The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How Not to Talk about India with an Indian

When I was in graduate school, the girlfriend of one of my fellow graduate students came to visit.  She was from India, and while she had lived in the United States for quite a while (her accent was so thoroughly western U.S. in its flavor that had she not told me that she had grown up in India, I'd not have guessed), she was, nonetheless from India. 

One evening, the lot of us went out to a bar near the university, where we spent several hours talking.  Another grad student was there, a guy who we will call Stan, was quite fond of accusing the white students of trying to push our "western narratives" onto other people (in case you're hoping for a heaping dose of irony on that point, he he was of mixed Mexican and Korean ancestry himself, and so was at least not one white student making the accusation to a bunch of other white students...he was, however, from Orange County, and so his frequent claims that we were all affluent and from conservative areas was deliciously ironic).  Indeed, most of us simply avoided any conversation that might turn to cultural differences and the assertion of cultural narratives (which was tough, as we were an anthropology department), and others (myself included) liked to play with him by throwing out bits of statements to see what we could get him to say or do.

Anyway, Stan began talking to our visitor, and in his usual way, he decided to buddy up with her by talking smack about "those evil colonialists."  He was shocked when she didn't agree with him.

In summary, her view was this:  The European colonial powers were basically a bunch of assholes who did some terrible things...but they left behind a physical and legal infrastructure that allowed India to begin excelling when left to its own devices, and the success of many Indian people, herself included, was a direct result of the colonial history.  So, she didn't see colonialism as being an entirely bad thing, in the long run.

Now, you can argue with her position.  I'm not sure that I entirely agree with it, myself.  But she articulated it well (what I wrote up there does no justice to what she actually said, it's a very crude summary), and she was willing to stick with and defend her position. 

Stan was perplexed, and then he was angry.

He would not accept that there might be any benefit from colonial activity.  He had so internalized the notion that colonialism was a purely evil thing, that he could not bring himself to accept that someone whose own personal history derives directly and (given both her and her parent's age) recently from European colonialism might not view it as a strict black-and-white issue.  She didn't say colonialsim was good, but she did say that it had beneficial long-term effects for many people in India.  Again, you can argue against this position, but you can not do so by simply nay-saying it without considering what was being said.

Then, of course, came the thing that made this evening so delightfully and memorably ironic: Stan accused her of attempting to impose her "western narrative" on the people of India.

That's right, the affluent boy from Orange County, who was able to attend a graduate school in a prestigious university system in California, accused someone who was actually from India of imposing a "western narrative" onto India.

The problem is that the strict black-and-white, good vs. evil view of Europe's colonial history and it's modern results is as much a product of western culture and beliefs as were the notions of European exceptionalism, of "white man's burden", of the particular form of greed and avarice that fueled it.  For all of his claims to being somehow non-western, Stan was as western as everyone else there, and he had bought into the late 20th/early 21st centuries western narrative of colonialism.  And just as those he criticized were unwilling to consider native views of history*, he was unwilling to do that very same thing.

The reason that I bring this up is that there is a tendency among many people, often (though not limited to) the political left, to attempt to correct past de-humanization of various groups of people by engaging in activities that are equally dehumanizing, just in a different way.  It is no less condescending to think of the people whose lands were colonized as hapless victims than it is to think that they should be grateful for having been made second-class citizens so that they might be "enlightened" by Europeans.  Similarly, if you object to histories being written by the descendants of the European colonials, you are not improving matters by creating an alternate history that tries to be sympathetic to the colonized while simultaneously ignoring what their descendants have to say on the matter. 

I have written in the past about the refusal of most modern people to really examine our histories as they concern colonialism and groups that we would not lump into the category of "minorities".  We want to create simple narratives with evil, maniacle bad guy colonists and shining, virtuous natives fighting a valiant, if losing, battle against encroaching modernity.  But the fact of the matter is that this is just false.  History is messy, and even horrible events can have good consequences down the road...and, of course, events that we consider good can have horrible long-term consequences.  But, ultimately, whether we are vilifying Europeans or Indians, we are applying a narrative to the situation...and Stan's narrative was just as much a product of his contemporary western political ideologies as the views of the colonial governments were products of theirs. 

A quick note - while I was writing this, I discovered that another blogger by the name of Natlie Reed wrote an excellent post on why the "progressive" notions of "non-western" cultures are just as dehumanizing and harmful as the attitudes that they claim to be trying to correct.  Read it here.

*For the record, most of us routinely worked with native consultants and informants and worked to make sure that we were accurately reflecting what they told us in our work.  Such a method is not without it's own flaws and pitfalls, to be certain, but it is more than Stan was doing in his work.  Again, the irony of it all was astounding.


Douglas La Rose said...

This topic is the bane of my existence. It seems that everyone except Africans wants to blame the disparaging economic situation in Africa on colonialism. Most Africans see the connection, but they do not want or need a scapegoat. Most Africans view aid dependency and corruption as the causes of economic strife in Africa. Meanwhile, academics in the U.S go on and on about how the West has "corrupted" indigenous Africans, while most people living in urban Accra (the capital of Ghana) want iPads and middle-class jobs. What do we tell them? "Oh hey, pick up your sword and shield and go back to your traditions." I might be getting a bit off topic here, but I find it insincere when people talk about racism, colonialism, and the "evil effects of globalization" without considering peoples' actual dreams and desires. You can't force people to be "traditional" any more than you can force them to be "modern." What makes your story easier to handle is that India is at least an emerging economy, but damn "us" (what does America have to do with it anyway?) for their success!

Anthroslug said...

As I have become more aware (in part from hearing what you have to say, Doug, and in part from reading, listening to BBC radio, etc.), I have begun to realize that many of the best intentioned acts by people in the U.S. and Europe towards Africa, parts of Asia, and parts of South and Central America are based on some fundamentally flawed assumptions both of what people in those regions want, and in what they actually need.

Jack Heron said...

This is something I've encountered too. I'm of mixed British-Indian descent - by which I mean several generations of Brits, Indians and British-Indians marrying in all sorts of different combinations and moving back and forward between the two countries at intervals. This surprises a lot of people. Not the mixed descent itself (not rare here in England), but most people's perception of the cultural relationships between Britain and India is one of a brief period of segregated domination in the late nineteenth century followed by Indian migrations to Britain post-WWII. 'Anglo-Indian' to most people therefore means the integrated descendants of recent immigrants, or else the offspring of a colonial official and his unofficial local wife.

The British, however, were in India for a good while - over three hundred years, if we count from the first outposts of the East India Company down to Independence. The character of the presence changed repeatedly. There was room for a good deal of movement and intermixing: Oxford-educated Bengali princes, Scottish traders who ended up staying in Mumbai, Indian cooks founding restaurants in London (not a recent innovation at all, there were curry houses in that city long before Victoria came to the throne). Like in any empire, the Raj had its mix of oppression, brutality, cultural flowering, trade, war, peace, love, hate, integration and segregation. Colonialism is difficult to judge because it was so big and consisted of so many people. How it started was not what it became and though wandering over to steal other people's countries with an army is hardly a moral action, trying to judge whether three centuries of interaction is Good or Bad can never be anything but an awful simplification. My own awfully simplified and limited opinion is that (in the case of India at least) it is not something I would have wished to happen beforehand, but nor is it something I can wholly reject after the fact.

Anthroslug said...

Jack Heron - that is an excellent summary of how history in general should be viewed - whether particular events are good or bad (and they are almost always a very complicated mix) is to a large degree irrelevant in the face of the long-term fallout of those events.