Some speak the truth, some hide it and some blurt it out. Last week, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Tarun Vijay Tarun Vijay stumbled inadvertently into voicing a sentiment that most in North India and many in South India hold unabashedly. During an interview to Al Jazeera, the politician said that India was not a racist country because we “live with...black people around us” and followed this up with: “If we were racist, why would....all the entire South – you know, Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?”
Our North has long looked upon the South as the land of the dark-skinned. Every second lorry in the North has this saying scrawled on its behind: Buri nazar vala tera munh kala – you, with the evil-eye, your face is black. Can there be anything more telling than the association of black with the despised ?
But has the South seen itself as any different? We conveniently hide behind the narrative that victims of racism cannot be perpetrators. Indians have convinced others that since we are not as white as the so-called White, we cannot be racist or bigoted. The fact is that Indian society is the soft-porn of racism. When the hard-core version makes an appearance we run for cover, unable to find any way to explain the violence.
We are a country overstocked with variant forms of discrimination encompassing every section of society. We bring out our non-Brahmin gods to prove that casteism among Brahmins is non-existent and display Shakti worship to push rampant misogyny to the side. In the Muslim community, women are still fighting to abolish the practice of triple talaq, challenging some of the oppressive patriarchal social norms that the Muslim Law Board refuses to remove. And though the hijab is a matter of individual choice, we cannot deny that in many Muslim households, women are pressurised to don the dark cape. And it is also in this land that many Christian nuns silently submit to sexual abuse at the hands of clergymen.
We are so busy pointing fingers at each other’s repugnant behaviour that we are unable to confront the obvious reality of our collective nature: an obsession with greater whiteness and racism. But we display Krishna, the dark-skinned god to satisfy ourselves that we are beyond such abominable feelings.
I have lived all my life in Chennai, in a home where colour and race rarely mattered and was educated in a school that addressed these concerns on a regular basis. Yet, somewhere hidden in me beyond the intellectual understanding of discrimination and stereotyping exists a feeling, an ugly one that I refuse to acknowledge – racism. It hangs in the air all over our country like a toxic pall that no one wants to see or which one accepts passively. We all feel it and without batting an eyelid give it subliminal and surreptitious expression in our everyday lives.
In schools and colleges, it is normal to find students making overtly racist remarks at darker skinned students. Beauty is judged by the fairness-grade and teachers too participate in this discrimination. Very few educational institutions create contexts for teachers to be sensitised to their own socio-cultural inadequacies and therefore, this goes on from generation to generation. At home, parents, uncles and aunties make casual remarks about skin colour. When a child is born, the first quality that is noted is the colour of its skin. Right from childhood, we cultivate this quality to the point that it gets gift wrapped in ideas of beauty and natural attraction.
We in Tamil Nadu who are today outraged by Vijay’s remarks have been reared on crude karuppan (black) or korangu (monkey) jokes in our movies for decades. Scenes where a man goes to “check out” the girl – only to find that she is dark-skinned, heavy or has a squint – and then makes a quick getaway in what is supposed to be comical-fear are common. But rarely have I heard filmgoers, irrespective of the darkness of their skin or their own caste, be it Goundar, Tevar, Vanniar or any other group, raise serious objections to these characterisations.
From time to time, Hindu, Muslim and Christians right-wingers file cases against producers and directors, taking objection to the way their faith has been picturised, but I don’t know of any instance where Tamilians have filed a defamation suit on the basis of racism. Let us also not forget that we love our fair actresses.
We cannot run away from the fact that caste and colour are intertwined in India and even more so in the South. An individual with a darker skin tone is almost always presumed to be non-Brahmin, even if it is not always true. The darker your skin, the higher the chances that you will be perceived as lower down in the caste ladder. And without doubt, darker skin is also associated with lesser hygiene and cleanliness, though the fair ones are happy to hand over our off-white or brown-coloured babies to them for care. (There are, of course, those who would prefer North Indians for child-care but South Indian domestic help).
Unfortunately, white skin is also aspired to and therefore, no matter your skin tone, there is always a shade that is lighter, which becomes the comparative white. We, the black people of India desire the fair. Even in the case of Tamil Nadu’s late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, we have to accept that her fairness and upper-caste identity had a role to play in her wide appeal and universal acceptance. One would overhear followers discuss her skin and colour, which adds up to beauty and inevitably, to the racist assumption of greater honesty and integrity. Sometimes, class and economic might can out weigh this issue. Nevertheless the idea of beauty that is ascribed to a relative lighter shade in skin colour does not go away.
A perfunctory glance at the matrimonial columns of any newspaper says it all. Almost everyone wants a fair partner belonging to a specific caste or religion. None of us seem outraged by this vulgarity. The very publications where such matrimonial ads are published weekly wax eloquent about equality and have, over the last week – after attacks on students from African countries in Greater Noida last month and Vijay’s subsequent remarks – published columns about racism. They are also the same publications that provide space to fairness cream ads. Therefore, the media needs to take responsibility for continuing to support our society’s racist, casteist and misogynistic tendencies.
Coming to terms
I have travelled to the United States numerous times for concerts and have invariably stayed at Brahmin, South Indian homes. I have rarely come across Indians who have friends from the African-American community. And I am talking about friends and not official work place colleagues, because in that they have no choice. Their children may have friends belonging to different races but the parents rarely do, if at all.
Like most minorities, Indians remain within their Indian network (this is further narrowed down by region, language, caste and class) but even the few relationships that breach that barrier tend to gravitate towards the whites. You would also find Indians most comfortable sitting at the dining table and sharing a meal with their Hispanic house help but, back home, would not be caught dead dining with the domestic help who cleans their Chennai home everyday. In fact the privileged will even say that in India, we should not give these people too much room because they will take undue advantage of us.
It is imperative to understand that all markers of discrimination, including colour consciousness and racism, are fundamentally grounded in misogyny and patriarchy and it is women who are first and most affected. Therefore, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj claims that the attacks on African students in Greater Noida were not preplanned and hence cannot be called racist, she is aiding the very same tools that hurt women directly. Similarly, when anti-romeo squads are let loose in Uttar Pradesh where, under the garb of cracking down on eve-teasing, they harass couples, the BJP is only displaying an unapologetic archaic, anti-women stance.
This is what we are and the sooner we begin engaging with this reality, higher are the chances that we can create a more sensitive future. Irrespective of whether it is sanctioned in a book, is part of a ritual or explained in mysticism, any practice that instills or triggers discrimination needs to be openly denounced. But this may not be easy as it will, without doubt, destabilise some of our core notions of culture.
The idea that the private and the public are separate also needs to be demolished. Every act or thought that occurs in the private space feeds and nurtures the public space and vice versa. Therefore, the change has to begin from the personal.