Is India racist towards black people?
September 2014. Three black students are mobbed by attackers in the subway in New Delhi, India. Wrongly accused of harassing an Indian girl. The crowd laid into them, the poor students were hit with sticks and chairs, some Indians there were chanting nationalist songs. March 2017. An Indian guy disappeared in Greater Noida, 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from New Delhi. He’ll be found a few days later, dead, overdosed on drugs. The culprits must be black guys, they are the ones selling drugs! A memorial service for the deceased took place, and unfortunately for them, four Nigerian students were not very far from the gathering. Again, the crowd laid into them with sticks, hit them with chairs and metal bins. Their guilt was never proven, but the damage was done.
Unfortunately, stories like those ones are not an exception… That young Nigerian guy killed in Goa, suspected of being a drug dealer (never proven!), that French teacher from Congo killed in New Delhi, another one from Congo killed by three Indians over a rickshaw, a black guy attacked for a parking spot, another one evicted from his apartment because “the neighbors think he’s selling drugs“… And the governement turns a blind eye to those events, for them none of this is racist, just unfortunate events.
Is it in this country that I’m going to spend the next few weeks??? Seems like India is a fuckin jungle when you’re a black person, a real obstacle course! Once again, I did my research on India before getting in the country, but theory’s never worth the practice, what you actually live on the spot. And not matter how many articles I read, it’s impossible to know what it’s really like, unless I go there. Thinking about all those news items, the question I was wondering is straightforward : are Indians racists towards black people?
No suspense here. I’m asking a question… And I won’t really be able to respond in this article. Because we’re talking about a country with 1.3 billion inhabitants and so big, that you need several months to start to know it a bit. But I’m gonna bring part of the answer, taking into account what I’ve been through when I was there and my experience in this country.
My first destination in India was New Delhi. And like all the big cities in the world, there are billboards everywhere : in the street, in the subway… One of the first things I noticed there : the Indians on those billboards had fair skins. Very fair skins. I’d even say way too fair skins compared to the reality of the population. I was watching the billboards in the street, the ones in the subway, and the people walking outside. The complexions are clearly (no pun intended!) not the same!
In Jaipur, I got on well with the managers of the hostel I was staying at, and sometimes I was watching TV with them, even though I didn’t get a single word of what they were saying in the movies. But still, I noticed all the heroes had very fair skin, the women as well, and even if I didn’t understand what they were talking about, I could see that the ones with dark complexions were caricatured, they were the bad guys, etc… In the street, we can also see many ads for the Fair & lovely cream, that cream known for whitening the skin (by the way, the main picture of the article was taken in Sri Lanka, but you can see the same billboards everywhere in India!).
Before wondering if Indians are racists (or not!), another question comes to mind. Why do they love fair complexion so much? In case you didn’t know, not that long ago, Indian society was divided into castes, a system dividing society into several hierarchical groups. Officially, they abandoned the caste system in India but in fact it’s still very present in Indian society today. Anyway, every Indian belonged to a caste, and an Indian from a caste couldn’t mingle with an Indian from another caste. There was a cast for priests, one for the warriors, another one for the storekeepers… And at the bottom of the Indian social pyramid, the dalits, also called the untouchables.
The untouchables were the ones who had the shittiest tasks, thankless jobs… And because of their status and their shitty jobs, the untouchables were more exposed to the sun than the other ones and as a consequence, they had darker skins. A lot of people think that this is the rejection of dark complexions comes from this, and also the colonial period (it was a British colony!). Fair skin is associated with beauty. The westerner woman is seen as beautiful, attractive and independent. Having a fairer complexion means being more beautiful. Having a darker complexion means being poor and ugly.
Add to this all the stereotypes conveyed in the media, especially the Indian movies, and you start to get why Indians don’t like black skins! Actually not only the black skins, but dark skins in general. There’s also discrimination among Indians on the basis of the color of their skin, but also the region they come from, the language they speak, their religion, their caste…
Yep, Indians from the Northeast of the country, darker than anywhere else in the country, also face discrimination. But in general, south Indians are darker than north Indians. Anyway, with all this, black people are also victims of discrimination. Kinda crazy when you know what an Indian looks like! We don’t really talk about it, but every year thousands of Africans go to India to study. They mostly come from Nigeria, but also from Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya, Congo, South Africa, Uganda…
And from what they say, African students face discrimination daily. To find an apartment, Indian guys jealous to see them hanging out with Indian girls, etc… And the racial slurs permanently, people spitting on them, throwing banana skins at them! I haven’t been through all those crazy things, I didn’t stay in India for several months like them, I was just traveling for a few weeks in the country. Therefore my experience is inevitably different, and limited compared to what they’re going through on a daily basis. Maybe it would have been different if I had decided to settle in India. But there’s a Hindi term I kept in mind “Kalu!”
“Kalu!” supposedly means “Nigger!“, and African students say they hear it everyday. You know why I didn’t forget this term? I read things about this word. But most importantly a few guys called me that way in India. Three times exactly. The first time was in Agra. I was outside, scouting the area around the Taj Mahal the day before my visit, and I hear behind my back “Kalu!“. I turned around. A fat guy looking at me, giggling. I stared at him, slowly getting closer to him “You called me?“. Fear distorted his face “It’s not me, it’s him!“, pointing at a guy leaving in his tuktuk.
I knew he was lying but anyway… The two other times, it happened in Jaipur. A teen passing by on his bicycle, and a moron riding his scooter. Easy, they knew it was impossible for me to catch them. Anyway, in Goa, I got on well with some locals, so I asked one of them “What does kalu mean? Honestly, is it a pejorative term or not?“ “No no, it’s not mean! ‘Kalu’ is the way me and my friends call one another, too! A little bit like the black guys in the US calling out to their friends ‘Hey my nigga!’, here in India we say ‘kalu’. There’s nothing wrong really, it’s friendly!“. I’ll never know if he said that just to reassure me or if it’s true, but the fat guy wouldn’t have said “It’s not me, it’s him!” if he had nothing to feel guilty about…
So… Are the Indians racists or not? I still had in mind one survey released in 2013, stating India is one of the most racist countries in the world. And I thought about all those Indians who asked me if I had marijuana, ganja, coke. It happened a lot in Goa, but also in Jaipur and in the state of Kerala. Yeah, a black guy has to be a drug dealer, it just makes sense!
Some people talk about “colonial hangover”. I just don’t believe it… But prejudices remain. Black guy mostly means drug dealer, but it also means sorcerer, cannibal, kidnapper, snatcher and black girls are all prostitutes! We can wonder how it’s possible for people from India to reason this way, a country where Gandhi was born, raised, and used to live! But whatever we think about Gandhi, he was also, at least for a period of time, a racist.
With all those things in mind, I guess you understand now why I went to India with apprehension. I got in the country thinking about all this and the first few days I was paranoid, I was staring at everyone, I was seeing danger everywhere. In the plane going to Delhi from Tajikistan, several Indians seated around me decided to change seats. I sniffed myself. No smell, I took a shower! I told myself “Yeah it has to be because I’m black, they don’t want to stay next to me!“. No no, not at all! All the passengers were seated in the front of the plane and the back was empty, therefore they wanted to have more space in the back…
When I finally got in New Delhi, I’m on the alert. And I quickly met a group of Indian guys, friends of the guys managing the hostel I was staying at. After the first little fears, it turned out they were all very friendly, open-minded and with a great sense of humor. I liked my stay in the city a little bit more thanks to those guys, despite the chaos of the city. Restaurants, bowling, bars. We really had fun together, and I’m still in touch with some of them!
The moment I really changed my mind about Indians is when I got in Vagator Beach, Goa. There, Indians are very relaxed, open to have a conversation, not judgmental… Ok Goa is a bit different, it was a Portuguese colony not that long ago but still! We had a barbecue one evening with some locals, and that was one of the best nights I ever spent in the country! The color of my skin was just invisible and insignificant to them, they treated me like they would have treated anybody else : with respect and sympathy. The state of Kerala was the same, I never felt a jot of racism from Indians during my stay there.
As I said earlier, I don’t really respond to the question I’m asking. The news items I talked about prove that there are still racial problems in the country, but my personal experience with the Indians was positive (I’m not talking about the scams and all that, but the subject of this article!). Apart from the “Kalu!” I heard, no problem. Needless to say, since I’m a solo traveler, I don’t stay out very late at night by myself, I don’t drink excessively, I pay attention to the places I go, I check the surroundings… I avoid the situations at risk. Things would have probably been different if I was living in the country, or if I was traveling thoughtlessly (heavy drinking every night, etc…). Quite simply, I think that just like anywhere else, some people are racists, and others are not.