Human Interest

AP/Andres Leighton
Indian cricketer Harbhajan Singh was
charged with racist conduct in 2008.

India Challenged by Racism Within

July 05, 2009 05:30 AM
by Shannon Firth
Recent attacks against Indians in Australia brought cries of racism from the media in India. Now writers have shifted their focus, examining India’s own struggles with racism.

India’s Inherent Racism

In Australia this May, a savage attack and robbery left two Indian students hospitalized, leading to protests in Melbourne’s streets. The assault closely followed the firebombing of an Indian home and one other allegedly race-based incident.

These incidents, though not clearly racially motivated, led to predictable outrage in Indian media. Now, the Indian media and blogosphere is turning on itself, questioning what it sees as India’s own rampant racism.

Diepiriye Kuku, an African living in India, says “India is racist and happy about it.” Upon entering a bank one day Kuku was startled by a voice over the loudspeaker, droning, “An African has come.”

It’s more than simple rudeness says Kuku. Landlords, bouncers at clubs, and visa processors have all rejected him because of his race. Kuku noted, “It is shocking that people wear liberalism as a sign of modernity, yet revert to ultraconservatism when actually faced with difference.”

Soumya Bhattacharya, a guest writer for ESPN’s Cricinfo, cites another example. Last year, Indian cricket player, Harbhajan Singh was punished with a ban after calling Australian black all-rounder, Andrew Symonds a “monkey.” The ban was later retracted, and Bhattacharya’s friends didn’t understand “the fuss.”

Bhattacharya explains that in India, racism is subtle, and so ubiquitous that it’s simply accepted. Blacks and other foreigners aren’t the only victims.  As a child, the word relatives used to describe skin tones like Bhattacharya’s was “moila,” meaning “dirty.” He writes, “It was uttered unselfconsciously—if always with a bit of regret.”

Bhattacharya also notes the popularity of skin whitening creams and the abundance of marriage advertisements whose range, Kuku also noted, includes fair, very fair, and very very fair. Bhattacharya argues that for a country of brown-skinned people to have such a powerful obsession with white skin demonstrates a degree of “unconscious self-loathing.” 

Yet, he strikes a hopeful note, adding, “unlearning our deeply entrenched notions of and responses to skin tone will take years, but being aware of things will be some sort of a start.”

Historical Context: Race and status in India

After President Barrack Obama was elected to office, news stations in India discussed Michelle Obama’s looks and whether “a real Afro-American” might influence beauty and fashion industries. 

Writing for the blog Chowk, Gajendra Singh surmised that India’s long-standing preference for fair skin, especially among higher castes, would resist change.

According to legend, Hindu castes originated from of a “primordial being” out of whose body each social group, or varna, was born. Brahmins, priests and educators, left from the mouth, and Kshatriyas, warriors and kings grew from the arms. The Vaisyas, merchants, and the Sudras or laborers, respectively, grew from the thighs and feet, reports the National Geographic. The Untouchables, or Dalit, are considered so depraved that they weren’t associated with the body at all.

Each caste was given a color, perhaps to signify skin color, says Dr. Kelley L. Ross, a professor at the college of Los Angeles Valley College. He adds, “There is an expectation in India that higher caste people will have lighter skin.”

Ross confirms this expectation, with the exception of Brahmins living in the south. This happens as a result of wars long past, where light-skinned Aryans invaded and inter-married with families in northern India.

Centuries later, according to the Web site South Asian History, under British rule, elite Indians were taught contempt for their own culture. The article explains, “Britain needed a class of intellectuals meek and docile in their attitude towards the British, but full of hatred towards their fellow citizens.”

Singh added that, after gaining its independence from Britain, India’s bias toward a light skinned ruling class remained, and the reigning class comprised mainly of Kashmiri Brahmins.

Today, many entertainers in India have endorsed skin color bias by advertising skin bleaching creams. However, in January, Bollywood star Aishwaria Rai Bachchan made headlines by rejecting an offer from a skincare company. An unnamed source said, “She will never promote a product that discriminates on the basis of one’s skin colour. Ours is a society where biases are so prevalent that she will do all she can to curb it,” iTimes reported.

Opinion & Analysis: Is the caste system racist?

In 2003, University of Pittsburgh professor Larry Glasco compared blacks in America to the Dalits in India: “Blacks formerly dominated among garbage haulers, Dalits today clean the nation’s latrines. Dalits live in segregated settlements in the countryside and, like America’s blacks, in ghettoes in the cities.”

In April 2009, the Human Rights Watch blog criticized the UN Racism Conference for its failure to address the caste system. Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch, said, "Caste discrimination is a major global human rights issue that needs to be effectively dealt with at the international level.” According to the HRW, Dalits have been beaten, threatened, and otherwise prevented from voting.

Related Topic: Light skin vs. dark skin racism in America

In August 2000, a study by the Department of Psychology at San Diego State surveyed 300 blacks to explore whether racism was enhanced by the darkness of their complexions. Researchers concluded, “[D]ark-skinned Blacks were 11 times more likely to experience frequent racial discrimination than their light-skinned counterparts.”

The report stated that 67 percent of the dark-skinned Blacks were discriminated against compared with 8.5 percent of light-skinned subjects, according to PubMed.

In 2003, Dwight Burch, who worked at an Applebee's restaurant in Atlanta, agreed to a settlement of $40,000 after filing a discrimination claim. Burch alleged that he was fired after telling his manager, who was also black, he planned to report him to headquarters for insulting his dark skin color.

In a press release, Burch said racism can happen within one’s own race. He added, “that person should know better, especially if he is a manager.”

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