How many of academics in recent memory have participated in a workshop on Southeast Asia or some aspect of it in which the overwhelming number of participants were white? If were to take Theravada Buddhist Studies as an example, in real life, 99% of all Theravada Buddhists are not white and probably 99% of all teachers, students, and researchers of Theravada Buddhism globally are non-white. How many participants in a typical Theravada Buddhist Studies workshop in the West are non-white? There are some exceptions where university programmes have a very heavy non-white participation, but what about the big centres for Theravada Buddhist Studies? Of course, Theravada Buddhist Studies and Myanmar Studies are not necessarily the same thing, Muslims, Christians, Animists, Hindus, Sikhs, and many others are also represented in Burma, but how many of those involved in the formal organizations of Myanmar Studies, the Burma Studies Group at the AAS, mentioned above? Not to pick on one organisation, but to examine the particular case of one prominent group in the field, how many of its heads are non-white? If we look at those who hold positions significant within the group, how many are non-white? Or, how many are based within the country, that is, within Myanmar? And of publications on Myanmar or Theravada Buddhism, how many of those cited in any given piece that is published non-white? Is there something wrong with disciplines, organisations, and events about a non-white country in which everything is directed towards mainly white audiences, administered mainly by white academics, and populated mainly by white participants. How did knowledge about Burma become essentially “white.”
One reaction to raising questions like this might be that it also represents racism. Academics should be colour-blind. If it is colour-blind, one might respond easily enough, why is everything so white? This line of questioning also does not suggest that any individual involved is racist, consciously or unconsciously. What it does suggest though is that a discipline can be racist in the way it shapes and directs knowledge, how it asks questions and for whom, and structurally racist in whom it excludes. And racism is strongly embedded in the structure of academic knowledge exchange globally, where non-white Burmese do the groundwork in the field for white academics and get paid a pittance while the white academics reap a comparative fortune from the promotion that results. The structure of power in academics places the non-white “in-country” at the bottom of a colonial-like pyramid with “in-organisation” white academics at the pinnacle. Pay is huge at the top, minimal at the bottom, dependency on in-country labour is very high at the top, involvement in “top” conferences and workshops very low at the bottom.
The problem goes back to the fact that most of our academic fields, from history to linguistics, emerged in the colonial period, in the hands of Europeans and white Americans, to shape knowledge about the world in a way that made sense to THEM, to White Westerners and as earlier generations of critical scholarship have shown us, it has been shaped or has worked out to make non-white peoples, cultures, religions, and so on feel backward and inferior. As a result, we do not have fields shaped by non-whites that can accommodate them unless they write in a way that communicates with white scholars, that can be understood by white audiences, that register as being important to white knowledge structures. In other words, consider that if you have a field studying a non-western subject in which everyone you debate with, cite, invite to speak and listen to is white, then there is very likely something structurally racist about the way that you or your predecessors have shaped your field. If the questions you are asking about Theravada Buddhists or Myanmar are not interesting enough to Theravada Buddhist or Burmese to be involved then you might be asking the wrong questions, doing it in the wrong language, or in the wrong venues. Perhaps it is because of the imbalances of wealth in the United States and between the West and global South, that non-whites do not have the same educational or financial opportunities. These imbalances are also down to colonialism and neo-colonialism.
Recently, the decolonising efforts that began in South Africa and have now reached everywhere and academia. Burmese academics abroad have been raising these concerns as well. In 2020, Tharaphi Than first raised this issue in Myanmar Studies in her paper, “Impossible Feat? Decolonizing a Burmese Academy.”1 Subsequently, in 2021, Chu May Paing and Than Toe Aung also raised their voices against the view white researchers have of Myanmar and research on it in their paper, “Talking Back to white Researchers in Burma Studies,”at the 20th International Graduate Student Conference at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.2 These scholars together offer granular examination of the ways in which White scholars approach the study of Myanmar, the authority they are given (or take) in the field, and the ontological and epistemological colonization that continues as a result. I will not repeat their arguments in detail, but note that they have informed my general perspective here.
Arguably, scholars may be more conscious about this problem in the UK than elsewhere partly because colonialism is so undeniable that they must grapple with it. By contrast, in the United States, academics still seem cling to the myth of it also being a liberated, former colony and that they are saving the rest of THOSE people in the world who cannot save themselves in a modern American version of “White man’s people’s burden.” It has to be noted that East Asian scholarship on Myanmar has been more successful in engaging with Myanmar scholarship and balancing white and non-white views. Perhaps a model might be offered by the Japanese, Korean, or Chinese academy on Myanmar Studies that might be useful for Western scholars to follow.
So, how far do American scholars of Myanmar cite non-white, Myanmar scholars as equal interlocutors rather than as primary sources (those they drain data from but do not respect as their intellectual contributions). How many discuss in their texts the contributions made by non-whites to major historiographical debates or contributions to the humanities or social sciences? How many co-author with non-whites? Most you would find do not. I leave aside the practice of using Burmese for one’s research but not including them as co-authors. And when we look at ourselves what do we do?
There are many reasons for that academic disease we might call “near exclusionary white citation” (NEWC). NEWC largely appears to occur in Myanmar Studies because:
- most Western scholars of Myanmar are writing not for the societies they study, but for those that pay their salaries.
- most Western scholars of Myanmar, or many are concerned about promotion, and this depends on peer impression among senior scholars who are mostly white (again, a structurally racist factor)
- most Western scholars of Myanmar do not treat Burmese as the equals they are, but as subjects (both metaphorically and literally)
- most Western scholars of Myanmar do not engage with debates in Burmese and most Burmese are not engaged in English, German, or French only literature.
- Noting that colonialism was also sustained by small numbers of elite Burmese who worked with the British to keep the system in place, we should remember that everyone can be shaped by structural racism, so that there are Burmese scholars who only care about what senior white academics think is important or they see themselves as better than other Burmese because they were educated abroad or went to international school.
- Love of the colonial as a research topic is partly at fault – much Western research focuses on the colonial period, the 19th and early 20th centuries, and of course so much of the material (not all) is in British collections, which is easy access to those who live in Europe. If more historiography focused on the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and so on, the advantage would be for Burmese with everything required for research being located essentially in Myanmar.
We, all of us, can chart a new course to resolve this now and change the field, hopefully. But if you are genuinely interested in shaping a new field so that it is balanced and fully engages with the Burmese, all Burmese, both men and women, then ask yourself, how racist is YOUR engagement with the field. Look at the last thing you have published and see for yourself. If you are not interested in this question, you are part of the reason structural racism thrives in the academy. It is not too late to heal, NEWC is curable, but the longer we wait, the more damage it does, to everyone. And please, do not just read my post, go on to read the work of the Burmese scholars I have tried to engage with here.
Michael W. Charney
FORSEA Board Member
Banner Image: Bristol / England – May 6th 2020: Statue of Edward Colston with blindfold before it was taken down by protestors. Photo: Ian Luck / Shutterstock.com
- A copy of Tharaphi’s 2020 paper was generously provided by Tharaphi Than to the present author.
- I have not yet had access to the full paper. A recording of the presentation, however, can be found here: https://www.arunaglobalsouth.org/post/talking-back-to-white-researchers-in-burma-studies-conference-presentation