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From Bangalore To Jamaica To America: ‘Race’ As I Experienced It As An Indian Overseas

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By Nikhil Umesh

The year was 1996, and my mother was stranded in London’s Heathrow International Airport with a young girl, recently born, and a mischievous three year old boy. I have blurred memories from this brief time in England, only remembering scarfing down some potatoes that were brought to our hotel room. We were making the approximately 16,000 kilometre expedition from Bangalore to our new home, Kingston, Jamaica.

It was a monumental journey, one that would alter our life trajectories with no going back. And the start of a history lesson — whether I wanted to be taught or not.

boy holding indian flag

These days, I’m thinking a lot about those history lessons: reflecting on the experience of navigating a world moulded by extensive histories of colonial enterprise, capitalistic expansion, and the exploitation of people deemed to be other and less-than. Thinking about what it means to have one’s body racialized, have the melanin in my skin, among other phenotypic features, be cause for stereotype, judgement, and even various privileges.

My family’s ten year stint in Jamaica has left an indelible impact on me. We went through a lot: opened our first business, experienced loss in multiple capacities, mapped out a vision to eventually make it to the United States, befriended many Indians who also made the trek across the seas, and soaked up more sun than we imagined.

In Jamaica, I was referred to as a “coolie”. From my standpoint, the term seemed to have positive connotations, not the least bit offensive. I knew my straight jet-black hair was at least one basis for being referred to as such, since it was applied to anyone who fit the physical descriptors for having East Indian ancestry.

10 years went by without me fully comprehending the racial significance behind the term or knowing the long history of indentured labour that has come to shape the Caribbean. Life went by as usual in that decade. I still ate at Island Grill (a local chain) almost every weekend, getting my fill of perfectly seasoned jerk chicken, replete with sides of callaloo rice and festival, a type of fried dumpling.

Being an avid lover of food, Jamaican food is something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon, with African, Indian, Chinese, and Spanish influences creating a cuisine reflective of the island’s storied past and evolving present. That said, cuisine is a vector with which we can think on the origins of the word “coolie”. Curry is a mainstay of Jamaica’s food scene, product of the culinary talent of indentured labourers from India.

In Trinidad and other countries, “coolie” is a racial slur, but it was tossed around so innocuously in Jamaica, that I felt the island to be some type of colour blind utopia. But little did I know that I was slumbering in my own historical amnesia.

Gaiutra Bahadur describes the history behind the enterprise of indentured labour and its link to the word “coolie” in Dissent Magazine: “Between 1838 and 1917 Indian [people] came to the Caribbean as “coolies”, indentured labourers used by the British to replace emancipated slaves on plantations throughout the empire. The traffic in indentured labour was one third the size of the British slave trade, with more than a million Indians shipped to roughly a dozen colonies worldwide. Despite its scale, the history of indenture—neglected as a postscript to the abolition of slavery—has been largely lost to collective memory.

“Coolie” is a term I no longer hear. We left Jamaica in 2006 with the help of low priced international moving companies we relocated to live in the United States — Greensboro, North Carolina to be exact. I’ll be turning 22 on August 15, and as I sit in the country my parents dreamed of making it to, having crossed several borders and navigated new spaces, I have had the chance to finally process some key questions regarding immigration, identity, and race. Unlike Jamaica, where I was oblivious to the history and development of the island’s racial formation, it didn’t take long for me to see and experience the more polarizing racialization of the United States. From police violence and racialized mass incarceration aimed at Black people to the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, many of them Latin American, America wasn’t trying very hard to hide the ways in which White supremacy is blueprinted into its institutions.

Important in Gaiutra Bahadur’s telling of the history of indentured servitude is that racial slavery pre-empted and drove it in fundamental ways. Both the United States and the Caribbean were sites of racial slavery, where the construct of race was used to justify the enslavement of people kidnapped from Africa. The relation between enslaved Black people and the White owning class was the template that enabled over 36,000 Indian workers to be brought to Jamaica between 1845 and 1917. The United States has its own histories and waves of South Asian migration. But anti-Black racism, perhaps in different manifestations, is still foundational to racial formation in both regions. And importantly, shapes the ways in which South Asians are treated, whether as “coolies” in Jamaica or as “model minorities” in the United States.

That being said, the notion of the “model minority” has been a cornerstone of conservative White race commentary since the 1960s, positing Asian Americans as evidence of the colour blind meritocracy that is the United States. As a South Asian, I’ve been stereotyped as docile, apolitical, and hard working. All good things, right? But not until my time in college did I process the perverse ulterior motives behind these tired tropes.

The United States has used the success of (some) Asian immigrants to contend that America is a level playing field and lack of success among other people of colour is due to a lack of their own initiative. The model minority myth has been a weapon deployed against Black Americans, positing poverty along racial lines being due to some sort of cultural pathology, rather than being founded in structural and historical inequities that were birthmarked into the country.

Being framed as a “model minority” means dealing with stereotypes that have traditionally positive connotations. Consequently, South Asians have a hard time seeing the myth as a form of racism, giving its utility as a lynchpin to maintain anti-Black racism much staying power. Not until the post-9/11 era with burgeoning Islamophobia did I finally consider myself a “victim” of racism. In my first few weeks as an 8th grader at a charter school in Greensboro, I was referred to as a “terrorist”. The word was tossed around flippantly. Students joked that I would bomb the school at any moment. I laughed along, not sure what to make of the comments. As the Bush Administration was waging its “War on Terror,” American foreign and military policy (the same thing, if you ask me) doled out moral permissibility to deem me as inherently capable of carrying out mass violence.

Since 9/11, we have seen a surge in anti-Muslim violence in the U.S. Many people deemed to “look Muslim”, such as Hindus and Sikhs, have been victim of vicious hate crimes. Public paranoia surrounding Islam has ostensibly been galvanized by the media and political figures. For instance, Sunando Sen, an Indian immigrant, was fatally pushed onto the subway tracks in New York City in December of 2012. His assailant is reported as having said to detectives: “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims… Ever since 2001 when they put down the Twin Towers, I’ve been beating them up.

It’s been 19 years since my mom, sister, and I were stranded in London. Once I hopped on that flight out of Bangalore, I entered this “in between” space. A space that has meant redefining and questioning what it means to have attachments to any national identity, and carving out new ways that I identify myself.

The melanin in my skin renders me an outsider here in North Carolina, but the American twang in my accent renders me an “other” in India, as well. Though, the latter carries benefits and praise, for I’m seen within my extended family as someone more hip and educated than if I grew up in Bangalore. Still, I’ll never fully be Indian or American.

Like Sunando Sen, I’m not Muslim. Interestingly, I was raised Catholic, and my mother’s family has the surname Gama. Both are vestiges of Portuguese empire in the Indian subcontinent. Imperial policy, and its violent machinations, have played instrumental roles in my life.

But imperialism still lives on — it didn’t come to a full stop when India gained independence on August 15, 1947. It evolved. Moving around the world, I’m seeing ways that neo-colonialism is deeply entrenched on a global scale, with White supremacy, anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, and various forms of marginalization still being manufactured by the powers that be.

You must be to comment.
  1. avid reader

    Thanks so much for this brilliant piece, Nikhil! Looking forward to reading your future pieces as well.

  2. muiwah john

    Nice post, but i am from North east india and as an ethnic minority, since we look like asians we face racial discrimination to an extent by indians that we feel, it would have been better if we were not part of this country. Our women are raped, men are killed by indians. And i aint even talking about the military, police or government, but common Indians who commit such heinous crimes.This has been happening since past 60 years, since india gained independence. We do not trust indians anymore.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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