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.”
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?
Back in the motherland, these pre-conceived notions can often play out in dark ways. In 2016 alone, there had 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.
What is the answer?
Beyond protection, the larger question remains of how we shift cultural perceptions concerning our discomfort with Blackness. The first step is acknowledgment: acknowledgment of our biases and our shortcomings, rather than defending our thought processes on auto-pilot. Shun the fairness creams (skin bleaching) and demand that people value you for who you are rather than the color of your skin on a picture of 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 consider alien to your own culture- you would 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.
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