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Opinion | Silence on racism chokes, not unlike a knee in the neck

As ordinary Indians and celebrities express BlackLivesMatter solidarity on social media, their words cannot excuse the racism in our own backyard

Mira Nair’s 1991 film ‘Mississippi Masala’ was about an Indian woman in America falling in love with an African-American man.
Mira Nair’s 1991 film ‘Mississippi Masala’ was about an Indian woman in America falling in love with an African-American man.

It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.

—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

I remember learning Martin Luther King Jr’s I Had A Dream speech as a schoolboy in Kolkata. That speech, with its dramatic undulations and soaring rhetoric, was a great favourite in elocution contests. I had never been to the US and did not know my Rockies from my Alleghenies but I thrilled to the idea of freedom ringing from them nonetheless.

When I eventually went to the US as a student, on my very first day in a small Midwestern university town, the friendly senior from the Indian Students Association helpfully oriented us newbies in the ways of America. Don’t hold hands with other guys like you might have done with your buddies in India, he said, they will think you are “homos". And don’t rent on the other side of the railway lines. It’s cheaper but that’s where the blacks live and there’s too much crime there. He used the usual Hindi slur for blacks. I think he would have bristled if anyone had called him a homophobe or a racist. As far as he was concerned, he was just dispensing practical survival tips. I kept quiet. And I did not rent on the other side of the railway lines.

As BlackLivesMatter protests rage all over America (and my social media feed), and West Indian cricketer Darren Sammy opens up about the racist sting of the word kaalu, I have thought often of that first encounter with race in America. And my silence.

That senior’s words came back to haunt me soon. My first gay friend in America was a young black student I met at the university LGBT group’s meeting. He took me under his wing and introduced me to gay life in America. And he lived on the other side of the railway lines. When he visited me, Indian friends would ask suspiciously: “Who was that black guy going into your apartment? How do you know him?" Caught between race and sexuality, I had no satisfactory answer.

Years later an African-American journalist told me with a half-smile: “Oh you Indians are brown but as soon as you come to America you want to become white. And get as far away from black as possible." I bristled. I had never questioned my race credentials or had them questioned. India, in my head, was on the right side of race history. We opposed apartheid. We did not know of M.K. Gandhi’s “kaffirs" comments about Africans at the time. India had given Nelson Mandela the Bharat Ratna before he got the Nobel. Oh yes, there was Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala, a story about how all hell breaks loose when the daughter of an Indian motel owner in the American South falls in love with an African-American man. But that was just a movie.

Yet deep inside it stung because I knew it was not untrue. African-Americans had laid down their lives for civil rights that all Americans enjoyed. Indian-Americans revelled in being the model minority but African-Americans were certainly not our model minority. A Bangladeshi cab driver in New York confided in me that he tried to avoid picking up black passengers because he had been mugged a couple of times. He didn’t want a lecture on race justice. He didn’t want to question the historical and sociological reasons of why African-American neighbourhoods had more crime, more panhandlers, more broken windows. He just wanted “no trouble". Once again I kept quiet. I too wanted no trouble. I just wanted to get to where I was going.

This is a different kind of racism than the knee-in-your-neck brutality that choked George Floyd to death in Minneapolis and sparked the latest BlackLivesMatter protests but it is still racism. We do not speak about it because it’s easier to let this be a black-white issue in America, to pretend we have no skin in this particular game. Indian-Americans flaunt their Obama bumper stickers but steer clear of the George Floyds and Trayvon Martins. As comedian Hasan Minhaj says in a recent episode of Patriot Act: “We love black America on screen in our living rooms. But if a black man walks into your living room, or wants to date, God forbid, marry your daughter, you call the cops." Deepa Iyer, author of We Too Sing America, writes that many South Asians “are the ones calling protesters ‘looters’ and differentiating themselves as model minorities". Others are “indifferent" to understanding the role black liberation struggles played in paving the way “for their own families to immigrate and enjoy benefits in America".

Things are changing, though—not fast enough, but they are changing. In the Minneapolis protests, a restaurant called Gandhi Mahal was burnt down. But its Bangladeshi immigrant owner, Ruhel Islam, who had mobilized his kitchen to cook dal, rice and naan for protesters and medics, told a friend: “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served." I do not know if I would have mustered that much generosity if my business lay around me in a smouldering ruin. But it is heartening to hear it.

In India, though, the racism can be so overt it does not even bother with a veneer of political correctness. Indian celebrities were quick to point fingers at America and tweet their #BlackLivesMatter solidarity as if it was the new status symbol for the woke set. Actor Priyanka Chopra got slammed for tweeting that no one deserved to die because of their skin colour while happily selling fairness creams in India. In Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion, Chopra’s supermodel character realizes she has hit rock bottom when she wakes up one morning after a wild night out next to a black man. Others wondered why our beautiful people were not as vociferous about MuslimLivesMatter or DalitLivesMatter in their own backyards. Race and caste are not the same but there is enough overlap.

India’s caste system was a source of great fascination to eugenicists and so-called “race scientists", writes Angela Saini in her book Superior: The Return Of Race Science. “Here, systematic discrimination, the notion that groups of people are biologically pure and should be kept separate, that there are different breeds, isn’t just an ideology. It’s a living practice." India was the closest thing they had to a real world laboratory.

The “other" has never had it easy here. North-Easterners have faced racist attacks in the north and south and the China bashing triggered by covid-19 has only made it worse. Darren Sammy said it was only after he watched Minhaj’s Patriot Act that he realized that when he had been called kaalu in India it was not some affectionate term meaning stallion. He has moved on since and retracted his call for an apology after one of the players reassured him “that he operated from a place of love". What was striking, however, was the reaction, or rather non-reaction, of teammates and officials, who just professed ignorance as if this casual garden-variety racism was something out of the ordinary in India.

In 2017, some residents of Noida, Uttar Pradesh, were up in arms after a young man died mysteriously. Local Nigerians were blamed though no evidence was found. African students were thrashed. People broke into their homes and candlelight marches turned violent. At the time, Samuel T. Jack, then president of the Association of African Students in India, said Africans were stereotyped as drug dealers, prostitutes and even cannibals. “I have been here five years," he said. “My classmates might laugh and talk with me in school but no one has ever invited me to their house. No one has ever said, ‘Sam, come home and meet my parents.’"

More than all the stories about mob violence and name-calling and rental discrimination, that anguish had struck a chord somehow.It’s easy to think of lynch mobs as the lumpen other. It’s easy to point fingers at hypocritical celebrities who wear politically correct sympathies on their hashtags as long as it’s far away from their own backyards. I was not one of them. I had memorized I Have A Dream. I would write quotations from James Baldwin in my notebook. But when push came to shove, I had been silent. And silence chokes. Not unlike a knee in the neck.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

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