cannot be answered with certainty. As your chart demonstrates, there has been an evolution, with several key moments, any of which can be seen as an “origin.” I tend to place emphasis on 17th century Virginia because that is where the term and accepted self-identity of “white” has been shown to come into use, and the social forces that led to its appearance have been carefully described. Most white Americans today see white identity as being natural, as if people have always understood themselves as white. When they learn that this was not the case, it leads them to examine the whole concept of race.

But whiteness is clearly part of a longer story of a European progression to world dominance. Just as the blend of Christianity and Roman identity solidified the imperialistic project of the 4th century onward, so also the blend of European Christianity and white identity has solidified the march of European imperialism since the 17th century.

Some scholars mark the rise of whiteness in the US even later, at the beginning of the 19th century, when capitalism required a new identity of the working class. In terms of the 4th release, I would probably place that somewhere between 1898, with the Spanish-American War, and the end of the Second World War. The Spanish-American War was the first major commitment of the US as a colonizer. Then following the Second World War, the US became the dominant military power in the world. Because of that, we have been able to enforce our economic policy worldwide, and thereby export our culture as well.

Rajiv: Lets address your notion of exporting white culture. What do you think of the following diagrammatic explanation of the three kinds of carrots offered by whiteness, to encourage mimicry or conversion by people of color?

Jeff: Prosperity is certainly a carrot. In the United States, being white means you have more access to power and resources. Furthermore, being able to consider oneself entitled to universalized human rights, and more importantly, to live in circumstances that confirm that entitlement on a daily basis, is a major benefit of whiteness. I am not sure that mimicry and Christianity are “carrots.” White culture has appealing aspects, just like any culture. In the United States, the heightened sense of individualism and the notion that you can remake yourself can be very appealing, for instance. The consumerism and materialism that drives our economy can also be enticing. But to become fully white, mimicry and Christianity are not so much carrots as they are requirements. You need to perform these things, even if they do not speak to your condition.

Rajiv: The project to whiten the world is now in Release 4, where it is an open offer of membership into strata of privilege – a sort of Las Vegas game – with gate-keeping and ownership controlled via invisible strings by a few whites. Various grades of membership target different market segments. There are many faces to this, like multiple brands of cigarettes by Phillips Morris, or multiple brands of cars by GM, or multiple brands of breakfast cereals by Proctor Gamble.

Whiteness itself hides behind Western Civilization. It encourages “the West” to be examined critically, thereby appearing very self critical and exempting whiteness from becoming the direct object of inquiry. From this middle ground of Western Civilization, its right-wing version is Christianity and its left-wing version is Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment. I am convinced that the entire complex must be deconstructed by examining each face: West, Christianity, Whiteness, Enlightenment, and so forth.

In urban India, many Hindus like to associate with (i.e. mimic) Christian symbolism (such as Christmas tree, Easter eggs, Valentine’s Day cards…) as markers of being “progressive,” and show distance from symbols of their native traditions that are downgraded as signifiers of primitiveness, superstition, or even outright demonology. (For instance, it is easier to exchange “namaste” – the Indian greeting of folding hands – with my white American friends than with “progressive” Indians.) Eurocentrism is marketed to this segment as Reason: Eurocentric (whitened) self-flagellating Indians compete over which one is the whitest! These middle class Indians are hyperactive symbol consumerists.

In India, proselytizers often want to hide explicit whiteness because that would cause a backlash. So Christianity as “human rights” substitutes for whiteness in certain market segments. Furthermore, Christianity is clothed in native dresses to be user-friendly. This device is officially called “inculturation” by theologians, and was developed by the Church in Latin America and Africa. It admitted native deities into membership as Christian saints or angels, and thereby assimilated entire tribes initially into “soft-Christianity.” But then the kids of gullible soft-Christian parents were raised into “hard-Christianity,” in which they were taught that these ancestral deities were evil or, at best, worthless.

Whiteness’ and Christianity’s relationship to Western civilization may be compared to the “Pentium inside” chip’s relationship to PCs: White Christianity drives the West. But there is also a big difference. Unlike the Pentium chip which is publicly advertised, whiteness is deeply disguised behind “Enlightenment” or “Christianity” or “West.” Its existence is only now beginning to get excavated systematically.

This invisibility – because white scholars gazed at others but rarely did the reverse happen – has enabled it to assume the status of universal or global culture. Gazing at whiteness in the same manner as all other cultures are routinely studied is going to be the most effective method to bring it to the status of being just one culture relative to many others.

Do you agree with scholars who say that terms like “Western civilization,” “Christianity” and “being American” are implicit codes for whiteness, in a sophisticated system that makes white people’s philosophies and epistemologies look like some abstract truths independent of white people, and, hence, their gifts to the world? This would appear to be yet another strategy of invisibility, i.e. to substitute metaphors in order to appear universal. It hides white privilege and protects it safely behind “civilization.”

Jeff: Richard Dixon supports this view by explaining how various institutions that comprise the backbone of our Western society are deeply driven by whites and for their best interests. He writes:

“The white race is a club. Certain people are enrolled in its birth, without their consent, and brought up according to its rules. For the most part they go through life accepting the privileges of membership, without reflecting on the costs. Others, usually new arrivals in this country pass through a probationary period before “earning” membership; they are necessarily more conscious of their racial standing. The white club does not require that all members be strong advocates of white supremacy, merely that they defer to the prejudices of others…If white privilege is a club then institutional racism is utilized as a tool to keep it exclusive and to maintain its supremacy…[R]acial oppression is not the work of racists. It is maintained by the principal institutions of society, including the schools (which define “excellence”), the labor market (which defines “employment”), the legal system (which defines “crime”), the welfare system (which defines “poverty”), the medical industry (which defines “health”), and the family (which defines “kinship”). Many of these institutions are administered by people who would be offended if accused of complicity with racial oppression.”

I agree that other terms such as “Western” and “American” are often code words for whiteness. Today they are used in place of “white” and consequently whiteness remains unexamined. This is a relatively new circumstance, historically speaking. Once whiteness arose as an explicit identity that defined the boundaries of the dominant culture, it was openly avowed as superior for nearly three centuries. White supremacy was a publicly espoused value in the US, and to some degree Europe. White people saw it as only natural that they should rule people of color, and had no reservations about saying so.

It’s only recently, since the end of the Second World War and the collapse of European colonialism that whiteness has dropped out of public discourse – at least the type of colonialism that depended on the military occupation and direct political control of colonized nations and people. It’s gone underground.

We think of those times, before the modern Civil Rights Movement among black people in the US, as a time when white supremacy was at the height of its power, and maybe it was. But people of color were beginning to stir, and the writing, if not on the wall, was literally set down on paper when, in 1953, James Baldwin wrote, “This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again. (“Stranger in the Village.” Harper’s Magazine. October 1953.) What was a white man to do?

With the rise of third-world people, whiteness came under examination. Power examined is power lost. Whiteness had to transform itself, and it went underground. Hence, instead of white supremacy as a publicly avowed philosophy, we have colorblindness. But the underlying cultural gestalt has not changed much.

Rajiv: Russell Means, a Native American intellectual, gave a tough critique of Enlightenment, characterizing it as disguised Eurocentrism. This shows that whiteness had other philosophies to bring forward that served the same purpose. At various times and places the explicit articulation of white supremacy has not always had the legitimacy that it achieved in the US in the 19th and 20th centuries. Keeping whiteness out of the spotlight and its privileges invisible has been a strategic accomplishment for many centuries.

Neither the left nor the right is doing a good enough job to decenter whiteness. Whiteness is like a twin-engine plane, the right-wing being propelled by Christianity and the left-wing being propelled by the mask of Enlightenment that repositions whiteness as universal thought and culture. It is a form of capital, a meme-plex that has been very efficient at survival, mutation and expansion for centuries.

Jeff: Yes, that’s an accurate assessment. In contemporary terms in United States politics, the political spectrum runs from the extreme right to the radical left. But through the entire spectrum there is an underlying Eurocentrism. The right is often characterized as antagonistic to people of color. Given the right’s opposition to civil rights interventions, and their proclivity for co-opting resources for the service of the privileged, there is much truth to this. The left is commonly characterized as supportive of people of color. But, in either case, the political discourse, the planning, and the operational machinery are mainly managed by white people. People of color are on the margins of power.

Even the contemporary anarchists – the radial left-wing movement responsible for much of the mass opposition to the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle in 1999, along with many subsequent direct action mobilizations “in the street” – have been severely criticized by people of color for failing to join in planning with existing community-based groups led by people of color.

There is racism on the left as well as on the right, and there is denial of whiteness in both cases. Regardless of political orientation, there is a strong tendency for white people to run the show, and to claim they are speaking for everyone.

Rajiv: This is very interesting. Blacks had to fight so hard to take control over black studies, for instance. White culture wants to control the representation of others. Richard Crasta (an Indian Christian) writes (in “Impressing the Whites,” by Richard Crasta, Invisible Man Books, Bangalore, India. 2000) that despite all other kinds of intellectual freedom today, an Indian may not assert beyond a point if that would threaten white control. Crasta states his First Commandment for Indians wishing to impress whites as: “Thou shalt not have any other-colored gods before us.” His Fourth Commandment is: “Thou shalt be unthreateningly short.” His Seventh Commandment is: “Thou shalt be exotic.” The Ninth Commandment says: “As Austin Powers might have said, ‘Behave!’”

Whites appoint Indian proxies to let them pull strings from behind the scenes, but through such intermediaries, they impose their epistemologies, institutional controls, awards and rewards, all in the name of universal thought. Making fun of such Indians, Crasta lists his Tenth Commandment as: “Thou shalt kiss white ass.” His Eleventh and final Commandment is: “Thou shalt monkey around for our [i.e. whites’] amusement and pleasure.” It is amazing how many Indians are lined up to oblige and try to become members of the whiteness narrative in whatever capacity available.

One white Prof. Jack Hawley in the academic study of Hinduism appears to thrive on being “the white man in charge.” It is important for many whites to make sure they run the show, especially when it is about other cultures, perhaps because it is a sort of voyeurism or subliminal conquest of the other. Those Hindus who accept white authority in Hinduism Studies are rewarded generously. Whites work diligently to be worthy and popular leaders, and want to protect their position of authority no matter what it takes. The British colonialists very worked hard to make sure that Indians liked their governance.

As a powerfully placed scholar in control of Hinduism Studies, Prof. Hawley wrote the following statement to introduce Hinduism as an illegitimate child of white people:

“Hinduism – the word and perhaps the reality too – was born in the 19thcentury, a notorious illegitimate child. The father was middle-class British, and the mother, of course, was India. The circumstances of conception are not altogether clear.”
[Jack Hawley, “Naming Hinduism,” in The Wilson Quarterly, summer 1991. p. 21.]

One must wonder if this could be psychoanalyzed as a form of voyeurism, similar to the way white men liked to “conquer” black women and Native American women. Many black scholars have explained how whites portrayed their own culture as being masculine and the others as feminine waiting to be conquered as trophies, with the “illegitimate” children raised under white dominance. This could explain the obsession of certain whites to control the intellectual discourse on Hinduism in the academy. Especially anthropologists sometimes live their Indiana Jones fantasies using India as their “jungle.”

Such white academic gazes are disguised behind two masks of abstraction:

  1. Intellectual frameworks based on universal sounding categories of Biblical Studies (known as “hermeneutics”) and of Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment; and
  2. Institutional mechanisms that are made to appear to be “objective” processes of control over the forums, journals, conferences, academic appointments, dissertations, etc.

Imagine what would happen in mainstream Religious Studies if this imagery was reversed, and someone used Marimba Ani’s thesis to make the following definition: White people are the notorious illegitimate children fathered by Roman Imperialism and mothered by Christianity. The circumstances of conception remain mysterious.

Does this hunger for power also relate to whites’ homophobia, as a sort of fear of loss of power? This would help to explain why it is trendy for white scholars to project homophobic frameworks to interpret Hindu saints and deities. Indians did not have mutually exclusive hetero/homo sexual categories, and hence homosexuality was never banned. Indian men who are not Westernized in urban settings go about holding hands, hugging, and a boy can sit on a man’s lap, etc. These are not considered homosexuality. And nor is sharing a bed with another man by itself a “peculiar” or “suspicious” thing. The Western influence has led to such natural practices becoming suppressed under the whitened gaze.

Jeff: White American culture is clearly homophobic. There is a patriarchal ideal that men should be “masculine,” virile, and each the head of his realm, whether it be his household, or some larger entity. Note the saying, “Every man is king in his own castle.” There’s no room in the castle for two men to share duties as headman, and each man must have access to all the women. By that I mean that lesbian relationships become a problem as well. A woman who is not potentially receptive to a man threatens to become an independent source of authority.

It’s been said that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” White culture may have a greater propensity to seek power than other cultures. Ani argues that white culture contains a “germ” or essential need to dominate. It’s also been argued that circumstances of geography led to the ascendancy of Europe (see Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond). Either way, white culture has achieved unparalleled power over the past centuries. It’s gotten so the culture simply assumes an entitlement to power. This is transmitted to its members during their socialization, along with attending concerns of control and dominance. Individual white people vary in the extent to which they are carried away by their ethnocentrism. If they are in an environment where they are exposed to other cultures on an equal footing, they may have the means to overcome some of this socialization. As for the statement by Prof. Hawley, I have only encountered it here in this discussion, but it appears incredibly condescending – a very poor choice of imagery. It begs for the reading you are giving it.

Rajiv: The three Abrahamic religions lack a positive role for women in their core myths, unlike most other faiths. For instance, Indian women have had many diverse ways to express empowerment, at many levels and in many nuances, without having to become masculine. Unfortunately, Western women have often had to become masculine to become empowered. I see this stemming from the lack of Goddess in the Abrahamic religions.

Many white women started to study the Hindu Goddess very seriously in the 1970s, and introduced numerous ideas into Western discourse on religion. But later they erased the Indian sources of these empowerments, and in fact started to denigrate Indian culture as being inferior with respect to women. This is an example of my U-Turn theory at work. Marimba Ani calls the first stage of appropriation “eros” when one wants to bring something in and unify with it, and the second stage “anal” when one wants to excrete something as waste product and not be associated with it any longer.

Gloria Steinem’s recent book goes into great details on how it was her two-year stay in India that first awakened her about women’s empowerment. While she remains very respectful of Indian culture, many other feminists who followed do not. Madhu Kishwar is a well-known Indian woman activist who promotes empowerment within the positive context of her native culture, and for this she receives considerable flak from some Indian feminists who close ranks with their white colleagues.

White women have been criticized for dominating the discourse on women’s issues at various international movements. So they have appropriated women of color to buy into the system and now you find many Indian women carrying what may be called the White Woman’s Burden. Does this mean that white women have adopted many white male qualities, such as wanting to dominate, lead, have power, etc?

While complaining about male-dominance, many white moms raise their sons to grow up “like a man” – which is visible when one sees hyper-aggressive moms taking their young sons to start learning baseball and other contact sports, making sure to imbibe male aggression as a marker of leadership and as a success factor for later life. Could you explain this white trait that many scholars refer to, i.e. the imperative of being in control over others, which white women also seem to adopt in many instances?

Jeff: No, I can’t, other than what I already said. I certainly agree it’s there. Along with the examples you’ve offered, it manifests as an attitude of control over nature. Rather than seeing ourselves as an integral part of the natural world, we see ourselves as separate, with the natural world given to us for our exploitation and manipulation.

In the US, white middleclass women were critiqued by women of color in the late 1970s and early 1980s on just this point. It caused great pain and division, but of course it needed to be done. Many white feminists responded, and began to develop an anti-racist framework to inform feminism. Today this remains in place. White women are significantly involved in anti-racist activities. While not true in all cases, in my personal experience I have found white women outnumber white men as anti-racist activists on a 2 to 1 basis.

At the same time, however, the critique by women of color was only partially absorbed. Privilege has a way of making itself appear natural to those who possess it. Unless a person with privilege makes an intentional and concerted effort to understand the position of others who do not share the same privilege, then the person who is privileged will, often unknowingly, act in his or her interests only, regardless of how well-intentioned he or she might be. One of the hardest things for a privileged person to learn is how to listen to those who do not share privilege, and more important, how to accept responsibility in creating a system in which privilege is undone. It does not surprise me if a great number, maybe a majority, of white women have not been successful in overcoming their privilege as white. But I am heartened that many have.

Rajiv: Let’s discuss immigrants to the US who are non-white and face both pressures and temptations to fake whiteness to the extent they are able to. But whiteness is a spectrum of colors controlled from the top where it is “pure”: Just as Coca Cola controls the supply of the essence without which the drink cannot be bona fide, so also there is a pyramid structure of power to control whiteness, and white-controlled institutions play a key role in franchising this. Amway distributorships are another example of a pyramid scheme in which the apparent decentralized power, autonomy and prosperity are invisibly in the hands of a central nexus.

Non-whites are invited to use mimicry to join the hierarchy and climb up this ladder of whiteness. But while they can and do easily get dislocated from their native cultures, the quest for becoming white remains elusive to some extent, because some whites are whiter than others. (Even though the Jews became white in America over 50 years ago, they are considered less white than Anglo-Saxon Protestants.)

The case of Cuban-Americans is an interesting example right before our eyes. The identities and lifestyles of ordinary citizens in Cuba have never been white. But the elite landlords and businessmen ran to the USA when Castro took over, and over the past 40 years they have become white Americans.

There was an interesting statistic in the Los Angeles Times showing that most Asian and Hispanic immigrants to the US filled out forms classifying themselves as whites. In 1990, 51% of the immigrants defined themselves as being white. In 2000, this grew further to 68% of immigrants classifying themselves as white[6].

Using whiteness as the universal scale of cultural valuation also results in violence among non-whites. The Dotbusters were a group in the late 1980s in Jersey City who specialized in committing acts of violence (including murder) against Indians specifically. The bindi (dot on the forehead) became the reason for calling themselves Dotbusters. The Infinity Foundation has a research project underway to document and publish the history of this tragic movement. We found one TV documentary in which a local anchorwoman interviews some of the Dotbusters, who express anger because the Indian immigrants pray, eat, dress and appear different than “us.” The irony is that these Dotbusters were Hispanic youth who had become whitened as “us” and saw Indians as being lower on the whiteness scale as “them.” The second irony is that when Indians retaliated, they took out their anger against local blacks who had never caused them any harm: The Indians had assumed whiteness to get rid of their “problem” and gazing down at blacks was the result.

What do you feel is going on with new immigrant groups vying to become white?

Jeff: Part of the dynamic of whiteness in the United States is that is has been defined in a bi-polar way in contrast to blackness. New immigrants often have to choose between “white” and “black.” It is often a shock, for instance, for Hispanic immigrants to find that in the US you are either black or white. There are no intermediate categories.

As a result of many non-whites claiming whiteness, “What white traditionally meant—the WASP, the blond hair, the California drawl, the Hells Angels motorcycle riders is being expanded to include Iranians, North Africans and Latinos,” states USC demographer Dowell Myers quoted by the L.A Times. The Times goes on to say, “Recent newcomers are expanding the meaning of “white” much as Southern and Eastern European immigrants did a century ago, when many Americans still viewed the word as signifying Anglo-Saxon heritage.”

An interesting case of identity disparities within a community is that of Hispanics, defined as people who trace their origins to a Spanish-speaking nation. Hispanic Americans define their race depending on their level of affluence: Those living in white neighborhoods call themselves “white,” while those living in Latino neighborhoods check the box that says “other.” (L.A. Times) Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials said: “To the extent that being white means being American, we are white. But at the same time, we don’t have to deny being Latino as much as before because we’ve had a significant civil rights movement, and politically we’re still one bloc.”

Because whiteness has been a signifier of privilege, non-whites have played the whiteness game, thereby making whiteness a universal scale to climb the social ladder. Here are some brief examples:

“Go back far enough in U.S. history and many Americans who see themselves as white could have been considered minorities at one time. To Benjamin Franklin, for example, “white” referred only to those of Anglo-Saxon descent.””Between the Civil War and World War II, Japanese, Arab, Afghan, Armenian, Indian and other immigrants sued in U.S. courts, trying to prove themselves white and therefore eligible to enter the country, hold jobs or become citizens…A 1911 congressional commission sought to quiet the controversy by cataloging the identities of the immigrant flood. It issued a “Dictionary of Races or People” that put Slavs, Poles, Italians, Russians and others in 45 nonwhite racial subgroups. This prompted intense opposition from immigrants, especially Jews, who were placed in a “Hebrew” category…Many immigrants feared ostracism if the dictionary’s distinctions became policy or law. Ultimately, the government discarded the categories. People with diverse origins came to be seen, and to see themselves, as white.””Mexican Americans became part of a similar debate as the United States expanded west in the 19th century, absorbing sizable Latino populations. After the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, census enumerators counted people with Spanish surnames as white. That practice continued until 1930, when a separate “Mexican” racial category was created. Mexican Americans successfully lobbied to have the designation dropped in 1940. Once again, enumerators classified virtually everyone with Spanish surnames as white.”– L.A. Times

“When whites try to define whiteness, they often find the experience uncomfortable, even disturbing…” reports the Times. While for many there is shame buried deep down, for others it is a lack of definition. Many whites prefer to hyphenate their identities with ancestral markers like Irish, Jewish, Polish, and use “American” as a positive grounding symbol. This lack of positive identity among whites is a major reason for the popularity of white cultural studies on many colleges.

But this field must continue to bring to the surface that slavery and genocide coexisted with democracy and freedom throughout our nation’s history. President Andrew Jackson presided during the mass murder of Native Americans. If most Americans knew the details, we would have to change the national narrative.

Rajiv: The Post article quotes a student of whiteness as saying that the whiteness studies class helped him realize that “other classes, like economics, politics and history, are about whiteness. They are written by and are about white people.” This is an important issue, namely, the fact that the humanities in the liberal academy have been constructed by and for whites, using very specifically white epistemologies. Yet, most Indians who call themselves progressive intellectuals pride in their mastery of such European thought, and get angry when their investment in Eurocentrism is pointed out. Can you give us your views on such mimicry by non-whites as a way to become white intellectuals?

Jeff: It’s often the case that people whose claim to an identity is not secure are the ones who are most vigorous in its defense. There is more at stake, and it is more readily lost. So the new citizen becomes the ultra-patriot, the new gang member becomes the most belligerent to rival gangs, the teenager just turned adult the most insistent on his or her adult prerogatives.

Whiteness, just as any identity, demands mimicry at a minimum. If you do not express the expected values, role performances, and boundary maintenance activities, then you do not share in the identity. In the United States, white culture has proven flexible, in a “bend but do not break” sort of way. Being accepted as white brings resources and access to power. Those who have been denied this access have placed a steady pressure on white culture to change. The culture has slowly admitted groups previously not defined as white, while continuing to exclude others.

If a person is in one of the groups poised for admission to white culture, that person can effect substantial change in his or her circumstances by taking on an identity as white. Doing so requires a great investment of psychological and material resources. One cannot completely let go of a prior identity. Rather, constant reinforcement of the new identity is needed, on both public and private levels, in order to appear natural. White culture encourages this since it affirms the belief of white Americans that “anyone” can assimilate and we have an “open” society. At the same time, to be white is not to be “black.” New entrants to whiteness are often the most disdainful of association with people of color.

Rajiv: Not only do many Indians try to become whiter than the whites, they also defend the whites as sepoys. (Sepoys were Indians who worked for the British Empire as armed soldiers, and it was these sepoys and not white soldiers who fired most of the bullets against Indians.) For instance, let us look at two reactions to attempts to anthropologize whites. First, African-American feminist scholar, Bell Hooks, explains how whites are upset at being anthropologized:

“In [my] classrooms there have been heated debates among students when white students respond with disbelief, shock, and rage as they listen to black students talk about whiteness, when they are compelled to hear observations, stereotypes, etc., that are offered as “data” gleaned from close scrutiny and study. Usually white students respond with naïve amazement that black people critically assess white people from a standpoint where whiteness is the privileged signifier.” (Hooks, 1992, p. 339)

Now here is a big surprise: When I have reversed the gaze and deconstructed white intellectuals who routinely trash Indian culture, a predictable set of Indian intellectuals comes out of the woods to defend their white masters. They are often ill-informed about key details and seem to be out to prove their worthiness as sepoys.

For instance, Washington Post had a front-page article by an Indian staff writer, in which he goes out of his way to give the white scholars the benefit of doubt, while excluding aspects of our side of the story on the basis that it was “disputed” by the whites. (My analysis) Furthermore, he frames the whole story not in terms of the legitimate intellectual issues being raised by Indians but as Indians’ irrational and violent reactions against whites. This is a deep-rooted racist bias against people of color, as explained below:

“Such peoples – who were being colonized, exploited, enslaved, and eliminated by Europeans during that continent’s Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment eras – were viewed as irrational and, thus, inferior in their status as human beings. As inferior beings, they had no claim to the same rights as Europeans – hence, white racism and colonialism were morally justified around the conflation of whiteness and reason. In order for whiteness to maintain itself in the privileged seat of rationality and superiority, it would have to construct pervasive portraits of non-whites as irrational, disorderly, and prone to uncivilized behavior.” (Kincheloe, etc, p.6, in “White Reign”)

It seems that the Indian writer in the Post was assuming the white gaze to deconstruct Indians and their culture, and hence subliminally “becoming white.” Are there comparable examples of other people of color going being so heavily invested in white supremacy that they feel compelled to come to its defense? My sense is that the history of India over the past thousand years made Indians especially loyal and adept at accomplishing this “coolie” work.

Jeff: It’s an incredibly common phenomenon that people become complicit in their own oppression. Writers of color and people writing from other positions of oppression have repeatedly noted how the values of the privileged class are internalized by those who do not share in the privilege. There are degrees of complicity. Joining a military force to suppress one’s own people is going to an extreme. But again, there have always been people who have done that. The world is a messy place.

Even in the midst of dominance and subjugation, people have formed personal relationships, and sometimes these transcend class loyalties. In the slaveholding south of the US, many rebellions by enslaved people were quashed because an informant, despite being enslaved, revealed the plans. This may have been done out of personal concerns, opportunism, or a fear for harm coming to a member of the slaveholding class. Possibly all these motives might be mixed together. But in the grand view, allowing oppression to continue, and being complicit in its continuance, whether as one of the privileged or as one of the subordinated is morally unsound. Whether one oppressed group has been more likely than another to produce people who are complicit in their oppression, I don’t know.

It seems that being co-opted into a system of privilege is all too common. This is true even of white men in the US. W.E.B. DuBois pointed out that working class white men suffered economic loss due to their inability to advocate for their class interests. Instead, they accepted the label of “white” and identified with the elite. Because of this, working class whites opened themselves to economic exploitation, and the elite took advantage of circumstances. Today this theme is still playing out.

Rajiv: But mimicry can also be used strategically to revive non-white cultures. Here are two examples:

IIT Kharagpur, one of India’s most prestigious scientific institutions, applied to my foundation some years ago for a grant to celebrate its 50th anniversary. They wanted to hold various conferences, including one on Sciences of Mind. I noticed that they had listed only Western theories of mind in their plans. So I suggested that they should also add Indian theories, such as those which inform yoga, meditation, Tantra and other sophisticated philosophies across the spectrum.

The Indians’ reaction was something like this: “We are scientific and not some primitive or chauvinistic people.”

So I got hold of five white academic scholars of Yoga, Buddhism, Tantra and related systems from India that have made major impacts on Western thought and practice in the cognitive sciences. Naturally, when they saw the resumes of these eminent scholars from Western institutions, they got very interested to invite them. I requested these white scholars not hide the Indian sources of their work, and to openly state the Sanskrit origins and Indian schools concerned.

What happened was amazing: each of them got a standing ovation in India! After all, if the whites were saying positive things about how Mayo Clinic, MIT Labs, US National Institute of Mental Health, and other famous places had been scientifically validating these traditions, then it must be okay to respect them! These white scholars got many invitations from across India and spoke at psychology, cognitive sciences and neuroscience conferences.

Today there is a movement in India to introduce a new subject in psychology departments, called “Indian Systems of Psychology.” The Infinity Foundation has started a project to develop three volumes for use in the curriculum. There are a dozen scholars involved from India and North America, and they hold annual meetings. Additionally, there are now many other related academic events on Indian Psychology each year. So we thank the whites for helping reverse the inferiority complexes among elitist Indians.

There are a few other similar stories as well, such as bringing back to prominence the fact that considerable American thought was developed based on Indian thought. In this regard, we have sponsored a major academic book on Emerson’s debt to India, another reprint of a Cambridge dissertation on TS Eliot and Indic Traditions, and so forth.

Also, it was a white producer-director who made the powerful “Gandhi” movie, which shaped a whole generation’s ideas about the British in India.

Finally, this column is the result of a white man helping educate Indians about whiteness in a frank manner. Earlier, I tried to establish dialogs with some Indian intellectuals about whiteness, but they felt very uncomfortable and came up with various excuses and even outrage.

Jeff: I think it’s wonderful that is happening. It’s ironic that white scholars were needed to begin the process in India, but I note, too, that the man behind the curtain was Indian. The vision of an all-white world is not something I welcome. I think we are all improved when we can share our various cultures, systems of knowledge, and spiritual ways of being rather than forcing one above the other. I’m not in favor of a strict relativism, but I’m not convinced Western or white ways have been elevated solely on merit. There has been too much assertion of power, a limited value of itself, to make that claim. The world can use a few centuries in which we learn more about one another, and value what we each have to offer. Maybe after several generations people will have to wisdom to sort it all out. I don’t think we have it now. We’ve barely had the exposure to begin the dialogue.

Whiteness needs to step aside as the sole path to knowledge. And this is becoming more urgent since we are facing the possibility that other paths might be lost. Studying whiteness as a particular phenomenon is a way to doing that. The study of whiteness in the US can actually trace its history to people of color, who viewed whiteness through their own ways of knowing, and often understood it better than whites. In its recent incarnation, white people have come to the forefront in white studies. Sometimes I wonder if some of the practitioners of white studies understand their own privilege, even as the purport to study it.

White Studies is still not well-established in the academy, and there is a vast power structure that would like nothing more than to see it disappear. It takes a certain amount of privilege, and without privilege a clear measure of professional bravery, to undertake white studies today. It may be the same courage is called for on the part of Indians who wish to study Indian culture.

In the long run, I believe that any culture can only be understood when both insiders and outsiders to the culture have studied it. Whether this be white culture, or Indian culture, I hope the study of each of itself, and its study of the other, are projects that move ahead. I believe we will all benefit.

Rajiv: Many whites don’t want to be white, such as those in the whole Beastie Boys phenomena and others like it, and those who go reject their culture to go to an Indian guru, for instance. When are these genuine callings and when are they escapes or even gimmicks?

Jeff: This question brings up many issues. White culture continuously appropriates styles from cultures and communities of color. Long before the Beastie Boys there was Elvis Presley, a white singer who performed the then black-style of rock and roll. Elvis made millions when the black artists he mimicked made very little.

White people also appropriate the ways of Native American cultures, particularly religion. But when this is done, it removes the spiritual heart of the religion even while white people believe it heightens their own spirituality. Native American religions are based upon a shared community. When the religious concepts of the community are taken on by isolated individuals, what you have is a parody. Worse, you perpetuate the notion that the Native American faiths can survive without a community, and so the community, the heart of the religious experience, is not valued or preserved. This has led to decisions under the US legal system that have adversely impacted Native Americans in the practice of their faith.

The appropriation of customs from people of color by white people has lead to pain, distress, and injustice. Most often the white people who do this are ignorant of the pain they cause. They are simply carrying out a sense of entitlement and universality, as if each and every person is entitled to partake on anyone’s culture however they please, even if that person has not been an organic part of the culture. If a white person truly takes the time to listen and learn about another culture, and get to know more than the superficial edge of contact, then he or she will begin to understand this pain. But most white people do not go that far.

Many whites do not want to claim the identity of “white.” This is an exceedingly common point of view, and one of the sources of resistance to White Studies. My African American colleague, Dr. Charley Flint, points out that if she were to publicly claim she is not black, she would be viewed as mentally disturbed, and yet white people commonly claim not to be white. It’s a matter of white privilege, she points out, that white people can do this. It goes back to the silence and invisibility where we began our discussion. White culture is based on exclusion from and exploitation of people of color, and this is some heavy baggage to accept. No one wants to appear unfair. White supremacy provided a past justification for exclusion and exploitation, but with white supremacy now discredited, white people do not want to feel bad about past acts of genocide, and present control of the world’s resources. So we simply say we’re not white.

And who is there to dispute this? If the entire culture is accepting of this denial of identity, then it works. But at the same time there is no requirement that we surrender our privilege, or even admit that we have it. There is no requirement that we acknowledge the past that has given us wealth and direct material benefit. There is no requirement that we work for multiracial justice. Rather we can keep our big houses, our good schools, and our low-cost goods, and say we’re not white. It’s a wonder of whiteness that we can have our cake and eat it too. If every white person in the United States were to claim not to be white, would it lead to real material change? Would it mean the end of whiteness? I doubt it.

For whiteness to change, white people need to begin to see it, acknowledge it, and then begin the work needed to change it. This is very hard to do. White people experience self-hatred and shame, because of our past and how our present is built upon that. White shame is the most taboo topic in white culture, yet it drives this urge to deny a white identity and see spiritual salvation and redemption from cultures of color.

Fewer than one white person out of a hundred can admit to these feelings, and share some insight into what it means to be white, much less develop some sense of shared brotherhood and sisterhood, a sense of shared love and community with other white people as white people in a way that does not recapitulate our supremacist past. James Baldwin knew more about the psychology of white Americans than any other intellectual I know. Again I turn to him, “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” (The Fire Next Time)

There are many good white people as individuals, and many people of color who exist in relationship with these white people. This has always been true, and maybe more so today. Dr. Kathleen Korgen published an interesting study, however, that in 40 black-white pairs of adults, where each claimed the other as a close friend, they never discussed race. The topic was too threatening. In the two pairs that did discuss race, the relationship itself was falling apart.

There is a difference between personal intimacy across racial lines and insight into social processes such as racialization, dominance and privilege. Interracial intimacy is not that uncommon today. Insight into social processes such as racialization, dominance and privilege is also gaining ground among white intellectuals. But it’s rare to find a white person who partakes of both, and is able to do so as white, as a white person who is truly working to change his or her culture from within so that it better fits within a multiracial world.

Rajiv: I wanted to illustrate that I have had the pleasure of knowing many white persons as close friends and colleagues, and who I consider to be genuinely transcending these boundaries in their personal lives. I wish this were more common in the academy where liberalism is said to be based, but I am saddened that this dream seems so far away.

Furthermore, I wish to clarify, that similar deconstructions need to be made about Arabism, in which one must relate Arabism and Islam in the same manner as we related whiteness and Christianity. Converts to Islam gradually start to assume greater amounts of Arab cultural identity, in names, dress, language, etc. Over time, there is a shift in identity and eventually there comes a generation which calls itself Arab. This is the very cause of the civil war in Sudan where blacks who remain African in identity fight blacks who call themselves Arabs. So Arabism may be viewed as the equivalent of whiteness for the Muslim world, i.e. a scale on which to advance up towards greater states of perfection. Pointing at Mecca five times daily has a subliminal effect in this direction. Religious tensions are often correlated with loss of native language and identity. So its not Islam that necessarily has a clash with others but Arabism that is latent in Islam and wants to express itself at greater intensities of extroverted ness.

While all identities should be problematized in similar fashion, only Arabism and whiteness have global expansion agendas and histories using God’s directives to them, each side claiming unique but conflicting instructions from God. Between these, whiteness became successful in spreading itself as universal thought, and hence permeates invisibly, whereas Arabism is very explicitly Arabism and has not mutated into the invisible background form.

In conclusion, here is my stance on whiteness as it pertains to American identity. We need to go beyond the white/black duopoly of choices that are now available to someone who wishes to be properly American. Hispanics are closest to forming a third identity alternative, given their advantage of Spanish language as a common foundation. Prior to 9/11 there was also a movement to form a distinct Arab/Muslim American identity, but this took a massive setback. Minority identities succeed in the American cultural marketplace only if they are positive. Baggage from the land of origin must be left behind.

In order to have an Indian identity in America it must also be properly American, and this has to be positive and without apologies. It cannot be “pending whiteness,” in a sort of state of limbo, but positively Indian American. This requires two simultaneous projects: (i) Decentering whiteness into a relative position, which Whiteness Studies is already doing and which Indians need to get involved in. (ii) A positive construction of the Indian American identity. The latter is the bigger challenge because many intellectuals have problematized Indian culture so intensely that claiming Indianness after leaving the parents’ home and going to college is a challenge to our youth. There are too many liabilities which have been strapped on to Indianness, thanks to white-controlled India Studies into which many Indians have sold out. This is where Indian intellectuals have a lot to learn from black intellectuals: Self-flagellation does not work in America where identities are very positively projected. The deep inferiority complexes that were imbibed in India’s school systems are being further exploited in the American academy.

Thanks for this conversation. This background paves the way for me to work on the following additional themes:

  • Whiteness and the American Empire: this will be about Release 4, and some ideas on reinventing America such that the world becomes better.
  • White Indians: this will explain my Pets, Patients and Children Theory about elitist Indians who mimic whites.
  • White Anthropology and Mythology: this is where I hope we can work together to do some original field work on white folks.

[1]“The Great ‘White’ Influx: Regardless of color, two-thirds of immigrants choose that designation on census replies. For some, it’s synonymous with America,” By SOLOMON MOORE and ROBIN FIELDS. Los Angeles Times, July 31 200

[2] http://racerelations.about.com/library/weekly/blwhiteprivilege.htm

[3] Dr. Charley Flint, his spouse, is also co-founder and the President.

[4] References on White Culture Studies:

  • “Hue and Cry on ‘Whiteness Studies’: An Academic Field’s Take on Race Stirs Interest and Anger,” By Darryl Fears. Washington Post Staff Writer. June 20, 2003; Page A01.
  • Brander, Rasmussen, etc. editors, “The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness,” Duke. 2001.
  • Kincheloe, Steinberg, etc. editors, “White Reign,” St. Martin’s Griffin. 1998.
  • Matthew F. Jacobson, “Whiteness of a Different Color,” Harvard. Sixth reprint 2002.

  • Marimba Ani, “YURUGU: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior,” Africa World Press. Sixth reprint 1996.
  • Theodore W. Allen, “The Invention of the white race” vol. 2,” Verso. 1997.
  • Jeff Hitchcock, “Lifting the white veil,” Crandall Dostie & Douglas. 2002.
  • Noel Ignatiev, “How the Irish became white,” Routledge. 1995.
  • Karen Brodkin. “How Jews became white folks,” Rutgers. 1994.
  • “White by Law,” Ian F. Haney Lopez, NYU Press. 1996
  • Hooks, Bell. “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination.” In Cultural Studies, eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler. Routledge, 1992.
  • Peggy McIntosh – “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
  • Robert Jensen – “White Privilege Shapes the U.S.
  • Native American view: http://www.dickshovel.com/Banks.html
  • Eugene Rivers (a black pastor): url (article)
  • Paul Gorski: The Language of Closet Racism

[5] One may also postulate a possible future Release 5, which is the subject of the book, “The Next Christendom: The Coming Global Christianity,” Oxford University Press, 2002. Its thesis is that many African and Latin Christian churches have radically altered Christianity and brought it into their native contexts, in effect making it no longer white. White controlled churches are very upset and there is a power struggle going on. Assuming the third world Christians win and do not get appropriated, what might this do to the future of whiteness-Christianity relationship.

Published: 2004