There was a time when Indians — even very rich ones — travelling to the West would routinely complain about casual racism. This racism would take many forms. They would be harassed by white officers at immigration desks at airports. They would be the last to be served at shops. At hotels, they would be given the worst rooms, at restaurants, the worst tables.
People like you: You’re a prime target for Asians at an international airport. Steve Hockstein / Bloomberg
I could be wrong but I hear fewer people complaining now. Yes, if you are brown — or even worse, Muslim — then you will probably have to endure slightly more security than your white fellow passengers on a flight. At American airports, I take it for granted that I will be patted down by a security guard regardless of whether the metal detector beeps when I pass through it. I could make an issue out of it (if you want to know how, there’s a great scene in Harold and Kumar Go To Guantanamo Bay which tells you what to do) but I recognize that racial profiling is not necessarily the same as racism. And besides, it’s hardly a nuisance.
But racism at commercial establishments — shops, restaurants, hotels, etc. — seems to have largely disappeared. These days, Indians are looked upon as big spenders and largely welcomed. Nor is there a problem at immigration. If your papers are in order, there’s hardly ever a problem. Over the last six months, I must have passed through Western immigration checkpoints over a dozen times. My experience was that things have actually got better rather than worse — even Heathrow has shorter queues.
However, there’s another phenomenon that I believe is on the rise: racism by brown people against other brown people. Or let me put it differently: discrimination directed at Indians by Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Kenyan Asians, etc.) who live abroad.
It could be a coincidence but almost the only times I’ve ever had trouble at Heathrow immigration is when there’s been an Asian manning the desk. My own visa status is slightly complicated. Though I have an Indian passport, I have right of residence in the UK because I was born in London. My passport contains no UK visa, but it does have an embossed stamp saying that I have right of abode.
This means that when I go through UK immigration, they do not stamp my passport or require me to fill out any cards. Till recently it also meant that I could go through the UK passport holders queue (where you just walk through waving your passport at the man at the desk, open, of course, to the page with right of abode permit.)
Of late however, I’ve stopped doing this. This is because on three separate occasions, the man at the desk in the UK passport holders queue would not let me pass. “You have an Indian passport; this queue is not meant for you,” I was told. On each occasion, there was a brown person at the desk.
Now, when I go to the regular (all other passports) counter, I’m usually told (if the guy behind the desk is white or black): “You don’t need to come here, sir. You can just walk through the British passport holders counter.” But because of the three bad experiences, I go to the “all other passports” queue anyway.
Often this gets ridiculous. Last month, I was flying from Frankfurt to London. At check-in, they saw my residence permit and gave me my boarding card. There were no problems at security or immigration. But at the gate, where they double-check that you have a UK visa (because if you are refused entry, the airline is held responsible), the Asian girl checking passports for Lufthansa refused to let me pass. She had never seen a residency permit before, she said. Fair enough, I said, but could she check with a superior who had? No, she would not. Instead, she held up the queue, and cross-questioned me. Did I have an ID card? What did I do? Did I know where I would stay in London? And so on.
With each question, she grew progressively ruder, telling me, “I’m from the UK; I’ve done immigration for 13 years.” When I protested, she threatened me, “I can hold you back and make sure you miss your flight.” Eventually, her superior (German-white) noticed that the queue was held up, looked at my passport and waved me through. “You can take my name and report me if you like,” the Asian girl shouted after me. “I don’t care.”
If she had been white, I would have accused her of racism.
So it is at shops. Many Asians who work for upmarket shops in London dye their hair brown and try hard to look European rather than Asian, sometimes even affecting Italian accents. This is fine. It may make life easier for them. What isn’t fine is that some of them then try and avoid serving Indian customers. And if they are forced to, then they often do it with barely concealed hostility.
What is it with Asians in Europe (and to a lesser extent in the US)? Do they resent Indian Indians, especially those who can travel first class or go to nice shops? Do they feel that they got into their jobs only to deal with white people, not with those from the old country?
Could it be that as India’s status has grown in the world they envy us for doing so well despite having remained in our own country?
Or could it be, at least in the case of the immigration officers and the rude Asian girl at Lufthansa security in Frankfurt, that they feel under an obligation to bend over backwards, to be whiter than white, to convince their colleagues that they are not showing any favours to people of their own skin colour?
I haven’t a clue.
But it’s a funny thing, isn’t it? India makes it in the community of nations, the world greets us warmly and racism begins to disappear.
And then, our own people turn against us.
Also Read Vir’s previous Lounge columns
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org