“When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.” – Tao Te Ching, The Book of the Way
The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. is just our latest reminder that White supremacism is still an undying force in the world. Jelani Cobb highlights in the New Yorker that Trump understood the overarching theme in America’s history of populism well, that “resentful whites understand their economic status is not in absolute terms, but relative to the blacks whom they perceive as the true barometer of their standing”. Today, globalization has made it difficult to ignore the increasing racial differential of identity in the West and rather than encouraging civility, many Western governments have rallied populist sentiments of White nationalism to suppress this diversity. In the US, as well as in many Europeans countries where immigration policies are not well managed, immigrants have been unfairly blamed for the reduced economic mobility of citizens. The roots of White supremacy lie heavily in the notion of “Orientalism” and it provides a foundation for understanding why people of the East (and minorities as a whole) have long experienced grievances in the West, why it has persisted into the twenty-first century, and why there is no good reason for it to continue.
In 1978, Edward Said wrote a book titled Orientalism, exploring the cultural representations that laid the foundations for Orientalism. Said demonstrates that Western scholarship about the Eastern world is inextricably tied to the imperialist societies who produced it and Orientalist work is therefore inherently political and submissive to Western power. Orientalism provided a rationalization for European colonialism whereby the East was constructed as a region in need of Western intervention and rescue, often as a pretense to secure natural resources. Orientalism therefore supported elaborate theories, literature, art, social descriptions and political accounts of the Orient by the West. For example, notions of erotic and exotic propaganda distinguish many famous 19th century European paintings.
These exclusionary politics continue to manifest in pop culture today even though there is no longer any formal incentive to reiterate this legacy. Dolce and Gabbana was the target of backlash this year when they released a campaign called ‘Dolce and Gabbana Loves China’. Their stylish models were juxtaposed against impoverished or working class citizens in underdeveloped areas, or against Chinese tourists in locations like Tiananmen Square. The irony is that today, many millennials in China are growing up in cities which are far more developed than that of their Western counterparts, with superior public transport systems, faster mobile networks, and technology that is yet to be commercialized in the West. Arguably more patronizing is the 2016 Hollywood production The Great Wall starring Matt Damon. It follows the story of Damon’s character and other European mercenaries who in searching for mystical black powder, come to the defense of the Great Wall of China against monstrous mystical beasts. Damon’s character is the hero that defeats the creatures, for some reason ends up leading the Chinese army, wins over the Commander’s daughter, and saves China. Apparently, China’s history lies in mythology and needs a white man as its savior.
These examples are now better referred to as the Othering of minorities in the West, loosely defined as any action through which an individual or a group is alienated and deemed less worthy of respect and dignity. Prior to the East, Othering had also been the legacy of colonies in native America, Australia, and New Zealand. It manifests not only in pop culture but more concerningly in government policy and private enterprise, and the pervasive intersection of the two. The irony is that while the West has embraced contributions to the world from the East and other minority groups (ideas, technology, cuisine, architecture, natural resources), it often, though not always, remains unwilling to accord the people with the same dignity. For example, the West has rarely alluded to Islamic contributions to the world. Instead, politically and religiously fueled conflict has been widely used as an excuse to ignorantly spread contempt for those who practice Islam. In his book The House of Wisdom, Jonathan Lyons restores credit to the classical world of Islam which laid the foundations for the Renaissance. Amongst many other contributions, the Islamic world created the astrolabe which became the precursor to our ability to accurately tell time and determine dates today. It also popularized the notion that religion and science could coexist which enabled medieval Western intellectuals to explore the universe without offending the dignity of God. Danish is a 27 year old Pakistani Muslim who spent much of his life in Australia and it is worth sharing some of his experiences in whole:
“Based on my experience, much of the world’s hostility has come from a lack of understanding which stems from both lack of exposure and the unwillingness to be vulnerable. I find that the hostility I faced in Australia was not just physical but also intellectual. My physical difference didn’t lead to curiosity or inquisitiveness on account of the locals, rather it led to apprehension and unease. I would wonder why I was a person of color first and a person second. But after going through the Australian education system I kind of understood. In history class we only focused on European history, the colonial history of Australia and the World Wars. That was modern history so I was hoping that ancient history would be different, but it wasn’t. We only covered Greeks and Romans and the Orient was skimmed over nonchalantly…
… So we learned about Zeus & Caesar and whoever but we didn’t learn about Ashoka, Muhammad, Zarausthra, Lao Tse, Mansa Musa, or Atahualpa. It was like Western Europe was where history started and ended and everything else was pretty much immaterial. But it’s actually critical in order to understand the Orient, [and] to put the globe into context. The Orient has always been where the lion’s share of people live and colonization turned these intellectual backwaters into sources of raw material to be extracted, refined, and then sold back to them. It’s sad because the reality of colonization was appropriation and not assimilation… still Western governments can’t get over their unconscionable differences with their Oriental colonies.”
Education curriculums contribute fundamentally to how minority cultures are recognized in the West. Collectively, education boards have lacked the courage to posit notions of contempt, ignorance and racial superiority against the idea of civility. When generation after generation is sold the same narrative it is not hard to understand why White supremacy remains fundamental in the West. It should be noted that while racism is a global phenomenon which is not unique to Westerners, the East has rarely used the pretense of cultural superiority to appropriate the West. Take China for example, the Eastern superpower. As explained in a Foreign Affairs article, “although the Chinese believe that others can look up to them… China’s leaders have not proselytized on behalf of their approach. As Henry Kissinger has noted, imperial China did not export its ideas but let others come to seek them“. The West has also been largely admired in the East for its people and contributions. Of course, some Middle Eastern countries promote intolerance to Western practices, like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Qatar where Wahhabism is widespread, but in many ways it has been in resistance to historical Western oppression. This resistance is also felt increasingly in Africa and Asia.
Culture has a great inertia but new values can be laid by first revealing existing culture for what it is. Stanford University is releasing a class this fall called White Identity Politics to explore the 2016 US election and the rise of White nationalism and it is essential that educational institutions in the West follow in suit to encourage a new and informed dialogue for the coming generation, the policy makers and voices of the future. It has always been the right of citizens to determine the constituents and culture of their country but the current populist rhetoric has always been unfounded. UNESCO released a series of statements on race in 1950 demonstrating that it has been scientifically refuted that cultural groups are characteristically tied to racial groups. These statements aligned with Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution whereby human beings are a single stock from which localized cultures resulted from different environments. As published in a revised version of the statements in 1967, “Racial prejudice and discrimination in the world today arise from historical and social phenomena and falsely claim the sanction of science.” All the same, it has not prevented the evolution of culture along racially defined lines. It is not too late for Western governments and private institutions to ensure a renewed future by refashioning the identity of Others not in relative terms, but in absolute terms.
“Imagine if the narrative was never like this. People wouldn’t have stepped back from me, instead they would have stepped forward and asked me questions about my origins and I would have happily shared. Even though we had differences they might have realized that we were really the same.”