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!