Tuesday, October 1, 2013

We are all racists....

 Just got back from what is sure to become THE premiere Lit Fest in India - the just concluded one in Bangalore.Everything about it is right - mainly, the all important vision. More on that in another post...
This appeared in the Mumbai Mirror...
                            We are all racists…
It happened to Professor Prabhjot Singh this week in New York. He was battered by a mob of  30 people on bicycles who taunted him  by screaming ‘Osama’, ‘terrorist’ while he was walking through Harlem last Saturday night. They ripped his beard and assaulted him till a passerby intervened and saved his life. By then , Prof.Singh had suffered a jaw fracture. Bloody and bruised, he certainly was. But not down and out, as his subsequent quotes prove. Understandably, his main concern was for his one-year-old son who he fears may also suffer a similar fate later in life. It’s a legitimate fear in a world that is wracked with hate crimes.  Earlier this month, Nina Davuluri…. the newly crowned Miss America was subjected to equally violent personal attacks which, despite being verbal not physical, were no less lethal. Seconds after Nina was crowned, she became the target of the most vituperative racist abuse online.  She too was dubbed a terrorist and an agent of Al Qaeda  on various social media platforms. People mocked her skin colour and  questioned her American identity . Like Prof.  Prabhjot Singh, Nina D… also took the unprecedented attacks in her stride and in the bargain, won more than just a beauty pageant title – she garnered world wide respect.
We are talking about two highly educated professionals of Indian origin facing the collective fury of mobs who hate them. Why? For what reason?Well, bluntly put, for not being White! In a country that elected its first Black President in history, there has been a disturbing downslide in acceptance/ tolerance levels when it comes to racial issues in recent years. One had hoped – even  dared to imagine - Barack Obama’s amazing ascent would trigger off a new era of equality and colour blindness, more so in a nation  that is the planet’s biggest melting pot of ethnic differences. And yet, what we are living through is a shameful chain of events that conclusively establishes the rise of intolerance and hate.There has to be a reason for this escalation of racial attacks. And the reason is nothing more than plain ignorance. We live in a world that is not just alarmingly ignorant but let’s be honest – largely illiterate. No matter what the statistics show, the new literates are in fact scarily uneducated in real terms. And it is this lack of education - an absence of  genuine learning - that is leading to a widespread epidemic of crime against those who look different, eat different, smell different, act different, are different.
But wait a minute… we are no better in India. Before we cast the first stone, let us whip ourselves first. Nina D would not have made it past the first round here, had she had the gumption to fill the beauty contest form in the first place. And poor Professor Prabhjot  Singh might also have had to cope with his share of  pathetic Sardarji jokes. Our obsession with lighter skin has been around for centuries. The incredibly high sales of products that promise a fairer skin to men and women ( soon there’ll be one for babies – why wait for the child to face prejudice?)  underlines this ugly truth. Yes, Indians are racists. And no, we are not all that ignorant. Our racism has been endorsed and certified for ages… by the sages! And our sexual attacks on gori-gori firang female tourists are an expression of this sickness. Let’s call it a form of reverse racism. Then again, let’s consider a hypothetical scenario : How would Indians react to a beautiful Black contestant bagging the Miss India crown? Would we accept such a winner? Or would we protest – “  She can’t win! Just look at her complexion! She doesn’t LOOK  Indian!” Like there is just one kind of a milk white Indian!  I am pretty sure such a title holder would face the worst slurs….. and promptly give back her crown! As for the reactions to a professor of African origin teaching in one of our universities … just forget it. We have seen how students from African countries are discriminated against  right here in Mumbai.Yes, the world’s a pretty nasty place. So is India.  Thank you, V.S. Naipaul for reminding us of a ghastly but inescapable reality  -  we  continue to live in an area of darkness, in more ways than one.
This appeared in The Week...
                                        Does Zadie Smith have a point?
I read a recent article in a British newspaper which featured Zadie Smith, the 37- year-old writer of  ‘The White Teeth’. Zadie is beautiful. Oooops. I just used the forbidden ‘b’ word . Her beauty , she says, is the cause of a major problem for her. Her much admired good looks come between her and her critics who are unwillingly to take her seriously or give her due credit as a writer.Cambridge-educated Ms. Smith ( she wrote her brilliant book during her final year) finds their attitude ‘misogynistic’  She says emphatically, “The assumption that beautiful women did not have to be intelligent is sinister.” She also cribs about media’s  “ ridiculous obsession” with her looks,  and insists it is not she who places all those pretty pictures in the papers, but photo editors. She also referred to a letter in an Italian paper in which the writer grudgingly conceded that while Zadie is…. maybe… a ‘good’ writer, she couldn’t possibly be “great”. It was, of course, Zadie’s beauty getting in the way. Again! Zadie sniffed, “ I am not too  beautiful to be an author.” Relax!! I wanted to croon, “Oh you poor darling… there, there….iIt can’t be so bad… it’s going to okay…. promise! We all love your book and we’ll pretend we haven’t noticed how super amazing you look…  we promise not to hold your appearance against you when you show up for a book signing session looking like a movie star.”
Does Jhumpa Lahiri have a similar problem? If  indeed she does, she has certainly never spoken about it. Jhumpa is seriously spectacular. And she is seriously successful. Her new book has once again established her credentials as one of the most read contemporary authors across the world. She is currently on top of the best seller lists in India. Her pictures are everywhere. And she is looking better than ever. I am sure she gets her share of gush in print. But nobody thinks less of her as a writer because she is good looking. If anything, her personality enhances the appeal of her books and is an essential part of her positioning as an established author. This is how it goes these days. Authors have been converted into brands , just like everybody else who is successful – film stars, tennis players, musicians, artists. We live in visual times. Attention spans have shrunk. Everybody wants to look good – has to look good. Everybody is looking for that instant fix. And if that fix comes in an attractive package – why not live with it?

This is my second, better considered reaction to the Zadie interview. My first was to agree with her and declare , “Welcome to the club!” It can be pretty tiresome to have to deal with a level of scrutiny that refuses to extend beyond the female writer’s age, hair, cheekbones, clothes and other details that have nothing to do with writing. Yes, it is annoying and unfair. But that’s the sort of stereo typing women have been subjected to since time immemorial. It is nobody’s fault. And women have to be sensible about this ‘objectification’, provided it doesn’t turn nasty. Zadie mentions Sylia Plath and describes her a beautiful woman, thereby further reinforcing the ‘beauty’ curse. Jhumpa on the other hand, appears to be comfortable with her physicality, neither drawing attention to her looks nor apologizing for them. Her ‘take it or leave it’ attitude is the one that works far better than Zadie’s wail. No matter how strenuously Zadie protests, what’s the bet she’ll wonder where the paparazzi have disappeared if her public appearances get ignored? Instead of worrying about not being taken seriously by critics, she should continue writing with gusto and passion. After all, success is still the best revenge! And good looks, a God given gift to be cherished by those fortunate enough to have them in abundance – like Zadie. Like Jhumpa. As extraordinarily talented writers, their job is to write. If there are idiots out there who assume beautiful women do not have to be intelligent, hell…. it’s their tiny brain talking. Stupid, yes. ‘Sinister’ ? Hardly. 


Anita Jeyan Sandeep said...

Nina Davuluri would have never made it if she was in India. Well, dusky Indians do not even deserve to be in spotlight! She would have grown up not knowing her worth and would have faced sympathy and racial mockery from family and friends. She would have built a shell around her to hide herself from hurtful comments that always come searching for her. Because Indians are worse in terms of racial discrimination as compared to the white skinned. So as you said we have no right to point fingers at those american whites who accused Nina for being dark. We would have done worse.

Desi Babu said...

Human beings like to organize in clans -- racism is an expression of exclusivity, made by those clans.

It is just that we like to associate the word with the outward looks of a person. You are right, it exists in all societies and transcends all classes. We humans don't necessarily try to better ourselves, but we make use of every opportunity to try and prove that we are better than others. And that, is racism.

In the end, what matters is not how racist the people are, but what their civilization does to protect those, whom they like to exclude. A case in point is when president Kennedy sent federal mashals to protect the constitutional rights of a black man called James Meredith, against the wishes of the local powers that were. In India, you cannot dream of the state sending its security forces to protect the liberties (and rights) of an individual. And therein, lies the difference of civilizations.

The United States has a framework in place to protect the victims of racism. In India, we need to diligently work towards creating one.

Desi Babu
The Peanut Express

Hafza Majeed said...

Very nicely written. Its a pity that dark skinned girls are shunned in both India and Pakistan and it's even more sad to see such racism in the west, the countries we idealize the most. Love from Pakistan

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