Christine Loh reviews Dismantling Global White Privilege – Equity for a Post Western World by Chandran Nair.
The time has arrived to see the world through fresh eyes and hear the voices of people who did not command attention before. With the rise of non-Western societies, the voices of those cultures are vying for attention on many fronts, ranging from food, fashion, sports, movies, music, history, and politics.
The space where rethinking is taking place is contested, however. The Western media remains the most powerful and they set the agenda on exhorting the virtues of Western values and explaining the non-Western world to both Western and non-Western audiences through their lenses. Local and regional perspectives are having to fight for their place in the sun.
As non-Western societies, such as those in Asia, look at themselves, they find the Western media have very successfully shaped the narrative and they end-up using that narrative to reflect on themselves and their societies too. This is particularly so in places that had once been colonised, where the Westernised narratives are part of the education system. The people have become used to hearing the voices of the colonisers – how issues are framed and explained, and how the conqueror’s language and narratives have been internalised and accepted.
Chandran Nair doesn’t mince words. He tells his readers about his longstanding restlessness in wanting to barge into that contested space to warn people about being sucked into a colonial mindset. In Dismantling Global White Privilege – Equity for a Post Western World, he lays out his objective in writing. He uses his personal experience as a Malaysian of Indian descent, educated in England, who has lived in Africa, and now in Asia, and who interacts with Western institutions, to examine “the ideology and complex workings of White privilege … to understand how oppression and dominance by Western cultures operate and are perpetuated globally, within countries and between them, with the key objective of sustaining economic superiority”.
Nair rejects the Western standard of modernity and progress achieved through perpetual growth wedded to Western political and value systems that buttress White privilege. He argues that will kill us all because it is gross material profligacy and unsustainability. He asks his audience to better understand the centuries of “exploitation, plunder, and repression by those who at the same time preach freedom, human rights, and liberty” and the harm that creates in the psyche of the Global South.
Non-Western societies are looking at how Western societies are evolving – what do we really think of the opinions and lifestyles of the rich and powerful people representing White privilege? Things are in fact not well in those societies that once seemed better organised, more advanced, and even more desirable than our own societies. Nair meets us at that crossroad and offers his insights.
Much had to do with poverty of course. People in the Global South wanted to migrate to Western countries because our own countries were a mess with corruption, slow development, and even civil wars. Migration meant greater opportunities to advance materially, and to live in what appeared to be well-organised and fairer societies. This was the dream that many people yearned for. We can see immigrants doing well in those countries, even becoming well-paid professionals, as well as successful politicians. This desire to reach the Global North remains strong, particularly for those from places that are still suffering terrible strive and conditions.
Nair tells people to stay and build where conditions have stabilised, and opportunities are available. With socio-economic advancement in Asia and Africa, he asks Global South societies to reflect on their histories and cultures, particularly of the colonial experience. Colonised societies often thought they could not be compared to their conquerors, who seemed stronger and more advanced technologically, and hence had to be “better” than native cultures.
To survive in a colonial society, people had to go along with the ways of the colonial masters. Indeed, to do well, you have to learn their language, and adopt their behaviour in order to get on. With the colonisers occupying superior positions in society, the subjects are made to be inferior, and much of that relationship was enforced by violence. As time passed, the local elites in colonies take on the values of the colonisers. At the same time, the colonisers develop a self-serving way to see how their expansion was helping the colonised people to become civilised.
The root of White privilege is not pretty. The early British and Europeans colonisers had to see the Native Americans as uncivilised, and it was their “manifest destiny” to push them out of the way. They had to justify the subjugation of slaves brought over from Africa – which evolved into the chattel system, in which slaves could be bartered and beaten like animals. At the height of the Enlightenment, some of the best minds of that era – such as David Hume, Voltaire, and Immanuel Kant – thought the Africans lacked reason and morals. The colonisers also thought the Chinese, Indians, and others to be suboptimal too.
Nair argues that White economic power remains the objective today. The end of the colonial era meant that the need to retain global economic power could no longer be furthered simply by force and subjugation. It morphed into leveraging the institutional and soft power of the West that was already in place to “actively and subversively colonise the minds of hundreds of millions of former subjects”. An example Nair points to is the United States’ unhappiness with China because the Chinese are not following the Western pathway to development.
Nair takes us by the hand and show us how the concept of modernity has been packed to reflect the values behind White privilege, and that it has become the root cause of global injustice today because it has so successfully wrapped itself into our economic and political systems. He wants us to see through the camouflage and become truly independent again. His message is just as uncomfortable for those from the Global South who have acculturated into those systems and those who are “White” because it is a reminder of the negative history of colonisers.
Read his book. It will jolt you wherever you come from or where you think you are heading.