BY BHANUJ KAPPAL JUN. 01, 2016
Don’t worry, black people! This is how we treat everyone who is not a savarna Indian male.
Masonda Ketanda Olivier’s brutal murder, 15 minutes before his birthday, has been all over the news. But Olivier’s death is only one in a string of attacks on black people in India. On May 29, six more black people hailing from Uganda, South Africa, and Nigeria were attacked in Mehrauli in three different incidents. The alleged motivation for these attacks is that the victims committed the crime of playing loud music and drinking publicly, privileges that are apparently only reserved for rich South Delhi boys in SUVs with “Jatt Pride” and “Gujjar4Eva” stickers.
Earlier this year, a mob in Bengaluru brutally attacked and stripped a Tanzanian woman because she happened to be driving down a road where a Sudanese man had run down a local half an hour prior. Different gender, different nationality, no relation to the accident, but I guess when you’re a mob looking for someone to lynch, being black is crime enough.
Anti-blackness has always been a problem in India, but in typical desi fashion, it’s something we’d rather sweep under the carpet. After the Bengaluru attack, one DailyO columnist claimed it wasn’t racist because, basically, we’re not white so we can’t be racist. The Minister of State for Culture and Tourism Mahesh Sharma dismissed Olivier’s murder by saying “even Africa is not safe”, a statement so blasé that it makes me wonder if he’s actually human. And when envoys to India from 42 African nations protested the racist violence by boycotting Africa Day, Sushma Swaraj responded by saying that the government is launching a sensitisation programme to reiterate that such “incidents embarrass the country.” That’s right. Racist violence isn’t the problem here; it’s the fact that such headlines might besmirch the government’s India Shining 2.0 narrative. Meanwhile, in a time-honoured tradition, Delhi residents lay the blame squarely at the victims’ feet because they disregard “local culture”, something Indians neverdo when they’re abroad or even visiting other parts of the country.
Anti-blackness is so pervasive in our society that even Gandhi in his early years was a proponent, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” Much of this relates to a historical identification with European – and later American – elites, as Indians dealt with the experience of colonisation by pretending that at least they’re higher up the ladder than blacks. For Indians who continue to aspire to be counted alongside the largely white elites of the first world, internalising the racist attitudes of that elite is only natural. Combine this with our indigenous form of “colourism”, inspired by the caste system and the association of fair skin with Brahmins and other upper-caste elites, and you’ve got a country that treats darkness like a disease, at best. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and eventually, violence.
Much of the blame for this lies with Indian pop culture and media, which have consistently reinforced such toxic ideas in the Indian mainstream. Enough has been written about fairness cream ads and the colourism they promote, but I feel compelled to mention Pond’s 2009 epic in five parts “White Beauty”, which features an artificially “darkened” Priyanka Chopra’s struggle to win back her ex-beau Saif Ali Khan from a much fairer Neha Dhupia. Then there’s the series of ads for Parle’s LMN drinks, which feature black men in loincloths in the desert trying their best to get a sip of water, a perfect example of egregious racism that didn’t generate a tenth of the outrage the recent Coldplay video did. But these would all be outdone by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s print ad for a jewellery brand that featured her decked up as a white colonial aristocrat under a red parasol held up by an emaciated black child. Racism, colonial aspirations and an endorsement of child-slavery, all rolled up into one particularly offensive package. Well done, Ash.
It is perfectly acceptable to use Snoop Dogg to lend authenticity to Bollywood rap songs and shamelessly rip off black music for decades, even as we use black stereotypes for slapstick punch lines.
To be fair to our advertising industry, they’ve been late-comers to the racism game. Bollywood, as ever, has been the pioneer. Whether it’s the routine use of darker-skinned – and more recently, black – actors as nameless thugs, the ignorant stereotyping of Africans as primitive tribals, or the persistent use of “blackface”, our film industry pulls no punches. I’m not sure how the racist American minstrel tradition of blackface made its way to Bollywood, but you can see it in songs like Mr India’s “Hawa Hawai”, and the incredibly offensive video for Vishwatma’s “Saat Samundar Paar”.
More recently, there’s the National Award-winning Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to *gasp* a black man! (Co-incidentally, Priyanka would go on to star in Quantico and complain about the racism she faced in the US. Of course.) And no discussion of racism in Indian cinema will be complete without this horrendous over-the-top scene from 2000’s Hadh Kar Di Aapne, which is more racist than a KKK rally. I can’t explain this one, you’ll just have to watch and then fight the urge to hunt down and kill everyone involved with this scene.
This knee-jerk racism hasn’t, of course, stopped us from appropriating black culture when convenient. It is perfectly acceptable to use Snoop Dogg to lend authenticity to Bollywood rap songs and shamelessly rip off black music for decades, even as we use black stereotypes for slapstick punch lines. Even in articles deploring such racism, our media uses the grossly inaccurate coinage “African nationals”, reducing a racially and culturally diverse continent to one skin colour. And before you pat yourself on the back for being more enlightened than that, let me point out that your supposedly liberal social circle isn’t much better.
My Facebook feed is full of people making fun of contemporary African American Vernacular English (AAVE) slang like “bae” or “on fleek”, even as they happily use words like “cool” and “hip” – which also come from black American culture, but have been sanitised by decades of white usage. Then there’s the electronica producer I know from Delhi, who regularly used to bring hashish back to Bombay to sell to his fellow students. He was trying to defend the 2014 raids on Khirki Extension’s black residents by AAP’s Somnath Bharti, who accused them of running a drugs and prosecution racket. This supposedly “culturally literate” producer told me that the raids were warranted, because whenever he and his friends called for coke at their parties – usually playing techno, a style of music with origins that are decidedly black and political – it was always a black dealer who turned up. Bravo, my friend! I couldn’t dream up a better example of Indian racism and hypocrisy if I tried.
The reason I’m going on about this is that accepting our racism problem is the only way we will begin to think about solving it. Our unwillingness to acknowledge this racism (one of my cousins explained his attitude by resorting to that oldest of racist apologetics – genes) means that this violence is only likely to grow worse. But, as this online webcomic points out, there is a bright side. As India grows increasingly intolerant, our treatment of black people increasingly aligns with the way we treat other India’s disenfranchised minorities. Don’t worry, black people in India! We’re only treating you as we treat the rest of us. At least those that aren’t privileged savarna males.
Bhanu Kappal: Bhanuj Kappal writes about music, culture, and anti-nationals. After doing a bunch of odd jobs in the culture industry, he’s now decided to be a freelance journalist, and live at the mercy of newspapers’ accounts departments. Will write for food.