The Much-Needed Conversation on Racism in India

Racism is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior. The few countries that pop into our minds when someone mentions ‘racism’ are America, Britain, or Australia, since we’re familiar with a number of instances of racism against Indians in these places. Having faced a history of colonialism and interracial attacks by the British, one would not imagine India to be racist. But the sad truth is, we are. Racism prevails in India in obvious and discernable forms such as attacks against different sections of our nation, and Africans residing in the country, as well as unconscious and subliminal forms; such as fairness creams advertisements.

Just recently, Abhay Deol, a prolific Bollywood actor, pointed out the blatant racism that his fellow colleagues endorse in the form of fairness creams. In a series of posts on Facebook, the actor slammed advertisements for fairness creams, many of which feature celebrities such as Shahrukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, John Abraham, among others. The actor posted pictures of his colleagues’ ad campaigns for the fairness creams accompanied by strong sarcastic sentiments against them. Abhay Deol mentioned that this was in reference to a comment made by a politician on TV, for which the politician later apologized.

In a country as racially diverse as India, ignorance and lack of awareness regarding all cultures is strong possibility. This, in turn, leads to intra-racial incidents that take place against parts of sections of our society. Richard Loitam and Nido Tanaim are prolific cases that come to mind when talking about racial attacks on North-East Indians. Another well-known case is of Monika Khangembam, a woman from Manipur, who complained against an immigration officer in 2016, when he asked her snarky racist questions to prove her ‘Indian-ness’ while traveling from Delhi for a conference. People from South Indian states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka are referred to as ‘Madarasi’ or ‘Mallus’ when they visit any of the Northern or North-Western states of India, whereas, the North Indians in many parts of India are called ‘Sardarjis’. They are stereotyped into a group of people who all look the same, enjoy a particular kind of food, and dress up in a particular way.

Another important issue is that of racism against Africans or African Americans in our country. #BlackLivesMatter, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Barack Obama, Idris Elba, Kendrick Lamar, are common and accepted to a certain class in our society. Their ideologies are much talked about, but the wide reach of these African-American personalities does not ensure the safety of the Africans who come to learn or work in India. Just recently, after a teenager died of drug overdose, four men of African descent were brutally attacked in Greater Noida. The African envoys threatened to take the issue to the Human Rights Council, saying this was a part of a series of extremely grave racial and xenophobic attacks seen across the country at several different points. Although not one of its kind, this racial attack sparked a nation-wide debate into how people from different races are treated in our ‘diverse’ country.

Evolutionary psychology, a branch of psychology that strives to understand the human mind and behaviour through the process of evolution,  postulates that the human brain is comprised of many functional adaptive mechanisms that are designed by the process of natural selection. Racism is deeply rooted in human behaviour, and evolutionary psychology may have answers to questions like ‘Why are humans racist?’, ‘What made us like this?’

Humans beings are social animals that belong to a particular group – the ‘ingroup’ - that work together with the other members of the group for survival. This creates a sense of ‘us v/s them’ where ‘us’ is seen as a positive and valuable entity and the ‘them’ is seen as a threat to group cohesion and, ergo, survival. This is how the mentality of violence towards the other group – the ‘outgroup’ - is developed. Evolution states that the behaviour which protects us from outside threats, or that has helped in survival in some way, is usually passed on to our future generation. That way, the behaviour is the part of the evolution process that shapes the coming generations. The modern iteration of group survival has taken on the form of racism where only the in group members (i.e., the members of a particular race) are considered familiar and safe, while the outgroup members are alien and dangerous.

Researchers at Queens University in 2015 developed a new framework for examining modern racism. The framework explained the concept of altruism and spite with the help of similarities and dissimilarities within a group of individuals. The individuals who are similar in characteristics to most of the members in a group will be more spiteful to the members who are dissimilar rather than the individuals who are similar to only a few members of the group. This is how the mentality of discrimination is believed to have passed on. Group identity and group think causes us to act irrationally and uncooperatively, because we are more concerned about conforming with our group instead of thinking independently for ourselves, or recognising other people’s interests and values outside of our own social circle. Group identity is good as long as it doesn’t start affecting the way you look at other group in a negative way.

The good news perhaps is that this learned behaviour for survival is not a key necessity anymore, since the goal today is not just survival, but rather perpetuation of higher and standards of living and growth. Comedian, Zakir Khan, illustrated the necessity and a way to destigmatize classes of people while talking about his experiences of looking for a flat as a Muslim man during an ‘On Air With AIB: Off Script’ episode. He urges people to talk and ask questions and get to know people who are different from us, to end the hate and get too know them as fellow humans. Humans can sensitize themselves to the racial diversity in their country, studies have shown. First, one must accept that humans can be racist. As they say, acceptance is the key to change. Then the ‘why’ part of it should be dealt with. Conversations with other racial groups, open and honest discussions on diversity are a few good ways to overcome racial biases or preconceived notions that one may hold about a particular group. The overall idea is to learn more about the diverse groups that exists in our world, make our students more sensitive towards it by introducing such subjects in school so that the basic concepts of diversity are clear from the beginning. The work towards a better future must begin early.

Archa Joshi