|Rosa Parks: Just another Negro in India?|
Being Indian, I never paid much attention to her courageous action for at least the first 27 years of my life. For contrary to popular opinion, we Indians have no concept of racism. We understand discrimination in terms of language, community, religion, and caste but seldom colour. Because, you see, unlike in Africa, when the British left India, they left it lock, stock and barrel leaving behind a uniformly brown race to take care of itself.
That was 1947: eight years before Rosa Parks’ action avalanched into the civil rights movement in America. By that time, we were too busy with our own internal problems to pay anything more than lip service to the events shaping the world.
Our cluelessness about racism, and the politically correct way to handle it, can lead to many faux pas. For instance, until I quietly corrected him, my father would quite happily describe his granddaughter (my niece) as “chinky-looking” to all his friends. That “chinky” is a nasty, derogatory American slang for Chinese had never been explained to him. He overheard it somewhere, and as far as he and his friends were concerned, it was a rather nice, affectionate way to describe people of “slanted-eyed [his words not mine]” ethnicities.
On another occasion last year, my ears nearly burnt to cinders, when a middle-aged Indian I met in Vienna nonchalantly referred to a British Airways stewardess who had served him as “Negro”. Again, he meant no slight or offence and was merely trying to explain that she was black. It’s just that he was completely unaware of the horrifying political incorrectness of the term’s usage.
After I got over my initial shock, I started thinking how could he have possibly known. He was a 60 year old man who had spent the better part of his life in a small Indian mining town reading the Indian newspaper The Times of India to shape his world view. And with so many close-to-home problems to discuss, the newspaper is not going to waste its ink on politically correct ways to refer to people of different races that its readers may or may not meet.
But the point is that more and more, they are going to meet. Like my Indian acquaintance who was now visiting his son, who had recently migrated to the US. I imagined him quite innocently dropping the dreaded “N” word into conversations there and wondered who would be the first to correct him.
Sometimes, our ignorace of what racism is can get uglier. A former colleauge at Time Out, Che Kurrien, had once done an insightful story about the discrimination and rudeness that two Nigerian immigrants to India constantly encountered in Mumbai. For example, they were quite openly referred to as Habshis (a kind of Indian slang for Africans) by their neighbours. I know that it is possible because several of my parent's acquaintance use that word openly and find it funny.
Which is why, when Indians cry racism against themselves – as they seem to more and more these days (think the Australian fiasco and then the CWG comedy) – I am not sure whether to laugh or cry. For even though we are so quick to judge others on how they treat us, we have absolutely no self-awareness about how racist we can come across to others.
After all, far as many, many Indians are concerned, Rosa Parks may be an international heroine but she is still a Negro.