When I came to India, racism was not really a term I was familiar with. Sure, I knew what it was. Yet, it had never had much bearing in my life. I had friends from different cultures, and treated everyone the same.
However, in the more than six years I’ve now been living in India, I’ve become so acquainted with it to the point that I’m sick of hearing it. It wouldn’t bother me so much if it was used correctly. However, I’ve been called racist simply because I come from Australia, or simply because I’ve made a negative observation about something in India (that even Indians would say themselves). The racism term is thrown around so loosely, it’s completely lost its meaning and puts me on edge every time I hear it.
And, let’s not to overlook the other side of racism — that is the racism I often face in India because I’m white! I’m viewed as being rich and I’m frequently quoted higher prices. It’s a constant battle not to be ripped off. In addition, thanks to the common perception that Indians have of white women being loose and immoral, I’m often leered at in the street and constantly receive emails from Indian guys propositioning me for sex.
Yes, this is racism according to the definition:
1. The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
2. Prejudice or discrimination directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief.
However, this kind of racism isn’t taken seriously. A comment left by one reader (an American Indian) on my blog recently summed up why.
“I think most Indians are racist. But I do not see it with negative connotations as I do with white or black racism. Indians do not have the power in the world to be negatively racist. I.E. oppress races of people, kill them in large numbers, or denigrate their culture, looks or language. I think people sometimes just throw racist out there without thinking about it fully”.
So, I resigned myself to the idea that racism towards white people is never going to matter. What is there to do apart from shut up, never say a bad word about India, and accept that people are going to blatantly over charge me and proposition me for a “sexy good time”.
Then I read this column in the Hindustan Times Cafe today. It was written by Bollywood actress Kalki Koechlin. For those not familiar with her, she was born in India to French parents and has lived in India all her life. She speaks Tamil and Hindi fluently.
It struck me. Wow! Another white person who feels that they experience racism in India.
“I have to rant. I was stuck in my car in the gully just outside my building because of a truck parked on the road and blocking the passageway. The driver refused to move as he was filling water for a building. Suddenly, out of nowhere came an elderly woman who, without any pretext, came walking to the car and said, “Yeh log aise hi hai.” (Why are you people like this only?). Then she looked at me and said, “Kya kar rahi ho? Piche jao.” (What are you doing? Go back). I replied, “Aage mera ghar hai.” (My house is ahead).
The truck driver told me to take some other route to my building. When I said I didn’t know any other way, the woman took the opportunity to say, “Bol rahi hai iski ghar hai, phir bhi isko koi aur rasta nahin malum.” (You are saying this is your house but you don’t know any other street). When I asked her why she was insulting me, her eyes looked down for a moment and then she said in English, “I am not insulting you, this is my road to walk on, not yours.” She walked on. I reversed the car and tried to find another way to get to my building.
This racism is something I’ve had to deal with all my life, been born and brought up here, but damn I still can’t get used to it.
I go to a small town and men start talking to me in broken English saying things like “Hey baby” and “Saxy lady.” I get asked questions by journalists such as “Why aren’t you in Hollywood?” and “Do you like India?” as though I had just arrived in this country yesterday. I get people, usually of an older generation, telling me, “Yeh log aise hi hai.”
Sure, being white has had the opposite effect too, where people have treated me with a lot more kindness as though I’m their guest, I’ve probably been shortlisted in auditions for being ‘fair’, but this too is a kind of racism, a separation. We like to separate people into neat little categories through their religion, the colour of their skin, the way they speak and dress etc… and I can’t help but feel that this racism and this fear of the different is what limits us as people.”
And I can’t help agreeing with her!
As Denis Leary, an American actor, comedian, writer and director, has said: “Racism isn’t born, folks, it’s taught.”
Photo credit: Mahidoodi.