Race is staring us in the face. Confronting and dealing with it is highly emotional and disturbing, so much so that in polite company, it’s unspeakable. But we can’t avoid it because racism has become global. Malaysian social commentator Chandran Nair’s new book, “Dismantling Global White Privilege” confronts racism by calling it privilege.
Is White Might right? Do Black Lives Matter? Should yellow be identified with cowardice and peril? Identifying race with colour is so highly charged that no one can discuss it objectively.
For a person of colour to criticise white behaviour is often dismissed as subjective bias. For the white media to label others as corrupt, aggressors, enemies, evil, low IQ is considered objective free speech. Fair deal? Nair’s book, sub-titled “Equity for a Post-Western World” is a battle cry to create a more free, equal world where skin colour should not be a barrier to a more just planet.
The book is a cringing read because every page challenges our assumptions of daily life – that it is free, equal, and democratic with a rules-based order. The pandemic proves that the world is not free, when the poor, aged and weak cannot afford vaccines and are free to die in even very rich countries. The world is not truly democratic because if every one of its 7.8 billion citizens had a vote, the one billion rich, powerful and mostly white people would be outvoted to create a very different global order.
The rules-based order raises the fundamental question – who sets the standards, norms and rules? Can we have a proper conversation on whether these rules are fair to all and are at least enforced fairly, justly, and transparently? Nair has looked comprehensively at white privilege from the angles of history, business, media and publishing education, culture, sports, fashion, and sustainability. It would be facile to dismiss him as biased. But what does it mean to be white? White sociologist Robin DiAngelo sums up racism as a black/white binary system that posits a world of evil racists and compassionate nonracists. That is itself a racist construct. Racism as a term was introduced into the English language in the 17th century with colonialism, plantation slavery and exploitation, linking whiteness with freedom and blackness with slavery.
Even today in Latin America, there is a “pigmentocracy”, in which power and social status is associated with lighter skin colour. That holds true in other societies. In her latest book, “White Fragility”, DiAngelo asks: “How were we, as white people, able to enjoy so much racial privilege and dominance in the workplace, yet believe so deeply that racism had changed direction to now victimize us?” Her example resonates with anyone watching Hollywood movies: “When actors audition, they are most often judged by white people, using white standards for roles written by white writers and intended for white audiences…Precisely because the system reflects white interests and worldview, white people will not see any of this in racial terms. They are confident that we can represent all of humanity — if no Asian actors apply, we don’t question casting efforts.”
The bias built into current standards that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) was first observed by Canadian psychologists Heine and Norenzayan in their survey of psychological studies, which were mostly based on Western college students with WEIRD characteristics. The biased sample behaviour is then generalized as global representative standards. US sociologist Hermann Kurthen observed the same bias in his recent article “Present at the Destruction? Grand Strategy Imperatives of US Foreign Policy Experts during the Trump Presidency”.
He interviewed 37 foreign policy experts from 18 DC think tanks (six conservative, six centrist and six liberal) – 84 per cent were white males, with 46 per cent having Ph.Ds, and 60 per cent declared nonpartisan. He grouped them into four actor types: nationalists, realists, pragmatic liberals and liberals, of which the last three are globalists for maintaining the post-war international order. The results showed groupthink in five frames: US global leadership; alliance against revisionists; prosperity imperative; values imperative; with the fifth US mission ranging from Make America Great Again (MAGA) to protector of global interests.
A common thread with global leadership was ‘primacy’, with a “focus on superiority, domination, and reigning in rising powers and adversaries.” Protecting privilege as a property right with material benefits is neither pre-destined or ordained. No one elected or appointed whites or Americans as global leaders – they fought and dominated with superior technology and arms. But in this age of massive disruptions, with climate change, demographics and spread of knowledge/technology causing mass migration from poor to rich countries, can such privileges be sustained? Nair concludes that change can come by rejecting the three Es: Entitlement, Exclusivity and Exceptionalism. But will change happen? DiAngelo sums it up best: White fragility is a reaction from both white liberals and conservatives.
The conservative populists want to fight against any challenge to the erosion of white rights, whereas the progressives want more state intervention to address inequities. She however thinks that “white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of colour.” Polarization stalls change because the right is against state intervention, whereas the left calls for more, not realising that it creates a dependency syndrome that is neither fiscally nor socially sustainable.
My personal view is that racism is often an excuse not to address the wicked problems of social injustice and planetary destruction. Blaming each other will not work anymore for the existential issues that face us. Race is only a mask over deep injustices locked down into our psyches of power and hierarchy. Technology has enabled us to begin a conversation at local, communal, corporate, state, regional and global levels on how to shape a world of peace and sustainability, rather than demonizing each other and beating the drums of war.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong and a former financial regulator. Special to ANN.)