White Lies

Fayes T Kantawala watches as a world that centred whiteness unravels before his eyes

White Lies
I was six, maybe seven. My family was around the dinner table listening to my father telling us about a funny encounter. Everyone laughed, and it was an unremarkable moment except that I noticed something that had never occurred to me. My father’s voice changed while impersonating the other person- a high-pitched, comical tone quite unlike his own - and quickly returned to normal while reenacting his own dialogue. It felt like deceit and I couldn’t understand why and so I asked lots of questions, as six maybe seven year olds are apt to do, until everyone got rather uncomfortable and we changed the subject. But now I knew and eventually I began noticing it everywhere. Everyone, no matter how weird their voice, sounded “normal” in their version of events, while everyone else came through like a bootleg impersonation of a muppet.

It was an early introduction to one of the most important facts we never teach children: people center themselves in their own stories, always. Sadly realizing this nugget of Truth didn’t turn me into a savant with a skill for lie detection; on the contrary, I was a trusting child that took people at face value, which is probably why universally condoned willful deceit seemed an absurd societal construct. Even as I internalized the practice and began normalizing my own voice in recounting events, the idea that any narrative is essentially a personal viewpoint never left. I thought about it during history lessons when it occurred to me that the clean line between Muslims arriving in India through to the Mughal empire and onwards to the creation of Pakistan was a misleadingly convenient reading. I thought about it when I noticed Pakistanis never talk about the military establishment or its role against governments in either school curriculums or television.

Universities are usually the time in a person’s life when that kind of critical thinking is encouraged and trained. It took some years for me to realize that studying in the US meant I was so close to the source that centered the American experience over all else that I couldn’t even see it. It took a while because for a long time the world used American culture as a default for All Culture. A local event in Colorado or a US Senators transgressions were world news worthy -despite being exceedingly local events - because the world centered White American stories over all others, except for perhaps White British Stories, for which they made costume dramas. For a very, very long time - until last month really - that default setting seemed intractable and unchangeable. But one of the many ways the Black Lives Matter conversation has changed discourse is to show - with exacting clarity and unimpeachable evidence - that there is such a thing as White Supremacy and that it is so pervasive a concept that it disturbing and fundamentally destabilizing to recognize how universally rooted it is. The idea is coded into the very DNA of not only America, but in every single country on earth. It is a policy that has been created, exported and enforced not only by White people but also by their enablers around the world.

The idea that skin colour shouldn’t determine a person’s ability to work, live, love or even exist appears to be a a concept so basic to be cliche. But it’s not basic, I wish it were but it’s not; what’s actually the base line is that white people’s stories and perspectives matter above all others. Vastly more important is that entire historical systems work tirelessly to keep this bias alive and functioning. Yes institutionalized racism is domestic policy in America, but being Muslim post 9/11 with the entirety of the American machine aiming for you is but one example that White Supremacy is as much Americans foreign policy too. These poisonous systems, brought to us not simply through British colonialism but its uglier sister casteism in South Asia means that chances are a lighter skinned person is treated preferentially over other in most places in the world for no better reason than the lack melanin in their skin.

Dismantling White Supremacy from the base code of world society is not an overnight task, and requires the kind of structural, cultural reset revolutions are made of. And it will not be painless, because people do not give up control of power willfully. It can be a daunting prospect, to rewrite the way we think, but And although it often seems the only thing most people are really doing is typing in all caps on Twitter, the world is collectively changing. The only way I know how to internalize that change is to find out the many, many ways in which white centrism is layered into my own reasoning. Given that I went to a post-colonial travesty of a school that prioritized British accents without any internal critique, and then to another which couldn’t see White history as different from world history, this is not going to be an easy task. It means undoing centuries of racial gaslighting and though it may not be our fault for being raised in an environment that allows that, it is our fault if we allow it to continue.

When speaking to this with a friend recently they accused me of being anti-white, which I was quite disturbed by until I realized that for them being pro-Black or pro-people of colour meant being anti-white because for so long pro-white meant anti-black.

I was reminded of this as I walked outside my door the other day and saw my white neighbour crouched by the mailroom scratching something off the laminated list of residents. As I reached to open my mailbox, I noticed she was scratching out her middle name Karen from the roster, no doubt because it has become slang for entitled white women. Seeing her remove her name made me feel a twinge of sadness that she would think her very name is “wrong” or shameful somehow, until I remembered how many times white people refused to pronounce or made fun of my foreign-sounding name for no other reason than they couldn’t be bothered to learn it. That they are losing their privilege to walk through the world as if only they own it is, I admit, a relief. It’s a lesson most of the rest of us internalize as children of six, maybe seven.

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com