A Story of Racism in India


A Story of Racism in India

African students Bangalore

African students in Bangalore at a meeting with police. Credit: PTI

Nigeria is said to be home to millions of Indians – more than two million they say, but I think one million plus is closer to the truth. Most Indians have the mentality of feeling bigger when they live in a foreign country but the reverse happens when others come to their country – they look down on them. They forget that they themselves wish to be in a different country, especially Europe or America. It’s no wonder that there are IELTS and TOEFL centres in every corner of the country, specifically in Punjab.

I am aware of the number of Indians in the exceptionally rich Middle Eastern countries and also of Indians being a part of the population of South Africa and Malaysia, but go to other African countries and you would find Indians there too, trying to make a living.

But the sad truth is that in India, everyone who is not a white foreigner is treated differently – in a decidedly inferior way – especially the blacks, who, in most cases, are victims of extreme racism. But how does this develop? Unnecessary negative stereotypes against a people are a trigger.

When some Indians see foreigners, particularly Africans, they look, point, laugh and make fun, as if they have never seen a dark-skinned person. We deemed it necessary to buy a car because it became frustrating after a while to take a public bus; some passengers would avoid sitting next to us (maybe not to get stained by our blackness?), others would keep staring fixedly at us until we left. I hate to refer to myself as ‘black’ but since I am from Africa and I’m not fair, I don’t have a thin long nose, I am black by default, even though I am fairer than many, many Indians. But then the problem at hand is much, much more than about ‘colour’.

I remember the days when I resided off-campus, I found out that my landlord’s son had saved my husband and my phone numbers as ‘Negro’ – I realised this when we happened to use their phone once to call our misplaced phone. Young Arpan felt embarrassed on our behalf. “Not me, mera (my) papa,” he said. And he expected us to believe that his over 50-year-old father, who cannot spell university properly even though he is a senior Punjab police officer, had saved our numbers as ‘Negro 1 and 2’.

We once had a friend who seemed very caring; she asked us questions on every move we’d make, till one day I realised that I had mistaken her curiosity for concern. While she was very free with us when we were alone, she was embarrassed to associate with us in public. Some Indians will not even walk alongside a black friend, forget about inviting them home. The same friend couldn’t invite us to her wedding because we are black. Maybe she could not stand the shame of having befriended black people.

My husband once worked in the admissions department, but eventually, he was made to remove his staff ID tag to avoid excessive stares, not just from the visiting parents and students, who were likely to be unaware, but also from his colleagues, who looked at him with disgust, almost as if their eyes were saying ‘Who the hell allowed you to work here?’ This was nothing compared to the open rejection by one of his colleagues who was told to share some work with him – she rattled off some words in Hindi that ended with ‘kala‘ (which we assumed meant “I will not work with this black man”).

I have seen some kids disrespect strangers and older people in the presence of their parents. The saddest part is when they are taught to feel that they naturally superior to some categories of people – Northeastern Indians, dark-skinned Indians, lower caste Indians and us. Can I be blamed for avoiding public places?

Both young and old tend to get astonished at everything we do – as if we do not drive cards or use phones and laptops in our country. In Islam, racism is a sin. In some developed countries, racism is a punishable crime. But in India, racism seems to be a matter of pride. In shops or while standing in queues, Indians always want to be attended to first, even if we have been waiting longer. I dislike the Indian lack of civic sense and courtesy.

If it wasn’t for space constraints, I would have detailed the experiences I had in my academic environment, where one of my teachers made a class on neo-postcolonial literature almost hell for me, reiterating the dark history of Africans in simple present tense – “Africans are slaves… savages… cannibals…” and then justifying all the oppression, criticism and oriental writing against us. Being the only African in the class, I felt like shouting back in anger, or possibly shame. I was once tempted to retaliate but I did my best to control my words. I managed to ask one simple question, though, to the teacher who claimed to know everything about Africa because he had read several books, “Sir, have you ever read about African history by an African writer?” “No,” was his reluctant answer, “Who has written it?” he added. It didn’t amaze me that a PhD in English with decades of teaching experience asked this question. I knew what his problem was – he had read the same type of writers (most likely, colonial) with the same view and the same interpretations.

Even as Indians, the Siddis still don’t get fair treatment in their own country, because of their African heritage. It’s now ironic how India is hoping to use them to win at the Olympics because of the same African heritage.

The type of racism in India is hilariously selective – they choose who to treat with disdain and who not to. When we go to the cinema to watch Hollywood movies I see Indians immensely thrilled by the performances of blacks. One very notable moment I remember is their excitement at the action scenes with Tyrese Gibson or Ludacris in Fast and Furious 8. Similarly, when Barack Obama visited India on January 26, 2015, the world saw India at her best – the best hospitality they could ever provide was rendered to the president of the US – a black man. But when they see the same blacks in their country, they are contemptuous. Even though Krishna and many other Hindu gods are described as dark, or even black, that is not enough reason to cleanse them of racism.

I realised it is not only an issue of skin colour but also about race. I do not look like an Indian in any way, I am an African, a proud Nigerian, and even though I happen to be much fairer than some Indians, even though I am quite educated and financially secure, they still look at me as if I am inferior. They look at us with eyes that say ‘I know you are an African, you are poor, you were once slaves and now you have come here for salvation from poverty’. That is the only image of Africa they have. Dear Indians, please update your knowledge and please do away with these colonial stereotypes.

I am not worried for myself because I am used to racism by now, but I have a little boy who plays with everyone he sees, irrespective of gender, age or skin colour, and he deserves to be happy. I am concerned about the future of my son here. I’m afraid that some day he will be subjected to this differential treatment and that might make him question god’s choice for him.

I am not saying all Indians are racist, but it is hard not to believe that most are. I have spent memorable moments with a few Indians, mostly classmates from my master’s programme. I have happily dined with a few lovely families too. I find some Indians very courteous and helpful as well and I will remain forever grateful to a handful of Indian friends. But those are the exceptions.

At the time when Africans were subjected to extreme torture and racism in America, they used a phrase to emancipate themselves. I will use the same phrase here, not because I need emancipation like they did, but because Indians need to be told that ‘Black is beautiful’.

Sadiya Abubakar was a PhD candidate at L.P. University and has been in India since 2014.