On the Contrary

A Racist Comedy of Errors

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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If the slurs against Miss America were because Americans thought she was an Arab, why are Indians getting upset?

While you, as an Indian, may be shocked at the latest winner of the Miss America crown, Nina Davuluri, becoming the target of nasty racial slurs on social networking sites by ignorant White Americans, ponder awhile the peculiarity of the emotion that it has aroused. True, she is of Indian descent, but she is also a person born in America and proclaims herself an American. She has become a target of racism under the mistaken belief that she is an Arab. Taking into account the above, back home—ours not hers—we feel affronted because of…what exactly?

The slurs weren’t against Indians. Large parts of America don’t even know where we are on the map. Being slightly geographically dumb, after 9/11 they associate any brown skin with the Middle East. Shouldn’t it be someone from those countries getting angry? Shouldn’t it be their newspapers running two-deck banner headlines on the front page?

If the reason for such angst is that Indians are paragons of empathy and can’t tolerate racism against anyone anywhere, then you might as well take a walk. Between Americans and Indians, it’s a no-brainer who is more racist. A recent study by two Swedish economists to find the correlation between racism and economic freedom used data from a World Values Survey that had asked people from different countries who they would not like to see as neighbours. India emerged as the second most racist country in the world. ‘In only two of 81 surveyed countries, more than 40 per cent of respondents said they would not want a neighbour of a different race. This included 43.5 per cent of Indians and 51.4 per cent of Jordanians,’ wrote The Washington Post in a report on the study.

When we were making nuclear energy thousands of years ago in forests using twigs and vocal chords, we also invented racism. It is just our luck that today, racism is defined by colour. Bring caste into the equation and we are still the emperors of discrimination anytime anywhere in history. Hitler might have turned Jews into slaves, but, in the flow of time, that is a blink. We have been at it since civilisation took a foothold. And in the beginning, it was the pure racism of colour without technical loopholes like caste. The Rig Veda records the victory of Aryans over the local dark-skinned Dasyus. The enslavement began then and continues today after at least 3,000 years. One theory says that is why Dalits and Scheduled Tribes are dark complexioned.

Even if historical hypotheses are debatable, all you have to do is look around you for evidence of our racist character. In Mumbai, perfectly normal people in committees of housing societies refuse to let Muslims buy flats there. Every Miss India is unilaterally fair complexioned. How many Bollywood actresses with dark complexions can you think of besides Bipasha Basu? Matrimonial columns make it a point to ask for fair-skinned brides. And for decades, newspapers have been writing about the open racism that Africans and Northeast Indians face in Mumbai and Delhi. To feel this sense of shock at a comedy of error which happened in the US is funny.

There is also the question of why anyone got bothered in the first place. There is a difference between an Indian student being stabbed in Australia because of the colour of his skin and stray comments on the internet. This was so far removed from Davuluri that she wouldn’t even have been aware of it had the media not picked it up. Who doesn’t know about the ugliness of Twitter and who makes a general case out of a few tweets? It became an issue for the simple reason that there was glamour involved. If the same things had been said on Twitter of some middle-aged man doing a mathematics PhD in a US university, no one would have bothered. All that this episode shows us is the hypocrisy of our nature and shallowness—worship of beauty and success—when it comes to values that we hold important.