The thing about race prejudice in India
Racism is deeply embedded in the Indian psyche, aided and abetted by centuries of caste beliefs. Yet we vehemently deny we are racist.Updated: Jun 18, 2020 16:10 IST
I am confused about racism. I see it clearly when it is shown to me in a movie or a book — I may even feel indignant and angry. But when the man next to me at a football game refers to the player from Manipur as “that worthless Nepali”, I laugh uncomfortably. Is that a sign of racism?
What should one do about it? It’s not like it was the first time I was hearing something like that. In fact, I’ve grown up with it. Playing football through school and college in Kolkata, there were racially motivated epithets hurled at players from the north-east all the time. No one ever said anything about it.
At the East Bengal or Mohun Bagan games at Salt Lake stadium, racial slurs came pouring down from the stands like torrential rain.
Racism is deeply embedded in the Indian psyche, aided and abetted by centuries of caste beliefs that operate on exactly the same principles. Yet we hardly ever talk about this. We hardly ever confront it. We deny vehemently that we are racist. It is so ingrained that we no longer see it. When we do see it, we are confused by it.
Ishant Sharma likely didn’t think it racist when he referred to the West Indies cricketer Darren Sammy as ‘kalu’ in a social media post some years ago. He was Sammy’s teammate then at the IPL franchise Sunrisers Hyderabad, and clearly a friend. Sammy was apparently called that by many of his teammates. He only just found out, via a Hasan Minhaj video, that ‘kalu’ means black. Now Sammy is angry. I wonder what Sharma makes of it all.
Unlike Sammy, most Black players in India’s football leagues, and all players from the north-east, are perfectly aware of the insidious and low-level racism that surrounds them.
They simply choose to ignore it. At a personal level, away from the public eye, they will sometimes fight back when they feel someone has crossed a line.
Why the silence? The American filmmaker Spike Lee calls it the ‘Okey-doke’. It’s all the tricks, denials, justifications, excuses and general lack of awareness that make the unacceptable, commonplace. There’s a lot of okey-doke in Indian sports.
For many athletes, speaking out can come at a steep price. There’s the thinking that athletes should play ball and shut the f*** up. If you have opinions and feelings, you are seen as a troublemaker. Those in power will do what they can to push you down.
It’s what history teaches us too. The American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos did the Black salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympics as the US national anthem played. They were expelled from the Olympic Village and ostracised in the US. Their families received death threats.
Forty eight years later, Colin Kaepernick, an American quarterback, knelt during the pre-game national anthem to protest police brutality and racism in the US. Kaepernick never found a team to play for again.
I shudder to think of the fate that would befall an Indian athlete were he or she to ever protest a deep injustice by making a statement when the national anthem played.