Since the fatal assault on a young man from The Democratic Republic of Congo a fortnight ago, mainstream Indian media outlets have once again invoked the idea that Indians, and particularly those living in the capital city of Delhi, are racist. Several articles and exposé pieces shed light on experiences of discrimination by African nationals living in Delhi. Undoubtedly, journalists covering the recent incidents of violence directed towards Africans have done important work raising awareness about the need to address this issue.
This reporting, however, may unwittingly oversimplify what is ultimately a more complex set of dynamics. Readers may be led to believe that all Indians perceive Africans as a homogenous racial group and that all African nationals living in Delhi experience life in urban India from only one position – as Black or African.
Could we consider, instead, that Cameroonians, South Africans, Somalis, and Nigerians who come to urban India experience social life in the country differently and in more complex ways than the journalistic reports would have us believe? For that matter, might nationals from the same country experience India differently from one and other based on their economic, gendered, and religious backgrounds? Further still, aren’t Indians likely to perceive African nationals differently based on religion, linguistic ability, gender, and class rather than just their visible difference?
As importantly, the predominant journalistic narrative, which links African bodies to Indians’ racist tendencies, has the potential to obscure the kinds of everyday discrimination and violence that other immigrant groups (Afghans, Northeasterners, and Nepalis) face in Delhi. In this sense, the effort to highlight racism risks reinforcing perceptions of essentialised difference that journalists are ostensibly working against.
To complicate the story that only Africans experience the effects of racism in Delhi, for instance, we have simply to look at the several cases of violence against Indians from the Northeast of the country that have garnered news headlines in the last five years. Or, we might begin to think and engage more closely with the ways caste continues to function as a way to discriminate against those who have historically been deemed inferior in the subcontinent. If we take all of these cases of discrimination together, they suggest a deeper set of economic and social issues brought about by India’s meteoric development and steeped in India’s colonial history that need to be thought through and addressed alongside questions of racial difference.
From 2012-2014 I returned to live the capital city of India to study the ways migration and urban development has changed the city. As an Indian-American who grew up in the multicultural folds of New York City, my experience of race, cultural, gendered, and class difference tuned me in to the stories young people from various ethnic, religious, and national communities I met while spending time in several of South Delhi’s urban villages – Chattarpur, Khirki Extension, and Humayunpur – to name a few.
Over the course of two years doing anthropological research, I met several young men and women who hailed from the Northeast, Nepal, Afghanistan, and several Sub-Saharan African nations who shared with me their experiences of the city. I also developed relationships with the communities where they all lived, meeting and getting to know police officers, real estate agents, NGO personnel, small business owners, and activists in villages where they lived.
In my time in these diverse communities I grew to appreciate the complicated web of relationships that exist across linguistic, religious, ethnic, and racial difference. The ways in which, for instance, the Cameroonian restaurant operators who run quasi-legal kitchens in Chattarpur and Khirki , rely on Bihari laborers to run their businesses. By providing employment to these low-caste migrants from rural areas, they develop relationships that last for years. These are, undoubtedly, relationships that have complicated power dynamics but are nonetheless relationships that belie the simple narrative of racism that has emerged as a result of the episodic violence against African nationals in urban India.
In 2013 I worked closely with a group of young Somali men who lived in Khirki Extension to document the experiences of African nationals who then lived in the village. What started out as a film about racism in Khirki evolved into a complex project on how people living in the urban village feel and experience social difference. What became clear, as we filmed for over six months in the colony, was how complicated and intertwined the relationships were between Indian and African nationals living in the colony. It also became clear how race, as an analytical framework, didn’t quite capture the complexity of the interactions.
The Somalis I got to know and become close with in Khirki, for example, were fluent Hindi speakers. They were able to interact across difference because they knew the language. Often, because of their linguistic abilities, they were able to diffuse potentially volatile situations. They also were able to draw connections across difference through their faith community.
In one particularly powerful interview they conducted for the film we titled Cry Out loud and which first screened at Khoj International Artists’ Association in South Delhi almost three years ago, a Muslim pradhan explained to them that they were good Muslims and had a place in Khirki, but the Christian Africans were not good people and had to be driven out of the village. “Those people, they eat children,” He he said, in a matter of fact manner, reiterating a refrain I heard several times in my time in South Delhi that Africans are cannibals. However, he specified this racist charge as a problem pertaining to Christian African nationals, not Muslims. This sort of complexity, I believe, gets lost when we begin to talk about race and racism as disconnected from a more complex set of social interactions that index other frames of belonging and difference.
In the United States, critical race theorist and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the concept of intersectionality in the 1990s as a way to approach the complexity of racial thinking and discrimination as it becomes enmeshed in other social categories, such as gender, class, language, religion, and, in the Indian case, caste. If we are to approach and ameliorate a politics of racial difference within the context of urban India, I believe we need to think more carefully and look more closely at intersectional experiences in the context of growing social and economic inequalities in the city.
Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan is a filmmaker, photographer and anthropologist, currently at Goldsmiths, University of London.