Dr. Khyati Y. Joshi sounds like a Jewish grandmother.
At least, she sounds like one of my Jewish grandmothers, which is to say that she has an Atlanta accent; my great-grandparents settled in Georgia when they immigrated from Hungary around 1900. Dr. Joshi’s parents came to Atlanta from India, in 1971, when Khyati was 18 months old. (She’s 50 now.)
“I faced a tremendous amount of harassment because of being a little brown Hindu girl growing up there,” Dr. Joshi said. “I wasn’t black and I wasn’t white. People didn’t know what to do with me. If my family said we were Hindu, people were looking at me like, ‘What’s that?’”
Now, Dr. Joshi is a professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She is a co-editor and author of the 2015 third edition of “Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice.” This summer, she published “White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America” with New York University Press.
Dr. Joshi lives in Wayne, with her husband, John Bartlett, and their teenage son. On Tuesday, November 17, she will speak over Zoom at a general meeting of the Bergen County chapter of the National Conference of Jewish Women on “The Intersection of Race and Religion in the United States.” (See below.)
“You can draw a straight line from the harassment and bullying I faced growing up in Atlanta to why I do this work” of diversity training, Dr. Joshi said.
Another point of origin in her story was reading Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir “Night” when she was in high school. “I was in 10th grade,” she said. “I was so blown away that something like this could happen. That started this preoccupation with studying the Holocaust.”
At Atlanta’s Emory University, she majored in religion. “I took every class on the Holocaust I could,” she said. Her mentor there was Dr. David Blumenthal, a Holocaust scholar and theologian who wrote “Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest.” She proceeded to earn a master’s in theology at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, continuing her studies of the Holocaust and genocide. While she was at Emory, Elie Wiesel came to speak, and Dr. Joshi is proud to have a photograph of her speaking with the author. For her 40th birthday, her husband solicited and framed a congratulatory note from Mr. Wiesel.
After Emory, “Dr. Blumenthal said I should go to Israel,” she said. “So I pursued post graduate studies at Hebrew University in 1995-96. Then I came back and got my doctorate in social justice education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.”
In Jerusalem, “I found a nice Christian boy to marry,” she said; he was also a student at Hebrew University. “My parents had hoped I would also have an arranged marriage. They did try finding me a nice Indian boy to marry. We’re raising our son to be both Hindu and Christian. I’m a Hindu parent of a biracial, bireligious child, married to a white Episcopalian Christian.”
Dr. Joshi says white supremacy’s roots go back “to what happened to the Jews and the Moors in the Iberian peninsula in the 1400s,” the period that culminated with the expulsion of the Jews, who were sent into exile by the country’s monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. “That’s where we see religious discrimination eventually morphing — in the following centuries — into what we know today as racial discrimination.
“In the 1500s, we have the papal dictates of the doctrine of discovery, the idea that if any of the explorers — now we call them colonizers — come upon land that is not inhabited by Christians, it is theirs to take. The doctrine of discovery undergirded manifest destiny in this country, which undergirds American exceptionalism.”
By 1790, with the enslavement of Africans and the conquest of native Americans, Christian supremacy had taken on a racial character. “The Naturalization Act of 1790 says you have to be a free white man to be a citizen in this country,” Dr. Joshi said. “It’s not something most of us were taught in school, but it’s significant to understanding race in America. People coming from the Middle East — they all were called ‘Syrian’ — and people coming from Asia were aliens ineligible for citizenship.
“In the late 1800s, with European immigration, we see a distinction between legal citizenship and social citizenship. Jews and Catholics and Eastern Orthodox faced social exclusion but they were legally included. They could get citizenship. They were closer to white than my people were. Yet religion made a big difference.”
All this plays out in the present day.
“Sometimes it’s about race, sometimes it’s about religion, sometimes it’s about race and religion,” Dr. Joshi said. “If you’re a Christian, your patriotism isn’t questioned the way other people’s patriotism is. If a political candidate isn’t white, their faith is questioned in a different way.”
Dr. Joshi has been teaching at Fairleigh Dickinson since 2003. Her topic seldom has been as timely as it is now. After the murder of George Floyd in May, “I heard from so many of my students. They were so thankful for having taken my class because we talked about systemic racism.
“Until President Obama ran for office in 2007, whenever I said the word ‘white’ in class, students were startled. They weren’t used to hearing that. After the presidential campaign of 2008, white folks became more accustomed to hearing white. It’s not necessarily a bad thing — it’s a racial identifier.
“I’ve had classes where young men, particularly white young men, acted out in class. I understand what’s happening to those students. My job is to help them understand so we can get to learning. I can’t just say they’re being jerks and I’m going to write them off. That’s not what education is about. You challenge but have to nurture while you’re challenging. “Sometimes it works in 15 weeks — and sometimes they leave my class still pissed off.”
Of course, there is pushback to her ideas, most notably of late from the Trump White House, which in September issued a flurry of executive orders and memorandums opposing diversity training that is based on the notions of “white privilege” or “critical race theory.”
“Critical race theory is not an ideology,” Dr Joshi said. “It’s a methodology. I’ve applied it to all my classes and to this book. It’s a way of looking at the law that understands that our laws are not race neutral. They don’t protect everybody the way we’re taught in first grade. There’s the law, and then there’s the underbelly of the law, the impact of the law. I apply the method to race and religion.
“It’s understanding that the Immigration Act of 1924 that curtailed immigration from southern and eastern Europe” — and thereby doomed six million Jews — “when you look at the countries and groups, you see it’s affecting those who are not Protestant. When you put the immigration act alongside other things that were going on, you can see we were socially engineering the demographics of this country to be white and Christian, Protestant specifically. That’s using the critical race method: looking not just at the letter of the law, but the impact of the law.”
In the wake of the White House orders, “I found myself talking about critical race theory a lot more than I ever thought I would. I have not had any workshops or speaking engagements canceled because of this executive order. My teaching at FDU has not been touched. I do have colleagues who have had workshops and presentations canceled because of the executive order.”
Who: Dr. Khyati Y. Joshi, professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University
What: Talk on the intersection of race and religion in the United States
When: Tuesday, November 17, 12:30 p.m.
Where: At the Zoom meeting of the National Council of Jewish Women, Bergen County chapter
How to attend: Contact Karen Kurland, email@example.com