The Whiteness Myth : Throughline In 1923, an Indian American man named Bhagat Singh Thind argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that he was a white man and was therefore eligible to become a naturalized citizen. He based his claim on the fact that he was a member of India's highest caste and identified as an Aryan and therefore white. His claims were supported by the so-called Indo-European language theory, a controversial idea at the time that says nearly half the world's population speak a language that originated in one place. Theories about who lived in that place inspired a racist ideology that contended that the original speakers of the language were a white supreme race that colonized Europe and Asia thousands of years ago. This was used by many to define whiteness and eventually led to one of the most horrific events in history. On this episode of Throughline, we unpack the myths around this powerful idea and explore the politics and promise of the mother tongue.

The Whiteness Myth

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


ALLISON KATAYAMA: (Reading) Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.



It's July 4, 1913. A ship called the S.S. Minnesota has landed at the port in Seattle. It's carrying thousands of immigrants from India. A 20-year-old man steps off that ship onto U.S. soil. His name is Bhagat Singh Thind.

AMANDA FROST: As he described himself, he was an upper-caste, pure Brahmin Indian.

ARABLOUEI: Thind was part of the highest caste in India, the Brahmin caste. He learned about the promise of the U.S. in books.

FROST: And he'd studied English literature in school in India and fell in love with Emerson and Thoreau and some of the American authors that he was reading and studying.

ARABLOUEI: Their words were the reason...

FROST: He fell in love with America.

ARABLOUEI: So he made the long journey across the Pacific Ocean, hoping to continue his education in a university.

FROST: He attends UC Berkeley. He works on the side in the logging and lumber industry to help finance his education. And eventually, he gets a Ph.D.

ARABLOUEI: This is Amanda Frost.

FROST: And I'm a professor of law at the University of Virginia law school.

ARABLOUEI: If Amanda's voice sounds familiar, that's because it's her second time on the show talking about citizenship from her book...

FROST: "You Are Not American: Citizenship Stripping From Dred Scott To The Dreamers."

ARABLOUEI: It didn't take long for Thind to become patriotic, so patriotic that he enlisted in the Army and fought for America in World War I. And it's around this time in 1918 that he applied for U.S. citizenship. And a federal court in Washington state granted it.

FROST: He seems like the perfect candidate for citizenship - a veteran, an educated man earning a good living and someone who was very passionately patriotic about the United States of America.



A few days later, the federal court in Washington state reversed its decision to grant Thind citizenship, after pressure from the Bureau of Naturalization.

FROST: This was a fraught moment in the history of citizenship in the United States.

ABDELFATAH: Thind reapplied for citizenship in Oregon in 1919.

FROST: And that was in the middle of a debate about who could qualify for citizenship based on their race.

ABDELFATAH: Basically, who belonged and who didn't.

FROST: Because the law in the United States, starting in 1790, the very first Naturalization Act, said only free white persons could naturalize.

ABDELFATAH: Only free white persons.

FROST: That law was then amended after the Civil War to add persons of African descent or African nativity. So you could only naturalize if you were, quote-unquote, "white" or, quote-unquote, "Black," but everybody else was barred from naturalizing. And this raised some fascinating questions about whiteness. Who is white? What is white?

ABDELFATAH: Who is white? What is white? These questions came at a pivotal moment for law and race in the United States. As more and more immigrants arrived in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries, federal and state governments, along with the Supreme Court, were constantly trying to define whiteness. And for the most part, they determined immigrants from Europe could fit that definition. But what about Asian immigrants? That wasn't so clear.

FROST: Not just people from South Asia, but also Syria and Armenia and the Philippines. And the government and the court are struggling to define this term, white.

ABDELFATAH: There were only about 8,000 South Asian immigrants in the United States around the time that Bhagat Singh Thind applied for citizenship in a country of 100 million people. But the thing is, xenophobia in the U.S. at that time was very intense, and the federal government was trying to slow or stop immigrants from all over Asia from gaining citizenship.

FROST: It's a very small group of people, and a significant percentage of the South Asians who applied for naturalization were convincing the court that they were white and, therefore, being allowed to naturalize. And this is what caught the U.S. government's attention and what they would - decided to put an end to.


ARABLOUEI: Soon, the government started challenging these applications. And those challenges were making it all the way to the Supreme Court. And the court was responding in support of the government's arguments.

FROST: I feel they were, like, whack-a-mole cases. Like, you pop up with one argument about why you're white based on science, and the court whacks it down. And then you pop up with your - another argument about - based on skin color, and the court says, no, that's not the test.

ARABLOUEI: So in 1923, the federal government appealed their case against Thind's citizenship all the way up to the Supreme Court. The case became known as the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind.

FROST: First, I'll tell you the question that was given to the U.S. Supreme Court, and that question was, quote, "is a high-caste Hindu of full Indian blood, born in Punjab, India, a white person?" - end quote.

ARABLOUEI: Thind argued that he should be considered white because of a very specific interpretation of Indian history.

FROST: Thind says, I am white because I am a high-caste, pure Aryan Brahmin from the northern part of India, where centuries and past the country was invaded by Aryans, a group that is Caucasian, and therefore, I am white.

ABDELFATAH: Aryan, also pronounced Ar-ian (ph). It's a loaded word these days that most of us connect to the Nazis. At the time of Thind's citizenship case, the term was at the center of a controversial theory. It's called Indo-European language theory. Born in the 1700s, it contends that languages as diverse as Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Persian, Punjabi and even English all have a common origin, a mother tongue, that nearly half the world's population, including you and me, speak a language that originated in one place.

ARABLOUEI: And theories about who lived in that place inspired a racist ideology that contended the original speakers of the language were a white supreme race that colonized Europe and Asia thousands of years ago. And Thind was claiming to be a descendant of the white people who supposedly invaded India. He was fighting racism with racism. And this wouldn't be the last time Indo-European language theory would be used to decide who is and who is not white, who lives and who dies.

ABDELFATAH: On this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, we're going to unpack the myths around this powerful idea and explore the politics and promise of the mother tongue.


JAMISON: Hi. This is Jamison (ph) from San Francisco, Calif., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE by NPR.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 1 - the mother tongue.


ABDELFATAH: On September 25, 1783, a 36-year-old British man arrived by ship at the Port of Kolkata, India, a place under British rule.


ABDELFATAH: He was sent there on a mission by the British government to immerse himself in the culture and the language of Northern India. He would do just that, learning and studying for nine years. And during that time, he made a discovery that forever changed our understanding of human history. His name was William Jones.


DAVID ANTHONY: Sir William Jones grew up already knowing several different languages.

ARABLOUEI: This is David Anthony.

ANTHONY: I wrote "The Horse, The Wheel, And Language," and the subject of the book is the spread of the Indo-European languages.

ARABLOUEI: David was a professor of archaeology for decades at Hartwick College in New York. He says William Jones was into language from a young age.

ANTHONY: He was fascinated with languages, in his university career learned the classical languages of Latin and Greek. Everybody had to learn that in university in the 1700s.

ARABLOUEI: He graduated from Oxford and eventually studied law. But all the while, he did linguistics on the side, on his own. He especially had an interest in Middle Eastern and Asian languages, so much so that he'd written a book on the...

ANTHONY: Grammar of the Persian language.

ARABLOUEI: In fact...

ANTHONY: He was the first person to write, in English, a grammar of Persian. And it was really meant to help English diplomats to extend their control over the rest of the world.

ARABLOUEI: Persian was the traditional language of government and court in Northern India. William Jones would master it and 28 other languages in his lifetime.

ANTHONY: And that was the reason that he was sent to India.


ABDELFATAH: This was the era when the British Empire was seizing control of land all over the world, and India was no exception. So William Jones' main job was to serve as a judge in the legal system the British had imposed over the lands they controlled.

ANTHONY: Really, he was supposed to bring British law to India and somehow mesh it with a very complex and ancient system of Hindu law. And in order to do that, he had to learn what the legal system was already in India. And in order to learn that, he had to read the Vedas, and he had to get someone who would teach him Vedic law, philosophy and language so that he could read it in the original.

ABDELFATAH: The Vedas are the most ancient Hindu religious texts. They're in Sanskrit, dating all the way back to the second millennium BCE, and William Jones had to learn it quick. But it's not like he could just sign up for a course. It was something that only priests from the highest caste, Brahmans - the same caste Bhagat Thind Singh (ph) was from - were allowed to learn.

VAIBHAV PURANDARE: Brahman priests at that time had monopoly rights over the language.

ABDELFATAH: This is Vaibhav Purandare, a senior editor at The Times of India, who has written about Indo-European languages.

PURANDARE: The other castes in India could not really use it or could not teach it, so he had to learn it from a priest, basically.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting in Sanskrit).

ANTHONY: And he went about for years learning the ancient form of Sanskrit in which the laws were preserved.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting in Sanskrit).

ABDELFATAH: This is a recitation of the Vedas in the Sanskrit language.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting in Sanskrit).

ABDELFATAH: While studying it, William Jones discovered words in Sanskrit that were very similar - and in some cases, identical - to other European languages he knew.

PURANDARE: And he found many similarities between Sanskrit and Greek and Latin. And he came across a number of similar words, phrases and so many similar things between these languages.















ANTHONY: All of a sudden, he realized, my gosh, this is the same as Latin and Greek. These languages are closely related.

ARABLOUEI: As William Jones compared the languages, he kept discovering shared vocabulary and grammar. His mind was completely blown.

ANTHONY: There's no way you could look at the similarities between them and not come to the conclusion that they came from a common source.

ARABLOUEI: And that common source meant that these languages were part of one family - a language family that came to be called Indo-European.

ANTHONY: Well, the Indo-European languages are a family of languages which is, today, spread all over the world. About half the people in the world speak an Indo-European language today. All of these languages, including English, most of the European languages, ancient Persian, Iranian - all of these languages belong to the Indo-European language family.

ARABLOUEI: William Jones gave a lecture about his findings in 1786, and his colleagues were also blown away.

ANTHONY: When he said that, you know, Latin, Greek and Sanskrit were sprung from a common source, everyone back home in England was surprised, astonished.

ARABLOUEI: Astonished because this was the age of European imperialism. Most British people would have viewed Indians as completely alien, having almost nothing in common with British culture. And here's William Jones saying, actually, our languages both came from the same mother tongue.


ABDELFATAH: This was a revolutionary discovery by William Jones. It pointed to a deep linguistic and cultural connection between Asia and Europe. It could have been a finding that stayed in academia. But instead, the discovery of the Indo-European language family ended up becoming fodder for a racist movement. And a single word came to characterize this movement - a word William Jones used to simply describe the South Asian branch of the language family - arya.

PURANDARE: The word arya means noble in Sanskrit, and it comes from the Sanskrit language. And, broadly, the Sanskrit texts refer to people who follow the Hindu faith as aryans. So that's where the word comes from. And William Jones took it from Sanskrit because he had read the Sanskrit texts.

ANTHONY: The Indo-European languages of northern South Asia are called, as a group, Indo-Aryan languages, and the word Aryan was used as a self-designation - an ethnic self-designation - by the ancient speakers of Iranian and the ancient speakers of Sanskrit.

ABDELFATAH: So if the Indo-European languages had a common source, what was that language? Who spoke it? Where were they from? Within a century, the name Aryan spiraled beyond its original linguistic confines, with many Europeans calling those ancient people Aryans, claiming that they were light-skinned conquerors who, about 1,500 years ago, spread their language and culture through large parts of Europe and South Asia, including India. It was the pseudoscientific origin of white supremacy.

ARABLOUEI: That racist theory was the basis for Bhagat Thind Singh's argument that because he was the descendant of white Aryans, he qualified for U.S. citizenship. But before we get to the origins of that racist theory, we're going to explore what modern genetics and archaeology have to say about who the original Indo Europeans really were.


ARABLOUEI: Coming up, David Anthony tells us a story of an ancient culture called the Yamnaya.


JED: This is Jed (ph) from Grand Junction, Colo., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. I love THROUGHLINE because it teaches history that public education won't.


ABDELFATAH: If you're listening as a subscriber to THROUGHLINE+, we just want to say thank you. And if you're not yet a subscriber and want to learn more about how to listen to the show without any sponsor breaks, head over to Becoming a Plus subscriber helps support all of our work at THROUGHLINE, so we hope you'll join. Now back to the show.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 2 - the Yamnaya.


ABDELFATAH: When William Jones discovered Indo-European languages in 1786, he brought up an even more mysterious set of questions.

ANTHONY: Where did this language come from? Who spoke it? When? Where? How did it get spread all over the place?


ANTHONY: It's out there as one of the great unsolved problems in Western intellectual history.


ANTHONY: And that's a reason that I decided to pretty much dedicate my career to trying to solve this.

ABDELFATAH: That's David Anthony again. As an archaeologist, he's gone about trying to solve this problem like a detective would. He studies evidence - like human and animal fossils, migration patterns and language - to piece together a story, a story about what he calls the mother tongue.

ANTHONY: Where was the mother tongue for these languages located? That's one question. And when was it there? And then how did it spread?

ABDELFATAH: There were many theories that floated around in the 1800s. Some people thought the Indo-European languages originated in South Asia. Other people said the Himalayas. And some insisted it was from Northern Europe. But it wasn't until the turn of the 20th century, when the modern practice of archaeology emerged, that the picture became clearer.


ARABLOUEI: When early archaeologists explored the region north of the Caspian and Black Seas, in what's now Ukraine and Russia, they started to notice a pattern.

ANTHONY: There were excavations where they differentiated between three different kinds of graves.

ARABLOUEI: Catacomb graves, timber graves and pit graves. That last one, pit graves, that's the one we're going to focus on because soon, archaeologists started finding them all over what's now Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan. They look like large mounds of grass and dirt. And buried underneath was usually a body surrounded by its earthly belongings, sometimes weapons. The oldest ones dated back to 3200 B.C.E., over 5,000 years ago.

ANTHONY: The Russian version of pit grave is Yamnaya.

ARABLOUEI: Yamnaya is the name the archaeologists gave the ancient people who created these pit graves.

ANTHONY: The Yamnaya cultura - the Yamnaya culture.

ARABLOUEI: Graves are often used by archaeologists to learn things about ancient people because mourning is a form of cultural expression, and these pit graves, this form of cultural expression, were starting to be recognized in places farther and farther away.

ANTHONY: That practice of burying people under burial mounds spread from there, both to the east and to the west.

ARABLOUEI: Thousands of miles away, in both directions.

ANTHONY: These burial mounds, they are radiocarbon dated. They show up around 3000 B.C. They don't look local. Archaeologically, it looked like an intrusion.

ARABLOUEI: An intrusion into already existing ancient communities in Europe and Asia. Radiocarbon dating showed that the practice of pit graves spread fast, in just a few hundred years. But the question remained...

ANTHONY: Did people spread with it? Or was it just that the practice, the ritual practice, was adopted by people next door? We couldn't really solve that problem archaeologically.


ABDELFATAH: Until 2015, when new evidence emerged, genetic evidence.


ANTHONY: Geneticists came up with the ability to extract not just some DNA, but the entire human genome from ancient individuals.

ABDELFATAH: This allowed researchers to actually see exactly which genes were spreading around Eurasia and when. It was revolutionary technology that opened a whole new window into this story.

ANTHONY: One of the things that the ancient DNA revealed that archaeologists were not certain about is that with the burial mounds came a population, the Yamnaya culture.

ABDELFATAH: So modern genetic testing confirmed that people related to the original Yamnaya people had migrated as far west as Central Europe and as far east as Mongolia, destinations more than 3,000 miles apart, where their genes were spreading right alongside culture and, with it, probably language.

ANTHONY: After 2015, we could see that. We couldn't see that before.


ABDELFATAH: David Anthony saw a story in all of this evidence, a story that could answer the question William Jones asked in 1786, when he discovered the connection between Indo-European languages. Who were the speakers of the original mother tongue? David Anthony thinks it might have been the Yamnaya. Now, we have to be clear here. This is a theory, a widely accepted one, but one among many. At any rate, it goes like this.


ANTHONY: The Yamnaya culture begins around 3200 B.C. and goes till about 2600 B.C. - about 600 years.

ARABLOUEI: Just to give you a sense of scale, this is over 5,000 years ago, before the first pyramids were being built in Egypt and when there were still woolly mammoths walking the Earth.

ANTHONY: Their primary source of food was meat and milk.

ARABLOUEI: They lived in the steppes north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, a vast land located on a grassy plain.

ANTHONY: Rolling hills covered with open grasslands, very few forests except down in the river valleys, which are like these ribbons that are hundreds of kilometers long of high-resource density surrounded by nothing. Therefore, almost all of the resources that humans cared about were initially in the river valleys. And the human population avoided the open grasslands and stayed in the river valleys.


ABDELFATAH: At some point around 3200 B.C.E., the Yamnaya began moving away from those river valleys and spreading across the inhospitable plains. They didn't leave any writing behind, but David Anthony has some idea about how they began to do it.

ANTHONY: And the underlying innovations that allowed this to happen was, No. 1, horseback riding and, No. 2, wheeled vehicles.

ABDELFATAH: Horseback riding, according to David's research, allowed them to grow their animal herds because herds are easier to control from the back of a horse than on foot.

ANTHONY: Horseback riding made it possible to have much larger herds, but much larger herds without foddering them required you to move a lot because they would eat up their pasture. And the question - the problem of human mobility, to stay with the herds, was solved by wagons.

ABDELFATAH: Wagons with wheels. It was a new invention from other parts of the world that the Yamnaya had adopted.

ANTHONY: They could carry tents, firewood, food, water.

ABDELFATAH: It allowed the Yamnaya to travel across the plains and beyond, looking for greener pastures for their animals.

ANTHONY: You begin to see Yamnaya kurgan cemeteries in the plains between the river valleys, and all of the settlements in the river valleys are abandoned.

ABDELFATAH: Generation after generation, Yamnaya pushed out beyond their homeland in the steppe. In the span of about 1,500 years, their culture and genetics began to appear in places from Northern Europe all the way to South Asia.

ANTHONY: They expanded out of the steppes and attempted to establish the nomadic economy over much of Eurasia.


ABDELFATAH: The migration took hundreds of years and likely happened in waves, so there's no way to tell exactly what happened. But what we do know for sure is that they left signs of their existence in the genetics and the languages of the people living everywhere from Ireland to India to Iran.


ARABLOUEI: The two languages I speak best are Farsi - the language spoken by most Iranians - and English. Both of these languages are part of the Indo-European language family. So the word for mother in English is nearly identical to the word for it in Farsi - madar. Or father in Farsi is pedar. The word for daughter in Farsi is dokhtar. When I first learned this fact, it made me obsessed to find out more.


ANTHONY: This is where the language you and I are speaking right now - this is where it came from. People are interested. People want to know where their language came from and what its roots are and origins. And it's fascinating to see that we're actually connected to each other in this very deep, cultural way.


ARABLOUEI: David Anthony's story of the Yamnaya people and their role in spreading common culture and language is a testament to how modern scientific discoveries can help us answer previously unknowable questions about ancient history. Maybe it allows us to see ourselves in each other - in our deep connections.

But there's another, more sinister way people have and still view the existence of this connection - a metanarrative that's centered around race. It's the claim that these original speakers of the Indo-European mother tongue were white and that their so-called racial supremacy allowed them to colonize much of Europe and Asia. This was the basis of the argument Thind made in front of the Supreme Court when he claimed that, as a descendant of that race, which had supposedly colonized India thousands of years ago, he should be considered white.


ARABLOUEI: But David Anthony says attributing any racial characteristics to any ancient people is a big mistake.

ANTHONY: I think, myself, as an archaeologist, that applying the modern word race to any group of people in the ancient past is not acceptable. I never use the word race applied to any archaeological group because race carries - though that word carries a huge amount of baggage - historical, emotional - we think of it in terms of modern categories - how race is defined in the modern world today. And I think those categories did not exist in the ancient world. They did not have categories like that.


ABDELFATAH: Coming up - a movement was born in the 19th century to make theories about the spread of Indo-European languages a tool for white supremacy. This movement eventually culminates in one of the worst atrocities in human history.


LOU: Hi, this is Lou (ph) from Portland, Ore. You're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR. Congratulations. It's an excellent program.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 3 - the deadly myth.

ARABLOUEI: When I was a teenager, I had the most confusing experience. I was visiting a Hindu temple in suburban Maryland, where I grew up, with a friend's family for some kind of special occasion. It was my first time. It was beautiful. The walls were covered with ornate symbols, and the place smelled like incense - the best kind. But among those symbols on the wall was something that stopped me in my tracks. I had to do a double take to make sure I was seeing it correctly. It was like a cross, with each of the arms bent at a right angle. It looked like the symbol at the center of the Nazi flag. I leaned over to my friend and said, yo, bro, why is there a swastika on the wall? He told me, OK, it's a swas-teeka (ph), but, like, not that kind of swastika. I was like, is there more than one kind? He said, shut up, bro. I'll tell you later.

We never discussed it again. But what I did learn later is that he was right. There is more than one kind, and the OG version has long been used in Hinduism and Buddhism and went back thousands of years. And the way it ended up on the Nazi flag is a story about how a seemingly harmless metanarrative, like the Indo-European language theory, could end up being one of the most dangerous ideas on Earth.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Reading) A nation without a vital myth drifts aimlessly throughout history. Myth gives purpose and meaning to the civilization. Myth makes a people a nation and a nation a race and a race a contributor to the world.

ABDELFATAH: These are the words of the German race theorist Alfred Rosenberg.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Reading) Myth shapes the race so that the race may fulfill the potential of its individuals. The myth makes us conscious that we are a race and not merely an arbitrary, purposeless, ill-defined conglomerate of men and women.

ABDELFATAH: Alfred Rosenberg was one of the most influential race propagandists of the 20th century. And he was very interested in Indo-European language theory. He adopted William Jones' linguistic theory and...

PURANDARE: Conflated this with the concept of race. And what was a linguistic concept became a racial concept.

ABDELFATAH: This is Vaibhav Purandare again. He's explaining where Rosenberg and other European racists thought the original Indo-European people, who they called Aryans, came from.

PURANDARE: According to him, the Aryans had come from the Global North and specifically from Germany. And some 1,500 years ago, they landed in India from the Northwest. These Nordics, these blond Europeans with blue eyes, one of the things they did was to separate themselves from the local population. This local population was inferior. They were dark people. And essentially, he takes the word Aryan. The word Arya, like, is a Sanskrit term. It means noble. He thinks the word Aryan actually is a word that describes the Nordic race, the race of the white people that's supposed to rule over the Earth and that's supposed to enslave people of brown and black color.


ARABLOUEI: Rosenberg's ideas were captured in his popular book, "The Myth Of The 20th Century." Among his followers was a former soldier-slash-failed artist named Adolf Hitler.

PURANDARE: Hitler imbibes these theories, and he thinks that the Aryans went from Germany to India, but they lost their Aryan-ness there, and the Indians are not the remnants, you know, of the Aryan race. For Hitler, the racial element is the most important element in life and in the organizing of humanity.

ARABLOUEI: In the late 19th century and early 20th century, there was a movement we now call race science. Basically, it was a bunch of European and American academics who were searching for, quote, "scientific" ways to organize the world according to race. It was a way of defining who is white and, quote, "superior." And William Jones' ideas about Indo-European language were co-opted by this movement as a part of their racial purity project.

ABDELFATAH: This is where Rosenberg's strange, racist ideas were born. And Hitler genuinely believed them, so much so that he even adopted an ancient symbol, one which he believed was a white Aryan symbol, to represent his political party - the swastika.

PURANDARE: The swastika is a symbol that's hugely popular in India. And not only is it popular, but it's a much revered symbol. It's one of the most revered symbols of Hinduism.

ARABLOUEI: And what does a swastika mean?

PURANDARE: It is a symbol that represents auspiciousness, goodness, purity. And it's a symbol that is supposed to bring prosperity.

ARABLOUEI: It's a symbol that is also used in other places, like Tibet.

PURANDARE: He truly believed that the swastika was a symbol of the Nordic race, of the Europeans, of the white Europeans, and the inferior Indians had taken it from the Nordic race and imbibed it and adopted it as their own symbol. But what he does is he takes a symbol and he turns it on its head, in a way.

ARABLOUEI: He, like, rotates it. It's like the wrong - it's not quite right.

PURANDARE: What Hitler does is he actually rotates the symbol and changes the shape of the symbol. And he also - he makes it black.

ABDELFATAH: A symbolic distortion. Hitler was basically just taking an idea and molding it to fit his political and philosophical needs.

PURANDARE: He's using symbols that are foreign to him. He's using a word called Arya or Aryan that's foreign to him. He's using a group of languages, the Indo-European group of languages, to justify his own racial philosophy, which is essentially inhuman, and starts using and exploiting that theory in order to actually destroy an entire population.


ARABLOUEI: On November 9, 1938, Nazi party paramilitary forces executed a coordinated, planned attack on Jewish businesses and synagogues across Germany and Austria. At least 91 people were killed, and thousands of Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Many historians believe that this event, Kristallnacht, began one of the most deadly phases of the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews and other people deemed racially inferior to pure Aryans by the Nazi party. That same year, Heinrich Himmler, one of Adolf Hitler's top commanders, sent a team of Nazi scientists on a mission.

PURANDARE: Himmler sets up a unit within the SS. The name of this unit is the Bureau of Ancestral Heritage. And what is its job? Its job is to find out the origins of the Aryan race. In 1938, he sends a team of five members of this unit to Tibet.

ABDELFATAH: Tibet. But why? The answer to that question makes this story even weirder.


PURANDARE: One of the theories is that there was this island called Atlantis somewhere between England and Portugal, and the Aryans lived there.

ABDELFATAH: Himmler thought the Aryans might be from the lost city of Atlantis.

PURANDARE: And one fine day, a divine thunderbolt hit the island. The island sunk. And the people of the island fled elsewhere. They swam to safety. And they looked for a more secure place to live in. These were the real Nordics, according to the racial theorists. And eventually, they moved to the Himalayas, specifically to Tibet. Why? Because, well, Atlantis had sunk, so you want to go to a place where you don't get a sinking feeling. One way of doing it is to get into the mountains, and the Himalayas are really tall mountains. And Tibet in particular is known as the roof of the world, so you'll be safest there.

ABDELFATAH: Himmler was searching for evidence of these Atlantis Aryans, and it was all part of a larger Nazi project to legitimize their racist views through, quote-unquote, "science."

PURANDARE: Himmler was hoping to come up with the exact definition of the Aryan race, the defining features that distinguish them from the rest of humanity, so that it would be so much more easier to identify those who are, allegedly, racially inferior. That was the whole idea.


PURANDARE: So he sends this team of five people.

ARABLOUEI: They first arrive in Sri Lanka. Then they go to India and work their way all the way up to Tibet by 1939.

PURANDARE: They enter Tibet.

ARABLOUEI: On the backs of mules.

PURANDARE: Carrying those swastika flags.

ARABLOUEI: The symbol of their country and ideology.

PURANDARE: Though the Tibetans are not surprised by the swastika flags at all because the swastika is very much a part of Tibetan culture.

ARABLOUEI: The team pays their respects to the Tibetan leaders at the capital of Lhasa. Then they get to work.

PURANDARE: They get friendly with the local people of Tibet, and they start taking measurements. They measure the noses of the Tibetan people, the eyes of the Tibetan people, the ears of the Tibetan people, the facial details of the Tibetan people.

ABDELFATAH: They take photographs.

PURANDARE: Literally thousands of photographs.

ABDELFATAH: Hardcore race science stuff.

PURANDARE: They start making casts of their faces, of ears, of noses and other parts of the body.

ABDELFATAH: They do this to hundreds of Tibetans.

PURANDARE: They take fingerprints and - in fact, thousands of fingerprints.

ABDELFATAH: And what did the Tibetan people think this was all for?

PURANDARE: People are told that they are here on a scientific expedition which has got to do entirely with zoology and anthropology.

ABDELFATAH: But Nazi memos made it clear that one objective was to find the Aryan homeland.


PURANDARE: Now, suddenly, when they're in the midst of this pseudoscientific expedition, the war is on the horizon. And in August 1939, they're forced to leave and head back home. Himmler, of course, is very proud of this team, and he goes to the Munich airport himself to receive the team. And he's happy with what they've got. They are now going to get into their lab and look at where the original Aryans really came from.

ABDELFATAH: Ultimately, Himmler's quest to find evidence of the original Aryans was not successful. But what it shows is how deeply he and other Nazi leadership believed this wild idea. They were willing to go to any length to define the Aryan race. As for the scientists who went on the mission, their work for the Nazi regime would go on.

PURANDARE: Bruno Beger, the anthropologist, is sent to Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp, to take measurements of the Jews there. And that is for an entirely different reason. That is to examine the characteristics of people who are allegedly inferior.


ABDELFATAH: Using a linguistic theory as a way to define racial superiority and, in the process, exclude and murder people who do not fit that category - this is what the Nazis did during the 1930s and 1940s in their quest for so-called Aryan purity, a distortion with devastating consequences.

ARABLOUEI: A distortion of a distortion, all stemming from a discovery showing the deep linguistic similarities that connect so many of us to each other.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Reading) The term Aryan has to do with linguistic and not at all with physical characteristics. And it would seem reasonably clear that mere resemblance in language, indicating a common linguistic root buried in remotely ancient soil, is altogether inadequate to prove common racial origin.

ARABLOUEI: This is from the ruling in the 1923 U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind court case.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Reading) It is a matter of familiar observation and knowledge that the physical group characteristics of the Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white. The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian and other European parentage quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry.

ARABLOUEI: The Supreme Court rejected Thind's petition for citizenship, claiming that he just didn't look white enough. They rejected his argument that his Aryan origin - that his language family - was equal to race.

FROST: And the court said, we think the average educated American would be shocked to think that a South Asian could be white.

ARABLOUEI: This is Amanda Frost again.

FROST: And they said, we know it when we see it. We know who's white.

ARABLOUEI: They dismissed all of Thind's, quote, "scientific" arguments and basically just said...

FROST: You are not us. And that comes through in several different points in the opinion.

ARABLOUEI: You are not us. The fallout of the case was devastating for dozens of South Asian Americans, whose citizenship, just like Thind's, was revoked after the ruling.

FROST: The government went after the people - the South Asians who gained citizenship in the years leading up to Thind's case and denaturalized at least 65 people between 1923 and 1927.

ARABLOUEI: This was only about 10 years before the Nazis would use similar language to commit a genocide. And the irony is that Supreme Court is widely viewed as one of the most racist in American history, and they came to the correct conclusion that language is not the same as race. But they came to this conclusion in order to exclude South Asians from U.S. citizenship. It's like they were right about the issue for all the wrong reasons. It's a mind-bending hypocrisy that the United States eventually changed after World War II.

FROST: The U.S. could see what Nazi Germany was doing, and the U.S. government recognized - I think it was a mirror held up, where the U.S. government saw these ideas of racial purity that we've had, we are seeing them played out in the extreme in Nazi Germany, and that is not us. And I think that is partly why the U.S. government slowly rescinded these restrictions on naturalization - the last one falling in 1952.


ABDELFATAH: And as for Bhagat Singh Thind, his story goes to a place you might not expect.

FROST: He did not leave the United States, and it appears he did not reject the United States. He stayed in the country, wasn't deported. And then in 1935, Congress passed a law giving citizenship to veterans. And as a veteran, he took advantage of that law and became a citizen in 1936. He got married in 1940, relatively late in life, to a woman named Vivian Davies and had a son and a daughter. And then he had this very successful speaking career around the United States. He was an ordained minister, a religious leader, and he wrote books about his philosophy and his religion, and he gave speeches throughout the United States, and he even gave a speech entitled "What America Means To Me." And at the end of the day, he became a U.S. citizen and had a successful and long life in the United States. And he went back to India about 50 years after he left and visited with family and his community there as well.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me. And...









ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to Allison Katayama for their voiceover work.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Sanjukta Poddar, Olivia Chilkoti, Micah Ratner, Rachel Seller, Taylor Ash, Tamar Charney and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was mixed by Robert Rodriguez. Music for this episode was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ARABLOUEI: And finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlinenpr.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.