19/11/2016 3:56 PM IST | Updated 25/11/2016 8:35 AM IST

My Experiments With Racism

Caught your attention, didn't I? It might be taboo to express racism in most countries, but in India it isn't. It's no coincidence that my title is inspired by M.K. Gandhi's autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. While his book touched on the apartheid faced by the black people of South Africa and how the way he was treated by white South Africans changed his deeply ingrained ideas about racial superiority, my post is going to be about the bias against brown Indian girls in India.

India is obsessed with fair skin. From TV commercials to YouTube advertisements to hoardings on the streets — fairness is the USP for every other beauty product. Anti-ageing cream? Here! And you get to become fairer too. The task of buying a moisturising cream at a supermarket is made arduous with a million options all claiming to make you fair, even if all you want is a moisturiser to keep your skin from becoming dry. If that's not enough, there are deodorants that promise to give you fair underarms and intimate washes to "brighten" your private parts. It's ridiculous.

My mom was advised to save up a lot of dowry since both my sister and I are so dark!

I distinctly remember an incident that took place when I was part of an international fellowship in the education sector in urban, marginalised communities. While I was taking a class, I saw a group of students at the back distracted. When I walked up to them I found the girl on the last bench crying and the boys sitting nearby giggling. Turns out the most notorious (Brahmin and by extension fair-skinned) boy of the class had called Lakshmi, a demure 8th-grade girl, a nasty name. The Telugu equivalent of "black witch". I was furious when I found out and I also had a sudden déjà vu moment. It reminded me of my childhood as an army brat, where I myself was called names of all imaginable permutations, each featuring the word "black". I thought a South Indian girl growing up in North, East and West of India had it tough, but here was Lakshmi with tears flowing down her cheeks, and I realised it's never easy, no matter where you are, even in your own community. This is why it's important to counsel teenage girls, who are building their personalities, against incidents that can shatter their self-confidence.

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Girl with homework book

At the risk of sounding condescending, I'm bemused at how being cut off from the world can make some people so narrow-minded. I recently went to a funeral and one of the ladies walked up to my mother and asked her if I was the younger one. My mom smiled and nodded and the woman's immediate reaction was to shout out loud, "What happened to her? She used to be much fairer!" I wanted to shout back, "I play sports! Have been all my life. And honestly when you are battling to score the last point for the win, sunscreen is the last thing running through your head."

It's because of senseless, insensitive comments like this that I try to avoid family functions. And this isn't even the worst I've heard. What tops the list is the sarcastic, "Oh! You have two daughters?" (#pityface) Or "You have two negatives?" The code name for daughter is "negative" and "positive" refers to boys (like we are a set of batteries)! This one time my mom was even advised to save up a lot of dowry since both my sister and I are so dark! I feel like I am not doing enough justice by translating these comments into English because they sound so much ruder in Telugu with the tone in which they are said. While not all my relatives are like that, this would be an apt generalisation of the mentality of South Indians and indeed most Indians (and by most I mean 90%).

I've encountered instances where organisation leaders preferred to have white exchange volunteers instead of black — why? Because they thought they'd get more "positive publicity"...

Well, to be fair (pun intended), there is racism in every country. Just like there exist black jokes, Jew jokes, blonde jokes, we have our share of Mallu jokes, Gulti jokes (that's me) and the timeless Sardar jokes. It's like we cannot coexist without constantly offending each other. Sure that one funny forward text message makes our day more lively, but at what cost? What is funny about a Northeastern boy being publicly murdered in the capital city for the way he looks or a certain caste being denied relief supplies post an earthquake or assaulting someone because of their skin colour? Where does one draw the line?

Indians are not prone to xenophobia in general, being the diverse mix we are. Yet we are very selective about whom we extend our celebrated hospitality towards. I've personally encountered instances where organisation leaders preferred to have white exchange volunteers instead of black — why? Because they thought they'd get more "positive publicity" for their organisation! It sounds appalling, doesn't it? But I don't see how this is any different from when we jokingly tease a friend with nicknames poking fun at their origins. Maybe it's fine because your friend is laughing along, but by doing so are we not subconsciously making our minds immune to the idea that we are demeaning others based on race and thus condoning racism?


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