Let’s talk about racism | Why Indian Americans have a white skin fixation
The recent attacks against African students in India have touched off a national debate about a highly sensitive subject. The nation has received a considerable amount of negative media coverage criticising it as a racially intolerant country. This accusation is supported by the most recent round of reports published by the World Values Survey, an internationally reputable polling organisation, which found in 2013 that 43.5% of Indians would not want a neighbour of a different race, putting India second worldwide only to Jordan by that measure of racial intolerance.
While racism appears to be an issue in India, what about Indians around the world? Does the bigotry of immigrants travel with them as part of their cultural baggage, or is a new national ethos forged in the crucible of their adopted home? The Indian-American community offers some insights.
Indians in the United States are, arguably, the nation’s most successful immigrant group. According to the 2012 Pew Research Center report The Rise of Asian Americans, 70% of Indians aged 25 and over have college degrees, 2.5 times the national average. Their median household income, $88,000, is nearly double that of the average American. At 1% of the US population (3.1 million), Indians constitute 1% of the US Congress.
In America, unlike in Britain, the trappings of ‘whiteness’ are widely attainable. In an example of aspirational assimilation taken to a higher level of effort, there is the former South Carolina governor and current US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. Born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, Haley marked “white” on her voter registration form in 2001.
While Haley may proactively pursue whiteness, conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza seeks to burnish his bona fides to the establishment through racism couched in political commentary. D’Souza took to Twitter on February 18, 2015 sniffing, “YOU CAN TAKE THE BOY OUT OF THE GHETTO…” in reference to a photograph of President Obama using a selfie stick in the Oval Office. In a 2010 article, he even excoriated Obama for excessive “anti-colonialism” derived from his Kenyan father. D’Souza’s bigoted criticism of the former president affirms the idea that some Indian Americans gravitate toward the white power structure for plaudits and profit.
As is the case in India, chromocracy prevails in the United States, where skin colour and socio-economic status are inextricably linked. In the 1991 movie, Mississippi Masala, a scene depicts a group of Indian ‘aunties’ at a wedding, musing over which of their daughters stands a chance to be married to the local highly eligible ‘alpha male’, Harry Patel: “You can be dark and have money, or you can be fair and have no money, but you can’t be dark and have no money and expect to get Harry Patel.” Keeping with the storyline of the movie, the town’s black population is clearly a bête noire for the Indian immigrant community, perceived as the antithesis of everything deemed desirable, successful, or even ‘American’.
Immigrant gravitation toward the dominant demographic group is hardly a new phenomenon in the United States. Sociologist Milton Gordon wrote how immigrants to America in the early 20th century assimilated by appropriating the majority white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethos. For Indian immigrants, much of this groundwork was established before ever reaching American shores due to British colonial rule. While notions of colour superiority existed in India well before the British East India Company ever set up shop in Calcutta, colonialism caused the Indian subjects to internalise the conceit that British were culturally superior; a correlation between such ‘greatness’ and skin colour was an easy inference for the population to draw even had the colonisers not inculcated it.
While some might think that being on the receiving end of racial marginalisation would have sensitised Indian immigrants to the experience of African Americans, the racial history of the United States is, in fact, markedly different from that of India. The United States still struggles to rectify the legacy both of slavery and of the institutionalised racism of the Jim Crow laws even two generations after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This conflict is in large measure lost upon the Indian population, which has bought into the great American myth of the ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ ethos for immigrant acceptance and success.
Many Indian Americans, for example, consider policies like affirmative action either an affront to meritocracy or a cumbersome holdover from the past. Groups such as the Indian American Forum for Political Education, the National Federation of Indian American Associations, and the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin signed a legal brief opposing race-conscious admissions in a Supreme Court case, Abigail Noel Fisher v. University of Texas, that challenged affirmative action in higher education.
Ironically, the Civil Rights Act has served as a legal support for affirmative action and the facilitator for removing immigration quotas from Asian countries, including India. Of course, some Indians have felt no moral conundrum in availing themselves of the very system they purportedly detest. Vijay Chokal-Ingam, brother of television star, Mindy Kaling, admitted that he lied about being black to gain admission, via affirmative action, to medical school.
“I know you and your folks can come down here from God knows where, and be as black as the ace of spaces, and as soon as you get here you start acting white, treating us like we’re your doormats. I know you and your daughter ain’t but a few shades away from this right here.”
With these words, spoken by Denzel Washington while pointing to his face and confronting the father of his Indian girlfriend, Hollywood’s Mississippi Masala tackled the issue of race relations between African Americans and Indians immigrants. Over 25 years after its release, the movie still resonates as a powerful depiction of how latent and overt forms of racism pervade segments of the Indian-American community.
It is difficult to ascertain whether Indian Americans who harbour racist sentiments do so because of attitudes they bring with them to America or whether they are adopting the prejudices of their new country upon arrival. The so-called Trump era has exposed, some might argue, routine habits of bigotry, releasing them from the country’s collective unconscious into broad daylight.
Whatever their cause, Indian attitudes toward African-Americans seem to be as much about how they perceive themselves on the colour bar as how they see African-Americans. Such prejudice is a form of self-denial.
(Saeed A Khan is lecturer of Near East & Asian Studies and Global Studies at Wayne State University, Detroit, USA. He tweets @saeedkhan1967)
This is the seventh part of Let’s Talk About Racism, 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.