My friend’s five-year-old came home from school one evening with a note. She had referred to her Chinese friend as a “Chinki” and her teacher wanted to know why. My friend looked sheepish as she read the note.
“She must’ve picked it up from us. We sometimes do say ‘Chinki,’ you know,” she revealed guiltily.
We Indians love labels, don’t we? And I don’t mean Guccis and Pradas. I mean labels for people, of both Indian and non-Indian origin. It helps us match person to personality, gives us a ready manual for assessing behavior and associated characteristics. We don’t like being caught unawares by unfamiliar personality types and don’t seem to realize that our love for quick allocations could amount to a serious affliction: racism.
We are desis in a foreign country. Indian-Americans raised in the United States are promptly tagged ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis). And for a certain population of desis, the Chinese become “Chinkis,” African-Americans become “Kallus,” and white people become “Goras.” We see nothing wrong in making casual use of these names. We permit ourselves to do the very thing that would likely offend us if we were on the receiving end. If one were to ever refer to us as “brownies” or, even more disturbingly, as “rag heads,” we would be screaming “racism!” from the rooftops.
Racism is ill defined within the Indian community. I have come across people who think that only the discrimination on part of white people is racist. Their own discriminatory behavior, however, is permissible.
Bollywood’s portrayal of Caucasians, for example, makes me wonder if we have been fighting the freedom struggle a little too long after independence. Most white characters are portrayed as money-hungry, double-crossing villains who the hero mocks in Hindi or triumphs over in the end.
In Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Kajol, the leading lady, constantly derides her white, British neighbor, mimics the neighbor’s accent, and calls her names in Hindi. A crowd of British people, including the neighbor, then stands up and sings the Indian national anthem in the middle of England.
In Namaste London, British men are portrayed as absolute scoundrels; the entire story is based on the singular theme of Punjabi-munda versus British-guy. This film was aired on my recent Air India flight to London and several British Bollywood enthusiasts squirmed in their seats, dismayed as the story made them seem like arrogant rogues who must view India as a land of snake-charmers and call centers.
In yet another blockbuster hit, Kal Ho Na Ho, Shah Rukh Khan, the celebrated King of Bollywood, looks out of a window and, with a perfectly benevolent smile on his face, hurls insults at the Chinese restaurateurs across the street as he and his friends pin an Indian flag outside their cafe.
It is disappointing to see stale racial stereotypes reinforced by the largest film industry in the world. These scenes are meant to provide comic relief and evoke patriotism, especially among non-resident Indians, lest they forget their “Indian-ness” while living in a foreign land. But animosity towards other races and cultures cannot possibly be a display of national pride, can it?
When I first arrived in the U.S., a senior Indian graduate student was kind enough to familiarize me with life in the United States. “White people can be racist,” he began, “and the Chinese … well they are just bad drivers!” He finished with a smug chuckle, happy with himself at having enlightened a newbie. With the second half of his statement, he had managed to do precisely what he had accused someone else of doing in the first.
Then there is the even more disturbing regional bias among Indians themselves. I once sat through a three-hour flight listening to a Bengali professor lecture me about why and how Bengalis have higher intellect than the rest of the nation. Among his empirical evidence was the fact that West Bengal has had two Nobel Laureates and even one Oscar winner. Compared to other regions of India, he opined, that was a much higher statistic.
“So Americans are probably smarter than Indians, right?” I asked finally, feigning wide-eyed intrigue at this line of thinking.
“No, no of course not!” he immediately exclaimed, hurt and shocked by the mere suggestion.
“Why would you even make such a gross generalization!” he chided me, angrily pushing back the glasses on his nose.
I surveyed his incensed face and enjoyed a brief moment of irony before proceeding to explain myself. Applying his very logic, more Americans had won the Nobel Prize than Indians, and if that were to be the measure of intellect, then Americans should probably be smarter than Indians. He grew red in the face as I stated this conclusion.
“In fact, approximately 30 times smarter,” I quipped, enjoying the growing outrage that was furrowing his moustache. “One hundred and seventy-eight American Nobel laureates versus six Indian laureates.” He muttered some protests and fell silent, realizing that his own lame equation had led to my upsetting inference. I don’t have a problem with regional pride, but regional conceit does not deserve to be humored.
This incident brought back memories of college and graduate school, where groups of Indians not only stuck together due to language and cultural commonalities, but also at times claimed superiority based on their regional backgrounds. A friend once joked that the “unity-in-diversity” attribute of India was likely preserved not because of tolerance, but because selective communal groups allowed one ample opportunity to avoid the miscellany and stick to one’s pack.
Among Indians living in the United States, this trend is even more obvious. One can argue that initially adhering to one’s comfort zone cushions the cultural shock of moving to a new country. However, such strict adherence to communal groups can cost people the enriching, inter-cultural experience of living in another country. The South Indians stick with the South Indians, the Gujaratis with the Gujaratis, the Punjabis among themselves, and so forth.
Interestingly, many students arriving from the cosmopolitan cities in India make no such discrimination and just look for a fun group with which to mingle, which makes me wonder why some adults stick so religiously to their own community. Soon this herd mentality makes its way into one’s thinking and behavior, which is especially dangerous for those of us raising children born in the United States.
I have also been shocked by the occasional and seemingly harmless, “Are you a Brahmin?” that often makes its way into a conversation with fellow-Indians. While caste discrimination has been banned by the Indian constitution and has caused immense harm to the communal ethos even in recent times, educated people still find it necessary to inquire about one’s caste. Once we are among a group of people with equal educational backgrounds and accomplishments, should it really matter what caste they are from? Even the most liberal Indians feel no qualms about stating caste requirements while listing arranged matrimonial eligibility.
Is caste-ism any more acceptable than having “names” for other racial groups just because it is intra-racial and intra-cultural? While some people may have trouble accepting this, the uses of the “c,” “k,” and “g” words, as well as those “innocent” questions about caste, reflect an inherent preference for a divided society in which people are defined by their labels.
Sounds like racism to me.
Aditi Nadkarni is a U.S.-based cancer researcher, creative writer, poet, and documentary filmmaker.