Same but not the same: White fantasies and (in)difference in the time of Trump

Same but not the same: White fantasies and (in)difference in the time of Trump

by Girish Daswani

It was just after September 11, 2001. Like everyone else, I was still reeling from the shock of having witnessed planes fly through buildings in New York City and kill thousands of people. It felt like my world was different. That everything was about to change. A few days after this happened I was at the Singapore international airport, waiting in line to board my plane for London where I was to start my PhD in Anthropology. There were many red-skinned, overly tanned English men in that same line. Most probably returning from their sun-soaked holidays on the beaches of Bali, Kosamui and other such exotic destinations. I noticed one of them looking at me disconcertingly. With a nervous laugh, he turned to casually ask me, “You’re not Muslim are you? No bombs in your bag then?” Others in the line started to focus their attention on me, waiting for my response. I retorted, “Why should it matter whether I am Muslim…. No, no bombs, just books.” Another English man turned to the men waiting in line as if to defend me and ease the tension. He laughed, looked at my passport and said, “Well, that’s good to know. You’re from Singapore, aren’t you?”

I realized that my body and my identity were being managed for me: by those who distrusted me and by someone who felt sorry for me. That was the beginning of my new relationships with borders, of being suspiciously pulled out of line, stopped again and checked by police after I had cleared customs, being questioned more than anyone else about the religious nature of my brown skin or the ethnic qualities of my name.

I start with 9/11 because I view it not as the ‘beginning’ but as another point of intensification, a moment of intense formation and a shift in our shared reality: a sign of what was to come, including the plunder of and wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and later Syria, the further imperial expansion of the US and Israel, the wall street crash of 2008, the Occupy movements and Arab Spring and other popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes and the exploitative conditions of neoliberal capitalism.

In this post, I argue that the “time of Trump” represents both a further intensification and an unravelling of a colonial and imperial fabric that continues and persists through a White Fantasy and that represents another shift in our shared reality.

Trump’s ban on visas for people from certain Muslim countries – what some have called the “Muslim ban”; his call for a wall to be built between Mexico and the US to keep out people he called “murderers” and “rapists”; his policy to ban trans-gendered people from joining the army; his declaration that DACA was no longer upheld and children of “illegal migrants” from Mexico and Latin America should be sent “back” to where their parents came from; his support of white supremacy – his claim that there were “good people on both sides” during the Charlottesville demonstrations, where white supremacists and alt-right members calling themselves “white nationalists” marched amidst other counter-protestors, holding lit tiki torches; his attack of NFL players – calling them “sons of bitches” – who take a knee during the national anthem to protest systemic racism and the brutal murder of black people by police in America on a daily basis; his refusal to lift the Jones Act until the very last minute, purposefully preventing foreign ships from bringing aid and relief to the hurricane-struck people of Puerto Rico when they needed it most and then his focus on their financial debt to America rather than how they deserved the same help as every American. The list goes on and grows longer with each passing day.

And to relate a few events outside of the US, there has been Brexit, the rise of xenophobia and racism in Europe and in other parts of the world.

These are not ordinary acts. These are not ordinary times.

Racism, Sexism, Xenophobia, Trans-phobia, Islamophobia.

They are on the rise and these words all accurately describe the present moment in which we live. They can also be held together by one commonly heard phrase: “You are not welcome here.”

A few years ago, I gave a Tedx talk at UTSC entitled “Where are you from, really?” It was meant to address the question that most migrants, foreigners, or non-white people in Canada and in other Western countries are often asked. “Where are you from?” Of course, there is nothing wrong with someone asking you “where you are from”. It could stem from a genuine interest in you and it could be a way to get to know you better. But the word “really” – in “where are you from, really” – was meant to distinguish a potentially innocent question from one that is aimed to identify you, objectify you as someone who comes from somewhere else – not “here” – or someone who does not fit the “same” box as the person asking the question. In today’s situation, we can quickly transition from such masked questions to the use of statements like “go back to where you came from” or, “there are too many of you” or, “your people… don’t know how to speak English” or “you should know your place”.

While aspiring to a universal condition of a shared humanity – some people are reminded, constantly, that they do not belong or are sufficiently different and will never truly share in the same intimate spaces of the dominant group (Hage 2015). They are told: “You are not welcome here” (or “I refuse to use the terms in which you would like to be addressed”) – whether the “here” is in reference to the nation or another personal-political-economic space reserved for those who are considered the dominant group and, in some instances, consider themselves as descendants of a “Western” or “Christian” civilization.

It is important to acknowledge that such phrases as “You are not welcome here” have a history, one that is marked by the uneven, unsettled qualities of histories that fold back upon themselves and in that folding reveal new surfaces, new planes, new articulations. You can be a noble peace laureate and also say these words to a minority group in your own country – I’m thinking of Aung San Suu Kyi here.

Think “same, but not the same” as we move forward.

The events of 9/11 were also the beginning of changes in scholarship. They prompted scholars to better understand and to reassess the U.S. empire: to return to an analysis of “colonialism” as a continuing presence (and not simply study the residues of its past) and to “settler colonialism” as a specific and violent colonial form. They have opened up new conversations about the long-term damage done to populations and to the dispossession of their lands and the harm done to their identities and their self-respect. They focus on the “unsettledness” (Stoler 2016) and “stuckedness” (Hage 2015) of colonized and immigrant lives, and on the relationship between colonialism, nationalism and ongoing forms of spatial-social containment.

I now want to turn to some ways in which we can understand the continuing presence of colonialism in our societies vis-à-vis racism. We can all agree that there is a problem – racism. But why does the problem persist? There are obviously several answers to this question. Let me start with one.

Frantz Fanon is a psychoanalyst, activist and philosopher from the French colony of Martinique. He famously wrote a book called Black Skin, White Masks, (first published in 1952). In it he shared an experience of being in France, when a small boy, frightened by Fanon’s appearance, leaps into his mother’s arms yelling “Look… Mama, a Negro!” Fanon writes:

While I was forgetting, forgiving, and wanting only to love, my message was flung back in my face like a slap. The white world, the only honorable one, barred me from all participation… I was told to stay within bounds, to go back to where I belonged.

Fanon was living in the time of colonialism and at the beginning of decolonization. Although “postcolonial” is often used to allude to post WWII history, the sad truth is, we continue to live in its affective and structural presence today.


Frantz Fanon speaking in Accra (1958)


Fanon convincingly argued that the long-term stability of a colonial system of governance relies as much on the “internalization” of the forms of racist recognition imposed and bestowed on the racialized and Indigenous populations as it does on physical violence and force. This “psycho-affective” dimension works in embodied and unconscious ways, and it is this same affective dimension of colonialism that persists in how we feel, think and express ourselves and hold opinions of others. It importantly points to the unconscious ways through which we do not see how our supposed “inferiority” (racial, gendered, religious) becomes internalized or how our first world and white privilege is taken for granted and used to systematically distance ourselves from others and their experiences.

Anthropologist and historian Ann Stoler (Stoler 2016) calls this “political aphasia” – the “capacity to know and not know”, which “simultaneously renders the space between ignorance and ignoring […] a concerted political and personal one” (12-13). It is not as easy as “self-deception”, she writes. “Colonial Aphasia” is also the occlusion of knowledge and of how colonial entailments have been occluded from national history. Our indifference to these things is both learned and subconsciously internalized.

These same psycho-affective forms of colonialism and their strategies of occlusion serve to empower a dominant group’s mode of self-perception – the fantasy position of cultural dominance born out of a history of European expansion. Let’s call this a “white fantasy” position about cultural and racial superiority that has been discredited by science but that continues to exist structurally, institutionally and in people’s ordinary lives and imagination.

This white fantasy position is not about a simple repetition of colonial policies or about a clean temporal break from colonialism. It is about how the presence of a colonial logic purposefully maintains division through a hierarchy of races, sexes and categories of people, and is ultimately about economic power and wealth that financially benefits a small group. For the longest time, these categories that contain people and the violence they commit have been hidden, managed and sustained through policies such as “multiculturalism” or through terms such as “recognition”, “diversity” and “tolerance.”

What has changed in the “time of Trump” is that the ongoing and historical effects of this colonial logic can no longer sit in the recesses of what we want to say, try to say, cannot say, or only say in specific forums. They have boiled to the surface and in their rising, have emerged different currents of hate, love and indifference that are screaming to be heard and recognized.

Trump’s policies and hateful, insensitive, words have had an impact on people across the world, including here in my adoptive Canada. They have emboldened some with racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric – especially people who call themselves “white nationalists” and even supporters of “free speech” on university campuses in North America; those who claim to defend free speech but who actually promote misogynistic and arrogant views of “Western” civilization. But this time of Trump has also inspired others to act, to stand up to face the injustice and to critique systems of intolerance that they had become indifferent to.

Then there is the third group, who continue to sit by and watch, whose perspectives are defined by an indifference to the exceptional nature of our times and who believe that critique and social rhetoric should remain as before – carefully positioned. That we need not say nor do anything new. These people do not want to rock the boat. They are usually comfortable, self-interested. They believe that their worlds are complicated enough. But such a position is becoming more untenable. People are going to have to decide what they think about these issues, which formerly existed on the surface and beneath the national, social, and moral fabric.


It would be too easy to call Trump or others like him and who support him “monsters” or simply “evil”.

They are our indifference. Our own indifference to the strategies of separation and the cynicism that leads us to believe things will carry on as before and we need not do anything to change it.

In order to better understand indifference, let’s turn to the political theorist Hannah Arendt who escaped Germany during the Holocaust, and to her concept of “the banality of evil”a tendency of ordinary people to obey order and to conform to public opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions.

Arendt (1964) was looking into the question of whether evil was radical or a function of thoughtlessness:

It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.

It is through the lens of bureaucracy as a weapon of totalitarianism that Arendt (2006) arrives at her notion of “the banality of evil” — a banality reflected in the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, who embodied “the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them.”


Hannah Arendt

In a passage that applies to Donald Trump, she describes Eichmann:

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.

So what if part of the solution to our troubled times consists in cultivating our ability to think about or from the standpoint of somebody else?

In fact, this is Anthropology’s claim to fame: to study difference and to be able to understand and convey other people’s perspectives. Anthropologists’ thing is to engage with people who are, in certain respects, substantially different from them.

In this pursuit, anthropological tools have helped us to both understand difference and conceive of it as something provisional, specific, active, subject to change – both mobile and as located in the world. For example, racial categories can be mobilized for different projects – racism, anti-racism and multiculturalism. They have polyvalent signatures that hold different possibilities and agendas. Anthropological tools also allow us to take a genealogical approach, to pay attention to messy beginnings and refuse to search for distilled origins. It attends to differential histories, unrealized possibilities, undocumented or counter narratives of the past, failed experiments or even hidden happenings.

So, in order to understand the time of Trump and its effects on us. I want to use these anthropological tools and return to how certain beginnings are imagined, to the idea of “whiteness,” a fantasy position of cultural dominance born out of the history of European expansion.

Drawing largely from Ghassan Hage’s 1998 book White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, I describe ‘Whiteness’ here as not an essence (or the colour of one’s skin), but an aspiration – something that one can accumulate and claim. For what “white nationalists” are defending or fighting for is a perception of themselves, one according to which they have a privileged relationship to the nation and its institutions.

White fantasy and racism

Ghassan Hage wrote White Nation at a time when xenophobia was on the rise in Australia and the targets of attacks were mainly Asians, Lebanese and Aboriginal people. In particular, he was responding to a politician who he describes as poisoning “the very texture of our daily lives” (25) and in doing so, he was trying to understand the perspectives of white Australians, who are often called “racists”.

Before America had Trump, Australia had Hanson. Pauline Hanson was a Member of Parliament who never became Prime Minister of Australia but who certainly received plenty of support and was incredibly popular in the 1990s. She’s starting to gain favour once again in this time of Trump: Her recent stunt, which involved her walking into the Australian parliament wearing a burqa, made the news.


Pauline Hanson wearing a burqa in the Australian Senate in 2017

Take segments of her first speech in 1996:

We now have a situation where a type of reverse racism is applied to mainstream Australians by those who promote political correctness and those who control the various taxpayer funded ‘industries’ that flourish in our society servicing Aboriginals, multiculturalists and a host of other minority groups. biblio

The White Australian here becomes the victim of racism and the target of attack by groups representing Aboriginals and minority groups. Fast foward 20 years, and we now see this argument becoming a popular rhetoric again, even in the academic world, where some intellectual voices are decrying “diversity” policies on campuses and claim that the minority groups who call out academics for their racist or misogynistic remarks are actually performing “reverse racism”. The anti-racists and anti-sexists are now frequently called opponents of “free speech” or “postmodern neo-Marxists”.

Let’s read another passage from one of Hanson’s speeches:

Along with millions of Australians, I am fed up to the back teeth with the inequalities that are being promoted by the government and paid for by the taxpayer under the assumption that Aboriginals are the most disadvantaged people in Australia. I do not believe that the colour of one’s skin determines whether you are disadvantaged.

Let’s put some things into perspective:

Until 50 years ago, the Aboriginal people of Australia were not included in the census — so in the eyes of the government, they were not counted as people. It took a referendum in 1967 to change that. Then there were the Stolen Generations. This expression refers to generations of Aboriginal children who were systematically removed from their parents by the Australian government. The government was so obsessed with whiteness that up until the 1970s, there was the so-called White Australia Policy, a collection of policies banning non-Europeans from migrating to the country. In other words, you had to be white to move to Australia.

Sounds familiar?

Hanson was (and still is) participating in a “colonial” or “political aphasia” whereby (1) she assumes that there is a level playing field, that everyone has the same opportunities and the same capacities to succeed as “equals”, (2) it is the Aboriginal and the immigrant that is granted special status and privileged access to resources, (3) a reverse racism that disadvantages ordinary, hard-working White Australians is at play.

Hage (2000) argues that these policies and speech-acts are actually nationalist practices. And it is the fantasy of the “Whiteness” that holds these nationalist claims together.

I want to also emphasize that these nationalist practices are the enduring effects of colonial histories and settler-colonialism – a form of power that creates a scar across our shared social fabric and affects us all, but also one that is not truly acknowledged.

Hage (2000) suggests that words like racism or Islamophobia do not necessarily carry within them the imperative for action. One can dislike or even hate other people without actually acting on these feelings. What is more likely happening when a Muslim woman’s headscarf is forcibly removed from her head is that the person doing this violent act imagines that there is a privileged relationship between “me” and a territory – even as racism or xenophobia is deployed in these interactions.

We remain caught and entangled in colonialism’s conceptual net. Whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not, it is in our historical and societal DNA and the consequences of such an entanglement is that it also allows some of us to effortlessly look away from dispossession and discrimination. We do so partly, I think, because we assume that it does not affect us directly, and partly also because we believe ourselves to be better than “those people” – whoever those people are. Such perspectives empower us to benignly mislabel people, to see ourselves as the custodians of their cultures or to crack jokes that are not funny, except to a privileged few.

So, can Anthropology shine a light to show us the way forward?

I believe Anthropology has a lot to offer – as I’ve already shown. But there is a glass ceiling. Before Anthropology can offer support and guidance it needs to confront its own suppressed colonial past and ongoing privilege (Asad 1995). As people who think about others and their difference, anthropologists continue to take up a managerial position – one that allows them to accumulate privilege and “Whiteness” in their pursuit of academic excellence and relevance.

We need to think more specifically about the “thought-defying” capacities that colonialism and nationalism foster, of what Hannah Arendt calls the banality of evil. But we also need to think further about what at first glance appears as “thoughtful” speech (say in current academic discussions), namely discussions that continue to leave unpacked central questions about our privilege and that do not go far enough in addressing many unconscious aspects of our indifference and the power relations involved in its continuity.

I want to share two examples: one from Anthropology’s famous ancestor Franz Boas and another from a living and respected elder in Anthropology. These examples are not meant to be compared according to the same criteria of evaluation: they are not equivalent cases; they are incommensurable. Yet their difference does not mean that they cannot speak to each other or that they are not productive for comparison.

Anthropological study of race / racism

Franz Boas was a German-American anthropologist. He is held in high esteem as an anti-racist crusader and a founder of American Anthropology. Having worked with the Baffin Island Inuit and the people of the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century, he is highly respected as one of the first anthropologists who challenged the scientific and cultural evolutionary assumptions of “race”. He stood up against racist orthodoxy and moved away from an evolutionary model that assumed that people evolved through different cultural stages. Boas worked hard to demolish any scientific basis for the racial inferiority of others including native Indians and black people. However, less is said and written about Boas’ complicity in indigenous death and dispossession.

In his book White Lies About the Inuit (2009), anthropologist John L. Steckley problematizes Boas’s ethnography The Central Eskimo (1888). Boas, he writes, neglects to mention the presence of white whalers and their influence on the Inuit through the diseases they brought and the illnesses and deaths that occurred as a result of their presence: “The harsh hand of White disease was having a profound effect on the people. Yet Boas took no significant anthropological notice” (33).

In 1896, Boas became assistant curator of the prestigious American Museum of Natural History in New York and Professor at Columbia University. Steckley (2009) tells the story of how Boas asked an Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary to send him a living specimen, “a middle-aged Inuk from northwestern Greenland so that he and other anthropologists could study this person in the museum” (34). Instead of one, six individuals – that is a man and his wife and their adopted daughter, another man and his five-year old son, and another woman – were sent to Boas. They arrived in New York in late September 1897 and were housed in the cold and damp basement of the museum. Eventually, all six of them caught pneumonia and were hospitalized. When they eventually returned to the museum, they were moved to the caretaker’s apartment on the sixth floor. However, four of them died in 1898. Only the young, five-year old boy, named Minik, and the woman, Uisaakassak, survived. The brain of Minik’s father, Qisuk, was later studied and the findings published in a 1901 American Anthropologist article entitled “An Eskimo Brain”. The mourning rituals of the Inuit were documented and published in 1899 by a soon-to-be-famous anthropologist Alfred Kroeber.


Minik Wallace in New York

It was later revealed that Boas and the museum had staged a fake burial for Qisuk (using a log wrapped in furs instead of the dead body), mainly for Minik’s benefit. In that way they could continue to study the body, which was eventually preserved and mounted in the museum. When a reporter questioned Boas about holding on to the body of a man whose family was still alive, he supposedly replied:

Oh that was perfectly legitimate. There was no one to bury the body, and the museum had as good a right as any other institution authorized to claim bodies. (35)

When the reporter protested that the body should rightfully belong to Minik, Boas replied:

Well… Minik was just a little boy, and he did not ask for the body. If he had, he might have got it. (35)

While he was alive, Minik is quoted as saying something that does not agree very well with Boas’ patronizing narrative:

I can never be happy till I can bury my father in a grave…It makes me cry every time I think of his poor bones up there in the museum in a glass case, where everybody can look at them. Just because I am a poor Esquimau boy, why can’t I bury my father in a grave the way he would want to be buried?

Minik, who was raised by William Wallace, the superintendent of the museum’s building, and his wife Rhetta, never left the USA. He died of the Spanish flu in a New Hampshire farm in 1918 and was buried in Pittsburg’s Indian Stream Cemetery. It is not until 1993 that his father’s bones were finally returned to Greenland and given a proper burial.[1]

“Where Have All the Cultures Gone?”

Let us now fast forward a century and turn to a contemporary – and very different – case. In a Facebook post that was re-posted by the Anthropology journal HAU, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins described the demise of Anthropology as a comparative human science. He was specifically writing about the training and work of anthropologists, which, he lamented, did not engage with certain ethnographic classics. Here is his full post:

Emeritus rant
Maybe I’m wrong. It happens. But,
Where Have All the Cultures Gone?

What happened to Anthropology as the encompassing human science, the comparative study of the human condition? Why is a century of the first hand ethnography of cultural diversity now ignored in the training and work of anthropologists? Why are graduate students in the discipline ignorant of African segmentary lineages, New Guinea Highlands pig feasts, Naga head-hunting, the kula trade, matrilateral cross cousin marriage, Southeast Asian galactic polities, Fijian cannibalism, Plains Indian warfare, Amazonian animism, Inuit kinship relations, Polynesian mana, Ndembu social dramas, the installation of Shilluk kings or Swazi kings, Azande witchcraft, Kwakiutl potlatches, Australian Aboriginal section systems, Aztec human sacrifice, Siberian shamanism, Ojibwa ontology, the League of the Iroquois, the caste system of India, Inner Asian nomadism, the hau of the Maori gift, the religion of the Ifugao, etc. etc. We are the custodians of this knowledge, and we are content to let it be forgotten. Where else in the university are these things to be taught, or is it that they are not worthy of scholarly contemplation, and should just be confined to the dustbin of intellectual history?

At first glance, there is nothing wrong about this “rant”. When I first read it, I could see hundreds of anthropologists nodding in agreement. For we (including myself) see such examples as an important staple of what we ought to teach and what distinguishes us as anthropologists. Yet the way these examples were strung together in succession made me uncomfortable. And, judging from the long discussion thread below the post, I was not the only one. I kept asking myself: Is something missing here? And are we focusing on the right problem?

I came to realize that my discomfort stems from the post’s rhetoric, which I find reminiscent of a “white (liberal) fantasy” that still persists (be it consciously or not) in Anthropology. The claims, made by one of the most esteemed scholars in the field, that certain classic works are being forgotten – which, for many of us, they really are not – echo a nostalgic longing for a time when anthropologists were accounting for, describing and comparing other peoples’ cultures. Yet as seminal as they are in some respects, these “classics” are also ignoring the systemic violence that many of these people were enduring and continue to endure. By omitting this important fact, the “rant” seems like an unapologetic nod to a time of novelty, an era during which anthropologists were writing about and contributing to something seen by them as new.

Anthropology cannot effectively provide a moral compass or a voice for a shared understanding of difference or alterity without properly acknowledging its historically-anchored, complicit positioning in imperialism and class privilege. It also needs to reflect more on its own aspirations to “Whiteness”, which I understand here as the aspiration to belong to, emulate and maintain a dominant group whose members enjoy an élite status (particularly interesting in that regard is the fetishization of “western” theory and philosophy, a phenomenon which has recently been the subject of intensified resistance).

Our ability to provide windows into alternative worldviews is mediated by a problematic nostalgia for the past (“culture” or the “rediscovery” of our ancestors), unproductive forms of navel-gazing and the illusion that we are part of a single community (“the anthropological tribe”) who can easily disentangle white colonial presence and white privilege from the “anthropological/universal” (see Hage 2017). The idea that somehow, privilege affects only some of us, as anthropologists, and that it does so only some of the time, needs to be unpacked once and for good.

I do believe in “the labour of disentangling the white from the anthropological” while “engaging in ethnography”, as Hage (2017) suggests. However, by simply defending Anthropology for the sake of defending cultural “difference” and/or advocating for an alter-politics, we are ignoring the changing perspectives within Anthropology. Some voices have started to critique the discipline’s ancestors and to see its alignment with and implicit acceptance of dispossession and violence as highly problematic.

There is something else we need to consider: That the desires to “send the other home” and to “protect the other” are actually two sides of the same coin. Both sides feel themselves entitled to manage the other and speak for the other.

We, anthropologists (and I’m sure this applies to many other scholarly disciplines as well) cannot systemically turn a blind eye or to look away from various forms of discrimination, misogyny and violent behavior when it suits us or because it benefits us professionally and personally (Goodman 2016). We continue to be indifferent because it is easy. Yet, in this age of Trump, we simply cannot afford to be indifferent anymore.

Some concluding thoughts

In conclusion, I want to suggest how we can all benefit from this “Time of Trump” even as we seek to understand it and to resist it.

Since my experience at the Singapore airport after 9/11 and since moving to Canada in 2007, I have continued to reflect on what it means to be seen as different. As much I have accumulated “whiteness” and use my education and new status to my advantage, I also know that I have not internalized all the criteria for being truly accepted (even though a part of me desires “acceptance”). I instinctively identify and empathize with others who are objectified on a more frequent basis than me, and whose bodies, lives and land are violently encroached on by others.

Is there a better way to understand human difference in the time of Trump? The answer I provide is not a simple one. Instead it asks that we start by looking at ourselves, that we acknowledge our prejudices, our privileges, our “whiteness”, our implicit participation in dispossession, and of our comfort or indifference in the face of different, ongoing forms of injustice, because it does not concern us or because the racist and misogynist or the targets of anti- (racist/sexist) movements look and speak like us.

Noone should claim intellectual superiority or an enlightened perspective while participating in acts of disassociation between “me” and racism, “my world” and the ongoing presence of colonialism, “my privilege” and the inequalities and injustice experienced or expressed by others. Likewise, I disagree with the claim that anthropologists (me included) should live with the motto that we are the “custodians” of culture. Instead, they should be the custodians of the full spectrum of human experience even as they strive to understand cultural difference. For Anthropology to move forward, it has to first come to terms with its hidden and not-so-hidden privileges and to challenge its representation as a white, masculine and elitist space.

More broadly, in this moment of intensification, citizens around the world have to better engage with what’s happening around them and become true allies of the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the minority voices, the non-nationalists, the activists. The language of ownership and possession and the unconscious ways through which it takes a hold of us have to be carefully unravelled and laid out before us before being discarded. Many voices have already started to ask such questions, both within and beyond academia. Yet as we continue to live in this time of Trump and in its ongoing aftermath, we will have to not take for granted the highly held opinions we often have of ourselves and those that sound or look like us.

I believe that increasing discomfort towards the fantasy of “whiteness” and the colonial histories that inform them is evident and necessary. Indifference, in other words, is not an option anymore. Lest we lose ourselves in our own, twisted reflection.

Girish Daswani is Associate Professor in Anthropology at the University of Toronto

[1] For another critique of Boas, see Audra Simpson’s upcoming paper “Why White People Love Franz Boas, or, The Grammar of Indigenous Dispossession”.


Arendt, Hannah. 2006 (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Books.

Arendt, Hannah. 1964. Letter to Gershom Gerhad Scholem. In The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress.

Asad, Talal. 1995 (1973). Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. Humanity Books.

Fanon, Frantz. 1991 (1952). Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Goodman, Z. 2016. “What’s the Point of the ‘Mauss haus’? The Gift and Anthropology Today.” FocaalBlog, June 16.

Hage, Ghassan. 2000 (1998). White Nation: Fantasies of White supremacy in a Multicultural Society. New York: Routledge.

Hage, Ghassan. 2015. Alter-Politics: Critical Anthropology, Political Passion and the Radical Imagination. Melbourne University Press.

Hage, Ghassan. 2017. ‘Anthropology is a white colonialist project’ can’t be the end of the conversation. Media Diversified, September 4.

Simpson, Audra. In press. “Why White People Love Franz Boas or, The Grammar of Indigenous Dispossession” in Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas.  Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Wilner, (eds). New Haven: Yale University press.

Steckley, John L. 2009. White Lies About The Inuit. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2016. Duress: Imperial Durabilities in our Times. Duke University Press.

Pauline Hanson’s 1996 maiden speech: full transcript.


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