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We need to study western 'White' culture on our own terms

By Rajiv Malhotra & Kaajal Ahuja

Watching a Black President of the United States taking the oath of office for his second term this week on the Martin Luther King Jr national holiday was a stirring sight, rich with meaning to many especially African Americans.

MLK Jr. Day, marking the birthday of Black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., is annually the day in the US when conversations, public debate and current events involving race and racial identity coalesce. Reaffirming blackness and taking pride in it was part of the civil rights movement led by King. As I’ve noticed in my 40-and-odd years in the US, among African-Americans, issues of race, identity and racial discrimination are always front and centre in conversations at home, in social settings and at work.

US President Barack Obama. Getty Images

US President Barack Obama. Getty Images

Race consciousness—blackness compared to the whiteness of the majority—is central to the African-American identity. This preoccupation speaks to the huge role that race has played in American history and Western culture. Having borne the brunt of racism in America and subsequently been at the forefront of the battle for racial justice, African-Americans can hardly neglect or forget their race-imbued history. Every year on MLK Jr. Day, that legacy is remembered and the strides made by the Black race in the US, as distinct from the White one, celebrated.

Among Whites, there’s a reluctance to examine whiteness explicitly and publicly. The invisibility given to “whiteness” and the presumption of its neutrality perpetuates White privilege in American society and makes it’s examination muted. Lowell Thompson, who describes himself as the world's first "whiteologist", has said 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 rather than using white gaze to study Black, Hispanic, Asian, and other cultures of colour. In my view too, understanding race and specifically "whiteness" is critical to examining Western culture.

I’ve found that among Indians, unlike Blacks, issues of race and racial discrimination are largely ignored in social and public spaces. Indian-Americans would like to pretend that they are somehow exempt from the racism that dogs American society. Part of the Indian reticence could be explained by the fact that Indian immigrants arrived to the US relatively recently, mostly after the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and therefore were shielded from the worst excesses of the Jim Crow era.

Also, Indians derive their identity not from race but language, caste, region and religion and are novices in racial dynamics. But even after becoming somewhat acclimatised to the US and the nuances of race, Indians tend to pursue and assume a "white-washed" identity. Indian immigrants, like other people of colour, feel racial anxiety and tend to capitulate more easily to the pressures of faking whiteness to the extent they are able to.

I disagree with those Indians who try to mimic whiteness, and partake of its privileges rather than attempt to better understand their own non-White identity and negotiate as an equal "other" with the dominant White culture. Such Indians seem to acquiesce to the West’s claims to universalism that projects its whiteness as neutral.

As I write in my book, Being Different, An Indian challenge to Western Universalism (HarperCollins 2011), such claims of universalism have generally led to the denigration of India and her traditions. It is by understanding whiteness rather than becoming subsumed by it that we understand Western universalism and can subsequently challenge and contest its conclusions.

In my book, I advocate the practice of purva paksha, or reversing the gaze on the West. In purva paksha, one does not look away from real differences but attempts to clarify them without the pretense of sameness. Gazing at whiteness (rather than from it) would enable Indians to recognise that White epistemologies and worldviews are relative and not universal, and could help level the playing field between the two cultures and empower Indians to live more authentically and with pride.

Several years ago I spoke at length with Jeff Hitchcock of the Center of the Study of White America about the problems of White privilege. His views echoed my own and many of those ideas are discussed at length in my book. According to Hitchcock, White American culture was created with a "frontier" mentality that encouraged the exploitation of natural resources, and a disregard of those defined as not White.

Whiteness in his view formed the centre of Western society and had a unholy association with Christianity. Terms such as “Western” and “American” were often code words for whiteness used in place of “White” and consequently whiteness remained unexamined.

By not naming White culture and instead seeing it as invisible, normative, transparent and raceless, the status quo of whiteness and its sense of entitlement were preserved. White culture needed to give up the centre, according to Hitchcock, if multiracial justice, multiracial community, multiracial safety and multiracial comfort were to be achieved. Moreover, whiteness needs to step aside as the sole path to knowledge. Studying whiteness as a particular phenomenon was a way to doing that.

American Blacks have done a purva paksha on Whites and White culture and after a long and hard journey are able to stake their claim on the world around them unapologetically and on their own terms. One of my goals in writing Being Different is that Indians too become equipped to engage in a direct and honest conversation about their differences. I offer a framework that Indians may use to look at the West.

Purva paksha, as Blacks know all too well, is not painless and resistance is to be expected. However, once undertaken correctly, it offers the potential for a far greater self-awareness than we currently have as a people and can have far-reaching impact on individuals and our multi-racial world.

Rajiv Malhotra is the author of Being Different, and a regular blogger on The Huffington Post

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