Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures

“Patterns of Prejudice” – Course Overview

Can you say a little bit about the course readings and the overall structure of the course?

The full name of this course is, Race, Religion and Caste in India and the USA:  Patterns of Prejudice. It’s a bit of a mouthful but that’s because there is a lot going on in it. Basically the course examines the relationship between Race, Caste and Religion in two very different democracies, India and the United States.

In the first week I normally try to situate the course in the current context of social justice struggles in the USA and India.  So for example, the first time I ran the course was in Fall 2017. This was barely two weeks after the events of Charlottesville (VA) where white supremacist rally turned violent when they clashed with anti-racist protestors and a young woman was killed when one of the white supremacists rammed his car into a group of protestors. This was barely eight months into the Trump presidency and was a frightening sign of where things could go in the next few years. The UofM campus was buzzing with student rallies and teach-ins as people tried to come to terms with the implications of the incident, especially the President’s refusal to unequivocally condemn the white supremacists.

The rest of the course is broadly structured into three main segments. Segment 1 is primarily theoretical and looks at the ideological constructions of race, caste and religion. I actually begin with India and look at the Indo-Aryan question – its beginnings in the ancient Vedic literatures and how the early ideas of color prejudice were reinterpreted through the lens of white supremacy vis-à-vis British Orientalism and William Jones’ Indo-Aryan Hypothesis, before being translated into German nationalist ideology in the late 18th and 19th century. We look at readings such as Laurie Patton’s “Cosmic Men and Fluid Exchanges: Myths of Arya, Varna and jati in Hindu Tradition” and Nick Dirk’s Castes of Mind, followed by Surinder Jodka’s Caste in Contemporary India. The choice of readings and the way I teach it is designed to prod the students into asking more questions than trying to answer specific questions.

The next two weeks (still in Segment 1) are devoted to looking at conceptual paradigms of race. This is as close to conventional race theory as we get in this class. So I begin with Robert Bernasconi’s provocative article: Who Invented the Concept of Race?” which basically points to Immanuel Kant as a key figure in the modern theory of race. I really like this chapter as it gets the students to think about race and racism as a concept rather than solely as a social or biological fact. And from there it sets the scene for my approach to resisting race and racism. For me it has to be tackled conceptually if we’re to really understand how it structures social and intellectual discourse. Students are often shocked to read how racist some of the Enlightenment philosophers actually were, and Kant is a good example. This brings me to another book I really like to use – Theodore Vial’s Modern Religion, Modern Race. Vial’s argument is that race and religion are mutually imbricated in ways that conventional race theory has simply ignored, partly because of its Marxist underpinning (hence the allergy towards thinking about religion). I love the Introduction to Vial’s book. After this he digs deep into the German context which was central to synthesizing race and religion in the modern imagination.

Segment II shifts the focus more towards a sociological study of lived experiences of race and caste in India and the USA. I basically follow Gyan Pandey’s text:A History of Prejudice: Race, Caste and Difference in India and the United States. This is a great text by one of the original members of the subaltern studies group. Pandey has written alternate chapters focusing on Dalit experiences in India and African American’s in the US. During two weeks of close reading students are able to compare the historical struggles of two geographically disparate populations in India and the United States, namely, Indian Dalits (once known as Untouchables) and African Americans.

Through this comparison, as a class we’re able to probe the language and construction of race, nation, religion, color, and ethnicity, as well as the linkages between these categories. Clearly this manner of juxtaposing very different locations, histories and cultures, each with its own public and private narratives of struggle, is not without its problems and we certainly discuss this in class. But the benefits outweigh the disadvantages and in the end the comparative study allows students to grapple with issues at the heart of public policy agenda, such as asylum, immigration, hate crimes and citizenship.

Segment III, which is the last main segment, is titled “Vulnerable Minorities post-9/11:  Racial-Religious-Caste Profiling, Hate Crimes & Prejudice in India and the USA”.By the end of week 8, the students in this class have normally acquired a sound historical understanding of the workings of main forms of prejudice in India and the USA. This put them in a good position apply their knowledge to a more contemporary form of prejudice afflicting minorities in India and the USA, partly as a result of the so-called ‘return’ of religion into the public sphere and partly as a consequence of the post 9/11 War on Terror . Within India, this has resulted in a unification of the nationalist imaginary against ‘insider-outsiders’ – initially the Sikhs, but more recently India’s Muslims, and of-course tribal peoples, resulting in new forms of racial, caste-ist and religious profiling.

Since 9-11 a similar kind of racial-religious profiling has also become a reality for new minorities in the USA, such as Sikhs and Muslims (or South Asians in general). During weeks 9 and 10, students focus on this post-9/11 eruption within the Indian and Western imaginary (which includes Europe) that manifests itself in terms of a more sinister forms of racial-religious profiling.   

The readings for Segment III cover the Genocide in Gujarat (2002),  the Post 9/11 Face of Indian Nationalist anti-Muslim and ant-Dalit Violence,  and Indian Fantasies of Purity and Domination.  But – and I think the students have generally appreciated this – the course at all times keep the conversation between India and the West open, so that one week students will be reading something on the current Kashmir crisis, but the very next two weeks we’ll move to looking at the cultural underpinnings of white supremacy and the religious right and the rise of Trump. So basically we’re looking closely at how fascism is once again knocking at the door of the world’s most powerful democracy (USA) and the world’s largest democracy (India).