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Turning White
Excerpt from a novel

April 10, 2003
The Iranian

Excerpt from Atul's Quest (Aventine Press, 2003) by Nader Habibi. Atul's Quest is a satirical story about what happens when this admiration for whiteness is taken to an extreme. Atul is a young student of Indian origin at Yale University. He is so obsessed with whiteness that believes all people of dark skin must engage in intermarriage with Whites to pass a lighter skin complexion to their future generations.

Atul was trying to catch his breath while sitting down and putting his large black backpack on the floor. He was a short fellow - only 5.4" - and very skinny. He must have been a second-generation immigrant, because, while he looked like a typical person from the Indian subcontinent, he did not have an Indian accent. His face was bony, and one could not help but notice his large cheekbones.

The good thing about having your office on the third floor of an old building is that you and anyone who comes to visit you get a good workout. Noticing that he was still breathing heavily, I commented : "At least it's good for your heart. Isn't it?" Then I waited for him to tell me the purpose of his visit. My guess was that he was here to ask for a recommendation letter, since ex-students rarely contact their former teachers for any other purpose.

"Dr. H, I was wondering if I could take an independent study course with you next fall?"
My answer was going to be negative, because I was very busy back then trying to complete my latest research paper. And besides, I did not have a good experience with supervising individual studies (IS) before. Last time I supervised an IS course, the student did not want to do the required readings. She didn't do a good job on her term papers either. At the end, she filed a complaint against me and claimed that I expected too much. However, I thought it would be impolite to reject Atul's request immediately. Besides, he might take another course with me in the future and give me a bad teacher evaluation. So I asked if he had a specific topic in mind.

"Yes, I do. It is a rather unusual topic that I have been thinking about for a long time. I would like to show that non-Whites should improve their racial beauty through marriage with Whites. I believe this is the only way that non-Whites could overcome their socio-economic rejection and achieve full integration into American society".

I was taken by surprise by this idea, especially since it came from an Indian-born student whose own skin color was dark. Atul's complexion was even darker than that of most Indians.

"Could you run that by me one more time," I said, as I leaned forward in my chair.. "Did you say you want to show that non-Whites should improve their racial beauty?!!" I asked with a polite smile. I wanted to tell him that this vague idea was not an economic topic, but first I wanted to know what the topic was exactly.

"I understand this is a controversial issue, but I'm very curious about it. What I mean is that, when it comes to beauty, Whites enjoy a comparative advantage relative to other races. While everyone talks about overcoming discrimination and achieving racial equality, I have never heard any talk of racial improvement. The fact is that, even though there are no proven differences in the physical and intellectual capacity of different races, the level of physical attractiveness is higher among some races than others. I want to show that it is good for those who are less attractive as a race to improve their physical beauty by biological intervention."

Atul's face was very serious throughout this explanation until the last few words about biological intervention. He said these last words with a meaningful smile. I had wanted to laugh much earlier, but did not think it was appropriate. So, as soon I saw the smile on his face, I started laughing, and Atul's smile turned into laughter in conformity. "I told you it's an unusual topic," said Atul, while trying to show that he was not disturbed by my laughter.

"It is a very unusual and, I should say, a very sensitive issue," I responded while nodding my head in approval and continued with a more serious tone: "I think you must talk to one of the professors in the sociology or psychology departments about this topic. They would know a lot more about these issues. Unfortunately I don't have enough knowledge in this area to be able to guide your study." It is not uncommon for professors to reject a request like Atul's by referring it to other departments and trying to sound encouraging.

"I agree with you that this issue is not directly related to economics. I contacted one of my professors in the sociology department last week, but he was not interested. He said it was offensive to minorities and there was no scientific proof for my argument. I'm glad your reaction is not as harsh as his. He only gave me three minutes of his time and advised me to drop the idea altogether. I also contacted a professor of ethnic studies who is from Latin America.

His reaction was even worse. He said such ideas would give racists added ammunition to abuse non-Whites and ridicule them. I came to you because, of all the professors that I have taken courses with here at Yale, you are the most open-minded one. Also, you were always interested in the sociological and political aspects of economic behavior, and I figured you probably must have had formal training in one of these areas,'' said Atul.

I was not about to change my mind because of Atul's flattering remarks about the range of my knowledge. I did not need this distraction at this point in my life. "I have to agree with the concerns of these two professors. This is a very controversial issue, and some people might even find it offensive. I don't think I can convince the department to approve a non-economic and sensitive topic like this one for independent study. As you might be aware, when an independent study course is approved, the department assigns another faculty member, in addition to the supervisor, as a reviewer. Students must write at least three term papers for an independent study course, and these must all be approved by the reviewer as well. Even if I accept your argument, I doubt that another professor would agree to put his approval signature on a paper whose basic assumption is that some races are physically, I mean from the standpoint of beauty, inferior. I'm sure you are well aware of the crimes that have been committed in the name of racial superiority throughout human history. So I'm afraid I can't help you with this idea. However, if you have other topics in mind that are related to my field of concentration, we can talk about them."

Atul understood that I wanted to end the conversation. It was clear that he was disappointed. He picked up his bag and stood up to leave. Then suddenly he looked at me and said, "What if I rephrased my idea so that it involved economic concepts. After all, I have taken so many economics courses that, subconsciously, I look at the world through an economic lens. Would you be interested to consider it then? This topic means a lot to me, and I don't think anyone else would be willing to help me." His persistence was understandable. Students who choose to do an individual study project are often very religious about the topic, or they would not insist on it.

However, I was not about to say yes. If I agree to supervise an independent study project, it has to be on a topic related to my own research. That way, I could use the student for literature search and statistical assistance. Cynical as it might sound, this is a tradition in academia. Again I politely declined: "I can't see how this issue could be related to economics, but I suggest you do a little bit of literature review and organize your thoughts in a more scientific format. For starters, you are simply making a few normative statements about the beauty differential among races and then making a moral judgment that non-Whites should engage in interracial marriage to improve their racial beauty. I hope you remember the difference between normative and positive concepts. Science is primarily about observation and positive statements. Rather than making value judgments, you should try to prove your points. First of all, how do you know that Whites are more beautiful? Do non-Whites think that Whites are more beautiful, or is it just the ethnocentric perception of Whites themselves? How do you measure beauty to begin with? Besides, even if you show that Whites are more attractive, you have to demonstrate why any group of people will give up its traditional method of reproduction, meaning marriage, to reproduce eugenically just for sake of changing its physical appearance.''

Atul raised his hand as a request for interruption. I paused. "Excuse me. What does 'eugenically' mean?" Atul asked.

"See. That's just what I mean. If you are interested in this topic, you should do a lot of reading about race and the history of race relations. Eugenics is the process of selective breeding and other activities that are intended to improve a race or ethnic group based on a predefined criteria," I replied.


Nader Habibi is an economist and works for an economic consulting firm near Philadelphia. Prior to his current job he taught economics in several academic institutions in Iran, Turkey and the United States for 12 years. His last academic station was Yale University where he served as a research fellow and instructor for two years. Atul's Quest is Nader's first work of fiction. It was motivated by his close interactions with students and immigrants from various parts of the world. He himself grew up in Iran and came to the United States as an undergraduate student in 1978.

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