Disrupting our discomfort with Blackness

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the fairness cream industry in India and how it exploits pre-existing caste, class, and skin color norms. The causes prove elusive. Perhaps, as a country and people, we Indians suffer from some twisted form of post-colonial separation anxiety, having been taught to value White as being superior. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that we are far from transcending stereotypes and perceptions based on nothing more than the color of one’s skin.

I was recently having chai with an Indian American family friend of ours in Mumbai. As we talked and sipped, the conversation drifted to her experiences with her friends in the U.S. She was telling us how she is an anomaly in her family, because the vast majority of her friends in the U.S. happen to be Black. When her extended family and Indian friends heard about this, they warned her repeatedly to be “careful of the Blacks” and that “it’s best to avoid them altogether.” What feeds these perceptions? Among my admittedly limited sample size of Indian American friends, there seems to be a noticeable preference for immersing ourselves in the company and culture of White or Asian friends. Sometimes, this manifests in actively avoiding Black culture. Is it simply a cultural difference based on what we are familiar with? Or is it mixed in with our preconceived notions of what is considered worthy, safe and desirable company? 

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Source: Google Images

Back in the motherland, these pre-conceived notions can often play out in dark ways. In 2016 alone, there have been five arrests over assaults on African citizens in India. In response to the justified anger and caution by African ambassadors, some officials have responded by claiming that there is “no element of racism in these attacks” and that these are “isolated incidents.” When similar heinous crimes are committed abroad where Indians are the minority (such as in Australia in 2010 and against Sikhs in America in 2014), we are quick to identify racism as the culprit, demand justice, and ask for a national level conversation around racism. Why get defensive and turn a blind eye when Indians end up in the driver’s seat? When we write off such behavior as isolated or unavoidable, we create an atmosphere of tolerance toward intolerance. I commonly hear peers reflecting on how racism towards Black citizens is rampant in the United States, but the same level of insight and introspection is not applied to our own country. If we demand and advocate for the protection of our citizens abroad as we should, we have an equal responsibility to protect minorities on our home turf.

Beyond protection, the larger question remains of how we shift cultural perceptions of our discomfort with Blackness. The first step is recognition: recognition of our biases and our shortcomings, rather than defending our thought processes on auto-pilot. Shun those fairness creams and demand that people value you for who you are rather than the color of your skin on a picture on some matrimonial site. If you are Indian American, learn about Black history and Black culture in the United States and make an effort to get to know people you might consider alien to your own culture- as my friend said, you’d be surprised at how similar some of our cultural norms and practices are! It is only by actively recognizing and calling out our society’s discomfort with Blackness that we can begin to address the racism embedded within our own caste and class norms. 

Gandhi, despite all his greatness, used to hold strong convictions about Indians being superior to native Africans in this mythical hierarchy among the oppressed. Even the mahatma had his flaws, and there is no shame in admitting them along with his redeeming qualities. There is shame, however, in reverting back to these outmoded notions of racial superiority in the 21st century. We can and we must do better.

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