Quartz recently published an article discussing the sharp contrast between the contrast of India's treatment of African leaders and ordinary African people living and working in the sub-continent. The gist of the article is that while officially African leaders are treated with great civility and respect, many ordinary African people living in India face significant casual and systemic racism as part of their every day life.
This issue is an important one, especially as India seeks to strengthen its trading relationship with Sub-Saharan African countries and secure access to the many natural resources present in the face of China's aggressive moves to do the same. A fair amount has been written about the challenges and efforts of the 'New India' in the Sub-Saharan Region, and it can make for amazingly dry geo-political diplomacy and global economics reading.
However, the issue of racism -- particular racism found in Indian society towards black Africans and other groups -- is one of those issues that seems to constantly fly under the radar when discussing India and at-times Indian ex-pats abroad.
An interesting case study is actually the early life of Gandhi in South Africa and the attitudes both he and other members of the Indian ex-pat community held in regards to apartheid and the treatment of black African community. (Again, this is not to say that all Indian ex-pats held these views, but certainly they were prevalent among the community at the time.) It’s very much a study in contrasts to see the condoned explicit racism of a young Gandhi versus the peaceful public image the world has come to accept as his the official narrative.
It’s also worth discussing the psycho-social impact of the Indian caste system and what it’s meant for migrant workers/traders from Africa and other parts of Asia. (Europe and North Americans tend to benefit a bit more from the psycho-social legacies of British colonialism, but also don’t have nearly the migrant worker presence as Africa or Asia in India.) Institutionalized notions that certain people have a “certain place in society” and/or should “know their role” in society can actively work to de-humanize those groups for the broader public, seemingly providing sanction for even casual racist thoughts and actions of individuals. Compounding this are the racist societal narratives that can be traced from European colonial times through to today’s prevalent Western cultural depictions of black people — especially black Africans — which provides additional reinforced psycho-social sanction for casual racist narratives about black people. (i.e. If people in the West accept such views, why would we be wrong to accept the same views?)
To be clear, I’m not saying that every Indian person, on the sub-continent or part of an ex-pat community, is racist and/or sanctions racism in society. Like many societies, India is a highly complex and changing society with a diversity of views and accepted psycho-social narratives. We can hope that progress will continue to be made as India continues to expand its influence worldwide.
However, it would be useless to pretend that there is no racism present in Indian society and that the level of casual racism that exists among Indian communities at home and abroad isn’t truly shocking at times — especially in regards to economically disadvantaged groups (e.g. lower caste communities), black Africans and other Asian service and factory workers. It can, at times, border on complete de-humanization with little recognition there is a problem or any psycho-social stigma for espousing such beliefs. As with any society, confronting racist actions and beliefs in Indian society is the only way progress will be made. Anything less is a de facto sanction of such racism and actually enables casual racist psycho-social narratives and actions to take deeper root under the guise of external validation. (i.e. Your silent response to this casual racist speech/actions/thought provides external validation to me, as it communicates that it’s acceptable to someone from your society as well.)
The sad truth is that racism exists everywhere on the planet. No society is immune to it. The only way we can combat racism is through a willingness to constantly name it and to move against it every time it rears its ugly head.
That means accepting equally calling out members of the KKK as calling out the casual racism that your friend may use in passing conversation. (e.g. “#blacklivesmatter? What about #alllivesmatter?”)
It means that we have to be willing to listen in an open fashion when someone raises a question of racism, and be willing to examine our own assumptions without immediately getting defensive when the issue is raised.
It means accepting that we all can potential say/do/think racist things, but we may truly only be called a “racist” when we refuse to acknowledge and/or change the acts of racism we may commit once we are aware of them.
And it means accepting that there may (most likely is) systemic racism in our societies that may never be apparent to us, but that doesn’t make it any less real or cruel for those it impacts. Systemic racism may require some significant changes to how society functions, but that doesn’t mean that those changes have to be a zero-sum situation for those previously unaffected by the systemic racism. (e.g. Just because changes are made to how a post-secondary acceptance system operates to correct for historical discrimination against a particular group doesn’t mean that you’re now being discriminated against if you’re not part of that historical group. Things are just different now to address long-standing historical racism.)
I have every confidence that India as a nation, and Indians as a society (at home and abroad), can address the racism that currently is so prevalent. Indians have done remarkable things as a people over the course of world history. I see no reason that overcoming the casual and systemic racism found in their society can’t be another remarkable achievement.
Note: This piece was originally posted to my Facebook page in a modified form on 30 October 2015.