Panning Out: Confronting White Complicity as a Researcher of Tibet

In this guest post, University of Glasgow PhD researcher Lucy McCormick discusses how her current research was affected by her time in Tibet and explores how white researchers of non-white communities can confront their own complicity.

In 2013 I was living in a part of China with a large Tibetan population – unsurprising, since a vast chunk of Tibet had been absorbed into my province following the CCP (Chinese Communist Party)’s 1950 invasion. Like many a white visitor before and since, I was drawn to what lay over the border: the vast landscapes and soaring Himalayan mountains; a rich religious tradition and a decades-long struggle for freedom. I applied for a Tibet Travel Permit the following year. The resultant trip informed both the subject of my PhD and one of its central ethical questions. This is one I imagine I will grapple with as long as I work on Tibet, and which is likely recognisable to other white researchers seeking to deconstruct our whiteness and put anti-racism at the heart of our scholarship. How do I identify and challenge Eurocentric and racist representations of Tibet – in the work of others, certainly, but also in my own internalised perspectives – and how do I avoid perpetuating them?

If, like me, you are the white holder of a British passport, you are more likely than most to have the assorted privileges necessary to fund a trip to Tibet and to make it through the heavy vetting process to get in. The costs of your trip, however, go straight to the pockets of the CCP. In return for this, the Dalai Lama has stated that anyone who can visit should, on condition that they do so as ethically as possible and use their platform to tell the full story of what they saw. Since my trip, I have tried to adhere to this rule in both my research and my private life. After vising Tibet, I spent some months in the nexus of the refugee community and current home of the Dalai Lama: Dharamsala, in northern India. Volunteering as a language teacher and a writer for the Tibetan magazine Contact, at this time, I had the twin goals of learning more about the Tibetan resistance and of contributing to it where I could. I saw this as a way of ‘giving back’ after my time in the country. Almost immediately however, two things became strikingly clear that upended this narrative: firstly, that in speaking to Chinese oppression in Tibet, I was telling only half the story, and secondly that as a white person, the whole idea of ‘giving back’ was a murky one. The half-story I was telling was too often used in the service of Sinophobia, and allowed me to don the familiar, comforting mantle of the white saviour. It cast me as a ‘voice for the voiceless’; a selfless volunteer donating my services to a poor, oppressed people. It erased my own country’s colonial history in Tibet, and declined to examine how both this and the romanticised representation of the country that I had been drawn to – in scholarship; in journalism; in popular culture – perpetuated the very same narratives advanced by the CCP.

Projection celebrating 100 years of the CCP onto the Potala Palace, former winter residence of the Dali Lamas which is now a museum. Image reproduced with kind permission of Tenzin Samten.

In Dharamsala I learned that, some 50 years before the first Chinese flag was rammed into the Potala Palace and the Dalai Lama fled, it was a British empire-building invasion causing his predecessor to flee: one which rested on desire to gain strategic control of a country existing tantalizingly on the border with British India, before Russia could do it first. The invasion encompassed the massacre of Chumik Shenko and the looting and destruction of temples and monastic complexes, and – it has been argued – sparked the fuse that would eventually explode into the Chinese invasion. The resultant Treaty of Lhasa stipulated – among other things – that a strategically important region be ceded to the British and that Tibet be forced into trade while being forbidden from entering into relations with other foreign powers. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is: it mirrors not only British imperial tactics worldwide, but also the motivations, methods and results of the Chinese invasion.

Over a period of time, this literal British conquering became entwined with a powerful mythology which had been growing in the European imagination for centuries, revolving around the isolation, and ‘unknowability’ of Tibet, its culture and its religious traditions. These of course are hugely Eurocentric concepts: Tibet is only isolated from Europe; its religious traditions and cultures only seemingly ‘unknowable’ to us. These narratives can be found resounding from the 19th century, in the very foundation of the disciplines of ‘Buddhist Studies’ and ‘Tibetan Studies’, right the way through to the present day. We find them in scholarship, in travel writing and in popular culture: from early 20th-century adventurer Alexandra David-Néels accounts of her incognito treks across the country, to werewolf Oz’s quest for control of his inner wolf in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What these diverse sources share is the presentation of Tibet as a place for us: an exotic locus of white discovery and self-discovery encompassing vast Himalayan landscapes to ‘conquer’, mysterious religious traditions through which to find ourselves, and an idealised culture to gawp at. Both this and the idea of a place for us are mirrored in Chinese State attitudes to, and promotion of, Tibet.

The Guardian recently came under fire for just such white complicity with the Chinese state. On the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s foundation and in the run-up to the Dalai Lama’s 86th birthday, the newspaper published this photo series by Kevin Frayer. Free Tibet immediately called out the newspaper for presenting an idealised and exoticised vision which played straight into the hands of state propaganda.

It’s worth stating at this point that for tourists and journalists alike, it’s impossible to visit Tibet independently: you are required to join a state-approved tour group and warned against taking any images of the ubiquitous army and police. Those who do bring down harsh punishments on their local Tibetan tour guides. Journalists, however, are far more heavily scrutinised and are accompanied by government officials who monitor their photography like hawks. I’d lay odds that this accounts for how close-cropped Frayer’s images are: pan out even a little and you’ll see the full reality of a country under violent oppression.

A Tibetan man walks the kora around Jokhang temple wearing an 86 on his back to represent the Dalai Lama’s 86th birthday. It is illegal and heavily punishable to celebrate his birthday openly. Photograph reproduced with kind permission of Lobsang Dorjee.

The Jokhang temple, for example (the holiest in Tibet), is shown only partially in the Guardian’s pictures – perhaps because large parts of it mysteriously caught fire the day after Tibetan New Year. The people the Guardian calls ‘visitors’ are in fact pilgrims walking the circular route around the temple in a practice called kora. Both a meditation and a sacred rite, this practice is, however, one allowed only under heavy surveillance for the purposes of tourism, optics and cash. Pan out to the sea of long lenses held inches from Tibetan faces: look up to see them mirrored by long-barrelled guns on the roofs.

It’s testament to Frayer, then, that though the images seem familiar at first glance (maroon-robed sangha; beautiful chupa; pilgrims in prayer), the more you look at them – and especially if you know what you’re looking for – the more you see allusions to the reality of Tibetan life that he managed to sneak past his chaperones. The constraints on Freyer did not, however, prevent the Guardian from picking up the phone to any number of Tibetan organisations to decode the images: as well as Free Tibet, they could have contacted Students for a Free Tibet, the Tibetan Women’s Association, or the Tibet Network for example. In publishing the photos uncritically, with a deafening silence from Tibetan voices, the Guardian thus finds itself in a long history of white complicity with Tibetan oppression.

Ultimately, no amount of State-controlled tourism can disguise the fact that Tibet is an occupied country featuring the kind of oppression for which your average ‘harmonious’ (to use CCP terminology), unified country doesn’t tend to go in: punishment by prison and torture of owning the national flag, for example, or singing the national anthem, or possessing images of your spiritual leader. For all this, it remains that Tibet is the single most beautiful place I have ever seen, as well as the most painful. As white scholars of Tibet, we can still both appreciate its beauty and advocate for its freedom, while acknowledging the history that has shaped our perceptions and choosing not to perpetuate it. In short, we can choose to pan out.

Lucy McCormick is a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow, investigating the influence of Buddhist traditions on the French interwar avant-garde. She has worked and travelled extensively in the Tibetan areas of what is now western China, and in the exile community in Dharamsala. See her full research profile here, and follow her on Twitter @LucyMcTweets

Feature Photo by Ben Gao on Unsplash

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