Why Do Black African Racial Stereotypes Persist in India?

Madhur Singh, Time, June 21, 2010

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“Indian marketers have a field day in putting ‘blacks’ where they’ve always ‘belonged,’ at least in the average Indian mind-sets,” wrote S.K.Y. Banji, a Ugandan who has lived in India for more than four years and runs the Reign Times. {snip}

One of the commercials in question, for Coca-Cola’s Sprite–which a Coca-Cola spokesperson says was received “very positively” by a test audience in India–shows two young Indian men captured by savages in an African jungle. While one of them tries to win over the captors by doing a silly jig, the other simply offers them Sprite. “There is nothing offensive in this ad,” says Martha Wariithi, a Kenyan by birth who is the director of knowledge and insights for Coca-Cola’s India and South West Asia unit. {snip}

The Indian lemon drink LMN, produced by the Parle Agro corporation, has a blatantly racist subtext in its TV spot that shows two Africans digging in the sand for water. When they spot a tap nearby, they wrench it off and start using it as a shovel. {snip}

Another spot, for BP’s Castrol engine oil, shows two young Indian men being magically transported from place to place: a beach, a lion-infested jungle–and a cauldron being carried by smiling African cannibals. {snip}

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“It’s amazing how two global companies, in an age of YouTube and Twitter, can think they can get away with such blatantly racist advertising,” says Hari Krishnan, vice president at the Delhi office of ad agency JWT. {snip} Indeed, many Indians do not see the advertisements as racist or offensive. Despite their experience with prejudice abroad even today, most Indians seem prone to accept easy generalizations about other peoples and cultures.

“These ads could never be aired in the U.S.,” says Diepiriye Kuku, a Delhi-based Nigerian-American conflict-resolution consultant who blogs on his exposure to prejudice in India, a country he says is decades behind the U.S. in addressing racial issues.

Kuku wrote an article titled “India Is Racist and Happy About It” in a leading Indian newsmagazine last year. {snip} “But,” he points out, “Indians don’t only stereotype foreigners. They stereotype other Indians too.” Indeed, racism against northeastern Indians–whose features often have more in common with those of people in countries farther east and who are the subject of various myths about their sexuality–is widely documented. And the fact that skin-lightening creams are one of the fastest-growing product lines in India’s cosmetics sector reflects an obsession with fair skin.

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