Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Fighting Racism with Racism – Doing it the Indian Way


Every time we were travelling out of Brisbane (our last city of residence), I’d be routinely frisked by airport security for a 'random body scan'. This diligence wasn’t just restricted to airports. Even the lady at a particular store would make it a point to stop me at the exit to check my bag. Eager college kids trying to earn a quick buck by distributing promotional flyers would invariably look through me while pouncing on my Taiwanese friend walking with me. The American expat would express surprise that I spoke English 'like an American'. The steward at the restaurant would ask us twice if we knew it was beef we had just ordered.

When you are brown and from a nation that loves its curries and worships its cows, people make too many assumptions about you. After all it’s convenient to slot people according to stereotypes rather than getting into the trouble of knowing them. Maybe some of the instances I faced may not have been because of my brown skin. Maybe it was me being over-sensitive mistaking snobbishness, awkwardness and staff trying to do their duty, with, discrimination. But the fact remains when someone tries to treat you like a lesser being, you may try to shrug it off as their ignorance but a part of you does feel bewildered and singed.

And I'm talking about Australia whose people are among the friendliest. Where men hold doors for you and women stop to ask if you need help with your heavy shopping bags. If you stop a tad longer than necessary at some busy intersection, rest assured someone will come up to you and ask if you're lost.

You don’t realise you’re different till you move out of familiar terrains where people have their own sets of biases and prejudices.


Funny thing is even in certain pockets of India, especially tourist destinations favoured by the white-skinned, it's we who get treated as unwanted third world immigrants simply by the virtue of our brown skin. This internalised racism manifests itself at a fancy restaurant where your Indian waiter will ignore you while he fawns over the German couple, making you wonder if there’s a separate menu for Indians at subsidised rates that comes with the ‘I’m doing you a favour by letting you in’ clause . The hawkers at Anjuna flea market will dismiss you as Indians who know no better if you dare bargain with them. I’ve had friends recall the time they were shooed away from a 'cordoned firangs-only section' of Majorda beach or a bar meant only for Russians. Or the guide at Umaid Bhawan who refused to entertain local tourists while literally grovelling before the Americans to give them a guided tour. I totally get that the kind of hospitality catering to ‘western’ sensibilities and tastes and making us brown-skinned Indians feel unwelcome, is mostly dollar driven. The lure of a fat tip is directly proportional to the attention you’re lavished with. And given that most Indians treat service staff as their minions, counting pennies while tipping them, it’s not surprising we are treated the way we are.

This subservient attitude towards the ‘westerners’ also harks back to our imperialist past deeply ingrained in a psyche that still places light skin on a pedestal and falls short of worshipping it. Your ‘fair skin’ is a passport to a brighter future, better husband and babies with rose tinted skin.

Harbouring racist attitudes towards those we see as inferior is second nature to us. Be it treating UP and Bihari migrants with disdain or dismissing those from north-east as Chinkis, or a respected Parliamentarian straightjacketing all South Indian women as dark but with great bodies, where every community asserts its superiority by mocking each other’s’ food habits, accents and ethnic peculiarities. Where our last names are not just surnames we were born with but a repository of information, some stereotypical, about our eating, spending habits, intellect, character or the lack of it.

It's like a chain reaction where we subject others to what we are subjected to, without even realizing it. But it hurts, doesn't it, when we are the receiving end of it?

Ironically, most of us see racism as a phenomenon that exists in other countries, particularly in the West, and without fail, see ourselves as victims. Not once do we spare a thought for how we treat our own.

I feel, treating others as lesser beings because of their skin colour, spoken English, thickness of wallet is more an admission of your own low self-esteem rather than an assertion of your own superiority. It is a projection of our own fears onto another person. A person who has nothing to prove to others because s/he is content with who s/he is, will never go out of his way to put others down to feel good about themselves.

But did that stop me from grinning ear to ear when I spotted the airport security staff at JFK (obviously Indian) singling out whites for “random” extra security checks? Not really! 





69 comments:

  1. The way we treat white skinned tourists points towards a deep seated bias. Reeks of hypocrisy too. Was nodding after every line in the second last para.

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    1. When I see touts fleecing them, it makes me go red with shame.

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  2. The fear of the 'other' is so internalised in most human beings, hard to resist, I guess.
    In case of Indians the allure of the 'white skin' is really hard to get rid of...perhaps in the decades to come some of it might change when the world's economic order might shift away from the West. But unless we Indians really work internally on getting rid of our colonised mindset there isn't much hope.

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    1. This fear of the 'other' is extended to ideas that challenge the existing ones. And our first recourse is making fun of it rather than trying to understand. One of the perils of mediocrity, I guess.

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  3. Sad that our own dismisses us just to make a few bucks!

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    1. Hard to get rid of the complex hierarchy that exists in our heads.

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  4. Every country has racism .. Including Japan .. It’s very subtle there .. But you can make it out. The way we treat white skinned tourists is rather disgusting, but as you say it has a lot to do with tipping and money doesn't it. And Frankly I do believe we Indians are a racist lot! What else is discrimination against casts, gender, financial status but a form of discrimination!

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    1. Ruchira, the saddest part is, we are all guilty of it.

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  5. well no one could have put it as clearly as you Purba..There is so much racism in India, more linked to regional chauvinism that I wonder how we can ever fight this... I remember once while I was studying in UP, the aunt of my roommate refused to take water from me without knowing my caste...But when my friend said that we are from the same 'caste' she suddenly felt so much love for me..Of course, I refused to give her water myself at that point..This 'I'm better than you' thinking for our own countrymen is very much ingrained in us and the moment a westerner comes around it changes to 'they are better than us'! sigh!

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    1. City breds like us have our own caste system that segregates each other on the basis of the square feet area of the apartment, the brands we sport, the English we speak :-)

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  6. Very pertinent observations, Purba! Racism exists everywhere but the least that can be done is to not indulge in this on the floor of parliament in thelargest democracy!. Other biases will not go away any time soon:(

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    1. At least we are talking about it? That I think is a big step towards change.

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  7. It blunts the sharp edge of hurt to accept racism exists in everyone. It helps if we expose it without anger - with honesty and understanding as you've done.

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    1. Acceptance is the first step towards change.

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  8. It is tragically true. I had the feeling of being an outsider when I went to Goa last. The North Goa beaches were taken over by the firangs, Russians too. There were only Russians zones, even signboards and menus in Russian. It made me very wary. Yes, and all that about not getting attention at the flea market or the waiters is true. My experience in US was way better but it wasn't so good in Scotland. I felt that they were not too comfortable around browns or perhaps they are just uptight by nature. At least now we are raising our voices and not taking it lying down. If I find someone make a color, caste or other comment to my face, I do question them or at least point out their mindset. It is really ridiculous how crazy this obsession with fair skin in our country is.Nicely penned.

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    1. Same holds true for Manali, Rajasthan, Pondicherry where we are made to feel like unwanted outsiders.

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  9. I learnt about racism the hard and painful way all my life. I have visited other countries, and live in the middle east, but I faced core racism only at my place in India. :-/ Believe it or not, a good job or personality or anything does not matter if skin is dark. Because we are doomed already. There are no people left in my family who have not suggested me a fairness cream or even skin specialists !

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    1. I have seen your pictures. You are beautiful. Period.

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  10. Discrimination and prejudice for any reason is disheartening. Came across this piece two days back and I am just thinking should I or shouldnt I get offended !
    5 reasons you should not date an Indian girl

    www.returnofkings.com

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    1. I read that quite sometime back and thought it was in poor taste. But then jokes are mostly about being politically incorrect.

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  11. Oh and talk about the tags such as "North Indians" or "Punjabis" or "Madraasis" or "Bawas" or "Chinkis" or "Bengalis"... The list goes on! You are spot on talking about home grown racism. And it comes naturally to one... without any external stimuli.. Even as i type this, i shudder those moments when i may unconsiously nurture self conceived notions myself about people and their backgrounds with just how they look. The remedy has to be deliberate and consistently enforced by oneself. Then we may go around blaming the world.

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    1. Exactly, instead of playing the victim, introspect on the number of times we have subjected others to the same treatment.

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  12. Well Purba you have certainly written all that could be said about this tendency to categorize and typify people on biased grounds.
    I don't mind being stereotyped as a loud,frank,brash Punjabi because down the years my folks must have manifested these characteristics on a broad basis in order to be thus typified.But I would never judge anyone on basis of their caste or color.

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    1. But it does annoy me when people jump to conclusions the moment they come to know I am a Bengali.

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  13. "And given that most Indians treat service staff as their minions, counting pennies while tipping them, it’s not surprising we are treated the way we are. " the money does play a role and sometimes these white skinned folks are looked at like they are from a much better , more correct ideal world ....

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    1. The class bias is the most pronounced in our country. We may pamper our hired helps but we don't treat them as our equals.

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  14. We Indians are among the most racist people in the world. Our lingo bares it all - words like Chinky,Kaalia, Angrez, Firangi are the usual suspects.

    Just wondering...what about words like Miyaan Bhai, Sardar, Pao-waalah, Punju, Gujju, Ghaati, Bangaali, Mallu, Madarasi, etc.?

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    1. And our proclivity for calling sabziwallas, presswalas, raddi guy, electricians, carpenters bhaiyaa - and using aunty to taunt a woman about her age.

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  15. to put crudely whites have superiority complex and non-whites have inferiority complex

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    1. Lots of well-pointed out stuff in the post.

      And yea, I'm with i b arora on that. I live in Dubai and i don't even want to start on how true that is here.

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    2. Dubai is a city built on sweat and tears of mostly Indians.

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  16. A topic, I have experienced first hand. Even we were shooed from a Goan French Restaurant when we claimed on the pasta on being to our standards. Surprisingly, even though we were paying for it, the owner (French)got offended and was rude to us.We also got booed by the firang crowd around. Shocking to be booed in your own country.

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    1. Imagine, in your own country!

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  17. The funny thing is we equate racism with western countries' biases against brown skin and not our own biases here. And yes, I have always held that the new caste equation in India is all about the economic status of the person. This is especially true in cities like Delhi. Stereotyping really gets my goat too.

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    1. Delhi worships the moneyed and the powerful and 'pataa hai main kaun hoon' is our Hanuman chalisa.

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  18. The last line says it all. Unfortunately, whether we chose to accept it or not, racism is here to stay, and stay for good

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    1. It will be a gradual process and awareness helps.

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  19. Oh, we've all been there, haven't we?
    I've experienced it a number of times in Pondicherry. And sometimes even in those '5 Star' hotels.

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    1. And I wrote this post based on my experience in Pondicherry :-)

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  20. A well written post with a lot of food for thought!

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  21. I find your experience in Australia very different from mine in the US. I have been here almost 6 years and have lived in 2 states, and about to make a move to the third one, and I cannot single out a single incident that was racist in nature. Currently I live in a city where, according to the Gospel of Wikipedia, ~89% population is White, and I barely have seen Indians, but I still haven't faced any unsavory incident. What I am trying to say is , may be Australia isn't the best country to judge racism against Indians. They do have a lot of hate crime cases against Indians, every year.

    But racism by Indians is very evident and is embarrassing. All of have met people who have been abroad all their lives, and yet, are wary, even scared, of Black and Hispanic people. The racism that you talk about, in India, or the fetish for the white skin is unfortunate too. May be it's a result of the fact that we presume White people to be richer and more cultured.

    More than anything else, it's the racism of Indians, against other Indians that bothers me. North-South, North-East and the rest of the country etc are divides that run deep. It seems impossible to get past them.

    Once again, a very thought provoking post :).

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    1. I can only speak for myself, Prateek. But it's only from older section of people who are still stuck in the "imperial' mindset'.

      India is still a hundred years away from an egalitarian society.

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  22. Racism is prevalent everywhere in the world.
    I have experienced it in the UK,USA and to some extent even in Australia when I was visit fog Sydny.

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    1. Add Paris, Heidelberg to that list.

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  23. Count me in. I live in Germany, and I have undergone the same. Many a times, I felt, why me? Loved your thoughts so much.

    Vidhya

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    1. But then I have heard such good things about Berlin!

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  24. Indeed, this racism is a bog problem, particularly in today's world of converging cultures. I am reminded of Russell Peter's remarks here, though, that with white different ethnicities mingling among themselves and forming families, we will soon end up with a homogenized color (Caucasian type). That could be true, and in that case, does it not make us look up to it, if racism is what we need to get rid of?

    Felt like a 'straight from the heart' post.

    Cheers,
    Blasphemous Aesthete

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    1. Racism is just another mode... Isnt it?

      -S.AM

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    2. Yes, unless you can cross check every breath you take, and out it under the microscope of fairness, you'll know we make such biased decisions everyday. White or black, strong or weak, rich or poor, bright or dull(intelligence), adamant and questioning or subservient, we make quick subconscious decisions and as long as they work, we have no reason to doubt them. We deal with the wall only after we've hit it.
      That is what I think.

      Cheers!

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    3. We slot people according to our perceptions and behave accordingly and those who think otherwise - who are you bullshitting?

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    4. @Blasphemous Aesthete: Are the racist reactions learnt? Homogenous Color, would mean a homogenized gene pool ( Is that good for human species? Interesting questions..!). When it becomes the reality in future, would racism morph to someting else? (May it not!) Nevertheless, You have suggested a good technique to stop the racist slip of mind. Cheers!

      @Purba: Someone said - To stereotype is stereotypical. Your writing, and the enriching comments here covers the topic very well. Keep writing!

      -S.AM

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    5. If you talk of just racism, maybe it will end in the future. But then, remove financial disparity too, the castes too, the social stature too, equalize the manual labor with mental labour, the dignity of each and everything must be equalized to remove bias, and each one, every single person in the world must have exactly the same set of features, capabilities, virtues and vices. The sweeper and the Prime Minister must be equally desirable posts, at par with the post of a CEO in a big MNC. Above all, put an end to all desires of people. Until there are deviations, there will be differences. But a leveled playground would be an absolute disaster to everything.

      You know, this classifying is almost innate, for you'll regard your mother more than your other, distant relatives. The interesting question here would be, would you feel the same for a mother whom you never knew (who maybe discarded you, or were separated in an accident) when compared to the mother who brought you up?

      In operating systems, we extensively use this 'classifying' of processes (which are like people) and based on that classification decide, who gets the resource. Social sciences applied in Computer Sciences and because Computers are fast, the silicon societies can pretty much simulate the roadblocks of human societies, and the way we solve these problems can then be applied back in social sciences. We did start from an 'equality' model here, did not work efficiently.

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  25. This is something we experience almost every other day when you live outside the country! The worst part is like you said, while having to experience it in your own country!!! Sigh!!

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    1. Even in airlines. I remember while flying Lufthansa, it was our Indian stewardess who acted hoity toity and ignored our requests. We had to write to the airline to complain about her behaviour.

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  26. The worst is that brown skins treated browns like that in the same manner and go gaga over white skins. It's sad how we Indians have this inferiority complex and once at Leopold in Mumbai I faced it when I asked for beer so many times but the white skins who came after me were promptly served. I was so pissed off that I shifted to other bars in Colaba like SFX and Cafe Mondegar. And, they say customer is king!

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    1. We don't buy Tommy Hilfiger because he once famously said, his creations are not meant for the brown-skin.

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  27. ok,let me ask you a simple question.if you are married and if that was arranged marriage.did ya treat every guest equally or did ya give equal importance to every guest who attended your marriage function.people set priorities according to their personal benefits.most of people who speak of discrimination don't treat people equally when someone visits their house for a function.people have tendency to complain only things that makes them uncomfortable for their instances. i think most of people are racist .people who are not racist will understand society without complaining or they will fight back as an individual.

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    1. I don't recall attending to guests at my own wedding. But when I invite people over to my place, I lavish everyone with the same amount of attention.

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  28. True that Purba. We grovel in front of all white skinned people and our nature probably arises from the deep rooted colonial psyche embedded into our psyche. And as you have pointed out, one of the most racist countries in the world. Looking at the amount of discrimination that we do to our fellow Indians, we just dont have the right to call anybody else racist. Great post as usual.

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    1. Cricket fans behaved in such a shameful manner when our team was playing Bangladesh during the quarter finals, cracking Adhar Card jokes, belittling their people! Imagine the outrage, had we been at the receiving end?

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  29. Completely agree! Having been prejudiced against, we still are, because of our skin and all our "culture", we do not blink even once before doing the same. Forget internationally, we are racist amongst our states for god's sake. Like you said, it's a cycle, and one should do all that one can, because it has to break. Or I'll break somebody's face I think >.<

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    1. We can surely speak up when we experience such behavior?

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  30. I think it's in our nature to be racist, or rather, being partial to certain class of people with certain elements (it may be skin color, level of wealth, gender bias or simply, appearance). Unless each one of us consciously walk the talk we do in our blogs, nothing's going to change.

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  31. True, change from begin from within us. Neatly put :)

    Do drop into www.malavikka.blogspot.com

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  32. There is a stereotype that people have in their mind for how an Indian should be and anyone who doesn’t fit in the stereotype, face this problem of weird questions being asked every time andthen the long never ending explanations that one has to give. Sometimes it is just ignorance that people have about India and other times it’s just bigotry, especially when it is coming from a fellow Indian.
    I have written an article titled 'How Do You Define an Indian? – Stereotypes and Identity Ignorance' at the link
    http://­www.blaberblogger.com­/2015/08/­how-do-you-define-ind­ian-stereotypes.html

    with opinions from various people who don't fit the stereotypical indian defination living in different parts of India.It would be great if you would take a look at it

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