Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures

Syllabus Notes: Updating My Race, Caste & Religion Course

Alex: So it seems you decided to teach AS334 (Race, Religion, and Caste in India and America) again in WN21? In our earlier conversation from March 2020, you talked a little bit about this course but you weren’t thinking of teaching it until FA21—at least not until the pandemic might (hopefully) be under control and universities could begin returning to in-person teaching. So what prompted you to change your mind and push the return of the course now? As you mentioned in your earlier post, one of the things you enjoyed most were the kinds of conversations generated through dialogue with the students. So, given that all classes in WN21 will be taught remotely, it made me wonder why you’d want to try and teach it via zoom?

ASM:  Two reasons, Alex. First, I’ve actually come to enjoy teaching remotely—although not as much as I enjoyed teaching in-person (for obvious reasons). It hasn’t been anywhere near as bad as I originally anticipated. In fact, there are some surprising upsides to remote teaching. 

Secondly, and this is far more important than anything to do with methods of delivery, it has to do with the ongoing climate of national and international protests against systemic racism and the political normalization of white supremacy. Since the eruption of the BLM protests and other general protests against systemic oppression, if anything, the situation has actually become worse, at least in the USA. I’m referring to Trump’s Executive Order from Sept. 22, 2020 debarring diversity training programs funded through federal contracts. In one clean stroke, this executive order effectively delegitimizes much of the painstaking work that has been accomplished over decades to educate people about race in federal institutions (police, army, education sector etc). For me, this had a chilling effect. I felt that I needed to reconnect as quickly as possible with my Race/Caste/Religion course as it would allow me to continue some form of intellectual resistance; or at the very least, provide some comfort that I was doing something constructive by educating students on the wider issues of systemic racism. I felt that the first step was to update the AS334 syllabus, which had been adequate for FA19 but required some additions in light of the burgeoning conversations that have been happening during the late summer of 2020 and the seeming avalanche of new publications addressing race and racism. 

Alex:  So what new publications particularly caught your eye since the summer of 2020? Are any of these books applicable to the teaching setting of your course in WN21? 

ASM:  In fact there was a steady stream of books that came out, and are continuing to come out. A lot of them are obviously timed for the November 2020 election. A good example is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. This is a fascinating read. It’s not an academic study but it raises some great questions, notably in the way that Wilkerson (a journalist by training and profession) flips race to allow us to see its underside, or rather, its inside. Her basic argument is that the racial formations that underpin American society since slavery was first introduced, are better seen as a caste system which functions to segregate society without giving the appearance of overt segregation. Caste itself is defined and constituted by “divine will, bloodlines and stigma”. As you’d expect she makes some comparisons between caste in India as it affects the Dalit population and African Americans in the USA. A similar argument was made by Gyan Pandey (see my earlier post) but Wilkerson seems more attuned than Pandey to the pernicious influence of theology. Which is also one of the reasons I was initially drawn to the book. In my AS334 Race/Caste/Religion course I also argue that you need to understand not just theology but political theology as a key factor which cements both racial and caste formations. Political theology is what allows the prejudice secreted by caste and race to be seen as ‘natural’ rather than man-made, which is also why it is so long-lived. 

A rather different book is Robert P. Jones’ White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.  Like Wilkerson’s book, this one was also heavily profiled on major media outlets like NPR—his interview for NPR in early August was riveting. Jones was trained in the study of religion at Emory University so this book has a slightly more scholarly feel than the Caste book, but it’s written for the public and is very accessible. What I like about this book is the way Jones draws on personal experience, opinion surveys and historical sources to provide a challenging examination of the “unholy relationship between American Christianity and white supremacy” and sounds an urgent warning to white Christians to reflect critically on the legacy of racism in order to safeguard the future of their faith and their country. Jones’ basic argument is that white Christians (from Southern evangelicals to Protestants in the Midwest and Catholics in the Northeast of the USA) have actively constructed and preserved a project of safeguarding white supremacy while simultaneously opposing the project of black equality in a way that infects the entire American narrative. Jones doesn’t mince words:

If white supremacy was an unquestionable cultural assumption in America, what does it mean that Christian doctrines by necessity had to develop in ways that were compatible with that worldview? …. Is it possible that the white supremacy heresy is so integrated into white Christian DNA that it eludes even sincere efforts to excise it” (pp. 70-71).

Wilkerson’s book and Jones’ book are the works of ‘insiders’. Wilkerson is an African American woman looking at an ideological and social formation that continues to oppress her community. Jones is a white Christian man asking his own community to see itself as the problem. 

Another book that I’m thinking of incorporating into AS334 is Jeanine Hill Fletcher’s The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism and Religious Diversity in America (Orbis Books). This is a different kind of book from Wilkerson’s and Jones’ books but there is some overlap with Jone’s White Too Long, especially in the way that Fletcher brings together white supremacy and Christianity. But the difference is in her emphasis on exploring theology, which I think is extremely important. I’ve long harbored the suspicion that there is a link between the models of God created by certain cultures (especially Christianity) and the notion of supremacy that such theological models bequeath to the ethnic groups who conceptualize them. It was the work of the postmodern theologians such as Charles Winquist, Mark C. Taylor and Thomas Altizer and writings of Nietzsche and Derrida, which first alerted me to this possibility. But while thinkers like Derrida could only hint at this possibility, scholars such as Jeanine Fletcher and Eric Weed (who wrote a similar book: The Religion of White Supremacy in the USA) have managed to put these suspicions into historical context. Fletcher’s book links the “present realities of disparity” and “generational dispossession” of African and Native Americans to the role of “Christian thought… in creating the racialized legislation by which people of color were dispossessed”. What most interests me in this book is Fletcher’s linkage of Christian theo-logic to racial logic of white supremacy. 

Alex:  It seems that the through-line of interest between these books (as well as the other texts you tend to share with me) end up reading race through the context of what we may categorize as ‘religion’. What is it about these recent texts and their ability to connect race back to religion that particularly stand out to you?

ASM:  I think what surprised me about all the books that have come out in the last couple of years is their willingness to point to the complicity of American church in institutionalized racism, injustice and segregation. A lot of us suspected the church’s insidious role in all of this, but these books are all written by Christian ‘insiders’ who have been moved by this country’s dangerous swing towards far-right politics. Jamar Tisby’s The Color of Compromiseis another example of the trend of insider Christians ‘coming out’ as it were. Tisby’s book is more of a historical survey of the American church’s complicity in creating the systemic nature of racial segregation and its continuity via other means in a secular liberal age.

Alex: I can certainly understand your preoccupation with these recent critiques that seem to have emerged over my lifetime. They have also fascinated me and shaped my own perspective growing up. These voices seem to be getting more and more vocal with the continuing rise of the evangelical Christian right and the continued dissemination of Christianity’s role in colonialism/imperialism.

Jumping to another question, which of these books spoke the most to you? Or at the very least caught your attention just a bit more?

ASM:  I think one of the surprising finds of the late summer was a book initially published back in 2002. It is by Kamaldeep Bhui and titled Racism and Mental Health: Prejudice and Suffering (Jessica Kingsley Publishers). It’s an edited book but ten of the fourteen chapters are written by Bhui himself—which made me wonder why he didn’t just publish the book under his own name. That said, it’s a very useful piece of work. Kamaldeep Bhui is a psychiatrist by profession but very well versed in literature, which makes for an interesting departure from the monographs based in cultural and religious studies. Bhui’s perspective really spoke to me, which is not surprising because of his Sikh-Indian origins and the British diasporic context from which he writes. For example, this is from his opening pages: 

Although I was born in Kenya, to parents of Sikh origin, the confusion around identity was, for me, a mixture of searching for national identity, religious identity, cultural origins and linguistic identity. Racial identity was a convenient shorthand for all of these, but it was not used by me but by my friends, teachers and, more importantly by those who did not know me. I soon learned that what ever I thought my ‘substance’ to be, whoever I thought I was, this was always quite different from the ascription with which others invested me. These ascriptions by friends, teachers and other observers usually referred to appearance, and were invested with the meaning that clearly had origins in the mind of the observer. These labels were not just intellectualized names for a category of person, but carried with them sentiments, and hopes, and fears, and excitement about what the other might be. The difficulty was that such ascriptions, at the moment of being applied, were felt to have origins in the observed so as to legitimize the authenticity of the observer’s view of my identity. [Bhui: p.2]

Right off the bat you can sense that he is both analyzing himself and analyzing the racialized projections of others—a classic mix of phenomenology and psychoanalysis but rarely applied by British-Sikh-Indians to themselves. I’m using parts of this for the course as it addresses the psycho-social and psycho-political aspects of racism, but also flips the lid by looking at racism within psychiatry as a profession.

Alex: I can see why that would catch your attention – a combination of mental health and discussions of race written by a Sikh author—that seems to capture quite a few of your interests in a nice bundle. How about I reverse the last question and ask instead: what book or books from your new list, would surprise students (and perhaps your colleagues) the most?

ASM:  Now, there is one outlier amongst this list of book additions to the course. And that is Wendy Brown’s In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West (Columbia University Press: 2019). I regard this as an outlier because it is not specifically on race or racism as such. As the title suggests it is about neoliberalism and its unintended consequences for politics in the West (and also around the world). But Brown analyzes neoliberalism in such a way that it also helps to shed light on the massive resurgence of ethnonationalism in the US (and elsewhere) and “traditional moral politics”. 

The book’s argument is that as neoliberalism has been allowed to run amok, it has unleashed unforeseen consequences including a global attempt to take down the postwar political order of liberal democracy through the rise of populist politics, in turn, fueled by the harnessing of mass affect through social media and the internet. Its direct relevance to my As334 course is through chapter 5 “No Future For White Men” in which Brown argues that neoliberalism inadvertently also caused the “wounding of white male supremacy” which has reacted through an intensification of the nihilism inherent within the Western imaginary. We see this in the tendency of white (mostly male) supremacists to yield to an “apocalyptic politics [and in the process be] willing to destroy the world rather than endure a future without white male rule” (Brown: 2019). Her last chapter (chapter  5) is one of the most searing psycho-political analyses to address the racist-misogynist rage that fuels Trump’s base. The following line is an indication of the temperature of this chapter, and in some way, of the book as a whole:

“If white men cannot rule the planet, there will be no planet. Nietzsche was immensely curious about what would come after the two centuries of the intensifying nihilism he expected.  What if white supremacy is the rosary held tight as white civilization itself appears finished and takes with it all futurity? What if this is how it ends? (Brown: 180). 

Alex:Based on your summary, the contents of that book are certainly not what you may find in an average course focused on race and ethnicity but also perfectly on-brand with the framework you tend to teach with. Obviously, I’m prone to be more than just a bit biased in this situation but I’m inclined to believe that books like this are important for deepening our understanding of the causes and expansive effects that systemic racism plays in today’s societies. Although we tend to very neatly break different parts of our lives into separate spheres, the very fabric of our thought or culture—that is to say, the origin of all of these neat, ‘separate’ spheres—traces back to particular ‘liberal’ ideas that ‘Western’ society is based upon. In this context, I do not mean liberal in its more contemporaneous definition which is more akin to left-wing progressive ideas but rather a base notion of civil liberties based on certain conceptions of individualism and free enterprise. Diving deeper into this base of thought allows us to better understand and defend against the rhetoric thrown around by neoliberals—especially when that rhetoric appropriates language from progressives who tend to use similar ‘liberal’ conceptions as their base.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this new syllabus plays out with the WN21 class. I think you’re right to say that there certainly is no better time to engage in these discussions.