Posted on July 1, 2009

Our True Colours

Debarshi Dasgupta, Outlook (New Delhi), June 29, 2009

Racism Indian Style

* A Madurai sessions court sentences Farook Batcha to two years’ RI in 2008 for harassing his wife so much about being dark that it drove her to suicide.

* In 2007, IPL authorities allegedly asked two black cheerleaders of the King’s XI Punjab team to go back home

* The information and broadcasting ministry issues a notice to Nimbus Communications for a racist ad during the 2007 India-West Indies series. The promo featured a West Indian running around for water after eating spicy food. No Indian comes to his help. The ad’s punchline: “It’s tough being a West Indian in India.”

* Bilyaminu Ibrahim, a Nigerian student at an engineering college in Greater Noida, is spat at by one of his Indian seniors.

* Robert, a Kenyan student in Pune, is denied entrance to a pub. He is asked to return on Tuesday for an “all-black” night.

* In May this year, a group of Iraqi students is attacked by a mob of 150 in Greater Noida. Three of the students are grievously injured and hospitalised.

* The Delhi Police issues guidelines in 2007 to students from the Northeast. Tips include a strict no to “revealing dresses” and curbing traditional food with an alien aroma like “bamboo shoots” which offends neighbours.

* A controversial ad for Fair & Lovely cream features a father who is unhappy because his daughter is dark and unsuccessful. The cream changes her complexion and lands her a glamorous job.


Humiliation for Yoyce Jones, a Black American fresh out of an Ivy League college, came bang in the middle of Delhi’s booming satellite town Gurgaon. He was at a chemist’s in one of its glittering malls to buy some face soap. The man at the counter handed him a fairness soap instead. Jones clarified what exactly he wanted but the man insisted on giving him that same product. That’s what really raised Jones’s hackles. “I thanked him for his fairness soap and told him that I was proud of my skin colour.”

Ask any African what it is like for him or her to be in India and you might perhaps think twice before calling Australia racist. It is indeed a very dark underbelly that India reveals when it comes to its treatment of the dark foreigner. Africans being called “kalia” or “habshi” is mild stuff. Bilyaminu Ibrahim, a Nigerian student at an engineering institute in Greater Noida, will tell you what it feels like to be spat on. Abdulmalik Ali Abdulmalik, another Nigerian student, will recount how much it hurts when one’s beaten with cricket bats and wickets over a simple game. Across the country, landlords slam doors when they see a prospective African tenant but drool for money when a white walks in. Foreigners’ Registration Offices cancel the visas of Africans arbitrarily and make paperwork easier for Americans and Europeans. Why, even in the film Fashion, Priyanka Chopra thinks she has hit rock-bottom because she finds herself sleeping with an African!

Of course, the Indian prejudice against the “shyam varna” is as old as Hindu mythology itself. “When Krishna literally means dark,” says Mumbai-based mythology expert Devdutt Pattanaik, “why is he always portrayed in blue rather than in natural black?” Comics and TV serials routinely depict evil (the demons) as dark and good (the gods) as fair. “It just reinforces our prejudices,” says Pattanaik.

The south Indian has long become accustomed to the northerner using the term ‘Madrasi’ as almost a pejorative for his darker skin tone.

“There is a certain dominance of north Indian aesthetics,” says Delhi-based sociologist Patricia Uberoi, “where feminine beauty values a fair skin contrasted with dark hair and combined with soft features and big eyes. This goes with the global aspect where Indians are being exposed to international television that celebrates East Asian beauty with fair skin and dark hair.”

However, while the South may decry this attitude of the northerners, it is as guilty of placing a huge premium on fairness.

Tamil cinema, in fact, is known for reinforcing the stigma against dark skin. Superhero Rajnikanth himself may be dark, but fair women all the way from Rajasthan are imported to star in Tamil films.

Indian advertising too for long has courted fairness. You will never find a dark woman or man selling you a cosmetic brand in the Indian media. Or for that matter anything. After all, who can look better than a John Abraham peddling Garnier’s new fairness cream? And in case you were beginning to forget the importance of fairness, Vogue India reminded us of it blatantly with its inaugural cover in October 2007. It flashed pale Australian model Gemma Ward as its centrepiece with the relatively darker Indian beauties Bipasha Basu and Priyanka Chopra as her sidekicks.

Matrimonial ads, week after week, hammer this in unfailingly: dark is ugly, fair is lovely. The dark can sit on the marriage shelf, there is demand only for the fair or very fair. And it is not uncommon to find dark men marrying into poor families just so that they may have a fair bride.

Sometimes this obsession with fair skin can be fatal. Like in the tragic 2008 incident, when a woman was driven to suicide after her husband constantly harassed her for being dark. The Madurai sessions court sentenced Farook Batcha, the husband, to rigorous imprisonment for two years. The judgement was later upheld by the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court following an appeal by Batcha that calling one’s wife dark did not amount to torture.

Doctor V.K. Sharma, president of the Indian Association of Dermatologists, Venereologists and Leprologists (IADVL), points to a harmful turn that the obsession with fair skin has taken. Across urban and rural India, illiterate and unaware women aspiring to be fair are being sold Betnovate, a skin steroid cream, to lighten their skin. Meant for certain skin rashes and inflammations, a fairer shade of skin is only its “side-effect”. But that hasn’t stopped this prescription drug from becoming sold widely as a fairness cosmetic. Repeated use of the cream leads to thinning of the skin, loss of elasticity and bacterial infections, among other harmful effects. It is for this that the IADVL is discouraging the use of fairness creams.

What explains this Indian obsession with fair skin and disdain for the dark? Some argue that a fair skin indicates social superiority, but then even among, say, the fair-skinned Kashmiris, caste is a reality. Most point to a colonial hangover that ingrained in us the idea that the ruler is always white. Some like Bangalore-based sociologist G.K. Karanth say the reverence for white skin goes back even further. “Look at the ease with which the supremacy of Alexander over Porus was accepted,” he says. But there is little doubt that the slave trade and colonialism instilled modern power equations into what was till then simply a matter of ‘aesthetics’. “It then became a marker of people trying to be like the white (the one who dominated),” says sociologist Ashis Nandy.

Like a tool to help climb up the social ladder. Adds D.K. Bhattacharya, a retired anthropology professor from Delhi University, “There are reports from Africa where indigenous people would smear their face with limestone during Christian ceremonies to resemble the white missionaries.”

Prakash C. Jain, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, who has studied the Indian diaspora, says there has also been an “undercurrent of racism” between people of Indian origin and Africans in Africa. Traditionally, most Indians limited social interaction with Africans and stayed in separate housing estates. Intermarriage was practically non-existent in South Africa, with just 57 instances from the pre-World War II era to the ’60s, he points out.

For T.K. Oommen, emeritus professor of sociology at JNU, racism combines elements of “culturalism” and “ethnicism”. So there is the broad, implicit and very prevalent idea that Africans are culturally and ethnically inferior to Indians. “Indians have always made such distinctions. Look at the Shiv Sena that targets non-Maharashtrians or the Lachit Sena that targeted non-Assamese,” he says.

This cultural chauvinism also explains why discrimination based on colour in India is limited not just to the blacks, but surfaces even against the whites sometimes. Julia Sullivan (name changed on request), an Australian postgraduate student at Pune University, feels it is because she represents a different culture. People from her apartment complex once came into her flat and accused her, point blank, of being a prostitute because she had many male friends and asked her to leave. “That’s the assumption most Indians have of a western girl,” she says, arguing that racism in India is “institutionalised” unlike in Australia where it is marginalised. “It’s normal for people here to ask somebody their origin even before their name,” she adds.

The difference between black and white doesn’t get as stark as it does for Diepiriye Kuku, a Black American doctoral student at the Delhi School of Economics who has a white partner. They were at a Nokia shop in Delhi once. As many as five store attendants fawned over his partner asking him what he needed, “but they completely ignored me,” says Kuku. “Not once did they make eye contact with me.” It is something that happens everyday to people like Kuku. They have to adapt their lives to either being denied an existence or being turned into objects of ridicule. So much so they have to look for ways to “hide”. “I liken it to being a woman in South Asia who has to put on a veil to avoid drawing attention,” adds Kuku. The ‘veil’, for him, is his iPod and sunglasses.

It gets worse for African women on Indian streets who have to face the supposed indignity of not just being black but also female. Maria Cleophas, a Ugandan student at Delhi’s Indraprastha College, just cannot get over how she is stared at so routinely and humiliatingly. “It’s extraordinary, beyond understanding. There have been times when people have groped me and even spat in my direction.” It’s a sentiment Murtala Musa, a Nigerian who has just graduated from Delhi’s Jamia Hamdard university, echoes. “People react as if I have suddenly sprung from the soil or have been dropped from the sky,” he says. “There have been times when people have touched my hair, thinking it’s either rubber or burnt.It’s almost as if they were asking me if I was human at all.”

Many, however, feel that the way we treat dark-skinned people isn’t racism but a reflection of how unaware a large section of Indians are about people from backgrounds different than theirs. Perhaps greater trade and cultural ties with Africa might change our attitude. At least that’s what happened between East Asia and India. “Indians realised that Europe and North America are not the only beacons of desirable values,” says Uberoi. And as Africa continues to develop in the next few years and India engages more proactively with the “dark continent”, perhaps the African too would one day not be seen as a strange species. That might be a better world where the next generation will grow up accultured and where the Black American Obama becomes the world’s most stylish man, naturally.

In spite of friendship and love in private spaces, the Delhi public literally stops and stares. It is harrowing to constantly have children and adults tease, taunt, pick, poke and peer at you from the corner of their eyes, denying their own humanity as well as mine. Their aggressive, crude curiosity threatens to dominate unless disarmed by kindness, or met with equal aggression.

Once I stood gazing at the giraffes at the Lucknow Zoo only to turn and see 50-odd families gawking at me rather than the exhibit. Parents abruptly withdrew infants that inquisitively wandered towards me.

I felt like an exotic African creature-cum-spectacle, stirring fear and awe. Even my attempts to beguile the public through simple greetings or smiles are often not reciprocated. Instead, the look of wonder swells as if this were all part of the act and we were all playing our parts.

Racism is never a personal experience. Racism in India is systematic and independent of the presence of foreigners of any hue. This climate permits and promotes this lawlessness and disdain for dark skin. Most Indian pop icons have light-damn-near-white skin. Several stars even promote skin-bleaching creams that promise to improve one’s popularity and career success. Matrimonial ads boast of fair, v. fair and v. very fair skin alongside foreign visas and advanced university degrees. Moreover, each time I visit one of Delhi’s clubhouses, I notice that I am the darkest person not wearing a work uniform. It’s unfair and ugly.

Discrimination in Delhi surpasses the denial of courtesy. I have been denied visas, apartments, entrance to discos, attentiveness, kindness and the benefit of doubt. Further, the lack of neighbourliness exceeds what locals describe as normal for a capital already known for its coldness.

My partner is white and I am black, facts of which the Indian public reminds us daily. Bank associates have denied me chai, while falling over to please my white friend. Mall shop attendants have denied me attentiveness, while mobbing my partner. Who knows what else is more quietly denied?

“An African has come,” a guard announced over the intercom as I showed up. Whites are afforded the luxury of their own names, but this careful attention to my presence was not new. ATM guards stand and salute my white friend, while one guard actually asked me why I had come to the bank machine as if I might have said that I was taking over his shift.

It is shocking that people wear liberalism as a sign of modernity, yet revert to ultraconservatism when actually faced with difference. Cyberbullies have threatened my life on my YouTube videos that capture local gawking and eve-teasing. I was even fired from an international school for talking about homosociality in Africa on YouTube, and addressing a class about homophobia against kids after a student called me a ‘fag’.

Outside of specific anchors of discourse such as Reservations, there is no consensus that discrimination is a redeemable social ill. This is the real issue with discrimination in India: her own citizens suffer and we are only encouraged to ignore situations that make us all feel powerless. Be it the mute-witnesses seeing racial difference for the first time, kids learning racism from their folks, or the blacks and northeasterners who feel victimised by the public, few operate from a position that believes in change.

Living in India was a childhood dream that deepened with my growing understanding of India and America’s unique, shared history of non-violent revolution. Yet, in most nations, the path of ending gender, race and class discrimination is unpaved. In India, this path is still rural and rocky as if this nation has not decided the road even worthy.It is a footpath that we are left to tread individually.