An Indian mystic, Osho opined that discrimination starts the moment a child is born. “Boy or a girl?”, “Dark or Fair?” are typically the very first queries new parents field. We too, have experienced this first as parents and later, as grandparents.
As people of Indian origin, this bias towards a fair complexion is engrained in our subconscious. India was ruled by Mongols, Persians, Afghans and ultimately the British over several centuries. Perhaps the darker-skinned indigenous populace came around to associating the lighter skin-colour of their rulers as a visible symbol of the latter’s inherent strength and superiority.
We grew up in an environment where almost all matrimonial advertisements clearly sought a “Fair” bride and/or groom and where “skin-lightening” creams and similar products still remain in high demand, even after ostensibly being banned. Prejudices against dark people prevail, nevertheless. People from North India, who tend to be fairer than their compatriots from the South routinely pass insensitive comments or joke about their skin colour, accents or food habits. Yet, it is these very people who, when they travel through or settle in Europe, North America or Australia etc., complain the loudest that the “Goraas” (“Whites”) discriminate against them or worse, are racist.
However, discrimination and prejudices are not just skin-deep. As we are witnessing these days, other systemic issues need to be addressed. In an earlier blog (https://wealthisnotmoney.com/2018/02/10/racing-on-ahead/) I had alluded to colonial education failing coloured people. Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden symbolized the firm belief of most white peoples at the time that they were better than those whose lands they continued to annex. But, it would be disingenuous to solely blame one race or people.
Several years ago, a family member visited us from India. On the drive home from the airport, the not-so-young visitor related how impressed he had been by “this huge “Habshi” flight attendant because, in spite of being a nigger he spoke very good English and had good manners”. Appalled, we challenged his thinking and choice of words. As we chatted, it became evident that while not bigoted, his insensitivity was the result of the very constrained family and cultural environment in which he had grown up. Once he realized his folly, he was most apologetic. I told him that Europeans and Americans started slavery from Africa in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to procure cheap labour for their sugar plantations, cotton fields or factories. On the other hand, as early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Muslim rulers in India were bringing African slaves from Abyssynia to serve in their armies. Unlike their counterparts in the West, the slaves in India were highly valued for their prowess and fighting skills, were well respected and referred to as “Habshis” (Abyssinians or Ethiopians) or known as “Sidis”, a title bestowing respect. Over time, the Sidis established their own kingdoms along the South-West coastline of India. But, most Indians today remain unaware of their history and denigrate a black or darker person readily by labeling him/her a Habshi!
Let us consider a good driver cruising along on the highway. He/she may not be aware of cars coming up from the left or right unless they look over the shoulder to check out their blind spots. Failure to do so constitutes dangerous driving and could result in a serious collision. A good driver risks being instantaneously transformed into a threat endangering not just him-/herself but others in the vicinity as well. Simply put, it is the same way with race relations. Most people may not honestly know enough about the “other” and unconsciously, or at times arrogantly behave in a manner that may be hurtful. Therefore, each of us must assume responsibility to “look over our shoulders and check our blind spots”.
Actively listening, rather than speaking is usually a good first step for new learning.
Famous award-winning Canadian author David Chariandy experienced a racist incident when his daughter was three. Ten years later, in his book “I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You: A Letter To My Daughter” he helps prepare her for a world dominated by the politics of race. He suggests:
“… You did not create the inequalities and injustices of the world, daughter. You are neither solely nor uniquely responsible to fix them. If there is anything to learn about the story of our ancestry, it is that you should respect and protect yourself; that you should demand not only justice but joy; that you should see, truly see, the vulnerability and the creativity and the enduring beauty of others …”
“… The future I yearn for is not one in which we will all be clothed in sameness, but one in which we will finally learn to both read and respectfully discuss our differences …”
And finally, I end with Sant Kabir’s vani (verse by the mystic-poet Saint Kabir) that a favourite nonagenarian uncle often recites:
|Awwal Allah nuur upajayaa||Foremost, God (Allah) created His / Her own Radiance/Aura|
|Kudrat ke sabh bande||all mortals are a part of this creation (natural order)|
|Ek nuur te sabh jug upajayaa||The entire universe welled up from this aura|
|Kaun bhale kaun mande||(pray tell, amongst us) who is good and who is bad?|
4 Replies to “Fair and Lovely”
Well said. The White Man’s Burden, was an exam question in a history class I took and I was shocked at how many people did not understand the poem to be racist and I remembered feeling an instant disconnect with my classmates. And that’s the issue – feeling that there is a lack of understanding of such intrinsic feelings of inequality and being frustrated by that lack of understanding.
Thanks; well said.
If only we could, even for a few minutes, put ourselves in the shoes of the “other” and attempt to empathize, it might help change the narrative. While a noble gesture, it takes very little effort to just sympathize and move on. It would help if we open our ears, hearts and minds to listen to the “other” instead of passing judgment and condemnation, outright.
Could it be that we are all capable of racist thoughts, that we carry them around like a virus, mostly asymptomatic, until a response is triggered? How else would one explain the universal othering of everyone “not like us”? Thankfully, we also have a spontaneous coming together in the face of such acts, a solidarity that gives me hope.
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Fair play. Dark deeds. The landmines lie waiting for us in the languages we speak. And then we step on them. Words first. Actions next. Who will clear these minefields?
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