Racism works in strange ways. Often, it goes undetected. Prejudices can be so ingrained into your personality that it’s hard to point them out, let alone get rid of them. I can’t count the number of times I’ve corrected someone’s English, even though I can barely speak Hindi. I know that Obama has two daughters and that one of them is going to Harvard, but I don’t know who our own vice president is. Yesterday I was speaking to a girl from France, in an effort to improve my French. She asked me if I read Hindi or Marathi literature, I replied that I didn’t, and she said, “but why not?” I didn’t know what to say. None of my friends here would ever have asked me that. For some reason we have an unofficial agreement that Indian culture is to be rejected. Of course, the reason I don’t read Hindi and Marathi literature is that I would barely understand it. I don’t take enough pride in being Indian, and that’s terrible, because I will always be an Indian, no matter how westernised I try to become. There are a lot of things about India that I don’t like, that I think we should criticise, but I’m tired of trying to escape my own heritage. I’m tired of obsessively trying to emulate western fashion ideals while ignoring everything about Indian style. I’m tired of looking down at people who watch Bollywood movies every week. And I’m not going to do that anymore.
Sumana Ramanan, an esteemed journalist and former editor at Hindustan times, thinks we should try to get back in touch with our culture. She says “because of our colonial past English has become the main medium of thinking and reading for a certain section of the Indian elite, which is fine. I don’t think we can turn the clock back, nor should we try to. English also happens to be an economically advantageous language right now. We shouldn’t try to deny or run away from it; embrace it and enjoy it. However we should realise that we’re completely cut off from a very rich, varied and diverse culture, because we aren’t engaging with literature, thought, music and other modes of knowledge in Indian languages. We should start reading at least translations of Indian works because it would free our minds in a way. To learn in the language of the coloniser has a lot of other implications.” Literature is an excellent place to start, since words reflect the beliefs and traditions of a particular place or time.
The sad part is that a lot of people don’t even realise that this is happening. The British did something that’s almost worse than killing millions of people. They stamped out our culture, they weaved an air of superiority around their own society, they made sure we understood that white is better. And we accepted it. Towards the end of their rule, the most prosperous and respected members of Indian society spoke impeccable English. Their sons had been educated in England. They hosted tea parties and wrote for English newspapers. That sentiment is still around today, and it’s time to get rid of it.
According to Amrita Singh, an Indian student currently pursuing a PhD in neuroscience in the USA “When you come abroad, you suddenly start to cherish speaking Hindi. Eating Indian food and wearing Indian clothes also feels very emotional. I feel that that helps with my internalised racism at least a little bit - you see white people in real life and realise that what gets portrayed on screen is very different from the average white person. You also begin to feel proud about being Indian because you stop seeing the everyday dirt and pollution and things and start seeing only your family and TV shows/movies. Which again portray nice things. This showed me that racism has a lot to do with ignorance. Also in India we have so many cultural groups within the country that it's hard to embrace everyone in it as your own. It's easy to be proud of your country when you perceive everyone in it as your 'in group' and everyone outside as your 'out group'. In most western countries they have just one language, one culture throughout the country so it's easier to get people to be patriotic.” Amrita was born and raised in Mumbai and has a bachelor’s in technology from IIT Kanpur.
I’m not trying to place blame or pass judgement. I simply want to acknowledge that internalised racism is very real. When I was younger I dreamed of being blonde and Caucasian. Barbie tried to promote diversity by producing people-of-colour dolls, but I didn’t even want one. In the third standard some of my friends and I were trying to impersonate a popular girl band, and I remember hearing a chorus of “I wanna be the blonde one!” Obviously that attitude can be extremely harmful, and you end up with teenagers who hate their naturally frizzy hair (that’s mostly just me) and who would rather celebrate Halloween than Diwali. Not that that’s a terrible thing, it’s just sad to think that in a few decades our festivals, stories, skills and traditions could be entirely forgotten. To me, internalised racism is closely related to self-esteem. Growing up surrounded by western media and pop culture, I had a very fixed notion of beauty and success. It’s incredibly difficult to break away from that mould, to see myself as Indian and to then feel happy about being Indian. But at least I’ve noticed what’s happening, and that’s a start.
When I visited Belgium, almost everyday someone would be telling me “Belgian beer is the best” or that they had the best chocolate, football team, music, you name it. Basically, they love their country. And they love being Belgian. That being said, it’s important to note that India is a developing, third world country. And the USA, UK and the rest of Europe are global superpowers, so naturally they invite admiration. But we, as people, don’t need to be more like them, as people. What we need to emulate are their principles and work ethic, not their appearance and culture. It’s hard to be proud and nationalistic when the most powerful people in the country are ridiculously corrupt, and it’s easy to convert a lack of respect for our current leaders into hatred for the entire country. So where do you draw the line?
Don’t be ashamed of who you are. Don’t let anyone tell you not to wear ethnic clothes. Can you imagine how boring things would be if all the countries in the world were like the USA? Celebrate Indian culture, explore Indian music and dance and traditions. Read about Indian people. Read about Indian issues. The next time you share a post about Black Lives Matter, think about the Dalits in our own country. Don’t bully people who can’t speak English. Love your frizzy hair and brown skin. There’s a lot we could learn from the western world, but there’s more for us to relearn about India.