It’s a white privilege that stems from a deep sense of Asian inferiority when it comes to the realm of ideas.
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About 25 years ago, my university received a grant to offer executive-education programs in Southeast Asian countries. An Indian colleague and I, both experienced professors in our Top 10-ranked MBA program, were selected to teach. But we had a hard time selling the program in Singapore, despite our school’s reputation.
Potential clients told our local partner, “Why should I pay American prices for one Chinese and one Indian?” Many of them expected an American professor to be a white male.
So to open each session we trotted out my husband, a white American who looked like (and was) a professor. We later learned that other North American business schools also did this.
White privilege has many manifestations, causes and consequences, which vary by situation. I focus here on the tendency to equate white with expertise at higher levels of education and the labor force, in the West as well as in Asia.
In American universities, studies have shown that female and ethnic-minority instructors are given lower performance ratings by male and female students of all races. In Singapore’s multicultural universities, even white male faculty acknowledge that a white premium exists, with white professors, especially men, receiving higher teaching evaluations from Asian students.
Asian executive-education participants at major U.S. business schools are sometimes overtly racist in response to teaching faculty, many of whom are Chinese, Indian or Korean. Asian executives and students want to be taught by whites, and to study with whites in class. They express disappointment when they perceive there are too many Asians in both faculty and student ranks.
My Asian students tell me that undergraduate applicants from their home countries avoid certain U.S. private universities on the East and West Coasts for this reason. Some prefer Midwestern public universities like mine that have a preponderance of whites.
So where does this cult of white-male superiority originate? Dismissing it as a mere colonial hangover is too simplistic. Western colonialism disappeared from Asia more than a half-century ago, and some Asian countries that exhibit these values and behaviors—for instance China, Japan and Korea—were not colonized by whites.
Asia’s much-vaunted economic success also didn’t derive from Western sources, but was led by Asian governments and business.
I speculate that this adulation reflects a continued deep-seated Asian sense of inferiority to the West in one area where Western hegemony remains unchallenged—the realm of ideas. This explains why elite Asian students prefer to attend second- and third-tier Western universities, or their satellite campuses in Asia, even as Asian universities climb the global rankings.
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