Several readers have sent me a link to this article, “An African American explains why India is the most racist country in the world” and asked me to express my views. The article discusses how Indians are obsessed with skin colour and discriminate against people of darker skin. The article also progresses to discuss discrimination against people from the North East. Allegedly, Indians use terms such as “Blackie” and “Chinki” to describe certain physical attributes of fellow Indians.
There would always be agreement and disagreement on any subject, especially as sensitive as this one. A lot of people have been in the defensive mode, rejecting the author’s perspective and pointing out racial discrimination in other countries.
Having traveled extensively and having lived in the US, I feel that while racism against Indians could be diminishing around the globe, racism by Indians continues to be rampant. And this is why:
We Indians love to comment on people’s looks. We think it is our birth right. The age old wisdom “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is not something we care to follow. We look at people. Dissect them from head to toe. Stare at them. And we are always happy to share our observations.
It starts with the birth of a baby. Yes, babies! While in the West, compliments such as “cute” and “precious” are showered upon new borns, in India the little person is also not spared from a specialized scrutiny of his / her color, facial features, weight and height! If the baby is dark but born to reasonably light-skinned parents, a whole genetic analysis is done of what could have gone wrong. Dark-skinned great grandparents are tracked down from the family tree to be blamed for such a mishap. Sometimes, the mother is questioned about what all she had been eating to have caused such unprecedented disaster in the family. A very fair cousin’s mother in law keeps regretting, what is the point of searching for a fair daughter- in- law when the granddaughter turned out to be dark?
As we grow up and start attending schools and colleges, there are nicknames given to most of us– Moti, Gappu, Chasmish, Blackie, Kali Maa, Chinki, Taklu, Ganje, Giraffe – I have heard and seen them all. Most teachers ignore such abusive behavior and the bullying continues. Teachers have more important things to worry about ofcourse – such as children’s grades. They only get involved when kids start beating each other up. Even parents do not find anything objectionable if their child indulges in such name-calling. They do not find it offensive at all, as they themselves may have such terms incorporated in their vocabulary.
I remember an incident when my friend’s daughter looked at an African lady in a restaurant and commented “Bhoot” (ghost). The parents told her not to point fingers, but also laughed at her ‘cuteness’. I told the kid that what she said was bad manners. She looked different from that lady too and what if the lady also called her bhoot just because she had never seen somebody who looked like her before? The parents were taken aback and told me not to get too serious and just let the child be and not ‘corrupt’ her innocence.
How is this innocence? Isn’t it ignorance? Shouldn’t we teach our children that this is wrong?
While traveling to other counties, I have noticed that people globally do not comment on a stranger’s looks, unless they have something nice to say. However, in India it is very common to meet people and within the first few minutes of the conversation, they have an opinion on how we look! People are quite vocal about their observations too! If you have a sibling of the same sex, people forget that you are not identical twins and that it should be perfectly normal that you both don’t look the same. They are amazed and absolutely HAVE to comment. It is like a spot the difference contest in a comic book. I have heard the following from people I have known for few minutes:
Your sister does not wear glasses. You must be watching too much TV that’s why you got it early.
You look bigger than your sister. Younger sisters are usually fatter and look older. Look at Karishma, Kareena.
Your parents are tall. How come you are so short?
Speaking of short, I remember an intelligent classmate in college whose height was much below average. The professor referred to him as “Chhotu”. Whenever he raised his hand to answer a question, the professor religiously joked that he could not see him. The boy decided not to participate in the class at all. What was the point of being smarter than most of the class when he would always remain shorter than most of them?
One time, my friend’s mother had come to pick her up from tuitions. Another friend who happened to be from Assam mentioned that her elder sister would be coming to pick her up. Aunty was curious to see what the elder sister looked like, so she stayed back, waiting for the girl to show up. The poor girl came not knowing what was in store for her. One glance at her, and Aunty remarked,
“You are much prettier. Your Didi (elder sister) looks Chinese.”
Just like that! A random and senseless remark!
In the US, commenting on women’s weight in office could potentially result in a lawsuit. In the Indian workplace, a woman gaining or losing weight could be a subject of long discussions over lunch / coffee. It is almost customary to comment on how married women put of weight, how some of them have managed to lose so soon after childbirth, and others have not. It is perfectly professional. Her weight is everybody’s business.
And God forbid, when it comes to marriage (especially arranged) it is okay to tell people that they are too ugly to get married. A daughter in law’s looks continues to be the topic of discussion and comparison for years to come, until the time that a new daughter in law enters the family to shift every body’s focus. I would not like to say that it is only women who are at the receiving end of the comments, because men get judged too.
A couple on a wedding stage is not just showered with flowers and blessings but a lot of criticism. It may be audible to them. Sometimes, we even say that it is not a match! Or something like love is blind (It is meant to be a compliment?). But it is okay. It is acceptable. It is not a big deal. We do not recognise that this is wrong. This could be a problem. This is not nice. As a society, we are used to it.
Why are we so offended with this article then? The point is not that other counties could be worse. The point is that we are like this. We judge people on their looks. We are insensitive and judgmental. And we do not wish to change.