The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World / Edition 1

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Overview


A familiar cultural presence for people the world over, “the whiteman” has come to personify the legacy of colonialism, the face of Western modernity, and the force of globalization. Focusing on the cultural meanings of whitemen in the Orokaiva society of Papua New Guinea, this book provides a fresh approach to understanding how race is symbolically constructed and why racial stereotypes endure in the face of counterevidence.

While Papua New Guinea’s resident white population has been severely reduced due to postcolonial white flight, the whiteman remains a significant racial and cultural other here—not only as an archetype of power and wealth in the modern arena, but also as a foil for people’s evaluations of themselves within vernacular frames of meaning. As Ira Bashkow explains, ideas of self versus other need not always be anti-humanistic or deprecatory, but can be a creative and potentially constructive part of all cultures.

A brilliant analysis of whiteness and race in a non-Western society, The Meaning of Whitemen turns traditional ethnography to the purpose of understanding how others see us.

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Editorial Reviews

Anthropological Quarterly
A nuanced account of a culturally-specific logic of racial categorization and racial evalustion. . . .This thoughtful book deserves a wide audience, and wide published discussion. Its most impressive virtue is that it is at once an accessible, model work of ethnographic interpretation, and a work that breaks new, ambitious ground on important anthropological problems.

— Rupert Stasch

American Anthropoliogist
[Bashkow's] focus on white people as the 'foreign' makes this an excellent tour of critical race studies and basic anthropology, encouraging students of all levels to think through the social construction of whiteness and the culturally productive boundaries between groups of people.

— Jennifer Roth-Gordon

Pacific Affairs
Bashkow's book is thoughtful and thought-provoking, a fine addition to the regional literature and its place within anthropological theory.

— Aletta Biersack

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
A rich, detailed, beautifully presented , immensely enjoyable, and thought-provoking book which advances a general and important argument about racial stereotyping and the formation of racialized categories. . . . I would thoroughly recommend this book to everyone interested in the concept of race.

— Peter Wade

Oceania
This is not an easy subject matter to handle and Bashkow carries the theoretical load commendably, delivering a thoughtful, engaging and consumately written contribution to the anthropology of race. Overall, his richly detailed and historically grounded account offers an exemplary study not only for scholars but a wider audience interested in the construction of race and the experience of modernity in the Pacific and beyond.

— Katherine Lepari

Marshall Sahlins

“We are one of the others. Deconstructing the ancient sociology of in-group versus out-group, this finely observed and brilliantly interpreted ethnography of a New Guinea people’s conceptions of whitemen fashions a powerful new paradigm for the study of intercultural relations. Incidentally, damn good reading.”--Marshall Sahlins

Joel Robbins

“In the very best tradition of anthropology, this is a book that will force readers to confront their settled understandings and rethink many things they thought they knew about the cultural construction of racial formations and about whiteness as a global phenomenon. A milestone in the anthropology of the Pacific, this is quite simply a great book to think with.”--Joel Robbins, author of Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society

Anthropological Quarterly - Rupert Stasch

"A nuanced account of a culturally-specific logic of racial categorization and racial evalustion. . . .This thoughtful book deserves a wide audience, and wide published discussion. Its most impressive virtue is that it is at once an accessible, model work of ethnographic interpretation, and a work that breaks new, ambitious ground on important anthropological problems."

American Anthropoliogist - Jennifer Roth-Gordon

"[Bashkow's] focus on white people as the 'foreign' makes this an excellent tour of critical race studies and basic anthropology, encouraging students of all levels to think through the social construction of whiteness and the culturally productive boundaries between groups of people."

Pacific Affairs - Aletta Biersack

"Bashkow's book is thoughtful and thought-provoking, a fine addition to the regional literature and its place within anthropological theory."

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute - Peter Wade

"A rich, detailed, beautifully presented , immensely enjoyable, and thought-provoking book which advances a general and important argument about racial stereotyping and the formation of racialized categories. . . . I would thoroughly recommend this book to everyone interested in the concept of race."

Oceania - Katherine Lepari

"This is not an easy subject matter to handle and Bashkow carries the theoretical load commendably, delivering a thoughtful, engaging and consumately written contribution to the anthropology of race. Overall, his richly detailed and historically grounded account offers an exemplary study not only for scholars but a wider audience interested in the construction of race and the experience of modernity in the Pacific and beyond."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226038919
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 7/17/2006
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 328
  • Sales rank: 1,079,427
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author


Ira Bashkow is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia.
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Read an Excerpt

The Meaning of Whitemen RACE AND MODERNITY IN THE OROKAIVA CULTURAL WORLD
By Ira Bashkow
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-03891-9



Chapter One Introduction: The Cultural Construction of Whitemen

The Western study of the Third and Fourth World Other gives way to the unsettling confrontation of the West with itself as portrayed in the eyes and handiwork of its Others. MICHAEL TAUSSIG, Mimesis and Alterity

Anglo-Americans, though rarely present in Apache homes, are never really absent from them either. KEITH BASSO, Portraits of "the Whiteman"

This book is about how white people are viewed by black people in the postcolonial Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG). I have written the book as an experiment in reorienting the traditional ethnographic enterprise of coming to know others by turning it to the purpose of understanding how others have come to know us. What do others notice about us? How do they make sense of us in terms of their own culture's concepts and values? In what ways do they draw the comparison between themselves and us, and what do the differences they perceive mean to them? For us in the West, there can be great fascination in seeing ourselves from an alien cultural viewpoint. Such a fascination is expressed in literary works as old as Montesquieu's Persian Letters (1721), as well as in science fiction and films like Koyaanisqatsi. Indeed, one of anthropology's most cherished promises is to show us our lives afresh through the defamiliarizing insight afforded by cross-cultural comparison. Usually it is we who are doing the comparing, but in principle we should be open to the insight that is gained by the others when they are drawing the comparisons themselves.

Beyond helping us learn about ourselves, asking how others see us is also important for what it can teach us about the lives of others, and in particular those significant aspects of their lives that they in some sense attribute to us, as the legacy of our cultural influence. It is a truism of globalization studies that westerners' actions affect the lives of distant others materially, through the global economy, for example, when we buy what they make or when they are affected by our governments' policies. But along with this, we play a symbolic role simply in instantiating vernacular categories such as "European," "westerner," or "American," categories through which, whether we like it or not, we constitute an other that exerts a powerful force in far distant lives.

One such category that is of striking importance to people throughout the world is "the whiteman." It is no historical accident that the whiteman, as a perceived cultural presence, is a global phenomenon, and it is thus unsurprising to hear that the blanco or gringo in Mexico, the laowai in China, and the obroni in Ghana are all similarly archetypes of western modernity, wealth, and race privilege, personifying the legacy of imperialism, the ideal of development, and the force of globalization. But what is astonishing is how otherwise varied are the whiteman stereotypes found in different societies: how culturally distinctive are the characteristics attributed to them, the failings and virtues they are thought to exemplify, the fantasies that surround them, the jokes that are told about them, and the conventional wisdom that explains what they are. In this book, I offer a portrait of a particular community's distinctive conception of whitemen, describing the part that this conception plays in people's lives as a cultural other representing the West.

The community I write about, a community of Orokaiva people in eastern Papua New Guinea, has had continued relations with white foreigners for more than a century, forming a history of entanglement with the West which, in its broad outlines, recalls that of other indigenous peoples in many parts of the world. The first Orokaiva encounters with whites were associated with the spread of administrative control by the colonial powers Britain and Australia, which opened the way for more extensive contacts with colonial officers, gold prospectors, plantation labor recruiters, traders, and missionaries. Colonial rule brought economic development projects that focused on cultivating commodity tree crops like cocoa and coffee for world markets, but these projects were largely failures, and in the postcolonial era since Papua New Guinea became an independent nation in 1975, little else has come along to enable Orokaiva to share in world prosperity. In comparison with many indigenous peoples, Orokaiva have been quite successful in maintaining the vitality of their vernacular culture and traditional economy, but over the last decade these have become increasingly imperiled by the large-scale loss of lands which were formerly used for subsistence gardening but are now being dedicated to commodity cash-cropping, an activity spurred on by people's increasing need for cash and by the expansion of a development project for the cultivation of oil palm funded by the World Bank (see chapter 6). In sum, white involvement has changed Orokaiva from a self-ruled people who were sovereign over their own lands and wealthy in their own traditional forms of wealth, to a politically marginalized people who recognize themselves as poor in the context of a global economy.

Given their history, I initially expected that Orokaiva views of whitemen would be predominantly critical. I had in mind previous works such as Julius Lips's 1937 compendium The Savage Hits Back and Keith Basso's landmark 1979 study of the jokes Western Apache Indians tell about whitemen, that confront us with primarily negative images of western subjects seen through others' eyes. But the images I encountered among Orokaiva were complex and ambivalent, providing no one-sided condemnation of whites for past wrongs, no comeuppance for colonialism. It is true that Orokaiva were critical of the greed and arrogance that drove whites to colonize foreign lands, and that they resented their material inequality with whites and the failure of white-planned development projects to bring them prosperity. But Orokaiva were also admiring of whites in certain fundamental respects, and they were grateful to whites for having instigated far-reaching changes in their society that Orokaiva do not doubt, as we might, were vastly for the better, morally and practically. As Orokaiva say, whites forced an end to cannibalism and warfare, reducing fear and enabling people to travel more freely. They introduced Christianity, reducing the menace of angry spirits of the dead. They established schools that teach reading and writing, they expanded medical care, and they brought new tools. They introduced many tasty new foods, fruits, and garden crops. With whites came money, cash-crops, and wage work; roads and vehicular transport; radio, post, and, in some places, phones; roofing iron, sawn timber, and other long-lasting building materials; and new techniques of construction. And with whites came batteries, flashlights, kerosene lanterns, and (in the towns) electricity, providing light on dark nights. All these aspects of the white legacy are welcomed.

I have no doubt that in the colonial era Orokaiva resented domination by whites. Some of this resentment is still evident; for example, I saw the ignorance and hauteur of white administrative patrol officers parodied in a clown's performance at a village feast. But today Orokaiva face different problems, like state authorities that are too weak and disorganized to control corruption, lawlessness, and violence. Today, lamenting the progressive degeneration of towns and infrastructure in the years since independence, Orokaiva tend to look back on colonial times with nostalgic fondness. They are not inclined to think that their ancestors suffered indignities or that they were subjugated under colonial rule. And, unlike in many other colonial situations around the world, Orokaiva emerged from colonialism still in control of their customary lands. Because colonial land expropriation was extremely minimal (only roughly 2 percent), Orokaiva culture has maintained its grounding in a lived reality that is organized predominantly around an economic dependence on traditional lands. Today, Orokaiva clear lands for gardens, cut trees to build houses, forage for food and medicines, and hunt for game on the same forested mountain slopes and along the same rivers where their ancestors lived before them and where the events recounted in the myths of their past took place. They live still in many respects at the center of their own cultural universe. And it is from this perspective that their narratives of colonial experience are constructed. They do not see themselves as but one people in a vast global fraternity of colonial victims. In many of the stories they tell, it is as if their ancestors had been behind-the-scenes powers pulling the strings that enabled the colonial project to succeed.

Such are the ambiguities in Orokaiva views of colonialism today. To some, the fact that these views are at all positive may be an embarrassment, flattering as they do certain western self-conceptions such as the metanarratives of civilizational and technological progress that whites used to justify colonialism in New Guinea and elsewhere. To others it may appear a kind of exoneration of the colonial project that positive views of whites are held by people who were among colonialism's victims. But even if Orokaiva views of their colonial history were unambiguously positive (which I emphasize they are not), it would by no means excuse whites for having taken on the "whiteman's burden" in colonial New Guinea, since present day Orokaiva views derive not in fact from colonialism but rather from their experience of the postcolonial situation. The trend in cultural studies fields like postcolonial criticism has been to treat the postcolonial situation as the recapitulation or perpetuation of colonial power relationships, albeit relationships we are encouraged to reconsider. But recent work in anthropology, history, and colonial studies is showing that even the original colonial power relationships were morally and politically complex, and that they were highly specific to particular ethnographic and historical situations. They did not fit the Manichaean image of a morally unambiguous opposition between colonizing master and colonized victim, domination and powerlessness. In light of these new understandings, it is only appropriate to reconsider the postcolonial power relationship from the moral perspective of the people concerned.

I do not attempt here to reconcile Orokaiva evaluations of their colonial past with western moral frameworks concerned with the justice of past western interventions. Just as we in the West are primarily interested in what our history with others can reveal to us about ourselves, Orokaiva are primarily interested in what their shared history with the West can reveal to them about themselves. Thus, it is primarily their own concerns that we find reflected in the stories they tell about whitemen. To understand Orokaiva discourse about whitemen and the West, we need to understand it in its particular ethnographic and historical context. This book is therefore actually about Orokaiva people, and not about white people. It is about the ideas that Orokaiva have about whites, and the role of these ideas in their culture today.

The terms for 'the whiteman' in Orokaiva are mostly foreign loan words. The most commonly used are "whiteman" and "whiteskin," from English by way of the Papua New Guinea lingua franca Tok Pisin, and taupa or taupada (plural: taupamane), which are assimilations of the word taubada ('big man,' 'whiteman') from Police Motu, the lingua franca used in Papua during colonial times. Other loan words include the Anglo-Australian term "European" and Tok Pisin masta ('master'), though the latter is increasingly rare. Orokaiva also use some interesting vernacular expressions with specialized connotations. Two which are considered archaic and poetic are ijo hujo, meaning 'those who go and come' or 'moving haphazardly hither and yon,' and, in the Aeka dialect, sisiki popoki, which means 'wanderers' (Williams 1930, 152). Orokaiva explain these terms through stories of their early experiences of the whites who traveled in colonial administrative patrols. Orokaiva, like Melanesians elsewhere, marveled that these white men walked anywhere they pleased, respecting neither boundaries of lands nor fences nor privacy of gardens; they crossed indiscriminately through the lands of friends and enemies, remaining in transit, and always in a hurry. A further set of expressions are metaphors for the skin color of whites and are used primarily in humorous or indirect speech, for examples, 'white cockatoo skin,' 'shafts of sunlight skin,' 'bright flaring torch skin,' and 'wheat-flour white skin'-the last using an adaptation (parara) of the English word "flour" (Tok Pisin: plaua). All of these terms are glossed here as 'whiteman' or 'whitemen.' But I retain the term taupa in the important Orokaiva phrase, taupa kastom, meaning the 'customs' or 'ways' of whitemen, or Orokaiva perceptions of western culture.

From this point on, I will attempt to maintain a consistent distinction between 'whiteman' or 'whitemen' on the one hand, and English phrases like "white men," "white people," and "whites" on the other. The latter are meant to refer to actual white people; the former refer to Orokaiva constructions of whites. The gender bias inherent in these terms is not merely linguistic; Orokaiva conceive of whitemen stereotypically as men. Historically, their interactions with whites have been most frequently with men, and many of the attributes they associate with whitemen, such as great mobility, are culturally masculine qualities. Because the gender bias is itself culturally significant, I do not take the usual tack of trying to neutralize it in my terminology. Similarly, I maintain the racially oversimplified terminological opposition between "white" and "black" because it is in fact the central organizing principle of Orokaiva vernacular racial categorization.

Even so, the application of Orokaiva racial categories is complex, and it is often manipulated in creative and counterintuitive ways. Like other Papua New Guineans, Orokaiva are intensely interested in racial ambiguities such as those they perceive in black Americans, in other wealthy black foreigners, and in individuals whose racial appearance or ancestry is mixed. The category of whitemen sometimes, but not always, includes Asians from China, the Philippines, and Japan along with Caucasians from England, America, and Australia. When discussing particular whites Orokaiva are often concerned to identify the person's nationality (e.g., Australian, German, American), and, as we will see, they liberally bend and revise racial boundaries to suit their aims in particular contexts, often as a means to overcome social boundaries and strengthen relationships with individual expatriates and Papua New Guineans of other ethnic groups. This kind of malleability belies the fact that, at bottom, racial categories reflect only one way of dividing a complex human reality that could be conceptually divided in other ways just as well, and that their seeming naturalness, which is so important a part of their meaning, is illusory, a reflection of our general human tendency to mistake convention for necessity (Boas 1965 [1938]).

But while it is important to recognize the arbitrariness, flexibility, and context dependence of racial categories, we must not underestimate the ideological power of the basic opposition between black and white skin to color people's imaginings of their social universe. Among Orokaiva, as throughout Papua New Guinea, this opposition shapes people's thoughts on such diverse matters as education, time use, diet, architecture, morality, religion, and economics, and it does so in ways that tend to place the ambiguity and complexity of race in the background. In this book, rather than looking past the black/white opposition to focus on the complexities into which it breaks down, I try to understand the basis for its powerful force. As W. E. B. Du Bois asked long ago in America, why is the cunning division of humanity into black and white so compelling to people? Why, despite evidence to the contrary, does it continue to seem to people so definite, natural, and well founded?

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Meaning of Whitemen by Ira Bashkow Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments
Note on Orthographic Conventions
1. Introduction: The Cultural Construction of Whitemen
2. Cultural World, Postcolonial Situation
3. The Lightness of Whitemen
4. The Bodies of Whitemen
5. The Foods of Whitemen
6. Conclusion: Whitemen Beyond
Notes
References
Index
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