The most painful racial backlashes I have witnessed weren’t from white people, they were from other Desis. Desis who believed that someone’s worth was determined by the fairness of their skin, and Desis who somehow came to the conclusion that the word ‘Indian’ was synonymous with ‘loser’. Internalized racism is a big component in the Desi world, and it has always been mystifying to me why people feel the need to spit hate against (anyone, let alone) their own ethnic communities.
South Asia’s obsession with fair skin is a remnant of colonial times, and despite the fact that it has been almost 71 years since we became independent of the British, the standards of beauty that they left behind, haven’t budged. This is blatantly obvious through the promotion of skin lightening products on our televisions, and through the common chatter between aunties “Ladki pyaari hai, lekin uska rang thoda kam hai. Bechari” (“The girl is beautiful, but her skin is a bit dark. Poor girl”). Funny how someone’s skin shade acts as a contributor to their worth as a person. With aunties openly wondering how these duskier looking girls will find partners for marriage. Because you know, skin tone is more important than personality. Obviously.
Internalized racism plagues the Desi community, and unfortunately, it’s not just in the older generations. I remember being in school and having people around me pointing and laughing at a woman who was wearing a saree while dropping her children off to school. “Look, it’s you!” they’d laugh, taking turns making fun of each other.
Using the word ‘Indian’ as though it was an insult. “You’re so Indian”, like it was the worst thing you could be. “Whatever, you Indian”. Confrontations to such conversations always proved futile “Why are you taking it so seriously? It’s just a joke”. My friends had created their own Desi hierarchy, of which, India was apparently at the bottom. Clearly, they had forgotten where their ancestors had come from.
The constant stereotyping and racial putdowns often lead to people trying to portray themselves as being anything BUT who they are. I remember having lunch with a group of Indian girls and guys when I was at university and being turned off by the obvious fake accents they were putting on when saying Hindi words. “Have you guys seen that movie? Cabbie Khooshy Cabbie Ghum? It’s so lame, who watches that stuff!? That actor Reethik Ro-shahn is pretty good looking though.” I remember making a mental note not to hang out with them again. I didn’t need to be around people who wouldn’t be accepting of the Indian culture – not because I had a problem with them, but rather because I didn’t want them to have a problem with me. I regularly watched Bollywood films, and genuinely enjoyed doing so. It didn’t bother me that they didn’t enjoy Bollywood films, what did bother me was that they were trying so hard not to be considered someone who did. They tried so hard to be anything but “Indian”. Trying hard to fit in without being stuffed into an Apu Nahasapeemapetilon sized box. I wonder what experiences they had gone through to instantly be on the offensive when it came to their culture. Even when they were sitting in a group of just Indians, they felt the need to put on fake accents and trash talk elements of their heritage. The internalized racism runs deep.
But luckily, it’s not all bad. With the current social climate, through the use of social
media and the embracing of cultures and cultural identity, I feel as though these issues are slowly coming under the microscope. People are beginning to discuss elements of their identity and embrace themselves for who they are. We are seeing an increase of people sharing pictures and videos in their cultural garments, and people are openly embracing their mother tongue without the use of fake accents, or the need to whitewash themselves in order to fit in. The younger generations are beginning to stand up for their heritage, and their history. People are able to set themselves apart from the stereotypes while still enjoying the benefits of their culture, and it’s about damn time. We still have a long way to go, but perceptions are changing and people are slowly beginning to accept themselves and their heritage.
Who knows? Maybe one day one of my schoolmates will happily drop her children off to school wearing a saree with confidence and with a smile on her face. That’s the future I want to see.