Let’s Talk About Racism | ‘I am tired of being a black man in India’
A 24-year-old student who moved to India three years ago talks about how fear is a constant companion, and words like ‘cannibal’, ‘drug peddler’, and ‘pimp’ are unfairly slapped against him merely based on the colour of his skin.Updated: May 23, 2017 07:16 IST
I came to India three years ago. When the plane that brought me from Nigeria finally touched down in Delhi, I felt exhilarated. I was ready to embrace a new culture and its people. This, after all, was the land of Mahatma Gandhi.
Then 21 years old, I was almost childlike about wanting to discover India — its history; its vast and varied territory; its diverse people; its food; its languages; its music and its movies. I had enrolled for a course at the Delhi Paramedical & Management Institute, and I walked into class with a broad smile on my face.
I was unprepared for the racist onslaught. It has hit me with unforgiving consistency, every single day, for the last three years that I have been here. The racist slurs, the frightened looks, the deep and long stares are a part of my everyday life. I am not alone. Every African in India has the same experience.
The first Hindi word I learned was ‘kallu’. I continue to hear it everywhere I go. In the classroom; on the street; at the vegetable vendor’s stall; in the neighbourhood where I live in South Delhi — I am constantly reminded that I am black, and that I am judged by the colour of my skin.
Fear is a constant companion. I am acutely conscious of being ‘different’. I don’t know when I’ll be told I’m a ‘cannibal’, or when the police will knock on my door and allege that I’m a ‘drug peddler’. There is a disastrous pornographic image of Africans that Indians carry in their heads in which I am some kind of ‘pimp’. I cannot even think of approaching a pretty lady in a restaurant to say hi because I have already been typecast.
I’m tired of being a black man in India. Our landlords rent their homes to us only because they can extract extra bucks: we pay more than you ordinary Indians would ever pay. We have roofs over our heads because you have greed for money. When we pay the monthly rent, the landlord meets us at the door or at some distance from his home. He never says, “Please come in and have a cup of tea and meet my family.” I have heard of Indian hospitality but have never experienced it. If, sometimes, they show up at our door to collect the monthly rent, they never want to come in, as if it were a crime to enter a black man’s house.
Your police have failed us. We are routinely attacked, even killed, like a Congolese student was last year. I have learned the art of retreating for fear of being hit, and that takes a psychological toll. I continuously ask myself questions of why I can’t lead a normal life in India and the answer is traumatic: it’s because you see me as a ‘black’.
Your government has failed us. I am the university coordinator for the Association of African Students in India. We decided to protest at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar last year after the Congolese student was bludgeoned to death. The Association soon started getting calls from the ministry of external affairs, who appealed to us to call off the protest. The ministry wanted a closed-door meeting and said a dialogue was more important than a protest. We agreed, and urged the ministry to undertake a campaign to actively fight against the prevailing stereotypes.
The hatred for our skin colour is part of the Indian subconscious. We need a sustained campaign. Yet, in the year since we met with external affairs ministry officials, I haven’t seen billboards saying, “Africans are our brothers.” I haven’t seen any advertisements on television telling the Indian people that we are not cannibals. Indians have been known to perform human sacrifices, but we don’t call you cannibals. Why are crimes against us not given due consideration under the law? It is surprising — and saddening — that so many of India’s educated elite don’t even know that Africa is a continent.
In universities, we are told not to fight with Indians. They laugh at us and gang up against us, but it is always presumed that we are in the wrong. It seems never to have occurred to the colleges to tell Indian students not to provoke or taunt us. African women are constantly asked what their price is, but they’re forced to keep quiet, just like I hold my tongue each time I’m called a “kallu”. It hurts like hell but I have to learn to live with it.
The Association has chapters across states and I get constant calls. One state is not more racist than any other. The bias runs deep. It takes discipline and strength to survive here. I’ve often felt like leaving, but I’ve always told myself not to judge an entire society. The painful truth, however, is that I have not been able to make friends in India. The male students mock us and the women are afraid of speaking to us. I have been living a monk’s life for three years. No girl is willing to date me.
I avoid going out because I don’t want to be stared at. I don’t want people turning their faces away with unmasked disgust. I’m always thinking about not offending others and about staying safe. Each time I hear of an attack on an African, I think, “Tomorrow it may be my turn.” I even dress in Indian clothes to let people know that I’m trying to imbibe the local culture, but all they see is a ‘kallu’. Till the government steps forward to destroy stereotypes, we will continue to be soft targets.
I would not advise Nigerian students to come to India. What memories will I carry back home? I can only say I’ll be relieved. I hope I can erase some of the pain.
(Lawrence is in the final year of his course and is interning as a laboratory scientist, specialising in microbiology)
This is the first part of #LetsTalkAboutRacism, a new HT campaign that addresses deep-rooted prejudices and discrimination in India. If you have faced racism, tweet using #LetsTalkAboutRacism or write to firstname.lastname@example.org. HT’s earlier series, Let’sTalk About Rape and Let’s Talk About Trolls, focused attention on crucial issues.