“I have heard there is a lot of racism in England?”
This is an oft-repeated query that I am subjected to when I’m amongst my Indian family and friends. One of my friends, who is thinking of migrating to greener pastures abroad, has been weighing her options to choose between the UK and the US.
“How’s the racism in London?” she wants to know, to help her tip the scales in favour of one or the other.
I’m an Indian doctor, raised and trained in India, and I’ve been living and working in London for the past seven years. The hospital I’m working at has a diverse mix of healthcare workers and patients, with plenty of South Asians and Afro Caribbeans working along with white British and European doctors. You can find every shade of skin colour, and the variety is not just limited to race. There are people following different religions as well as atheists who live and work together. Have I ever faced or witnessed discrimination? No. Can I say the same about India? I’m not too sure.
This is not a rant about how western countries are better than India and so on. However, I would like to stress on the fact that when it comes to harmonious inclusivity, we Indians are no better than the most racist countries. It feels incredibly ironical when people ask me about my experiences with racial discrimination abroad without thinking twice about what happens in their own backyard.
An elderly aunt in Delhi was fretting about her son moving to Australia: “Why don’t you stay here, those people are very racist I’ve heard.”
“At least get married before you go,” she insisted. She had just placed a matrimonial advertisement in the daily newspaper, looking for “fair, upper-caste brides” for her son. Her concern about racism in Australia at the same time that she was rejecting dark-skinned prospective daughters-in-law highlights the entrenched hypocrisy in the system.
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While I was training in India, we had separate changing, resting rooms and toilets for senior consultants, doctors, nurses, porters and cleaning staff. I am ashamed to admit that I never saw this as wrong. I was blind to this blatant discrimination probably as I was in a position of privilege. Also, it was sad to see this being widely accepted as a way of life even amongst those who were discriminated against. It’s a pathetic form of prejudice and I’m deeply ashamed and embarrassed to have been a part of this. My eyes opened when I moved abroad and witnessed common changing rooms, toilets and sitting areas for all, from a cleaner to a senior consultant doctor.
Most Indians I know either have an inherent hatred of Muslims, are fiercely suspicious of black students, want fair skinned life partners, think Northeastern women are ‘loose’, or segregate utensils and restrooms for their domestic help. At the same time, they still want to be treated like equal citizens with equal rights when they go abroad.
There are thriving pockets of South Asian and black communities in London, living together and peacefully coexisting with the native white population. I cannot imagine a similar pocket of black people in the middle of Delhi. They would immediately be branded as foreign, dirty, drug users who need to go back to their own country. I have had no problems ever renting a place to live in London. How many people in India would gladly rent their properties to a group of black people? Forget about blacks, I have even heard of Muslims or lower caste people finding it difficult to rent homes in India as a part of centuries old discriminatory behaviours based on unfounded prejudices.
So yes, I can say with a fair amount of conviction that in my personal experience, I have found people more accepting and inclusive here, be it an issue of race, colour, caste, social status, marital status or religion. To vilify people from western countries and talk about racial crimes that we poor Indians have to face abroad is a bit rich considering how we treat our own people, people who don’t have the privilege to be born rich or fair or upper caste or of a majority religion.
I am not discounting the fact that racism exists in most of the western countries. It most certainly does, it’s a significant problem and should be appropriately tackled. But it’s also high time that we reflect on how we treat our own minorities before we question how we might be treated when we are relegated to a minority status in a different country.
Manasi Mittal is a doctor and her speciality is Anaesthesia and Intensive Care. She grew up in various cities all over India, trained in Delhi and currently lives in London. She tweets @ManasiMittal