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.
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 CafÃ© 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!”