Who am I?

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I am not religious, but I don't mind calling myself spiritual. Religion, I believe, has, over the millennia, been used as a prop to perpetrate a lot of human suffering. Faith is what matters. I don't believe in the definition of God as a creator. According to me, my God resides within me. Some call it conscience, some call it the sub-conscious, some call it the soul. I don't mind calling it God. So by definition I am not an atheist or an agnostic, but by essence, I may as well be. My God does not reside in a temple, church, mosque or gurudwara. It is right here, within me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rampant Racism or Natural Human Behaviour?

This article appeared in Outlook magazine in the June 29, 2009 issue. I came across it recently and it appealed to me so much that I knew I had to re-post it to get the message across to a lot of people in India who live with this sense of false pride I have sensed time and again. Do follow the link at the bottom of this article to follow the rest of the comments because they provide with a lot more insight on the subject, including some other personal experiences.

opinion
'India Is Racist, And Happy About It'
A Black American's first-hand experience of footpath India: no one even wants to change 
In spite of friendship and love in private spaces, the Delhi public literally stops and stares. It is harrowing to constantly have children and adults tease, taunt, pick, poke and peer at you from the corner of their eyes, denying their own humanity as well as mine. Their aggressive, crude curiosity threatens to dominate unless disarmed by kindness, or met with equal aggression. 
Once I stood gazing at the giraffes at the Lucknow Zoo only to turn and see 50-odd families gawking at me rather than the exhibit.



On a visit to the Lucknow zoo, people gawked more at me than at the exhibits.

Parents abruptly withdrew infants that inquisitively wandered towards me. I felt like an exotic African creature-cum-spectacle, stirring fear and awe. Even my attempts to beguile the public through simple greetings or smiles are often not reciprocated. Instead, the look of wonder swells as if this were all part of the act and we were all playing our parts. 
Racism is never a personal experience. Racism in India is systematic and independent of the presence of foreigners of any hue. This climate permits and promotes this lawlessness and disdain for dark skin. Most Indian pop icons have light-damn-near-white skin. Several stars even promote skin-bleaching creams that promise to improve one's popularity and career success. Matrimonial ads boast of fair, v. fair and v. very fair skin alongside foreign visas and advanced university degrees. Moreover, each time I visit one of Delhi's clubhouses, I notice that I am the darkest person not wearing a work uniform. It's unfair and ugly.
Discrimination in Delhi surpasses the denial of courtesy. I have been denied visas, apartments, entrance to discos, attentiveness, kindness and the benefit of doubt. Further, the lack of neighbourliness exceeds what locals describe as normal for a capital already known for its coldness. 

My partner is white and I am black, facts of which the Indian public reminds us daily. Bank associates have denied me chai, while falling over to please my white friend. Mall shop attendants have denied me attentiveness, while mobbing my partner. Who knows what else is more quietly denied?
"An African has come," a guard announced over the intercom as I showed up. Whites are afforded the luxury of their own names, but this careful attention to my presence was not new. ATM guards stand and salute my white friend, while one guard actually asked me why I had come to the bank machine as if I might have said that I was taking over his shift. 

It is shocking that people wear liberalism as a sign of modernity, yet revert to ultraconservatism when actually faced with difference. Cyberbullies have threatened my life on my YouTube videos that capture local gawking and eve-teasing. I was even fired from an international school for talking about homosociality in Africa on YouTube, and addressing a class about homophobia against kids after a student called me a 'fag'.
Outside of specific anchors of discourse such as Reservations, there is no consensus that discrimination is a redeemable social ill. This is the real issue with discrimination in India: her own citizens suffer and we are only encouraged to ignore situations that make us all feel powerless. Be it the mute-witnesses seeing racial difference for the first time, kids learning racism from their folks, or the blacks and northeasterners who feel victimised by the public, few operate from a position that believes in change. 

Living in India was a childhood dream that deepened with my growing understanding of India and America's unique, shared history of non-violent revolution. Yet, in most nations, the path of ending gender, race and class discrimination is unpaved. In India, this path is still rural and rocky as if this nation has not decided the road even worthy. It is a footpath that we are left to tread individually.

(The writer is a Black American PhD student at the Delhi School of Economics.)


My Comment:


Mr Kuku, 

First of all I would like to apologize from the bottom of my heart on behalf of my fellow countrymen for the treatment meted out to you. I know the tendency among my countrymen to give preference to fair skin in every field of life. Being a North Indian, I am also well aware of the fact that this practice is more prevalent in North India than in South India. But there are some intricacies that need some discussion. 

First of all, it’s not racism. It’s more a fascination for the white skin (which is exemplified by the fact that Indian Premier League (IPL), Cricket’s top tournament currently, has white cheerleaders of every team!). And the primary reason that this is prevalent more in North India than in the South is that an average North Indian is, so to say, fairer-skinned than an average South Indians. Also, over the past few decades, education has been held more important in the Southern states of India and has thus had a greater impact in South India than in the North. This is another reason for the backwardness of thinking of the people in the North. 

Another important thing of note is that India is full of very different cultures, and you will find people with very different personalities and preferences over a distance of just a hundred miles. Not all cultures breed this exclusionary attitude. Hailing from Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, and having lived in Shimla, Chandigarh, Indore, Pune, Mumbai and Bangalore, I can vouch for the fact the people from Himachal Pradesh, being hill people, or may be because of some other reason, are much warmer towards people and would go completely out of the way to help you out, no matter what is the colour of your skin. And I’ve seen it happen – it’s all there in the speech, in how strangers reply to you. It all comes across, and I’ve had the privilege to compare this nature of the natives of all the six cities. So when you say North Indian, let us not generalize. The same goes for New Delhi. If you feel people of New Delhi are more inclined in their preference towards the fairer skin, that may be true, but then there are a lot of people who will be very helpful and who will never discriminate on the basis of your skin colour. Delhi has a population of over 22 million, and people in Delhi come from all over, especially the labour class, most of which is a victim of urbanization from the poorer nearby states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and the kind. It all depends on who you are interacting with. ATM people and autowallahs have very low education levels, as most of India is still very poor. Almost none of them have had any exposure to different cultures within their own country, let alone abroad. So it is their ignorance and naivete that comes across as “racist” to you. I know it’s very hard for you facing all this every single day, but I would like to ask you to forgive us for our poverty, which perpetrates lack of belief in basic education, which thus makes people behave like this. 

We were ruled by Britishers for over 200 years. And this is the time during which poverty in India became widespread, as we were denied very basic human rights by the Britishers, and we were persecuted for a long time by those who forcefully ruled us and treated us like speck of dust on their shoes. Maybe this deep rooted preference for white skin emanates from this subconscious idea that was hammered into our minds that white people are superior. Who is to blame? Widespread poverty and a very late opening up of our economy to the outside world perpetrated this thinking and in a society where caste discrimination was already rooted since millennia, a new aversion towards darker skin was not difficult to assimilate. That said, I have to mention that it is a very sad state of affairs, and I feel ashamed of this bigoted behaviour on the part of my countrymen. 

Specific to the problems faced by you, I think the gawking that you get is more out of curiosity and our own lack of awareness or access to the outside world. This is mainly attributed to the fact that there are very low Africans present in India. This goes for any place where an outsider comes when the people are not used to his/her presence. A white skinned person goes to Goa, and he might as well feel at home. Let him go to the north-eastern states of India, and see the kind of discrimination and gawks does he have to face. Let him go to a small village where people have never seen a person with such a fair skin, and then see the kind of stares and whispers and comments he gets. It’s all about how “developed”, to use a word that everyone here can relate to, the country is, and India, sadly, despite its tries of pomp and show in the Commonwealth Games and buys of the best of their kind military fighter planes, and it’s ambitions of being a superpower – notwithstanding all that, India is still a developing country and, with the kind of burdens and problems of population, deforestation, lack of basic education, or mass poverty that it faces, India will continue to be in the “developing” bracket, according to me, for many years to come. And a change in attitudes and acceptance of people of all colours, creeds, castes and communities will come with time, no doubt about that. What I have said in defence of my countrymen, in no way lessens the anguish I felt when I read your article and continued to read all the comments on it, and my sincere heartfelt apologies for all that happened.

For other comments, refer to the link below:
http://www.outlookindia.com/feedbacks.aspx?typ=100&val=250317


Friends, what do you guys have to say about this? Do you believe this is a shameful act on the part of Indians, or do you think this is a part and parcel of everyday life everywhere in the world? What are your thoughts on it?

18 comments:

  1. Nice comment Pranay, well written. But i still feel, we Indians are racist to a large extent and mere economic development wont help in eradicating that.A deeper social change is required and this will take a lot of time..

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree Amogh, but a fair reason for such assessment of Indians does not come out so easily. I've thought about it a lot. Where does such behaviour emanate? Is it our spoiled culture, is it in the DNA of us Indians, or is it some other kind of external factor? To me, the only plausible explanation for this seems to be the development front - not just economic, but social and cultural as well.

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  3. This doesnt come as a surprise at all. And thats the saddest part. Fact that it makes no difference to people whether their behavior is derogatory or not.
    Your point about the cheerleaders stands out. India does have a fascination with white skin and since Delhi has a brainwashed crowd of what's hip or not, their point of view is influenced by their peers or colleagues or whoever. I remember when I was in JMC, I had a classmate who was from Africa and I remember the jibes taken at her. The sole reason being because of her color. Its inhumane.
    AND, what's surprising is that the same crowd THEN makes such a big deal when racism is followed elsewhere with their country people. Ridiculous isn't it? Hypocritical behavior. What must be understood is people from any other place, come here for the purpose of growing. How can anyone possibly grow in such a hostile environment. Its something which should be made in widespread context. Sadly, hardly a few feel the same way.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Exactly, I remember EVERYONE in India made such a hue and cry when Indian students were attacked in Australia, and cried out "racist"! It's so sad that it's almost funny that they missed the whole irony of it.

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  5. First of all, Very well written! Really loved it! :-)
    Coming to the point, I don't think this is a shameful act at all. I mean to an extent. It's an human tendency to strive for what is "exotic". Obviously, when you have a "lion" in a bust street, your eyes go looking for it. I'm not comparing anyone to lion, I'm just explaining one wants to know more about the things that are exotic to him/her.
    And yeah, more number of "while" people come to India, than the "blacks", so they are in a way more exotic. (I didn't meant to be a racist here)
    This kind of thing would fade as time passes by.
    Coming to the discrimination, that surely is bad and should be stopped. This is the real thing that brings shame, and is shameful.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I agree on the "exotic" point you made. But one must realize how the other person is feeling when he gets such stares. It's natural for him to feel persecuted and troubled. That's an understanding which is missing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's right, the other person would surely feel uneasy. But there is nothing much that could be done on this. As time passes by, things would get normal, and this would fade.

      Think about yourself present between a dozen tribals. They'd give you a similar stare. You are new to them.

      Delete
  7. I used to see links for your blog but never cared reading them, but this seems to be the perfect start for everything. I loved the reply and whole heartedly want to compliment you for the way you have handled it.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you Jandial :) I think I can hope I've gained a reader among friends :)

      Delete
  8. A nice reflection once again. I tend to agree with you that most of the times Kuku got the undesireable attention because of the lack of exposure to most of the Indians. It is more by curiosity and lesser by racist intentions, that many people look at the foreigners in this country. Very well written !! Thanks for echoing the feelings of a true and educated Indian !
    By Shekhar Gupta

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But playing the devil's advocate, there's a lot of gray area here. I mean my argument about the "curiosity" came across as defending Indians, but it's also a fact that there is a lot of mutual disdain among the North Indians in the South and the South Indians up North. And this comes not just from the uneducated class, but also from well educated, well-to-do citizens of big cities. North Indians tend to treat most of South Indians dismissively, undermining their importance in the scheme of things, and I've noticed a pulsating dislike among the South Indians for people coming from North (New Delhi, again, has especially a bad image). I wonder what's the solution to this part of the puzzle.

      Delete
  9. Pranay, you've definitely given a lot of thought to the issue and that in my view is the right way to resolve a problem - try to get to the root of it. Most of us have a tendency to jump to conclusions and make sweeping statements like 'Indians are racist', 'Indians are hypocrites', but we make an error in generalizing. I like the examples quoted by you. It is indeed shameful and saddening to hear about racism faced by anyone, anywhere. The fact that racism or some misguided behaviour coming across as racism is rampant in India's capital is saddening but not surprising. It's always a pleasure to read your blog and I like your response to the article. Very well-thought out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you sister :) Generalizing about something is definitely erroneous most of the times. But like I replied to the above comment, there's always both sides of the argument, and we, Indians, have often proved ourselves to be unfriendly, mean and rude to a lot of outsiders. It's time we realize that it leaves a very sour taste and it reflects in the kind of things they would say about our country to their friends and relatives back home.

      Delete
  10. It can't be considered a shameful act, as all those illiterate people can't be expected to act as a gentlemen, they will act the way they are nurtured or treated in an environment. And you made it clear too that it's not their own fault, it's the Britishers. They really left a mark...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What you are saying is true, but the painful fact is that 70% of India still lives in villages, and, by what you are saying, they cannot be expected to do any better. And 840 million people is no small number. So let's not be so dismissive about this whole issue. We are at fault, all of us. It's only by influencing each other can we root out this evil, slowly but surely.

      Delete
  11. Thanks for re-posting this article and contributing your own thoughtful considerations. That's the point. I don;t need to be "right," but I do want others to consider their own feelings and behavior towards themselves and others.

    I am also glad to see that your readers have offered very considered and empathetic responses. That's often what's missing. For example, on my YouTube channel I have posted a video where I discuss this very article and am still amazed at the amount of hate mail I receive that often centers around the fact that I am a "foreigner" and should leave India alone. That's sad on several accounts, but mostly because it also denies that India has very positively influenced my own people- from the decolonization of Africa that built on India's example, to the CIvil Rights Movement in America that gained its moral authority from Gandhiji's non-violence. To say that a Black person should not feed back into India seems to deny that we have also gained significantly from the rich history of this nation. it denies that we can, and should, build solidarity between us. In that way, don;t even get me started talking about Hip-Hop culture in India- and by that of course I don;t just mean the commercialized version, but the counter-cultural aspects that attract so many Indian youth, and youth all across Asia.


    To your readers, I will also add that our responses to difference also say a great deal. I am currently in Hanoi, and have come here again and again. I never have the staring and glares that I got in Delhi (nor did I get those stares in Chennai, for that matter). For me, it has to do with unpacking this term "exotic," for it stinks of ethnocentrism. The fact that so many folks have difficulties imaging how they would feel if they were the target of so many stares is chilling. It's an exercise of empathy, and I think that power-distance and discrimination can erode our ability to feel and express empathy. That is the real problem with rigid social hierarchies. Racism never happens in a vacuum. Just imagine that caste is experienced differently by men and women. That is to say, that caste is inherently sexist. Can an upper caste women move as freely about the city as an upper caste man, or even a Dalit woman who is often forced to work outside her home?

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks for re-posting this article and contributing your own thoughtful considerations. That's the point. I don;t need to be "right," but I do want others to consider their own feelings and behavior towards themselves and others.

    I am also glad to see that your readers have offered very considered and empathetic responses. That's often what's missing. For example, on my YouTube channel I have posted a video where I discuss this very article and am still amazed at the amount of hate mail I receive that often centers around the fact that I am a "foreigner" and should leave India alone. That's sad on several accounts, but mostly because it also denies that India has very positively influenced my own people- from the decolonization of Africa that built on India's example, to the CIvil Rights Movement in America that gained its moral authority from Gandhiji's non-violence. To say that a Black person should not feed back into India seems to deny that we have also gained significantly from the rich history of this nation. it denies that we can, and should, build solidarity between us. In that way, don;t even get me started talking about Hip-Hop culture in India- and by that of course I don;t just mean the commercialized version, but the counter-cultural aspects that attract so many Indian youth, and youth all across Asia.


    To your readers, I will also add that our responses to difference also say a great deal. I am currently in Hanoi, and have come here again and again. I never have the staring and glares that I got in Delhi (nor did I get those stares in Chennai, for that matter). For me, it has to do with unpacking this term "exotic," for it stinks of ethnocentrism. The fact that so many folks have difficulties imaging how they would feel if they were the target of so many stares is chilling. It's an exercise of empathy, and I think that power-distance and discrimination can erode our ability to feel and express empathy. That is the real problem with rigid social hierarchies. Racism never happens in a vacuum. Just imagine that caste is experienced differently by men and women. That is to say, that caste is inherently sexist. Can an upper caste women move as freely about the city as an upper caste man, or even a Dalit woman who is often forced to work outside her home?

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thanks for re-posting this article and contributing your own thoughtful considerations. That's the point. I don;t need to be "right," but I do want others to consider their own feelings and behavior towards themselves and others.

    I am also glad to see that your readers have offered very considered and empathetic responses. That's often what's missing. For example, on my YouTube channel I have posted a video where I discuss this very article and am still amazed at the amount of hate mail I receive that often centers around the fact that I am a "foreigner" and should leave India alone. That's sad on several accounts, but mostly because it also denies that India has very positively influenced my own people- from the decolonization of Africa that built on India's example, to the CIvil Rights Movement in America that gained its moral authority from Gandhiji's non-violence. To say that a Black person should not feed back into India seems to deny that we have also gained significantly from the rich history of this nation. it denies that we can, and should, build solidarity between us. In that way, don;t even get me started talking about Hip-Hop culture in India- and by that of course I don;t just mean the commercialized version, but the counter-cultural aspects that attract so many Indian youth, and youth all across Asia.


    To your readers, I will also add that our responses to difference also say a great deal. I am currently in Hanoi, and have come here again and again. I never have the staring and glares that I got in Delhi (nor did I get those stares in Chennai, for that matter). For me, it has to do with unpacking this term "exotic," for it stinks of ethnocentrism. The fact that so many folks have difficulties imaging how they would feel if they were the target of so many stares is chilling. It's an exercise of empathy, and I think that power-distance and discrimination can erode our ability to feel and express empathy. That is the real problem with rigid social hierarchies. Racism never happens in a vacuum. Just imagine that caste is experienced differently by men and women. That is to say, that caste is inherently sexist. Can an upper caste women move as freely about the city as an upper caste man, or even a Dalit woman who is often forced to work outside her home?

    ReplyDelete