Being an ‘African-looking’ Indian in India:
I am an Indian, by birth but appearance-wise, I can easily pass off as an African. In fact, in college, because of my appearance and the way I talk, I was often called as ‘Obama’.
I was used to the casual racism, thrown as jokes and insults, by the time I finished school. In the first year of my college, I told a friend that I kissed someone. The first natural and spontaneous response from him was “dai, how did she even kiss you ?”. Somehow he couldn’t digest a white-skinned person kissing a dark-skinned person. He was my best friend, until that point and after that I never initiated a conversation with him on my own. He was recently posted as a District Collector in a nearby district and I still refuse to meet him, as the ten year old remark still burns my mind.
After finishing college, I went to a five star restaurant and the doorman asked me what I want before I could even enter and I was ‘dressed well’. Sometimes I ‘dress well’ to avoid such discrimination. Even then he somehow thought I couldn’t afford such place or I don’t fit there because of my skin colour and appearance. That is when it struck me – ‘oh, oh, this is going to be a life-long thing’.
My skin is dark brown in colour and sometimes after I return from a trip, the skin tone shifts towards darkish black and colleagues immediately say ‘don’t go out in the sun – you will become black’, ‘wear a sunscreen – else you will look African’, ‘if you become dark, no one will go out with you’ and ‘You look like you have returned from an African jungle’. Your colleagues look at your darkened skin as if you got a disease and suggest solutions to keep it brown/white.
We can place the blame for discrimination towards dark skinned people at the hands of fair-and-handsome ads promoted by Bollywood celebrities (who ironically debate about racism faced by Muslims at american airports but promote fairness cream ads in India). The problem largely lies with us too.
Whenever news about racism faced by Africans in India comes on air, my first reaction would not be condemnation. It would be familiarity – ‘Oh, I know how that feels’. My own father used to say ‘I cry like an African monkey’ when I was a kid. So I don’t feel surprised when news about discrimination faced by Africans comes on TV. I mean, why do any of us act surprised ?
Many of us are casual racists. We use the words ‘Africa’, ‘Black’ and ‘Dark’ as terms of insult. We use ‘African-looking’ as if it’s not a pleasant appearance. When someone’s skin colour turns dark, we tell them only an African will marry them. This is where racism shifts from the screen to actual life.
There are many institutional and social measures that have to be taken to prevent discrimination faced by Africans in India. For a start, this is something all of us can do in our personal lives: Don’t look at dark skin as a matter of shame. Don’t use the word ‘African’ as a term of insult. Take a stand against Bollywood celebrities who promote fairness and skin whitening lotions, in the name of skin wellness products. It is still racism, no matter how they label it.
And don’t ever ever use lines like ‘He/she is black skinned but his/her heart is white’. When we use lines like these, we are only saying black means impure and white means pure.
The racism I faced has only made me strong but I don’t want any other person out there becoming strong this way. Life has plenty of other obstacles for that.