Dismantling global white privilege: Book by Chandran Nair-Equity for a post-western world

Aug 22, 2022
Chandran Nair
Image: flickr / World Economic Forum

One of the few uplifting political trends of the past decade has been the growing strength of movements for gender equality and, even more surprisingly, the demand for racial justice. But a higher-level structure of discrimination governs both racism and sexism: The global dominance of a white power elite in virtually every arena of human activity.

Chandran Nair, one of Asia’s most respected public intellectuals, makes a powerful case for the existence of a white thread connecting sectors as diverse as sports and finance, and seven others, in his new book Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a Post-Western World. Chosen in June by the Financial Times as one the best books of the season, Nair’s thesis weaves an undeniable tapestry of how the McKinseys, Deloittes, the NBA, and global media are connected by the dominance of European and North American leadership and Western values.

Nair is an engineer by training, so his acute analysis of systems in not surprising. But he was also one of the most successful environmental consultants in Asia for more than three decades. He is now CEO of an Asian think tank, the Global Institute for Tomorrow. He has advised governments around the world, and as a senior board member of the Club of Rome is personally acquainted with the global club of white senior executives.

In sector after sector he points out the dominance of Western white-led organisations, from the World Bank to the big four auditing giants, to the Ivy League, to fashion and publishing. He challenges the liberal democratic narrative of our system of governance as being not only the best, but the only workable one in the world.

From my conversations with him, he refuses to take sides between China/US, for example. Acknowledges their racism and other dysfunctions, simply observes the West still rules, and China does not, and probably never will. Nair does not advocate for an acceptance of Chinese or any other authoritarian model. He focuses on the West because that is where the power and the problems are today.

He takes swipes at Western liberals’ willingness to take tough stands on racism, while failing to promote non-white candidates to CEO level roles.

What makes his thesis so compelling is that he connects the elements that underpin global white privilege not only by sector and geography, but by history. He draws a straight line between early European traders in Asia, to colonialism to today. The legacy of decolonisation, he maintains, is the appearance of independence and self-government, but the reality of white privilege continuing to control economies, alliances, and trade relations. He also connects today’s American geopolitical strategy, so often grounded in the use of its military dominance, to the maintenance of Western commercial interests, most famously, of course, in oil.

He cites as well the casual dismissal of non-white deaths in such interventions, quoting former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, stunningly answering a question on 60 Minutes in 1996 about the 500,000 civilian deaths attributed to post-Gulf War sanctions against Iraq saying, “We think the price is worth it.”

As a sometime academic and frequent speaker at university forums, he wonders why the American Ivy League and Oxford and Cambridge dominate global academia to this day in power, wealth and rankings. He observes that the rankings are done by groups dominated by Western white privilege as judges, using factors of assessment uniquely suited to the established big universities.

Nair grew up in Malaysia and cites his own experience moving from a teen addicted to British and American rock and roll to an adult realising that despite their “revolutionary” stance even the Rolling Stones were merely another evocation of the life of Western white kids. He grew into a music fan and musician now focused on Asian, African and Middle Eastern musical giants. He wonders why they do not get the same attention, even in their own countries, as the Anglo-American superstars.

He questioned as an adolescent why a Malaysian of Indian ancestry was studying Shakespeare, to the exclusion of Asian literary giants such as Omar Khayyam, Laozi, or the Upanishads. He links this to continuing colonisation of the minds of too many Asian students in a white Western literary and historical narrative. He calls, quite reasonably, for non-white students not to have to ingest these constructs as the price of their entry into and success in Western universities and commerce.

Given his 30 years of experience in environmental practice, Nair’s critiques here are especially biting. What he dubs the “Whitewashed Environmental Movement,” is guilty of many obstacles to a real path to sustainability. Challenging the role of the green public rockstars, an entirely white global leadership, he asks why this is so. The only possible explanation he claims is that we in the West believe non-white communities and organisations do not really care about the environment, or that they don’t have the ability and resources to make real change, or that by keeping non-white critiques out of the green spotlight we ensure that white privilege’s climate guilt can be deflected.

Whether you accept this searing critique or not, his citation of the games with numbers that rich societies play about environmental virtue are unchallengeable. Conceding both India and China’s ongoing pollution and emissions issues, he points out that China is still the world leader in solar energy installation at 205,000 megawatts (2019). More than three times number two, the US at 62,000.

Nair is, perhaps inevitably, a little less granular in prescription, than in critical description. He acknowledges that there are many sectors – finance perhaps first among them – that will be deeply resistant to his demand for greater equity for non-whites. And he concedes the kinds of changes that he is calling for may require decades, even generations.

However, underpinning his entire thesis is not a naive assumption that the powerful will generously cede their power. That will never happen unless they are persuaded that failing to do so risks violent resistance, and the potential to lose much greater power. History offers support for such an approach. It was, after all Franklin D. Roosevelt’s private message to American capital: accept my social justice reforms or risk communism. It worked.

His most powerful call to action is a detailed examination of how white privilege is built into early childhood education through to post-secondary study – and how to begin to transform and roll back its most discriminatory values. Transforming the attitudes of a Citibank or a Shell Oil executive about their responsibility for sustainability and justice cannot begin at that level. It must be set as universal values among the very young.

Nair has produced the first analysis, accessible to all readers, that clearly delineates the complex spider web that tightly binds the global dominance of Western, white-led business, governmental and academic organisations. If occasionally polemic, his thesis is compelling. The book deserves a wide audience in the corridors of power.

Contributing Writer Robin V. Sears served as Ontario’s Delegate General to Asia in Tokyo from 1990-95, and later worked in the private sector in Hong Kong. He is now an independent crisis communications consultant based in Ottawa.

Reposted from Policy: Canadian Politics and Public Policy

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