Every time we were traveling out of Brisbane (our last city of residence), I’d be routinely put through a “random body scan” by airport security. This diligence wasn’t just restricted to airports. Even the lady at a particular store would make it a point to stop me at the exit to check my bag. Eager college kids distributing promotional flyers would invariably look through me while pouncing on my Taiwanese friend walking with me. The American expat would express surprise that I spoke English “like an American”. The steward at the restaurant would ask us twice if we knew it was beef we had just ordered.
When you are brown and from a nation that loves its curries and worships its cows, people make too many assumptions about you. After all it’s convenient to slot people according to stereotypes rather than going to the trouble of knowing them. Maybe some of the instances I faced may not have been because of my brown skin. Maybe it was me being over-sensitive and mistaking for discrimination snobbishness, awkwardness and staff trying to do their duty. But the fact remains when someone tries to treat you like a lesser being, you may try to shrug it off as their ignorance but a part of you does feel bewildered and singed.
And I’m talking about Australia whose people are among the friendliest. Where men hold doors for you and women stop to ask if you need help with your heavy shopping bags. If you stop a tad longer than necessary at some busy intersection, rest assured someone will come up to you and ask if you’re lost.
You don’t realize you’re different until you move out of familiar terrains where people have their own sets of biases and prejudices.
Funny thing is even in certain pockets of India, especially tourist destinations favored by the white-skinned, it’s we who get treated as unwanted Third World immigrants simply by the virtue of our brown skin.
This internalized racism manifests itself at a fancy restaurant where your Indian waiter will ignore you while he fawns over the German couple, making you wonder if there’s a separate menu for Indians at subsidised rates that comes with the “I’m doing you a favor by letting you in” clause.
The hawkers at Anjuna flea market will dismiss you as Indians who know no better if you dare bargain with them. I’ve had friends recall the time they were shooed away from a “cordoned firangs-only section” of Majorda beach, or a bar meant only for Russians. Or the guide at Umaid Bhawan who refused to entertain local tourists while literally groveling before the Americans. I totally get that this kind of “hospitality” and catering to “western” sensibilities and tastes is mostly dollar driven. The lure of a fat tip is directly proportional to the attention you’re lavished with. And given that most Indians treat service staff as their minions, counting pennies while tipping them, it’s not surprising we are treated the way we are.
This subservient attitude towards ‘westerners’ also harks back to our imperialist past that is deeply ingrained in a psyche that still places light skin on a pedestal. Your “fair skin” is a passport to a brighter future, better husband and babies with a rose-tinted complexion.
Harbouring racist attitudes towards those we see as inferior is second nature to us, be it treating UP and Bihari migrants with disdain or dismissing those from the Northeast as “Chinkis”. Even in Parliament, a respected politician saw nothing wrong with describing South Indian women as dark but with great bodies. Every community asserts its superiority by mocking the other’s food habits, accents and ethnic peculiarities. Our last names are not just surnames we were born with but a repository of information, some stereotypical, about our eating, spending habits, intellect, character or the lack of it.
It’s like a chain reaction where we subject others to what we are subjected to, without even realizing it. But it hurts, doesn’t it, when we are the receiving end of it?
Ironically, most of us see racism as a phenomenon that exists in other countries, particularly in the West, and without fail, see ourselves as victims. Not once do we spare a thought for how we treat our own.
I feel that treating others as lesser beings because of their skin color, spoken English, thickness of wallet is more an admission of your own low self-esteem rather than an assertion of your superiority. It is a projection of your own fears onto another person. A person who has nothing to prove to others because s/he is content with who s/he is will never go out of their way to put others down to feel good about themselves.
But did that stop me from grinning ear to ear when I spotted the airport security staff at JFK (obviously Indian) singling out whites for “random” extra security checks? Not really!
Image by Associated Press