Growing up in America, when asked about my heritage, I always answered that I was Indian. Since moving to India last August, I realized that this specification is no longer valid—really, it is redundant.
I now identify as being ‘South Indian,’ not entirely by choice. Even while speaking Bangla in the local train, I am asked, “Where in South India are you from?” Facial features evidently speak louder than any language.
I have taken pride in my newfound regional identity. I do love tiffins and after visiting my Ammamma’s native village in December, I was instilled with a deep sense of Andhra pride.
That being said, I have realized that being South Indian entails a lot of emotional work of educating the public and dismantling stereotypes.
I was recently in the Andaman Islands when a Bengali man began speaking to me. “Where are you from?” he asked.
Generally while travelling, I tell people that I am from Hyderabad in order to evade any interest I might receive for being “foreign.”
I said that I was Telugu and he said, “Oh yeah—from Tamil Nadu?”
“Not exactly,” I mumbled.
“Oh right—many Christians and nurses there right?”
He was stereotyping Kerala—I shook my head no.
Finally, he gave up, exclaiming that there couldn’t be any other states down South—right? (Telugu is the 3rd most widely spoken language in India and Telugu speakers live in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana)
I was appalled by his ignorance—even more so considering that he was an attorney in Kolkata who claimed to enjoy traveling around the country.
Soon his ignorance turned a shade more sinister, “Those South Indians—so dark, huh? So blackie blackie, like Rekha.”
I stared at him incredulously. Skin tone is definitely correlated to caste and class. Indeed, fair South Indian caste-groups have used skin tone to claim that they have ‘Aryan’ roots…
Moreover, it is not appropriate or sensitive to refer to over 250 million people as a homogenous “blackie” group.
I decided to go swimming and left his company, still in shock from his statements. I also began thinking about all the anti-South-Indian comments I have encountered since coming to India—most of it from well-educated upper-class urban people!
“South Indian food is so bad—too much coconut in everything.”
“All South Indian languages sound the same—I can never tell what someone is speaking.”
And of course, the most common comments are the ones about colour and race. Just this week, a former BJP Member of Parliament claimed that there was no racism in India because—we share the country with South Indian ‘blacks‘, don’t we?
Is it because we are being seen as separate and lesser than those in the Hindi-speaking north? Or is it because we feel uneasy and offended at being called African?
In a country where racism against Africans is no small matter, I do believe it is the latter.
After all, Gandhi became an activist in South Africa not to fight for equal rights—but to protest having to share public goods (specifically a train compartment and a post office entrance) with the locals, whom he called “kaffirs.”
These feelings of superiority over Africans travel across oceans: ask any first-generation Indian about who is “off-limits”; many will tell you, “I could never date a black guy—my parents wouldn’t approve.”
Such feelings are widely bred in our caste-based society—where you might not be at the top, but at least you’re better off than someone else (Dalits and Brahmins excepted).
I understand colourism (and its counterpart, racism) to work in a similar way. No matter how dark you may be—you know that someone out there (perhaps in South India) is darker.
And of course, all Indians can rest assured that at least they’re more cultured and/or beautiful than those Africans…
South Indians are being stereotyped as dark—so be it. It might be initially hurtful, but such comments define the speaker, not the recipient.
I personally have started taking a different viewpoint when someone tells me that I am dark or have gotten darker—“Yeah I really am, aren’t I? This sun is unforgiving.”
Rather than dismantling the stereotype, maybe just try embracing it.
A heavy dose of sarcasm will do as well, “Genes really are marvellous things aren’t they?”
If we understand colour to not be a value judgment, but simply a physical attribute, perhaps we can navigate these social spaces more easily.
And more importantly—and urgently—because South Indians are being conflated with Africans, I suggest that we take the opportunity to stand up for our African brothers and sisters.
If not through appealing to one’s sense of compassion, use simple science to show that skin colour and melanin production correspond to proximity to the equator—and that we may be black, but black is beautiful.