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Disparate colours of racism

Things got ugly between us and the Aussies on the cricket field, but let’s get real: we are as much perpetrators as victims. Nivriti Butalia takes stock of the global scenario.

india Updated: Jan 13, 2008 04:43 IST
Nivriti Butalia
Nivriti Butalia
Hindustan Times

As it turns out, a uniform code of conduct is not meted out to all ‘global citizens’ with skin shades that contrast with diverse Indian complexions. The bias varies — from country to country, people to people.

Back from Australia after two years, Priya Sawhney, 30, says incidents of racism are few and far between, and are restricted to Indian-dominated suburbs such as Quakers Hill, Westmead and Blacktown. “It’s usually the younger lot that resorts to racist slurs and attacks. They come in the middle of the night and start picnicking in your lawn, smash beer bottles, vandalise your garden or break the mailbox,” she says. “The police don’t take action because these boys are very young and can at best be counselled,” she adds.

However, a shared view is that Australia is more multi-cultural than racist. And Indians are sometimes targeted because they’re doing well globally — as also in Australia, where they own large chunks of land. “This,” says Sawhney, “poses a threat to the natives, especially the younger lot.”<b1>

Coconut generation

The UK, in comparison, is viewed as being more racist. But here, too, views vary.

“My parents are both Punjabi. I’ve had no problems because of the colour of my skin,” says Reena Combo, editor of Ikonz, a monthly UK magazine aimed at Asian youth. “I’m very western in the way I act and dress, but at home I’m very much in touch with my roots. Many of my (Asian) friends openly admit to acting like a coconut (brown from outside, white inside) because they think Asians have a bad reputation, and they will be accepted more this way.”

Globally, racism is today an ugly word. “In the Netherlands, for example, people are scared to say anything to foreigners, because they don’t want to stand out as racists,” says Sunayayna Ghosh, a PhD student there. “Generally, in smaller towns, people are patient with you. But in a city like Paris, you could get a feeling of being treated racially.”

“In Halle, for instance, racist comments were passed and bags were thrown out of my hand. People wouldn’t sit next to me in trams or buses,” says Ghosh. She has an explanation for this. “Halle at that point in time had the highest rate of unemployment. It was mostly people without jobs who didn’t treat outsiders well.”

Shades of grey

As for the States, Indians Indra Nooyi and Vikram Pandit now head two iconic American firms, Pepsico and Citicorp. That’s a point against racism, says Tarun Narang, a journalist based in Philadelphia. He is of the view that the US, by and large, is no longer racist — “at least not towards Indians who are largely seen as hard-working, smart and assimilatory.”<b2>

“I’ve had a total of two racial comments against me — one shortly after 9/11 when some drunk guy asked me in a bar if I was drinking jet fuel (I wasn’t, it was rum and coke), and another time outside the subway when another drunk guy shouted ‘We kicked your ass in Afghanistan’. His friend, also white, actually apologised for his friend’s behaviour,” says Narang.

Back in India, the scene is often no better, with foreigners being made to feel alienated and ostracised. Aizada Mamytova, a 27-year-old educationist and Kyrgyz national who pursued her postgraduate degree from Delhi University, says, “In Hyderabad, I’ve been called a ‘chinky’. I didn’t understand it. In hostels too, a lot of us have been discriminated against.”

(With Veenu Sandhu, Paramita Ghosh and Barney Henderson)