Unpacking Indian racism, in 6 not-so-easy steps
“For several years certain laboratories have been trying to produce a serum for ‘denegrification’; with all the earnestness in the world, laboratories have sterilized their test tubes, checked their scales, and embarked on researches that might make it possible for the miserable Negro to whiten himself and thus to throw off the burden of that corporeal malediction.” – Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks (1952)
Fanon, a black man born in Martinique, had a biting sense of humour. Philosopher, psychiatrist, Marxist and anti-colonial revolutionary, he might not have been surprised, had he been alive today, to learn of the many so-called whitening creams available in the markets of India and Africa. He wouldn’t be shocked at their popularity – after all, the black man’s desire “to be white” is a recurrent theme in Black Skin White Masks.
A slew of incidents of violence against Black Africans and Indians from the eight Northeastern states, culminating last month in an attack by up to 600 men on a Nigerian man in Greater Noida on the outskirts of Delhi, has led to the media highlighting criticism of ‘Indian racism’. However, there has been very little attempt to locate the roots of this racism in India beyond perfunctory stabs at equating it with casteism.
For three days in Greater Noida, mobs targeted Africans following the death of a young Indian. Rumours of drug peddlars and cannibals swirled. A Kenyan woman was pulled out of a taxi and beaten up by 10 men. African envoys called for the UN to investigate these incidents, while Indian ministers denied there was any racism at all.
Was there? Wasn’t there? Who’s right? In a nation where racism has always been portrayed as a problem of white-majority nations – a message reinforced by the state – this kind of defensive posture was not entirely unexpected. It is also a nation where there has been very little public discussion on racism. Previous literature has focused on the context of caste. But here, too, the iconic figure who called for “the annihilation of caste”, B.R.Ambedkar, was himself confused and conflicted about race, with some evidence that he actually looked down upon Black Africans.
This idea of racism in India: Does it exist? If so, where is it? In villages or cities? In north India or South India? Who are the racists? And why are we seeing these attacks now?
Is it about light-skinned Indians discriminating against dark-skinned Indians? Is it about black Indians discriminating against black Africans: In that case where do attacks on light-skinned men and women from the Northeast fit in? How can it be called racism when so many Indian couples all around – almost everyone actually – are of diverse skin colour (one dark, the other light, their children a mix)? Is it about caste, where light-skinned Brahmins feel superior to dark-skinned Dalits? Where then to place the dark-skinned Brahmin?
Is it about North Indian men? How is it then that in 2016, a mob stripped a Tanzanian woman in Bengaluru in the south? It’s not easy, unpacking this idea of racism in India.
In order to unpack it, we must begin with the basics. First, we must deal with the headline acts of violence: we are talking about visible minorities who stand out by their looks, their eating habits and cultural practices. I remember talk of the ‘smell of curry’ in England decades ago, when only Indians celebrated Diwali. That this is no longer the case is the product of decades of policymaking focused on encouraging diversity in various spheres of life. In India, the official narrative is that diversity is a given in this land. But this is not so. Men and women from Africa and the Northeast stand out because of shrinking diversity. Muslim and Dalit ghettoes have proliferated with no attempt at encouraging integration. The experience at the workplace and education is no different.
This lack of diversity brings us to our second point. Racism in India is possibly a product of casteism, and must be read alongside casteism. Like caste, it has become institutionalized. It is no longer about headline acts – a mob of 600 attacking one African man, a Muslim lynched for carrying buffaloes for slaughter. It is insidious, ubiquitous, lurking under the skin. We need to look beyond the headlines.
What is the process by which any form of bigotry becomes institutionalized? It is by the process of appropriation of privilege – point number three.
Many school, college and university students in the West, particularly America, are taught about Peggy Macintosh’s short primer on White Privilege, which makes the point that racism is not about acts of racism but about privileges, such as the freedom to live where you want, without having to worry about unpleasant neighbours, finding a restaurant that serves your kind of food, etc. For instance: “Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.” She lists 50 such privileges.
But in India, is racism about privilege alone? Not every light-skinned Indian has the privilege to go on a late night date, to wear what they like (a short skirt for instance), or choose to marry a partner of another religion or caste. So while you do have a privileged life -- that is denied to, say the Dalit manual scavenger -- you still consider the African and the Manipuri to be more privileged than you. Macintosh’s privilege theory is about your privilege alone. This is not that alone; this is a backlash against perceptions of privilege.
Here the majority feels the visible minority enjoys privileges that it does not have. This then is point number four – envy of the other’s perceived privileges. This returns us to Frantz Fanon’s point about the black man wanting to be white. You can see that the African is black – in your little knowledge, primitive -- and yet he is able to afford a better home than you. You see the person from the Northeast is an outsider, who doesn’t look anything like you, is probably a Christian, and yet speaks English better than you. The ‘average Indian’ from Greater Noida uses whitening creams and wears low-waist jeans and cool quiffed hair with beautiful shoes and belts and sunglasses. They work out at the gym and some look like hipsters.
But it’s not as if men did not try to look like their heroes in the 60s and 70s. So what’s different now? The difference is that they then were men for whom the notion of privilege was entrenched. They were from the upper middle classes who would make their way abroad sooner or later and, if they didn’t settle there, return to good jobs and marriages. Those from the lower classes weren’t beset by envy because they hadn’t a chance. If you didn’t have a pair of denim jeans by the age of 20, you were unlikely to ever have one. So you shut your mind out of that reality of want. There is no doubt that Indian society is less stratified now than then, although income inequality is increasing. Both are results of the process of economic liberalisation.
And this brings us to the fifth point – aspirations and political polarization. The growth in the Indian middle classes post liberalization has been accompanied by a growing tide of political antipathy toward the Indian Other. This other is the ‘Lutyens lot’ who live in the luxury of central and south Delhi, who prefer to speak in English rather than in their mother tongue, who may even have contempt for Hindi speakers and have been picking the fruits of liberalization that are meant for you.
Underlying this entire edifice is India’s ancient problem of patriarchy. Liberalisation has also unleashed a trickle of freedoms for women, possibly both inside and outside the home. More women are working in urban areas, a process that has been accompanied by a rise in the number of rapes and other forms of sexual assault as men feel their masculine entitlements under siege. This then is our last point – point number six -- misogyny.
We have seen that men attack visible minorities, men for whom the idea of superiority is entrenched because of institutionalised casteism, men who do not question their own privilege but who are consumed by envy of the other’s privilege, and men who have felt alienated by the perceived intolerance of the Lutyens lot.
To my mind the men who attack Africans and Indians from the Northeast are no different from the men who rape and subject women to sexual assault. These assaults are two sides of the same coin – both are driven by centuries of institutionalized privilege and both have their backs to the wall because of changes overtaking Indian society.
It’s been four years now since an Indian engineering student was shot in the head in the town of Salford in England, an act that threatened to rupture ties between India and the UK. What was the motive? Was it a solitary act of violent racism? Was it a gangland rite of passage? Or was it a motiveless murder? I have struggled with the answer but now feel more strongly than before the act of violence was fuelled by a psychology of envy of the perceived Other.
It’s late at night and a well-dressed group of young Indian men and women are returning with Christmas shopping. The location is close by a housing estate, the equivalent of an Indian slum. There’s Anuj Bidwe – a man asks him for the time. he should walk away. Instead, he looks at his watch.