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Racism is not just skin deep

It is time we acknowledge that racism, like many related oppressions, is part of our everyday structures and institutions

analysis Updated: Jun 01, 2016 01:52 IST
Racism,Violence against Africans,racist attacks
One way however, that will ensure that racism continues to exist is to deny that we have racism problems. (Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times)

The violent racist attacks on Africans on the streets of the Capital by lumpen elements are a cause of deep concern and introspection by all who uphold human values. The minister for external affairs has strongly condemned these attacks, asked the law enforcement agencies to apprehend the attackers and stop any further violence. The African envoys are not placated by the Indian response. There is genuine fear that such incidents will continue if adequate measures are not taken. Their anxiety is deep and is linked not just to the attack but also to the kind of responses.

One minister representing the government stated that the attack was “only a minor scuffle”. This not only contradicts the external affairs minister (EAM) but tries to underplay and thus normalises these attacks. As if minor scuffles are business as usual on the streets of this country and so not to be taken seriously. Another minister responded saying that “Even Africa is not safe”, as if to say why should India be safe for the ‘other’ if Africa was not? While condemning the attacks he also said that the attacks were giving India a bad name. As if the only problem at hand is one of image. Further, in 2013, Nigerians were attacked in Goa and one state minister called African nationals a ‘cancer’. Earlier, a Delhi minister had led a vigilante justice mob against African residents of his locality.

Read | Delhi cabbie beaten up by African nationals for refusing extra passengers

The response to such violence and statements on African nationals should not be one of ‘damage control’ whereby the hurt and anger of the African envoys is assuaged and we move on from there. What is required is a series of measures, after the condemnation from the highest authority and ensuring safety of all Africans living in India.

Read | After attack on Africans, Delhi police say don’t party at night

Of the several measures that can be taken, one step is to activate the public diplomacy section in the ministry of external affairs. They can initiate a programme of sensitisation for the politicians, the police and the public on the issue of racism. Perhaps a good idea would be to show how the national movement, freedom and the very formation of India were based on a platform that opposed colonialism and racism. Further, the ideas on non- violence and how these were developed by Mahatma Gandhi and his experience of racism in South Africa can be creatively revived and popularised. India’s solidarity with African anti-colonial, anti-racist struggles should be made part of public culture and discourse. It is worth noting if these ideas are repeated by politicians from public platforms, the message is well received by the masses.

Read | Centre in overdrive to contain crisis over attacks on Africans

Further the Information and Broadcasting Ministry that is known to be guiding the media, should promote debates, discussions and historical analysis of racism, how it is linked to oppressions, how to fight it, and how we develop critical thinking about it. Since there is so much focus on culture, perhaps it would be good for the culture ministry to show how diverse and plural the many cultures within India are and how they compare with African and Asian cultures. And if we really want to condemn and stop racism, it would be a good idea to make sure that the realities and implications of race are presented. How race has local forms that are called by different names and how it is a system based on exclusions and hierarchies.

Another resource against racism can be the NRI community. Many NRIs are into long-distance nationalism and want a good image of India. It would be worthwhile if they were to relate their good and bad experiences on racism as part of this nationalism. Several of the countries they live in had terrible racist policies and practices. Many, like the UK, Canada and the USA have also made huge political efforts to diminish this, even as racism continues to exist. Multiculturalism and tolerance are promoted as public culture, even though not all are successful. But anti-racism and opposing all kinds of phobias is a process that should be initiated from the highest levels.

Read | ‘No conflict between the two communities’

India has been party to the United Nations and all kinds of international resolutions and conventions on racism, it is time they popularised these and took action on the wonderful rhetoric presented in these forums. It would be useful if the Parliament and state assemblies had an all-party resolution against racism and its local forms.

The reason that resistance against racism needs to be promoted is because it is a major challenge within India. It is present in the association of being ‘fair’ (somewhat white) as an aspect of beauty. It is deeply associated with caste discrimination. Racism intersects with different kinds of exclusions and discriminations.

Read | Let’s get rid of this coloured view

One way however, that will ensure that racism continues to exist is to deny that we have racism problems. If we continue to exacerbate the contradictions where we see ourselves as being only victims of external (Western) racism, but we refuse to look critically at our own biases against others then we will not be able to fight racism and only reinforce it in different ways.

It is time we acknowledge that racism, like many related oppressions, is part of our everyday structures and institutions. It is present in our political process, in the social system, in our educational institutions, in our inter-personal relations. One has to just to step into the shoes for just one day, of those who feel this everyday exclusion to know.

There is also the resistance to racism and that is also one stream of thinking in India. The need however is to make this minor stream into a major one. This will happen when the complexity of truth is recognised, not denied.

Anuradha Chenoy is a professor at the School of International Studies, JNU

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 31, 2016 22:14 IST