Taking pride in prejudice

When racism plays out in subtle ways in everyday life, it doesn’t provoke debate. It is only when it takes a violent turn, as it did in Bengaluru, that we are forced to address it

Updated - February 08, 2016 01:25 am IST

Published - February 08, 2016 12:55 am IST

“Popular culture perpetuates stereotypes by leaving out, or marginalising, somecommunities.” Picture shows Orunasol Man, Arunachal Pradesh’s first superhero, whose goal is to “make people aware of the social evils plaguing his State”. Photo: Orunasol Man, Facebook page

“Popular culture perpetuates stereotypes by leaving out, or marginalising, somecommunities.” Picture shows Orunasol Man, Arunachal Pradesh’s first superhero, whose goal is to “make people aware of the social evils plaguing his State”. Photo: Orunasol Man, Facebook page

It is a time of denial. Barely a month has passed with many >flatly refusing to accept that Rohith Vemula’s suicide had something to do with caste discrimination . Now, some politicians are claiming that violence against a Tanzanian woman in Bengaluru has nothing to do with race. Karnataka Home Minister G. Parameshwara >said the incident stemmed from “road rage” . A few nights back, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh functionary, Rakesh Sinha, said on a television show that “Indians are not racist at all”.

These statements reflect the serious nature of the problem of racism in India: a stubborn >refusal to acknowledge something that is so obvious . Perhaps the fact that violent expressions of racism spring up only once in a while allows us to present the problem with other coordinates, such as law and order and road rage. When racism plays out in subtler, less physically damaging ways in everyday life, it doesn’t provoke debate, as this form of racism is internalised. It is only when it takes a violent turn that we are forced to address it.

Method in mob behaviour Take the Bengaluru assault. Mob behaviour is inexplicable. But in this case, the fact that the mob chose to target Africans specifically, those whose skin colour was the same as the Sudanese man, a good half an hour after the accident, shows that there was some method even in the madness — a vague idea that all “these people” come from the same community or region and must hence bear responsibility for each other’s actions.

Saying that Indians are not racist is akin to saying that caste has disappeared in India. Examples are abundant. We turn a blind eye to advertisements that ask us to transform the colour of our skin. We applaud a film in which the heroine cringes after sleeping with a black man. We laugh heartily when Rajinikanth drinks gallons of saffron milk and lies in a tub of multani mitti in the hope of being worthy enough to woo his pretty fair-skinned love. We hear people at weddings say that the bride is too fair for the groom. We have the world’s most regressive matrimonial advertisements, we are suspicious of black people, and even if we compliment a dark-skinned person, we do it grudgingly: she’s pretty despite being dark. We also go a step ahead, we justify them in one way or the other.

However, the justifications for racism are selective; they’re only reserved for incidents within India. Any such incident outside the country and Indians lose their minds. When >Shah Rukh Khan was detained at a U.S. airport , angry fans in Allahabad shouted slogans and burnt the American flag. A series of attacks on Indians in Australia triggered a diplomatic crisis between the two countries. Attacks on Sikhs in the U.S. were met with angry demands that the U.S. take urgent steps to tackle its problem of race.

But racism in India is not about skin colour alone. If it were, Arunachal Pradesh college student >Nido Tania would not have died in 2014 , people from the Northeast would not be harassed by employers and landlords, nor would they have fled Bengaluru in 2012 following rumours about violent attacks being planned against them. In fact, as many studies point out, racism stems from a complete ignorance about people perceived to be different, and the false stereotypes constructed about the Other.

A survey conducted in 2012 by the North-East India Image Managers about the perception of people from other parts of the country about the Northeast found that 52 per cent of respondents had a negative perception about the region. They saw it as “riddled with insurgency and the most unsafe place in the country or that of people with mongoloid features and weird food habits and an alien culture.” A whopping 87 per cent of working professionals spoken to couldn’t even name the seven Northeast States. Despite chest-thumping about diversity and difference, displayed in Republic Day parades and other occasions that showcase nationalism, Indians seem to take pride in and demand some level of homogeneity. This sense of oneness stems from an imagined sense of “us” and excludes the different-looking “them”.

Defining racism Combating racism in India first requires acceptance of its existence. Second, it involves understanding the definition of racism. Racism does not concern prejudices alone; it is a system of oppression, one that creates two sets of people: the powerful and the powerless, those whose citizenship is taken for granted and those whose citizenship is questioned every other day. In 2009, a couple of my friends, including a North-eastern girl, visited the Taj Mahal. The guard at the entrance allowed us all in, but stopped her to ask her which country she was from. “Tawang, Arunachal,” she said, but he had no idea where that was. “Chinese?” Only after she screamed at him — Main Hindustani hoon! — did he let her pass.

While the Bengaluru incident showed horrific behaviour on the part of the mob, even more horrific was the behaviour of the policemen who stood there as mute spectators. Three of them have been suspended since. But what caused them to stay silent in the first place? A fear of the mob? A sense that justice was being meted out? The Bezbaruah Committee, set up in 2014 following Tania’s death, suggested several measures that would ensure that the people of the Northeast feel more included. One recommendation was to include personnel from the region in the Delhi police. But why Delhi alone? Would another Committee now suggest the same for Bengaluru? Recommendations need to be pan-Indian instead of focussing on one region.

Popular culture perpetuates stereotypes by leaving out, or marginalising, some communities. Advertisements hardly ever feature dark people. Mainstream films, even if they are about a North-easterner (Mary Kom), don’t cast someone from the region for the role. Changes in these can be more effective in the short run, as institutional changes take time. Take Orunasol Man. He’s Arunachal Pradesh’s first superhero, who came into existence in 2014, to “make people aware of the social evils plaguing his State”. One powerful cartoon shows a Sikh, a Muslim and a generic-looking young Indian holding up the Indian flag on Republic Day. Orunasol Man stands among them holding the biggest flag of them all.

Racism is not black and white; it shows in the way North Indians call South Indians as “Madrasis”, in the way fair-skinned South Indians sometimes treat dark-skinned South Indians, and so on. But any kind of ethnocentrism, fostered by pride in the self and in prejudices towards others, only divides people, not unites them in their diversity.


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