On “Dismantling Global White Privilege”-Chandran Nair

January 20, 2022 10:48
Photo: Reuters/Amazon

A Prime Minister knee-deep in scandal. A few weeks after I’d penned a review of Owen Jones’ “The Establishment” for this very paper, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson finds himself in hot water – facing scathing critique by the opposition and incessant ribbing by members of his own party, he was in a puerile state, caught in a limbo between facetious ineptitude and embarrassing ignominy. He was, for a lack of a better world, in a cul-de-sac, or – if you will – a cul-de-sack.

A city rife with anti-black and anti-South Asian racism. Filipino domestic helpers, migrant workers (not “expats”, apparently, according to some arbitrary, non-calibrated metric), and African-American visitors face a similar fate at the hands of many in Hong Kong: they are told that they are respected, whilst they are – in practice – excluded and treated as implicitly inferior to the myriad of Han Chinese populating Hong Kong. Racism is alive and kicking, in what ostensibly is Asia’s world city.

At the heart of the country, heir to one of the most illustrious and divisive histories in the world, was a rift that threatened to pull the two halves apart – one that was endowed with the plentiful bounties of the looting, arson, destruction, and imperialist exploitation that undergirded the colonial project; another that was relegated to the geographical and political peripheries of a structurally racist, oppressive system. It’s South Africa under the Apartheid.

What brings these three seemingly disparate and disjointed episodes in global politics and history together? They do not necessarily overlap temporally – and they are clearly geographically miles apart (literally). The answer to this question, as revealed by Chandran Nair’s “Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a Post-Western World” (Jan 2022, Berrett-Koehler Publishers), rests with the toxifying, alienating, and omnipresent effects of whiteness in our popular discourses and politics.

To be very clear, Boris Johnson should not be equated with those who had presided over Apartheid South Africa – that would be an atrocious exaggeration, though the present Tory government has indeed overseen some rather deeply abhorrent episodes in British history (e.g. the Windrush generation); nor, indeed, should we attribute the same degree of fault and blame – if any – to those engaged in racism across Hong Kong and South Africa in the past (or present).

But such disclaimers do not erase the fact that, as Frantz Fanon puts it most aptly in Black Skin, White Masks, “There is but one destiny for the black man. And it is white.” This is because we construct our value hierarchies, judgments of normative and instrumental worth, and imaginaries concerning who is “safe”, who is to be “trusted”, who has been/not been “vetted”, on the monistic basis of the white-black dichotomy, even in countries and jurisdictions where the black/white divide should not be so salient. Hong Kong, for one, is a predominantly Chinese city – yet it is also one where beauty advertisements fetishing whiteness and fawning over artificially pale skins, as Nair notes, proliferate across the streets of Causeway Bay and Mong Kok. We may not look white, but the sentiments of white worship and fetish reverberate and have taken root amongst us, he argues swiftly in his book – drawing upon first-hand and well-qualified evidence in making the point.

A prolific writer, think-tanker, NGO founder, and thought leader, Nair surveys an impressive range of contexts and theoretical spheres in making his central claim, that white privilege is global. Over 224 pages, he moves from historical examples to international finance, from culture and arts to sports and the environment, and back to the fashion industry and beyond. Through lucid, incisive prose grounded in illustrated examples, Nair provides a tour-de-force that surveys instances where we ought to feel perturbed by phenomena that could, perhaps, best be understood through lenses of implicit and subconscious racism, if not overt racism. He articulates his personal reflections upon topics that are often written in arcane and inaccessible language, with flourish and savviness. Many of these reflections come with a call to action – though one may inevitably feel, upon a thorough perusal of the book, that such solutions are neither fully capable nor feasibly implementable in view of the daunting problems that Nair has painted; in other words, Nair is so successful in spelling out the issues, that one is inevitably left skeptical of any and all claims to potential ways out: if white supremacy is indeed so omnipresent and structurally engrained, it strikes me that only structural solutions, cognizant of our positionalities and the dangers of over-individuation in social action, could suffice in overcoming these issues.

If a critique is to be made towards the bulk of the book, however, it would be that the very strengths of the book – its parsimony, its directness, and its drawing upon qualitative and personal evidence – could well be, from an alternative perspective, its thesis’ very weakness. I have much sympathy and time for the argument that white privilege is systemic, is global, and is fundamentally alien to the interests of mankind – but in reading the book, one may well, at times, be struck by the wish that more causal analysis, as well as introspective deconstruction of the white psyche, could be provided, so as to ensure that the phenomena outlined are indeed truly the results of white privilege, as opposed to incidental factors.

For instance, whilst it is plausible that financial agencies, run by demographically unrepresentative leadership teams and undergirded by white-adjacent or white-dominated structures, are pro-white in their ratings, this claim would indeed require more robust empirical proof and dissection of the internal workings of such agencies in order to withstand the criticisms of its skeptics. Similarly, whilst I am equally unimpressed as Nair about the hidden biases of certain segments of the international media, it would behoove us all to identify and personally practise more complete and well-substantiated standards of journalistic integrity, in order for us to determine if media outlets are indeed afflicted with the malaise of white privilege.

With all that said, Nair is persuasive, emphatic, and emotionally powerful in his writing. As an ivory-tower theorist, I have always admired those who can write with passion and integrity in equal parts. I have no doubt that Nair’s latest work will prove to be a reasonable, albeit controversial, success – it is likely to ruffle a few feathers, especially amongst those who do not understand how structural racism works, or, like those critiqued and panned by Nair in his argument, do not actually care about it. Here’s the bad news for such folks: they better start caring.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review