The fifth edition of Habib University’s flagship intellectual conference, Postcolonial Higher Education Conference, began with its first discussion on the theme for this year, Whiteness in South Asia: India, Iran, and Pakistan, on the 22nd of March, 2022 live on Habib University’s Facebook page. This year’s topic sought to illuminate and analyze the historical and current operations of ‘Whiteness’ in the region of South Asia.
The first session, Whiteness and Colonial Governmentality, featured Professor Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, Professor in Global Thought and Comparative Philosophies at SOAS, University of London, and Fellow of Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge, UK, as keynote speaker along with Dr. Chandra Mallampali, Professor of History at Westmont College, USA.
Dr. Muhammad Haris, Assistant Dean of the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Program Director of Comparative Humanities featured as the discussant in the session with Dr. Nauman Naqvi, Associate Professor, Comparative Humanities as Conference Chair.
Dr. Nauman Naqvi, the Conference Chair, began with echoing of last year’s theme, Reparative Futures, and Habib University’s pedagogical mission in upholding the task of reparation through these essential discussions on our postcolonial bearings. Explaining the daring yet relevant theme of the conference, Dr. Nauman Naqvi stated, “Whiteness, it appears, runs through the global modern era in ways visible and invisible to shape discourse, imagination and power everywhere to the considerable detriment of not just human society, but planetary futures.”
He went on to establish the goal of the conference this year, “Our aim is to motivate reflection on the regional manifestations of a key feature of the modern world – both in its making and in its presenting – a key feature of the modern order: race.” The context of South Asia, he explained, is important because the racialized nature of the modern world has blurred our vision of recognizing it fully. National empires such as the Spanish empire, French Empire, Portuguese empire, etc., and their national character meant apartheid, or discrimination of race and nationalism, and between the ruler and the ruled. This was the making of the colonial government wherein race and racism played a key role.
“Our world,” Dr. Nauman Naqvi further stated, “is in desperate need of healing and reparation and cognitive reparation is an essential part of that process…White supremacism, no doubt, the most intensive and extensive form of collective narcissism in human history…poses today an existential threat to humanity.”
The keynote speaker of the panel, Professor Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, began with a viewing of his film Future Politics as he showed how racism has become a science. He went on to extenuate the trans-spatial space of racism to the discussion and push it beyond the traditional sites of governmentality: “the concept of the white man was developed and then turned into a science for many ways of subjugation. During the period of the 18th and 19th century Enlightenment, all the wonderful inventions that humanity experienced came with a very destructive mentality. The structure of mentality is now transpatial in the way that it was not before – the sites of racialized discourses are now online and magnified.”
He emphasized the role of technology that has both positive and disastrous effects in its nefarious purposes as he showed in Future Politics through identifying three principles – psycho-codification, microbial surveillance and posthuman warfare. He stated that we need a global movement that requires local manifestations and AI (Artificial Intelligence) driven technology through ethical means.
“Racism,” said Professor Adib-Moghaddam, “as a discourse to govern is always enmeshed and entangled with various forms of power. It is still out there, the site of which is slightly different than it used to be.”
In researching about why human beings create hierarchies, he spoke about the racial differences between Iranians and Arabs, and how these differences formed the purpose of the sovereign and Reza Shah’s governmentality. Until 1979, a different narrative was introduced which was positioned exactly against the notion of Iranians being Aryan and ‘different.’ The expressions of Third-Worldism and pan-Islamic solidarity that framed the resolution in 1979 were partially due to the dichotomy which was exploited by revolutionaries from 1979 onwards, he explained.
Discourses about the future, he pointed out, are significant in the search for that perfect trans-human, like the Enlightenment’s idea of perfection. Racism, he said, was also about creating the perfect individual and perfect society, “I think the narratives floating around when it comes to Artificial Intelligence and what it could do to humanity and society are problematic and the counter-narratives of imperfection are very important in the site of research and practice.”
Algorithms are all laden with racist and destructive forms of hierarchies within societies, Professor Adib-Moghaddam argued.
Dr. Mallampali’s presentation built upon his book, Race, Religion and Law in Colonial India: Trials of an Interracial Family, that concerns a famous court case involving an interracial family. He used this to illustrate some of the discourses about race that circulated in the British Empire in the 19th century.
“A much more pervasive ideology of empire was present which was predicated on white supremacy in the notion of colonial ordering on racial difference,” he pointed out. This ideology had to do with the Europeans’ awareness that humanity had physical and cultural differences, and there was a degree of futility in trying to efface those differences. Dr. Mallampali thus explored the question of how the world could be governed considering these differences.
An imperial multiculturalism is still predicated on the notion of the European as the universal person, a type of white normativity that towers overs humanity. Colonial law in South Asia adopted this multicultural vision. Dr. Mallampali argued that colonial law needed to find a way to accommodate differences which the first Governer-General of India, Warren Hastings, developed in 1772. India was to be governed according to separate Hindu and Muslim laws. This showed that there was an awareness of the difference, however, the implementation of the law became a mechanism of control.
The case of Abraham vs Abraham (1863) puts these discourses on display – the ordering of difference and assimilation which is why its ethnographic material was an interesting access into discussions of race. The case is also essential as it challenges the colonial ordering of racial and religious differences. The interracial family in the book was recklessly intermingled in its customs and habits. By going to court, they accultured themselves into a type of compartmentalized identity and a knowledge system deployed by colonialism, he argued.
Dr. Mallampali concluded by saying, “this tells me that the politics of identity can operate within colonial frameworks, even in the assertion of non-whiteness and nationalism. However white they appear to be, we enter these spaces that are created by the regime and we can still be playing out the dynamics of white supremacism.”