I'm black but not as black as you

Palash Krishna Mehrotra
Palash Krishna MehrotraApr 09, 2017 | 11:51

I'm black but not as black as you

The attacks on Africans in Greater Noida again remind us of the racism latent in Indian society. To understand Indian racism, we need to understand two aspects of it: our notions of whiteness, and our obsession with an abstract notion found on matrimonial websites: "moderate template".

Besides these, perhaps it’s not surprising that a society, which already has hierarchical prejudice built into its core — caste — will also practice other forms of discrimination.


To a Caucasian, Indian racism is laughable because we are dark-skinned ourselves. It’s a case of the kettle calling the pot black. But the self-image that Indians have of themselves is something else. We perceive ourselves as being the perfect shade of white—the most perfect shade ever invented by god.

This was evident in the response to former BJP MP Tarun Vijay’s comments on a news channel: "If we were racist why would we have the entire south...Why do we live with them? We have blacks, black people all around us." Absurd as this was, the indignant response to it also smacked of racism.

Tarun Vijay.

One could argue that Vijay’s comment was a statement of fact: south Indians are dark-skinned. Why should one take offence to that? Because the implication is that north Indians are not "black". The truth is that eastern Uttar Pradesh is crawling with black natives too. A serious issue then degenerates into a how-black-is-black argument, where Indians of various shades are fuming: I’m black but not as black as you.

To make sense of Indian racism, how about this: We are racist towards whites too. This is because the Indian thinks that his complexion is the right shade of white. Pankaj Mishra, in his travelogue Butter chicken in Ludhiana, writes about a white traveller being harassed at Delhi’s ISBT: "Dekh bandariya ko," says an Indian, squatting on his haunches, while puffing on a bidi.


Caucasians are pink and that is not kosher white as far as Indians are concerned. We Indians have invented the most democratic racism in the world, which targets whites and blacks equally. Indian brownness, aided by fairness creams, is the just-right amount of whiteness.

Now, for the argument from "moderate template". On sites like Shaadi.com, candidates are looking for matrimonial matches of a "moderate template". Moderate means: vegetarian, non-smoking, non-drinking. It’s also about how you look. Indians don’t experiment with the way they look. Walk the Indian streets and you’ll be among the swarming moderate-template hordes. Wave after wave of "regular-looking" Indians. This carries over into our popular culture. The hairstyles of Bollywood heroes haven’t changed much over the years.

A society with unwavering faith in the moderate template, finds anyone who looks different to be an object of ridicule. It could be their hair, skin colour, clothes. A country of more than a billion expects an unreasonable homogeneity of appearance from its citizens.

Indian brownness, aided by fairness creams, is the just-right amount of whiteness.

None of this is imposed by laws or the government. It’s just the way we are. Point fingers, giggle and laugh at anyone who is not of moderate template. Be it an Indian, a ruddy-faced "bandariya" or an African.


I’ve been a victim of racial violence in London. I’ve been pushed down in the Notting Hill Carnival and called a "brown sh--t." I’ve lived in the International Students House on Delhi’s Mall Road with African students. I’ve seen the casual racism they endure every day. The ISH is behind the Mansarovar hostel, from the balconies of which Bihari students would routinely chant "kaloo, kaloo", in between brushing their teeth in the morning.

The racism of Delhi landlords is different. Posh localities like Defence Colony don’t welcome Africans. It’s unsaid racism. Africans live in "lal doras", cheaper neighbourhoods where the landlords don’t have an option because moderate template Indians don’t want to live there.

This has led to the mushrooming of ghettos like Humayunpur, where young people from the north-east and Africa live side by side, sometimes even co-habiting. There’s a bustling yet laid-back liveliness to the place, in the shops, eateries and trendy t-shirt and guitar shops open till late, that can only happen in a neighbourhood where people from different cultures have made it their home.

A few years ago, I had a job teaching at a posh boarding school for boys. One day a student, about 16, came up to me and said: "Sir, these blacks are only good for two things: running and rapping."

This same kid is now grown up and living in America, where he thinks he is the perfect shade of white. The self-hatred about our skin colour is so ingrained, we delude ourselves into thinking we are whiter than the whites. Except that we are not, and when we’re the butt of anti-immigrant sentiment in the West, maybe we understand a little bit of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of prejudice.

It’s the truth about prejudice: if you have one, it’s likely you have a bunch of others festering inside of you. No matter how vigorously you scrub yourself, the hatred within shows on your face.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Watch: Indians are racist but Nigerians made me feel at home in their country

Last updated: April 10, 2017 | 19:15
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