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Whiteness Studies And Implications For Indian-American Identity

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The evolution of whiteness as America’s identity

The term whiteness denotes not necessarily race but a power structure based on a politically concocted ethnic and cultural identity. (For example, Japanese businessmen were given “honorary white” status by South Africa’s apartheid regime.) The central role of whiteness in American identity goes back to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who pioneered the Europeans’ conquest of America from the Native Americans.

They initially referred to themselves as “English” and the natives were called “Indians”. Later, the “us” included many kinds of Europeans besides the English, so they called themselves “Christians” and the natives of America were “Heathens”. But then various non-Europeans such as Black slaves and many Native Americans became Christians; so the term “Christian” was no longer exclusive and could not be a marker to distinguish the “superior” people. That is when the term “White” became popular to differentiate from the others.
Laws were enacted that gave Whites special rights with regard to property, marriage, immigration, etc. Popular literature, political discourse by the Founding Fathers, discussions in the US Congress and by Presidents, writings by academic scholars, and media – each of these explicitly utilized this classification of America’s population for most of the past 400 years. Only relatively recently did the term “White” go out of intellectual style to mean “real American,” but it remains implicit and its effect is still felt in subtle and insidious ways.

The sense of White identity has had both positive and negative impacts on the formation of America as a nation.  Not just 18th and 19th century thinkers, but also respected academics today like Samuel Huntington, have argued that American democracy’s vitality and innovativeness derive from its Anglo-Protestant ideology and identity. The definition of who is White and civilized, and who is not, has changed over time.  The book, “How the Irish Became White”, shows how the Anglo-Saxon Protestant monopoly on whiteness was first challenged by Irish immigrants who were not Anglo-Saxon and not Protestant (but Catholic), hence officially classified as non-White. The Irish were prevented from entering White labor unions and commonly mocked by Whites as “savages.” It was only in the late 1800s, after years of violence and tension that the Irish finally reached a treaty with Anglo-Saxon Protestants to be admitted as Whites. Henceforth, the Irish became White. A similar struggle took place in many other cases of non Anglo-Saxon Protestant immigrants – including Greeks, Italians, Poles and other Slavic peoples, etc. This inclusion of other Europeans as Whites implied that America’s civic religion expanded from Protestantism to Christianity. But the core character remained the Protestant Ethic, as explained by Max Weber’s popular thesis.

Another important book, “How the Jews Became White Folks”, documents the same trajectory followed by Jews in the 20th century, prior to which they were classified as colored people in America. Henceforth the civic religion became Judeo-Christian, a new kind of religious ethos that is unique to America and not common in Europe.  Today this Judeo-Christian civic religion remains a strong rallying cry for politicians in both the Democratic and Republican camps, but is an imperfect surrogate for whiteness as the case of African-Americans demonstrates. While predominantly Christian, Blacks are still not equals in the American power structure.

Whiteness for nation building and mapping others:

 Whiteness was a key ingredient in the westward growth of America.  The related notion of “Manifest Destiny” officially formulated and codified into law the right of White people to take over lands from non-White people. This was applied first against Native Americans, then to justify the conquest of California, Texas, Arizona, etc. from Mexico. Later, this right was projected overseas to justify the US invasion of Philippines, Latin America, and so forth. These notions of being a privileged club with special standing in the world were originally premised on the Bible. But later, the Enlightenment thinkers, including luminaries like Thomas Jefferson, made the same arguments without reference to God or Bible, about the inherent superiority of European civilization. The White Man’s Burden was spun as the moral duty of civilizing the non-Whites for their own good.

A key ingredient in formulating whiteness as the basis for America’s exceptional status was to set up a powerful mechanism to produce “authoritative” knowledge about various kinds of non-Whites.  This ranged from popular narratives about non-Whites to sophisticated accounts by academics.   To stir up wide support for campaigns of conquest based on Manifest Destiny, sensational accounts were written about the atrocities committed by, and weird/grotesque practices of, those non-Whites who happened to be the target group at a given time.

Thus, Mexicans were widely portrayed as lazy, immoral, “mongrels” and abusive of their women – the women were shown to be in need of rescuing by White men. Native Americans were depicted as dangerous savages who threatened not only White women but also each other.  Blacks were “children” who needed to be tutored and controlled by Whites.  A long lineup of great Enlightenment thinkers, ranging from Buffon to Hume to Kant (and Jefferson), each produced learned academic tomes that lent tremendous prestige to these sensational stories that had currency among lay Whites and popular media of the day.

Today, similar atrocities literature about the “third world” is generated in sections of anthropology, film, fiction, international studies. Nowadays such atrocities literature is called “human rights violations” reports, and is used to argue for interventions, such as those against Iraq. The Civilizing Mission is now called “bringing democracy and human rights” to the others for their own best interests.

While new groups such as the Irish, Italians and Jews were gaining acceptance by virtue of their claims to whiteness, the same did not happen for what was then America’s largest minority, i.e. African-Americans.  Even though they were mostly devout Christians, having been converted en masse during their enslavement, they were carefully kept out of the White or “civilized” camp.  For a brief period after the Civil War, known as the Reconstruction, Blacks did achieve political freedom and even a semblance of social mobility.  But these were swiftly taken away by a combination of political and economic shifts, and also because the intellectual climate was increasingly hostile to seeing Blacks as being on par with Whites.  Leading academics, such as ColumbiaUniversity’s very influential professor Dunning, produced volumes of research showing how Blacks were incapable of handling power and responsibility. They cited all sorts of anecdotes and analyses that Blacks committed many kinds of atrocities.  This intellectual climate, along with Jim Crow legislation, was powerful enough to keep Blacks out of mainstream power until the 1960s.  Even today, Blacks and Whites worship in segregated Christian churches throughout America. The Black church helped cement a positive Black identity and provided a forum for political and social action, without which there would not have been the civil rights movement or the present self-confident leadership.

It has been said that America’s history is the story of new waves of immigrants fighting to become White (i.e. full-fledged insiders). Today, the Hispanics are divided between those who lobby to become White (i.e. assimilate and dissolve their separate identity), and those who want to claim a third cultural pole that is neither White nor Black, but distinct and called Hispanic. The latter group champions the Spanish language and its embedded culture as the vehicle to preserve its identity. Highly regarded scholars like Samuel Huntingdon have raised the alarm very openly from prestigious Ivy Leagues forums that the Hispanics will threaten the American nation because they are not Anglo-Saxons and not Protestants. Such xenophobia relies upon an army of scholars and activists – including some from Hispanic backgrounds – to stereotype the Mexicans, produce reports about social oppression within Hispanic communities, and thereby show that America is endangered by Hispanic influence.

 To understand Americanness/Whiteness deeper, the three-volume American Frontier by Richard Slotkin is an excellent work. It traces deeply embedded notions of identity, privilege and destiny in the American mythos, and how this mythos has built a grand nation but at the expense of a whole series of non-White peoples. It should be required reading for all those who dismiss the civilizational superiority complex that is built into America.

Obscuring whiteness: 

In order to examine the extent to which the sense of whiteness persists today, one should reference the new bibliography mentioned at the beginning of this article. Those who want to specifically understand what is called “implicit Whiteness” (i.e. superior identity that is denied by the individual but exists subconsciously) should look at recent cognitive science research, such as, Devos, T., & Banaji, M.R. (2005), “American = White?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 447-466.   ( See: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~tdevos/thd/devos_jpsp2005_abstract.pdf ) Also see the paper at: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~tdevos/thd/Quintana_wpa2005.pdf
There are divergent views regarding whiteness as the implicit reference point relative to which American identities are being shaped even today. Some of these prevailing views are summarized below.

Perhaps the most important intellectual movement that has unwittingly created confusion about the nature of American society today is postmodernism.  Many postmodernists imagine that social power based on identity differences is being eroded rapidly. To them, Whiteness is irrelevant now as the nexus of power. But they cite only the pop culture to give examples of this new idealized America, whereas America’s power structure is not based in its pop culture. They ignore the deeper structure of society where whiteness rules. Ziauddin Sardar has criticized such postmodernist intellectuals for complicity because he alleges that it lets western imperialism off the hook while focusing on deconstructing other cultures. Indirectly, it facilitates the re-colonization of other cultures by the West.

Another view is held by Diana Eck and her Pluralism Project, which promotes multiple religious identities, and projects America as a role model for success in this. But often, and even before 9/11, pluralism in America has been mostly interpreted as incorporating Islam into America’s civic religion, moving America from Judeo-Christianity to Abrahamism. This largely leaves out the non-Abrahamic religions. Buddhism is an exception to this and  does get a fair representation, thanks to its powerful support base in the American academy and among important intellectuals. Also, being non-theistic it does not threaten Abrahamism and many of its practices can be assimilated easily.

However, when Hinduism is represented, the academic establishment tends to picks a “noble savage” as spokesperson, one who typically says lofty things like, “All religions are the same,” etc. Prof. Joshi’s new book, discussed below, and many other writings in the Whiteness Studies bibliography prove that identity oppression is real in America. It is not something that a group of scholars in the liberal academic cocoon can whitewash away.

Whiteness Studies:  A key to understanding America

Whiteness is to America what the “Pentium inside” (now “Centrino inside”) is to a computer. (It is not something found in Europe in the same sense, because there the dominant cultural substrata varied: Frenchness in France, Germanness in Germany, Englishness in England, etc., but no melted down pan-European Whiteness, even though the European Union might move in that direction. There is a growing voice arguing that Christianity is the very core of Europeanness, giving the EU its own kind of Manifest Destiny.)

I see three dimensions to whiteness in America today: (1) as a secular blend of race, ethnicity and culture; (2) as a civic religion based on Judeo-Christianity/Bible; and (3) as a socioeconomic status. How White you are is measured in this 3-dimensional model. All other identities are based on difference from whiteness.

Relevance of whiteness to Indian-Americans

This historical background and framework is used in my research to address the following question: Will Indian-Americans “become White” like various European immigrants did? Or will they claim a separate identity similar to the Hispanic one, which is not White or Black, yet fully American in status? This question is one of the reasons for exploring the history of Whiteness – i.e. learning from the experiments and experiences of other immigrant groups.

Indian-Americans are already climbing socioeconomically to “become White” in the #3 dimension. This success reduces their “difference” from the “real” Whites. Historically, this was the mercantile path to the American mainstream. But it does not make them fully White because of the other two factors. Many Indian-Americans (like Bobby Jindal) convert to Christianity to reduce #2 (i.e. religion) as a factor of difference. In order to reduce the alienating impact of #1, one may adopt Enlightenment or Postmodern ideologies, and American pop culture also facilitates this blurring.

An important new book has come out based on surveys of Indian-Americans. It identifies the role of religion as a factor in making Indian-Americans feel less Americans than Whites. This book is by Khyati Joshi, “New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground”. It proves with empirical data that there is religious bias facing Indian-Americans especially on account of being Hindu (i.e. #2 factor), even after they have achieved parity with Whites on socioeconomic criteria (i.e. #3); and this applies even to the second-generation who are born and raised in USA (and hence have lesser #1 difference). This is an important new book, and more scholars need to examine this issue courageously.

What should Indians do about this identity issue, as a new minority group in America? This is a nation where identities are projected publicly in the mainstream, often quite assertively and chauvinistically.

Several Indian academicians in the humanities regard the Indian identity to be a source of conflicts in India. Amartya Sen is one prominent example. Their political position on India gets projected onto Indian-Americans, who are therefore scolded for hanging on to Indianness which is seen as something arcane and shameful. Given the all-pervading nature of whiteness as the American substratum, such a position puts pressure on Indian-Americans to de-Indianize and dissolve into whiteness. Harvard’s Homi Bhabha has come up with postmodernist theories of “mimicry” and “hybridity” that make this hip. But such scholars do not seem to have examined the American history of “us/other” (as explained, for example, in Slotkin’s three volumes), or the present depth of whiteness in America. The burden to dissolve difference is thus being placed entirely on the non-Whites. Their positions are unrealistic and oppressive.

There is a double standard here. Because identity difference is projected by scholars as a cause of conflict and violence in India, the dominant culture in India is rightly asked to shoulder the burden of removing difference with the underclasses. The same rules should also be applied to America. These scholars should similarly pressure the dominant White American culture to change itself, in order to become less White and thus shoulder the burden of reducing difference with others. But while in the case of India they champion the underclass, and attack the dominant culture’s hegemony, they are unable to do the same in the case of America. Are they too invested in the American power structure? Would such an approach undermine their “honorary White” status through the adoption of “White epistemology” and their positions in institutions of intellectual power?

This brings me to the trajectory followed by many Indian-Americans in the humanities to “become White” by proving their competence in White ways of “gazing”. This means seeing things through European epistemological categories, which nowadays means “theories” of culture, textual analysis, etc. that have been accepted by the Anglo-American academy as a part of the “canon of theories” one is supposed to use. The Indian equivalent of such theories would be the very large and sophisticated range of “siddhantas”. But these are simply ignored in modern/postmodern studies, or are trivially dismissed, or are mapped/co-opted into trendy new theories owned by White experts or their whitened followers. This is a new kind of civilizational power that has been called “theory power.” I call it epistemic arrogance. Bhabha is a role model being projected by the American establishment for young Indian-Americans in English Departments to emulate. He has proven himself as having the “White gaze”. This is the liberal path to becoming White, just as Christianizing was Bobby Jindal’s Biblical path to Whiteness. One may think of them as left-wing and right-wing whiteness, respectively.

One finds many Indian anthropologists (serving western funding sources, mentors, institutions, journals, etc.) referring to other Indians as “native informants” in their research – a racial slur from the colonial era that positions the “other” as someone below the glass ceiling who is not to be treated as an equal in cultural inquiry. On the other hand, the Indian who confidently gazes back at Whites (such as through Whiteness Studies), who talks as an equal, and who theorizes about them as the exotic other, is often seen as a threat especially if he is outside the control mechanisms of the academic establishment. (Such persons must be branded the “dangerous savage” who is threatening civilization)

Sudhir Kakar and Amartya Sen disagree on whether or not there is a positive Indian identity and what its implications would be. Kakar’s new book on the psychological profile of Indians shows that there is a definite Indianness that pervades across the ethnicities, castes, and economic strata of India. He also considers this Indianness as something positive, implying that it is something worth protecting. Indeed, there are major problems to be solved in India; but the same could be said of any cultural identity in the world, and Indianness has repeatedly proven its internal reform ability without foreign interventions.

Amartya Sen, on the other hand, asserts that a distinct Indian identity breeds violence. He wants to show that there is no clash of civilizations – I use the term “clash” not as physical violence but as competition among world-views. His stance implies that non-Western epistemologies (ways of seeing things) are invalid when they differ from Western epistemologies – i.e. Chinese Civilization, Islamic Civilization, etc. are valid only to the extent they agree with the premises of Western thought. Is he not adopting the White Gaze that sees itself as universal, and hence denies the very existence of any other legitimate gaze? It is the truth, its proponents claim in all sorts of “universal” declarations.

Harvard’s Sugata Bose takes this to the next step, and debunks India as a nation-state on the grounds that it has always been oppressive and is inherently bad for its minorities. (The Mughal structure was good, though, these scholars say, because it partially cured the Indian oppressiveness.)   Other Indian-American scholars use the postmodernist line without adequate examination, and directly attack the legitimacy of the Indian nation-state.  But these scholars do not give the same argument against America as a nation-state, nor call for its break-up along ethnic or religious lines, despite the fact that its 400-year history shows how it has been based on the oppression, or at least the marginalization, of non-Whites! Nor are they willing to critique living scholars in the academy who study India from a standpoint that is implicitly Eurocentric. Postcolonial Studies focuses largely on the dead empire and dead scholars, and when criticizing America they are typically limited to reproducing self-criticisms by Liberal Whites. The invisible, unconscious gold-standard of whiteness as the reference point persists because of the reluctance to gaze at it.

One consequence of undermining a distinct Indianness in America is being played out in the growing field of South Asian Diaspora Studies.  To cite but one example, Professor Prema Kurien is one of the upcoming young Indian-Americans being groomed by White Protestant institutions to do surveillance on Hindu-Americans. The goal is to show them as “savages” invading America who needed to be civilized.  She unquestioningly accepts certain premises deriving from whiteness. Indians who are benign and unquestioning of Whiteness or of Judeo-Christian norms, can serve as role models for others: these are “noble savages.” But those who challenge the cultural power structure are branded as “dangerous savages”, and the syndicated research desires to impute that they must have links with violence in India. My research is examining the possibility that this is a continuation of the way the American Frontier managed the non-Whites, especially those non-Whites who were self-assured and articulate intellectuals. The academic discipline of Diaspora Studies is being used by some to keep tabs on non-Whites who do not assimilate, and especially those who want to reverse the gaze and study Whiteness.

There is also the position adopted by many that a given culture does not belong to anyone, and hence there is no “owner” with the legitimate right to “defend” it. Other postcolonial scholars disagree, such as Rajani Kannepalli Kanth. They feel that this free-for-all posture is too lofty. It clears the way for “EuroModernism” to colonize others, because it is in charge of the parameters of the inter-cultural debate, and it sets up straw-men/women of non-Western cultures to knock down. Culture is a form of capital, and the West controls most of the means of global distribution. The prerequisites of free trade are simply not in place, given the concentration of capital. There is no reason to treat this kind of capitalism any differently than material capitalism, especially since cultural capital and material capital are mutually supportive.

Regardless of one’s position on these matters, whiteness is the underlying canvas on which this identity drama plays out today, just as it did in America’s past.

The cultural dynamics within America is not the only theater where whiteness is important. There are two other spheres where whiteness is a key player. In the geopolitics of today, the America/Islam ideological conflict may be modeled in large part as one between whiteness and Arabness (with the Persianness/Arabness tension manifesting as the Shiite/Sunni sub-conflict). Likewise, the America/China competition (moving towards all-out conflict) is deeper than a mere competition for economic goods. Just as America is based ideologically on the White Protestant Ethic, so also modern China is a renaissance of what its own intellectuals refer to as the Confucian Ethic.

Yet another arena where whiteness is playing a role is inside India. India’s modernization is commonly being seen as synonymous with westernization. This is in contrast to the way Chinese intellectuals (such as Prof. Tu Weming, Director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute of China Studies) resist calling China’s modernity as western. They use the ideological foundation of a Confucian continuity over thousands of years to frame the miracle of China’s distinct kind of Modernity. The West was a catalyst, they say, but the character and future of modernization in China is rooted in its own civilization. Yet in India the intellectual trajectory is different, as it sees the native civilization to be the problem to eradicate. India’s westernization of lifestyles, economy and government policymaking are often at the expense of Indic traditions. Add to this the fair-skin complex that has entered Indian aesthetics over the past thousand years, and theories of Aryans bringing civilization into India from Europe. One has an interesting study of India’s own peculiar kind of whiteness at work. Perhaps, similar to the American books, “How the Irish became White,” and “How the Jews became White Folks,” there is need to write about “How the Desis are becoming White”!

As a final remark, I do not consider the orthodox categories of left-wing and right-wing to be very useful, especially in the understanding of Indian society and politics. These mutually exclusive left/right binary options simply do not work, and fail to represent the far more complex dynamics on the ground. Yet Indian social thinkers have internalized these epistemic categories – as a sort of pseudo-intellectual whitening. For a leftist, any opponent is easily branded “right-wing.” Likewise, for the so-called right-wingers, those who criticize their ways are instantly demonized as “leftists.” A richer model is based on the notion of identity and culture as forms of capital, complete with capitalists, competition over control of means of production and distribution, and so forth. The sociopolitical dynamics of nations and the globe may then be seen in a very different light.

This is just a brief report on some of my ongoing work. I hope that the new bibliography will provoke free-spirited inquiry among scholars.

Published: 2007