Tuesday, 15 July 2014

My Experiments with Racism

Caught your attention didn't I? It might be a taboo topic in most countries, not in India it isn't! Its no coincidence that my title is inspired by M.K. Gandhi's autobiography, My Experiments with Truth. While his book spoke about the apartheid faced by the Black natives in South Africa and how the way he was treated by the White South Africans changed his strongly ingrained ideas about racial superiority, my post is going to be more about the blunt bias against brown Indian girls in India.

India is obsessed with Fair skin. Turn on TV, youtube advertisements or street hoardings-  fairness is the USP for every beauty product(clearly with nothing unique about it). Anti-aging cream? Here! And you get to become fairer too. The task of buying a moisturizing cream at a super market is made arduous with a million options all claiming to make you fair, even if all I really want is a regular moisturizer to keep my skin from becoming dry! And as if that's not enough the new fad is Deodorants for Fairer underarms! The ridiculousness of the statement does not hit you initially when you see women flashing their under arms at the screen until you realize that's a body part you can't even see most of the time!

I distinctly remember this one incident as an IDEX fellow at my placement school. While I was taking a class I saw a group of students at the back distracted. when I walked up to them I found the girl on the last bench crying and the boys on the last two benches giggling. Turns out the most notorious(brahmin and by extension fair skinned)boy of the class had called Lakshmi, a demure 8th-grade girl, a nasty name. The Telugu equivalent of a "black witch". I was furious when I found out and I also had a sudden dejavu moment. It reminded me of my childhood where I myself was called names of all imaginable permutations with the word black in it. I thought a South Indian girl growing up in North, East and West of India had it tough but here was Lakshmi with tears flowing down hear cheeks, and I realized it's never easy, no matter where you are from. This is why counseling against incidents shattering the self-confidence of teenage girls at their prime of building their personalities, becomes important.

At the risk of sounding condescending, I find how staying so cut out from the world can make someone so narrow-minded, very bemusing. I recently went to a funeral and one of the ladies walked up to my mother and asked her if I was the younger one? My mom smiled and nodded and her immediate reaction was to shout out loud "What happen to her? She used to be much fairer!" #Ishoutback-Iplaysports. Social etiquette aside it's for garrulous, senseless comments like this one, that I do not like to attend family functions and this is not even the worse I've heard. What tops the list is the sarcastic "Oh! you have two daughters?" #pityface Or "you have two negatives?" The code name for daughter is "negative" as "positive" refers to boys (like we are a set of batteries)! This one time my mom was even advised to save up a lot of dowry since both my sister and I are so dark! I feel like I am not doing enough justice by translating these comments to English because they sound so much ruder in Telugu with the tone in which they are said. Also, it goes without saying not all my relatives are like that, but this would be an apt generalization of most of the Andhra population mentality and that of most Indians as well (and by most I mean 90%).

Well, to be fair (pun intended) there is racism in every country. Just like there exist Black jokes, Jew jokes, Blonde jokes, we have our share of Mallu jokes, Gulti jokes(that's me) and the timeless Sardar jokes. It's like we cannot coexist without constantly offending each other. Sure that one funny forward text message makes our day more lively but at what cost? What is funny about a north eastern boy being publicly murdered in the capital city for the way he looked or a certain cast being denied of relief work supplies post an earth quake or holding someone not guilty in-charge of a crime only because of their skin color? Where does one draw the line?

Indians are not prone to Xenophobia being the diverse mix we are. Yet we are very selective about whom we extend our celebrated hospitality towards. I personally encountered instances where organization leaders preferred to have white exchange volunteers instead of black, only because they believe there will get more "positive publicity" for their organization with white volunteers! It sounds appalling, doesn't it? But I don't see how this is any different from when we jokingly tease a friend in the friends group with origin rooted nicknames? Maybe it's fine because your friend is laughing along, but by doing so are we subconsciously making our minds immune to the idea of demeaning others based on race and thus making us more tolerant of racism?