Why Is India Ignoring The Fact That There Is Actual Racism Here That Goes Beyond Fifty Shades Of Brown Skin?

Posted on September 24, 2013 in Thinking Required!, Trending

By Rita Banerji:

I was pleasantly surprised by the loud protests from Indian-Americans when Nina Davuluri was attacked with racist slurs for winning the Miss America title. This is because while living in the US, I found that first and even second-generation Indian-Americans, generally take a submissive approach to racist abuse, and choose to live with it silently. I was often advised by well-meaning “aunties” and “uncles” against resisting or protesting too loudly.

miss america

Still, after the Davuluri incident, some have pointed out that Indians cannot complain about white racism since we ourselves bear such extreme prejudices against darker shades of brown among our own communities! Personally I believe we need to confront both! But what we are not talking about yet, is that there is actual racism in the Indian mindset that goes beyond fifty shades of brown skin!

For example I can’t help wondering, “What if Nina Davuluri was mistakenly identified as African instead of Arab?” In the barrage of protest tweets from Indians would we then have seen some blatantly racist ones too? I put this question to some Indians, and I was told vehemently that Nina could pass for Arab because there are Arab women with darker skin, but there is no way Nina looks African! So I ask, “What if an African woman was mistakenly identified as Indian?” I was smugly told that would still be “American ignorance!”

But the fact is that there are people of mixed African descent who many Indians would assume to be Indian. For example, one of my closest American friends whose family descends from Eritrea (in North Eastern Africa) was baffled when while travelling in India, she was constantly assumed to be Indian, and ‘Eritrea’ was assumed to be a non-descript village in southern India!

But our ignorance and racist assumptions get more amplified when I point out that there are indeed communities in India, that Indians would not only assume to be ‘African’ or ‘Chinese,’ just based on instant appearance, but also treat with extreme prejudice. There are many indigenous Indian communities like the Kondh and Bonda, who have African facial features, and whose faces are conveniently used to eroticize the Indian tourist industry, but who are never accepted as representative of the Indian face, the way Nina Davuluri wants to be representative of the American look. There are also millions of Indians with oriental facial features, yet if you scan the faces in the Indian film, advertisement and television industries, their representation is literally nil! No actors or actresses, no models, and there is only one major Indian television channel with one newscaster from the NE. This is shocking, because this is not a miniscule population in India! There are eight states where majority of the people have oriental features. These include 7 states in the North-east and Sikkim. And there are at least four other states– Bengal, U.P., Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh, where there are substantially large populations of Indians with oriental facial features.Yet, there is no indication that this is also an average ‘Indian look.’ Even more ironically, unlike Nina Davuluri who is from an immigrant family in the U.S., these communities with African and Oriental racial features in India are native to India! Their history and roots trace back 5000 years to the Indus times, as DNA evidence from archaeological sites indicate.

If native Indians with oriental and African facial features are so blatantly excluded, what hope do immigrants have of being embraced as Indian? Oddly, this perhaps is one of the finest examples of India’s inherent racism! The Parsi community, that is far smaller than the other racial communities mentioned, has been whole-heartedly embraced as ‘Indian.’ They are represented in films, advertising, T.V. and indeed Parsi women have been celebrated as the ‘Face of India’ in various beauty pageants. Undoubtedly this is because the Parsis of Iranian origin with their fair, almost white skins, and Caucasian features are much more desirable of being seen as ‘Indian’ than the other races are! There also are immigrants from China in India, who’ve been here 250 years, but even now they are referred to as ‘Chinese,’ and relegated to small corners of newspaper articles hunting for ‘good Chinese restaurants,’ in India.

There are also African immigrants of long in India, who many Indians don’t even know about. A few years ago, I attended a Sidi Goma concert. The Sidis are a community in India whose ancestors it is believed were brought to India from Africa as slaves more than 700 years ago. However, over the centuries the Sidis have lost all touch with Africa and their roots there. Their clothes, food, language, and customs are all local; in the case of this Sidi community I met — Gujarati! The younger musicians talked about the extreme prejudices and isolation they faced growing up, both in their neighbourhood and in the schools, and the constant humiliation they had to tolerate being bombarded with racist slurs like “Habshi” (Nigger!)

How long does it take for an immigrant community to have its face counted as representative of the nation they call home? Isn’t that the question we have asked of Nina Davuluri’s representation as Miss America? Is 700 years enough for the Sidis? Get this: the Sidi Goma group was detained for hours by Indian airport authorities when they tried to leave for a concert tour once. The airport authorities, despite their Indian passports, believed they were illegal Africans in India!

Sometime ago, there were a series of rapes that targeted women from the North-eastern states studying or working in Delhi. Where violence on women is an escalating factor in India, there are factors like caste and race that compounds the threats with prejudices that go beyond gender, and make some women in India even more vulnerable. But even when faced with organized protests from North-eastern communities in Delhi, there was reluctance in the media and in the public in general to acknowledge racism behind these attacks.

It was during this time that I was sitting with some friends and family at a Café that is frequented by college students. There was a group of students at the table next to us, loudly discussing the rapes of the North-Eastern women, in language that was unabashedly racist. One of the men after referring to the oriental facial features of the women in unflattering terms went on to ask why any man would want to rape these women! No one from the group seemed to find this objectionable. People at my table shifted uncomfortably, and pretended like they didn’t hear!

Finally I stood up, and pulled my chair up to the next table, informing the young crowd that since they were speaking loud enough to include me in their conversation, I was joining them too. I then told them, “Listen carefully. I’m going to tell you something that I believe your parents have never discussed with you. And your teachers have never discussed with you. But it is something you need to know. And I promise you, you are not going to forget this for the rest of your life. What you just said about these women, your fellow citizens, was not just sexist, it was racist. If you deny it, that will make you racist too. If you can accept it and change the way you speak and think, it will make you a healthier human being.” There was a stunned silence, some feeble protests and the group quickly paid their bills and left immediately after. But what I know is that they will never forget that little chat.

What I hope from the Davuluri incident is that Indians will find in this the motivation to turn the mirror inward and examine our own national conscience for the deeply entrenched racism that mars us. And as a little step in that direction I’ll advise this little exercise to all Indians (and non-Indians) reading this. Click on the photo montage below to see the beautiful slide show of Indian women. And as you see each face say it aloud, “She is the Face of India!



Rita Banerji

Rita Banerji is an author and gender activist, and the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign to end India's female genocide. Her book 'Sex and Power: Defining History Shaping Societies' is a historical and social look at how the relationship between gender, sexuality and power in India has led to the ongoing female gendercide. Her website is www.ritabanerji.com, and twitter handle @Rita_Banerji.

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  • There’s Racism in India That Most Indians Think is Completely Acceptable! | REVOLUTIONS IN MY SPACE: A BLOG BY RITA BANERJI
  • Jared Purdy

    Great article Rita. Very well said, and good on you for confronting those men at the table in the café. I recognized the name of a man who took (at least) one of those photos above. Hos name is Arif Siddiqui, and has spent considerable time in Arunachal Pradesh documenting the incredibly beautiful people who live. He has a web site titled Amazing Arunachal. Regretfully, as you point out, those people, and clearly others on the subcontinent, as numerous as they are, are totally minoritized by the dominant, mainstream Indian culture. I teach at a community college in Canada and we have a large international student population, with many (thousands) from India. One of the courses that I teach deals specifically with racism, marginalization, media literacy and equity. As part of one of the class discussions during one of the units I bring up the Arunachal web site and we discuss the marginalization of those people from mainstream Indian culture and the effects that it has not just on Indians, but on the international community with respect to our sense of representation in India.

      Rita Banerji

      hi Jared — Thanks for the observation here! Yes, I know Arif Siddiqui. He is one of the supporting photographers of The 50 Million Missing Campaign on flickr. We have more than 2500 photographers supporting our flickr pool, and we make thematic online photo exhibitions with these photos, and this one here is also a from the The 50 Million Missing photographers. There are others here http://genderbytes.wordpress.com/photoshows/ Arif is an incredible photographer. It is not just Arunachal, but he has documented all the 7 states in the NE where people have oriental features and the whole purpose of his documentation is that these are not a homogenous people who “look the same” to Indians from the mainland! But this is as diverse as the rest of India! The course you teach is fantastic. I wish we could have that in colleges and universities in India. But I think we are too far from that. Bigotry is almost a natural form of expression in how communities identify with each other. In fact I wish the U.S. where I lived and studied had that too. I do believe that even in the U.S. they haven’t learnt that racism will not go away on its own. It will have to be discussed in school, in communities and dealt with. I think Canada as a nation has done much better in dealing with it. And I get that from Canadian Indian friends living in the U.S.


      Well, Canada is a big country, and as such racial issues play out differently from one end to the other, and with different communities. Aboriginal people continue to have to deal with racial discrimination and neo-colonialism in the way they are dealt with by the police and the federal government, as well as the general population in certain parts of the country. Young black men living in large urban centres continue to be racially profied by the police at an alarming rate. If you aren’t black or Aboriginal you could exist without knowing that these issues seriously affect those communities

      I remind my students that Toronto, with a population of 2.5 million, and if the surrounding areas are included, it balloons to 4.5 million, but it is not representative of Canada. A quick drive north of the city to a small town will affirm that very quickly. Places like Toronto, and other large cities do have an affect on the “cosmopolitan” nature of Canada though. The Canadian government, though not always as erudite in the implementation as in the design of policy, did pass the Multicultural Act as well as enshrined the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into our Constitution, as far back as 1982. The Charter in particular has done a lot to protect both individual and collective (group) rights, such as in religion, same sex issues and racial discrimination. While we recognize the “multicultural” character of Canada, and on a certain level embrace that difference, the canons in our academic institutions and the paradigms within those hallowed halls, including the justice system, and the government in general are Anglo and Eurocentric.

      Still, on different fronts there are challenges to that narrative, and the course that I teach is one place that we can contest those paradigms, and there are courses like that taught at post secondary institutions across the country. There was a very interesting piece in the Washington Post the other day, it showed a map, and the author of the piece had taken some research from some another source and pieced together this map which showed which countries in the world were the most racially tolerant and which ones where the least. The conclusion for that characterisation was drawn from a single question (which I have a problem with). The question was something to the effect of “Would you feel comfortable having a neighbour who was of a different racial background than you?” There are a lot of problems with that question, one being many people don’t understand what the construct of race even means, they often confuse it with nationality or culture, or both. But there you have it. I was surprised to see three things: 1.India was labelled the MOST racially intolerant country on the planet, 2) Pakistan faired better than India in that regard, and 3) the USA and Canada were the same!! A question that I have is who does the average Indian believe would be “racially” different them? Pakistanis? White people? Black people????? The Pakistani results are also interesting because “racially” they are the same as many Indians, but there is a history of conflict and religion can often be thrown into the murky mix of racial identity. And then of course there is the Canada and US issue. Having lived next to the USA for 53 years, having traveled there extensively, having been inundated with their culture and news, I can most definitely say that on the issue of racial tolerance and acceptance, we are worlds apart.

      I’ll check out that link, thanks for that. And Yes Ari is indeed a great photographer and what I like about his shooting is that people are very comfortable around him and it shows in the portraits that he captures. Have a look at the link here, it will give you a sense as to the racial and colonialistic issues that Canada’s Aboriginal people have to deal with. It’s one of many examples (the setting was in eastern Canada, in one of our Maritime provinces) of Aboriginal – colonial conflict. The comments that follow at the end of the piece, for the most part, give me hope. http://cultivatingalternatives.com/2013/10/20/dear-rex-colonialism-exists-and-youre-it/


    As someone who’s not from India, I have to say that those photos were enlightening. Many are not faces that I would ever have linked to India beforehand. This is great article, and the comments that I’ve read are also quite hard hitting and thoughtful. I particularly like Truth Seeker’s closing thought. It’s not the giver of a name who determines whether it’s offensive or not, only the recipient of the name can do that. Blessings.


    “……..The Parsi community………has been whole-heartedly embraced as ‘Indian………..’”

    Just like the ‘white’ skinned immigrants like Irish,Spanish etc are easily assimilated into the American society.The Parsi people too have been assimilated into Indian society.Not difficult to understand.

    Rumbemo Kithan

    Thank you Rita for elucidating beautifully the concerns of the North eastern people of India. I, myself being from Nagaland, one of the North eastern states, can fully vouch for the fact that we are on the receiving end of racist comments and behaviors from our fellow Indians(especially from North India). Most people in India think the word “Chinki” is not racist, but many fail to point out the fact that they use the term derogatorily and against the wishes of the recipients of such racist comments. There are many more racist behaviors directed towards Indians of mongoloid origins and many Indians of mongoloid features have sadly taken such racist behaviors as a way of life when the come to “mainland Indians”, partly because of the apathy of the state and partly because Indians generally never accept the fact that they are being racist when they behave in such manner. I can only imagine the racist comments which will be rift in Indian social media in the “impossible” event that an Indian with mongoloid features win Miss India.

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