culture shockers: What shade of brown is approved in India? An African-American and Indian tell their story

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Growing up in India I never really thought about the color of my skin. It was only after living in London and New York that I began to conceive of myself as a person of color. I realize now that this was largely a symptom of my reasonably privileged class status in a country in which color is just one in a long list of things that separates one person from another. Maybe it is because India’s problems of poverty, illiteracy and the ever increasingly divide between the “have’s” and the “have-nots’” steal the limelight, but it is not a country that is usually included in discussions of race and racial discrimination. Take a look at the diversity of color you see in a cross-section of Indians, and take note of the women who make it as Bollywood’s presently reigning queens, and you too might think that India desperately needs to be included in the global discussions on race.

With India’s booming economy and rapid increase of foreign investment, each time I have been back in the last five years I am excited to see that the population of non-Indians in the urban areas is increasing by leaps and bounds. What is not so exciting about this though, is to see the ways in which the Indian population deals with these non-Indians- sadly, many of these interactions are defined by the color of the given “foreigner.”

In this context I was horrified to come across a magazine article by an African-American man living in Delhi and pursuing his PhD in Economics at the Delhi School of Economics. His situation of dealing with outrageous and blatant racism on a daily basis is heightened by the fact that his partner is a white American who is afforded special privileges by virtue of his whiteness, and he is a black man. In this extremely personal and sensitive article in Outlook magazine, Diepiriye Kuku tells us, “the Delhi public literally stops and stares. It is harrowing to constantly have children and adults tease, taunt, pick, poke and peer at you from the corner of their eyes, denying their own humanity as well as mine…  Once I stood gazing at the giraffes at the Lucknow Zoo only to turn and see 50-odd families gawking at me rather than the exhibit.” As if this isn’t enough to scar someone, he describes feeling like an “exotic African creature… spectacle, stirring fear and awe,” as a guard announces him saying  “an African has come.”

While my horror at Kuku’s experience of my home-city makes me want to quote the majority of his article to you (and then apologize on behalf of everyone who has offended him), I will try to look at this with the same sensitivity and desire for change that he demonstrates in his writing. You can read the entire article here.  In the meantime it is important to understand that this is symptomatic of a complete lack of understanding of discrimination as a social ill within Indian society. I think it is time for an active discourse around discrimination that highlights skin color, along with differences of region, religion, gender, caste and class. In his analysis, Kuku mentions that while the path to ending discrimination is “unpaved” in most countries, in India it is “still rural and rocky as if this nation has not decided the road even worthy.”

As Indians, we are constantly surrounded by ads about skin whitening creams (which we featured in a previous b-listed blog post), and comments about how “fair and (thereby) beautiful” so-and-so is. While the Indian obsession with white skin has always been a part of our cultural psyche that I was aware (and embarrassed) of, I think it is time to actively seek ways to begin the discussion on race in India, acknowledging that it is not only “worthy,” but a road that is an intrinsic step to the development of our wonderfully diverse country with its many shades of brown.

October 8, 2009 by ishita
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5 Responses to “culture shockers: What shade of brown is approved in India? An African-American and Indian tell their story”

  • Sharon Rosen Teig says:

    Posted: October 8, 2009 at 5:50 PM

    i’ve been to india and was glad to read your article.. doesn’t it seem to you that in every part of the world where the english/french/portugues/dutch/german imperialists set foot, color became about being as close to white as possible..have you been to puerto rico, mexico, aruba? It sounds familiar.

  • Ishita says:

    Posted: October 8, 2009 at 6:06 PM

    Sadly I haven’t been to any of the places you mentioned but I agree- in many places that were colonized by the ‘white man’, there is a deep-rooted desire to mimic/aspire to that whiteness. In India this manifests in uncountable ways, ranging from this ridiculous obsession with pale skin, to the association of the knowledge of English with a superior class/caste. Unfortunately, all this is dangerously tied to how the society has developed, and the hierarchies of caste and class continue to develop, making it even more complex than it was sixty years ago when the British left India- where there was a much more absolute hierarchy of ‘white’ and ‘brown’, British and Indian, colonizer and colonized.

  • saurabh says:

    Posted: October 9, 2009 at 6:59 PM

    As I recall, this distinction by color has always existed in India. My maternal grandmother, who was more fair skinned than most Europeans, was considered a great beauty for this reason. Other women in the family, who were far more beautiful, were not looked upon as highly because they were not as light skinned. Thus the women of Kashmir, where the population is very light skinned, were considered great beauties.
    Interestingly, it took me coming to and living in the USA to get over this prejudice that was ingrained in me at birth.

  • Shantanu Dutta says:

    Posted: October 9, 2009 at 11:12 PM

  • Diepiriye Sungumote Kuku-Siemons says:

    Posted: December 8, 2009 at 2:19 AM

    I sincerely appreciated your comments on the piece I wrote in Outlook. I am very confident that with such active public discourse, these issues will not persist. Thanks for sharing this.

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