The Truth in Black & White


The Truth in Black & White

Illustration: Namaah

If Masonda Ketanda Olivier’s brutal murder in June last year was not enough to hold up a mirror to ourselves and admit that we have a problem with “blackness”, it is high time we got the memo. Last evening, four Nigerian students were beaten up near Ansal Plaza in Greater Noida’s Pari Chowk by a mob protesting the death of a 17-year-old local boy. It didn’t matter that the four students were in no way related to the death of the teen, who it is claimed, is a victim of a drug overdose. An entirely different bunch of Nigerians have been accused of the boy’s murder, but I guess when you’re a mob looking for someone to lynch, being black is crime enough.

Anti-blackness has always been a problem in India, but in typical desi fashion, it’s something we’d rather sweep under the carpet. A similar incident happened in Bengaluru last year, where a mob stripped a Tanzanian woman because she happened to be driving down a road where a Sudanese man had run down a local half an hour prior. It prompted one DailyO columnist to claim the attack wasn’t racist because, basically, we’re not white so we can’t be racist. In fact, after Olivier’s death, the Minister of State for Culture and Tourism Mahesh Sharma dismissed the murder by saying “even Africa is not safe”, a statement so blasé that it makes me wonder if he’s actually human.

Anti-blackness is so pervasive in our society that even Gandhi in his early years was a proponent, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” Much of this relates to a historical identification with European – and later American – elites, as Indians dealt with the experience of colonisation by pretending that at least they’re higher up the ladder than blacks. For Indians who continue to aspire to be counted alongside the largely white elites of the first world, internalising the racist attitudes of that elite is only natural. Combine this with our indigenous form of “colourism”, inspired by the caste system and the association of fair skin with Brahmins and other upper-caste elites, and you’ve got a country that treats darkness like a disease, at best. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for this lies with Indian pop culture and media, which have consistently reinforced such toxic ideas in the Indian mainstream. Enough has been written about fairness cream ads and the colourism they promote, but I feel compelled to mention Pond’s 2009 epic in five parts “White Beauty”, which features an artificially “darkened” Priyanka Chopra’s struggle to win back her ex-beau Saif Ali Khan from a much fairer Neha Dhupia. Then there’s the series of ads for Parle’s LMN drinks, which feature black men in loincloths in the desert trying their best to get a sip of water, a perfect example of egregious racism that didn’t generate a tenth of the outrage the recent Coldplay video did. But these would all be outdone by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s print ad for a jewellery brand that featured her decked up as a white colonial aristocrat under a red parasol held up by an emaciated black child. Racism, colonial aspirations and an endorsement of child-slavery, all rolled up into one particularly offensive package. Well done, Ash.

It is perfectly acceptable to use Snoop Dogg to lend authenticity to Bollywood rap songs and shamelessly rip off black music for decades, even as we use black stereotypes for slapstick punchlines.

To be fair to our advertising industry, they’ve been late-comers to the racism game. Bollywood, as ever, has been the pioneer. Whether it’s the routine use of darker-skinned – and more recently, black – actors as nameless thugs, the ignorant stereotyping of Africans as primitive tribals, or the persistent use of “blackface”, our film industry pulls no punches. I’m not sure how the racist American minstrel tradition of blackface made its way to Bollywood, but you can see it in songs like Mr India’sHawa Hawai”, and the incredibly offensive video for Vishwatma’sSaat Samundar Paar”.

More recently, there’s the National Award-winning Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to *gasp* a black man! (Co-incidentally, Priyanka would go on to star in Quantico and complain about the racism she faced in the US. Of course.) And no discussion of racism in Indian cinema will be complete without this horrendous over-the-top scene from 2000’s Hadh Kar Di Aapne, which is more racist than a KKK rally. I can’t explain this one, you’ll just have to watch and then fight the urge to hunt down and kill everyone involved with this scene.

This knee-jerk racism hasn’t, of course, stopped us from appropriating black culture when convenient. It is perfectly acceptable to use Snoop Dogg to lend authenticity to Bollywood rap songs and shamelessly rip off black music for decades, even as we use black stereotypes for slapstick punchlines. Even in articles deploring such racism, our media uses the grossly inaccurate coinage “African nationals”, reducing a racially and culturally diverse continent to one skin colour. And before you pat yourself on the back for being more enlightened than that, let me point out that your supposedly liberal social circle isn’t much better.

My Facebook feed is full of people making fun of contemporary African American Vernacular English (AAVE) slang like “bae” or “on fleek”, even as they happily use words like “cool” and “hip” – which also come from black American culture, but have been sanitised by decades of white usage. Then there’s the electronica producer I know from Delhi, who regularly used to bring hashish back to Bombay to sell to his fellow students. He was trying to defend the 2014 raids on Khirki Extension’s black residents by AAP’s Somnath Bharti, who accused them of running a drugs and prosecution racket. This supposedly “culturally literate” producer told me that the raids were warranted, because whenever he and his friends called for coke at their parties – usually playing techno, a style of music with origins that are decidedly black and political – it was always a black dealer who turned up. Bravo, my friend! I couldn’t dream up a better example of Indian racism and hypocrisy if I tried.

The reason I’m going on about this is that accepting our racism problem is the only way we will begin to think about solving it. Our unwillingness to acknowledge this racism (one of my cousins explained his attitude by resorting to that oldest of racist apologetics – genes) means that this violence is only likely to grow worse. But, as this online webcomic points out, there is a bright side. As India grows increasingly intolerant, our treatment of black people increasingly aligns with the way we treat other India’s disenfranchised minorities. Don’t worry, black people in India! We’re only treating you as we treat the rest of us. At least those that aren’t privileged savarna males.

This is an updated version of an earlier published piece.