#BlackLivesMatter: Let’s Not Forget India’s Closeted Racism

George Floyd’s killing in broad daylight by a policeman in Minneapolis has enraged millions across the world. The social media circuit in India has also been taken over by news of the death of the 46-year-old African American in yet another crime borne out of hate for people of colour.

This is not the first time that India has taken up an issue that deals with racism against black people in the US. Who can forget how historical the start of #BlackLivesMatter was when it began in 2013? The movement, sparked after the killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent trial which acquitted his murderer using the “stand your ground” clause, took the world by storm. India too came under its effect. However, at that time, it did not fuel the sentiments of Indian celebrities and the public as much as it has in 2020 – the inclusion of social media in our lives has grown by leaps and bounds since 2013.

Floyd’s demise has awakened Indians again to the ordeals faced by black people across the globe. But as much as we love rallying behind causes of black people in the West, keep mum about such instances when they happen in our own nation.

Then, there are no reactions, no trending hashtags and no calls for justice.

Back in 2017, five Nigerian nationals, who were students in Noida, were beaten up with rods, sticks, while also being attacked with racial slurs like ‘cannibals’ and ‘drug addicts’ in a shopping mall. The then foreign affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had called for an inquiry into the incident and that was that.

Also read: Breathing While Black: The Virus of Racism

An even more brutal episode occurred in 2016 when a Congolese student and French teacher in New Delhi was killed during an altercation.

Both cases failed to raise the glaring issue of closeted racism at a national level.

After Hasan Minhaj’s recent Patriot Act episode, where the comedian tore into South Asia’s racist tendencies, former West Indies captain Darren Sammy recently expressed anger on an Instagram story after finding out the meaning of the word “kalu” – a word he said was used a fair bit during his time with SunRisers Hyderabad in the Indian Premier League (IPL).

“I will be messaging those people, you guys know who you are, I must admit at that time when I was being called as that word I thought the word meant strong stallion or whatever it is, I did not know what it meant, every time I was called with that word, there was laughter at that moment, I thought teammates are laughing so it must be something funny,” Sammy said.

Sammy’s story is further solidified by a 2014 Instagram post by cricketer Ishant Sharma where he calls him “kalu“.

Minhaj had said, “Look, I can’t say what it’s like to be black but I know how we (Asians) talk about black people. If someone in your family is dark-skinned, we clown them. We call them ‘kallu’. Bollywood stars do skin whitening commercials so we don’t look black!”

Also read: The Complicity of Silent Observers

Another example would be that of Bollywood actress Esha Gupta, who had come under heavy criticism in 2019 after a private chat of hers with a friend was leaked where she was seen mocking football star Alex Iwobi, where she called him a ‘gorilla’. She later apologised, but the damage had been done.

In a country obsessed with light complexion, it should come as no surprise the treatment of black people in India is what it is. This reminds me of the quote by Malcolm X in his autobiography, describing his struggle with his identity in his younger days: “I was trying so hard, in every way I could, to be white.”

In spite of being a land of brown skin individuals itself, what makes Indians stare down at the African community in India? Was this seed of racial prejudice sown by ‘white’ colonial empires? Or was it there all along?

African representation in the Indian entertainment industry has not helped either. While their ‘white’ counterparts are always shown as being dim witted and innocently lost in the streets of Benaras or Delhi, African characters are rarely to be seen. If there are any, they are depicted always as dealers, pimps and people with a violent or criminal nature – for example, the guy who broke locks with his bare teeth in Phir Hera Pheri.

In Fashion, the lowest point in the life of the character played by Priyanka Chopra is supposed to be her consensually sleeping with a black man – so much so that she undergoes a year of depression and psychotherapy in the film.

Also read: What Priyanka Chopra’s Performative Woke-Ness Tell Us About Indian Celebrity Culture

In 2017, ex-Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti also decided to display racist ways after he led a midnight raid on “Nigerians or Ugandans” with a mob in Khirki in Delhi’s Malviya Nagar area for allegedly being members of a “prostitution-and-drug-ring”. Several Ugandan women pressed charges of assault and criminal intimidation against those involved in the raid, and the judge in the matter said that there were no grounds or reliable evidence to conduct the raid.

With the world becoming a smaller place day by day, there is a desperate need to sensitise our hearts with mutual respect for people of every race, colour and culture. It’s a hard ask, probably an impossible ask, but our attitude towards the black community as a whole, and not just when Barack Obama or Beyonce tweet about it, needs to change.

One cannot hold a banner for crimes against a community in one part of the world, and keep silent when it happens right here. We cannot wait for an African national to suffer a similar fate in India to wake up and start having the right conversations.

Those who raise the cause of Floyd in India right now have the onus on them to disseminate the message of India’s closeted racism to African nationals residing here. So even as we continue to have conversation about police brutality, abroad and at home, it’s clear that the perspective of Indians in general towards Africans needs a lot of introspection.

Marina Abey Thomas is a freelance writer. Currently based in Delhi, she writes mostly about politics, social issues and human interest stories.

Featured image credit: Rui Silvestre/Unsplash