Challenging the Politics of Representation in the Study of Tibet


A review of Tibet Beyond Black and White: Racial Formations and Transnational Collusions, by C. Michelle Kleisath.

The release of Donald S. Lopez Jr.’s book Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) in 1998 marked an important moment in scholarship related to Tibetan Buddhism and to Tibetan societies more generally. In it, Lopez acknowledged the colonial genealogy of the study of Tibetan Buddhism in Western societies, and called for a more rigorous self-awareness for Western academics in the study of Tibet. Despite the book’s success, however, more than a decade later Western academic works and development discourse related to Tibet continue to demonstrate the same colonial tropes, and conference panels, collected volumes, and reports often contain a lack of diverse voices, particularly the voices of Tibetan scholars. In her important and timely dissertation, Michelle Kleisath argues that these continued problems in the field are due to a previously unacknowledged form of colonialism, that of the U.S. Empire, manifest particularly in transnational constructions of race. This gives rise to racism that permeates scholarly and popular discourse on Tibet. Her study draws upon insights from postcolonial, feminist, and Critical Race paradigms in an illuminating engagement with the structural forms of inequality that run through Tibetan studies and related fields of Sinology, development, and anthropology. She demonstrates these patterns through a rigorous re-reading of studies often held up as classics in the field, exposing them as rife with colonial and racist tropes. She also identifies these patterns through analyzing a wide variety of other data, including material from rich and diverse fieldwork at Tibetan Studies conferences and Buddhist seminars in North America and Asia, the study of popular culture and advertising in China, and interviews and questionnaires with a wide range of individuals including Tibetans in China and exile communities in South Asia and North America, Chinese in China and North America, and white and non-white foreigners in China and North America.

While the importance of moving beyond simplistic constructions of Sino-Tibetan relations in discussions related to the contemporary political situation of Tibetans in China has been widely acknowledged, Kleisath’s framing of these issues through the paradigm of race is highly original. The impetus for Kleisath’s study came from her own experience working in development projects related to Tibetan women where she repeatedly encountered moments where she as a white North American (which she argues is often inappropriately glossed as “Westerner”) was granted privilege for no other reason than her apparent race. She became disturbed by the attribution of expertise by donors and philanthropists who considered her to be more knowledgeable than her Tibetan female collaborators despite her inexperience, age, and lack of academic qualifications, an attribution that resulted in pay inequity and access to opportunity. Her experience as well as her study of related “industries of transnational development, English teaching, tourism, and academic research” lead Kleisath to argue that “whiteness matters in Tibet” (p. 8, emphasis author’s own), and in her study, she skillfully traces the nuances and complexities of the sociohistorical circumstances that have led to the current situation.

In the Introduction, Kleisath positions her discussions within studies of U.S. Empire that perceive the power that the U.S. has transnationally as “an agent … of white supremacy” (p. 9). She defines white supremacy through citing Andrea Smith’s influential construction of “Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” which argues that while the historical abolishment of slavery in the U.S. led to apparent freedom for Black people, capitalism has created new forms of slavery that “operates on the logic of racial hierarchy, wherein white and Black are placed on opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of worth” (p. 10). Indigenous people are also part of this system (and are the second pillar of genocide/colonialism), as they are conveniently disappeared from history and the land for the convenience of white claims of territorial ownership. The final pillar is Orientalism/War, which pertains to U.S. foreign policy. Foreigners and “the Orient” are not disappeared, but instead seen as threats, which justify war and empire-building (p. 11). How does this model relate to Tibet? Kleisath argues that it is deeply relevant and important as these pillars frame the context in which the U.S. has engaged with Tibet and Tibetan societies and in which Tibetan studies and development have emerged in the post-Cold War era. She is careful to provide a critical definition of her decision to discuss race, as opposed to ethnicity, class or nationality, through using frameworks provided by Michael Omi and Howard Winant. Omi and Winant both argue that race is social, flexible, and political, and therefore understanding the changing nature of race as a “formation” is key to understanding its role in society (p. 12).

After outlining the context and foundations of her argument, in Chapter 2 Kleisath goes on to discuss her methodology through engaging with a wide range of theorists, including Chela Sandoval, Gloria Anzaldúa, Roland Barthes, Frantz Fanon, Maria Lugones, Paula Moya, and Donna Harraway. Most importantly here, she proposes how non-binary discussions of Tibet and China could look through outlining the “Methodology of the Oppressed” as it has been defined by Chela Sandoval (p. 26). Sandoval argued that social movements for justice among marginalized people have often come up against barriers due to their downplaying or intensifying of difference. An alternative entails engaging with “the hermeneutics of love,” which “allows a practitioner to see that the ideological forms of equal rights, revolution, supremacy, and separatism are created (not natural), and thus she can move between and among them in order to bring about equity between humans” (p. 28). Kleisath argues that this hermeneutics of love may allow for a more nuanced examination of Tibetan issues. Kleisath also suggests using the work of Paula Moya as a beginning point for white anthropologists to acknowledge their racial positionality in their work and thereby also engage with the methodologies of the oppressed (p. 35-6). In her own research, Kleisath uses interviews, questionnaires, and Critical Discourse Analysis at academic, development, and Buddhist meetings in China, the United States, and Canada, as well as a critical reading of significant texts in the field of development and Tibetan studies, to provide an image of what this acknowledgement can look like.

Chapter 3 explores the dominance of Whiteness in English-language scholarship on Tibet. Kleisath argues that although conference participation and publications in the field are predominantly by white people (whom she defines as white according to appearance, rather than through convoluted geographical arguments), race is not acknowledged in scholarship. This has taken place due to the construction of institutions where whiteness is not talked about but is taken for granted, and often the term “Western” is used instead. However, “Western” is not racially marked, and a non-engagement with the structures that privilege white scholarship is dangerous, because the term “Western” normalizes white men and thereby marginalizes other voices, argues Kleisath, including, Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian scholars, who are often racialized.

In Chapter 4, she uses the example of discussions of “The Tibet Question” to demonstrate how destructive these patterns of erasure (such as the occlusion of race in the use of “Westerner”) can be. She achieves this through close readings of widely used and supposedly un-biased academic books on the Tibet issue, most notably Melvyn Goldstein’s The Snow Lion and the Dragon (The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). While such books often purport to be objective, closer readings demonstrate that authors continue to use hyper-emotional language when discussing their subjects, Tibetan and Chinese people, and often only cite non-white, non-male scholars as a token gesture, without a critical consideration of their own biases. An alternative way to engage with the Tibet Question may be found in Tashi Rabgey and Tseten Wangchuk’s Sino-Tibetan Dialogue in the Post-Mao Era: Lessons and Prospects (Washington: East-West Center, 2004), which avoids emotive language and includes more nuanced perspectives on events left out of other studies (p. 75-77). Kleisath also points to the works of other scholars that disrupt patterns of Orientalism and white dominance. The works of Amy Mountcastle, Dibyesh Anand and Donald S. Lopez, Jr. are shown as representative of the potential of writing beyond binaries.

Such studies are made all the more challenging due to the dominance of whiteness in Chinese studies as well. In Chapter 5, Kleisath takes up the important and often over-looked question of the position of Tibet in China studies. She engages with a number of recent studies by scholars such as Thomas Mullaney, Louisa Schein, and Daniel Vukovich, as well as the Critical Han Studies volume edited by Mullaney, James Leibold, Stéphane Gros, and Eric Vanden Bussche (Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation, and Identity of China’s Majority. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), all of which have sought to more critically consider Han chauvinism and identity and its role in contemporary Chinese politics. However, although these have been important contributions to thinking about Han dominance, as Kleisath points out, these studies have not achieved their aims due to the lack of critical self-reflexivity exhibited by their white authors.

In Chapter 6, she provides a more nuanced, theoretically-informed discussion of racial formation in the contemporary People’s Republic of China, exploring genealogies of the concepts of zhongzu 种族 (often translated as “race”) and minzu 民族 (often translated as “ethnicity,” or, in Communist terms, “nationality”) in contemporary China. While previous work by scholars such as Frank Dikötter, Emma Teng, Vijay Prashad, and Thomas Mullaney inform this chapter, Kleisath builds upon their work and delves deeper into the transnational character of ideas about race and ethnicity in China and explores the development of eugenicist discourse in the context of colonialism and nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her findings demonstrate the importance and centrality of discourses about race in contemporary China. Moreover, the discussion in Chapter 7 of racism found in advertising imagery in contemporary Xining and Chengdu provides a vivid illustration of the persistence of racialized imagery and its close ties to global capitalism (p. 148).

Chapter 8 returns to Tibetan communities, as Kleisath sketches the history of racial formations in Tibet. Popular works by writers such as Gedun Choepel and Menla Kyab exhibit critical representations of white people in Tibetan popular culture, which stand in contrast to the current, overly flattering depictions of whiteness gathered by Kleisath through interviews and questionnaires in contemporary Tibetan communities in China and India. Kleisath refers to this tendency as a “strategic embrace of white supremacy” (p. 188). This overly positive public representation of whiteness, and particularly of the U.S., has become important in the geopolitics of post-1949 Tibetan communities, due to the links between aid funding, political support, the spread of Tibetan Buddhism globally, and the position of Tibetan communities as immigrants in the U.S. Kleisath explains that the problematic elements of these representations are due to the power inequity between Tibetan communities—who were vulnerable following the 1950s—and American academics—who were able to capitalize on this vulnerability through unprecedented access to Tibetan elites, acquiring from these elites materials for their scholarly projects. The history of the relationship between Tibetan elite males and white academic males helps to explain the depoliticization of the Tibet issue for many white Buddhists in the United States. Such white Buddhists have been exposed to Buddhism through teachers who had benefited from American aid and who therefore support American governmental policies and anti-communist discourse (p. 194). However, such patterns of inequity do not benefit other, working-class Tibetans who have arrived in the United States without the support of powerful academic institutions. A call for more awareness of such patterns is at the heart of Kleisath’s argument. A critical engagement with race and its shifting contours is essential to creating more representative scholarship and public discourse, to allowing for the development of venues where myriad, diverse voices can be heard, and to making “Tibet” into a concept and a place that can truly be considered, both figuratively and literally, beyond black and white.

Tibet Beyond Black and White is an important, inspiring and provocative work that demonstrates a coming of age in the field of Tibetan studies, as its author urges academics, white and otherwise, to acknowledge their positionality and privilege in writing and studying Tibetan communities. It should also be widely read beyond Tibetan studies, as its argument for critical representation and self-reflexivity is also deeply relevant to other areas such as Sinology, area studies, history, international relations, development and anthropology. Moreover, its publication as a book will be a crucial contribution to Critical Race, postcolonial and feminist theories through demonstrating the relevance of Tibet within these areas.

Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa
Department of Religious Studies
Grinnell College

Primary Sources
Interviews with 101 individuals in China, Tibet and India.
269 surveys in Tibetan and Chinese among Tibetan students in China
Participant observation in meetings, seminars, colloquium and fundraisers in the United States, Canada, India and Tibetan areas of China (using Critical Discourse Analysis)
Critical Discourse Analysis of major works in Tibetan studies

Dissertation information
University of Washington. 2012. 212 pp. Primary Advisor: Stevan Harrell.

Image: Madeleine Graham Blake. Digital Image. May 2007. Full permission granted from author for use of image.

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