Wednesday, December 1, 2010

On Rosa Parks, racism and India

Rosa Parks: Just another Negro in India?
A momentous thing happened on this day – December 1 – fifty years ago. Rosa Parks refused to vacate her bus seat for a white man. She had paid for it, and she was damn well going to sit on it.

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.


Prerna said...

Great post. To share an observation I have made over a period of time: I have met a few fellow Indians who, when the error is pointed out, become defensive and try to justify usage of a/the derogatory term or expression, if not just arrogantly shrug the objection off.

globalbabble said...

Funnily enough, I don't think I know that many Indians here. But I can imagine them reacting with arrogance. I think, they simply don't understand the seriousness of it...

Anonymous said...

I think this article (and many similar "Indians are racist" ones) is overly heavy in its condemnation of Indians.

On the one hand you have an unsophisticated use of politically incorrect terminology and attitudes born of a lack of introspection, familiarity with the issues, and historical context. On the other hand, a determined and aggressive belief in racial superiority in spite of a long and well-grounded understanding of the topic, such as that found in some other parts of the world. Surely there's a difference.

Girish Shahane said...

The 'negro' bit is a question of being unaware of how language changes, rather than racism, isn't it? After all, Rosa Parks would have described herself as a negro, that was the word considered dignified at the time she lived.
Lots of foreign correspondents still describe Dalits as 'untouchables'. It doesn't mean they're prejudiced against Dalits. When I was growing up, the 'Harijan' was a perfectly acceptable word for Dalits; now it's an insult to use the term Gandhi coined.
So, Indians still speak of 'Red Indians' rather than Native Americans, but I doubt that comes from prejudice. We are embarrassed at such usage because it proves how even educated Indians are rarely au courant when it comes to the presently fashionable, politically correct terms to describe various ethnic groups.
This is not to say there's no racism against Blacks in India and among Indians. There's a lot, a huge amount.

globalbabble said...

Hi inthearmchair and Girish,

I wasn't claiming that Indians are racist as much as the fact that the whole modern debate about racism and its evolution has passed us by.

Which is why when I used my father's example or the other one, I explained that they were not being nasty - they were just unaware. And I understand why that is the case - whatever other problems we see and discuss in India, race is not one of them.

Which is why at the end as well, I say we don't know how "racist we can come across as to others" and not that "how racist we are".

But if we are going to travel outside of India more and more, or interact with foreigners more and more - we must educate ourselves about such things.

And when Indians behave badly against Africans, doesn't that also arise of simple ignorace of how our attitudes should be? What is acceptable in a modern world and what is not?

Sulakshana said...

Having lived in Sierra Leone, West Africa for the past year and a half, I can attest that Indians clutch to isms like I would my purse on a Mumbai local train. Racism, classism, sexism...the works. Case in point, my Indian landlady in Freetown Sierra Leone, who considered me the apple of her eye, until I did the unthinkable, brought home a Sierra Leonean boy friend. No matter that he was also half English, the fear of miscegenation gleamed in her eyes as she looked him up and down suspiciously.

Also, her Sierra Leonean household help were treated as British masters would have once treated us, not allowed to enter the main house and paid well below minimum wage. Oh yes, let me not forget the occasional friendly flogging.

Sierra Leone is home to many foreign cultures, most notably, Lebanese and Chinese settlers. Yet, it is only the Indians that fiercely resist inter marriage.

We Indians are skilled in creating social divides and as my Indian landlady demonstrates, this talent crosses borders.