Saturday, January 27, 2007

India and the white other

An addendum to Khushwant Singh's column in the Hindustan Times, courtesy Vipin Bucksey, New Delhi:

"When I born, I Black
When I grow up, I Black
When I go in Sun, I Black
When I sick, I Black
And when I die, I still Black.
And you white fella,
When you born, You Pink
When you grow up, you White,
When you in Sun, You Red,
When you cold, You Blue,
When you scared, You Yellow
When you sick, You Green,
And when you die, You Gray ...
And you calling me coloured?"

I understand the necessity of having some sort of counter to the predominant message that whitness is greatness. But if India is going to flip a collective shit over Jade Goody being "racist," it might be worthwhile to note that these amusing limericks and anecdotes don't do anything to improve race relations. Actually, it makes me feel pretty shitty, and when you call me a gora, or a firang, and assume that I don't speak Hindi or understand the somewhat negative connotations of the words, it's insulting.

This poem is part of a corpus of work, oral and written, that focuses on mocking the white other. When I was teaching in Kerala and attending, I believe, an Onasadhya, a man came up and introduced himself to me. We got to talking, and he starts telling me a story.

"Have you heard about God's oven?"

No, actually, I haven't. Please, sir, explain?

"You see, God was making the people. First he made the African. And he put the dough in the oven, and he left him in too long, and when the first man came out, he was burnt black. So the next person he made, your people, he put in, but he was afraid they would get burnt, too, and so the Europeans, the whites, they're pasty and undercooked. Finally, he got it just right: perfect and brown, the Indian. Not too dark or too light, just right. The Indian."

There's a part of me enjoys the fact that people are so upfront about differences; my co-workers will talk about "chinks" and I'll cringe because I'm a PC thug, but they'll just shrug and be like, "They look different, you know?" Still, there's a part of me that wishes there was some intervention; some way to explain that even though my country is incredibly chauvinistic and full of rich people and stuff, white people don't like being called firangs any more than Indians like being called Pakis.

I donno; ever since the man told me I was undercooked, I've started thinking that my face does indeed look a bit Pillsbury-esque, pinched and risen but not quite set.


Sreekumar said...

You are absolutely right ofcourse in making the point that the "goras" might not like such epithets but then I guess in many ways, its just an indian reaction when they encounter people who look different.
But as long as these are just comments and are not said with any hostile intent, it seems ok to me. It is much better to be a bit open about the difference than the forced political correctness which is seen in many societies (which is btw better than the open racism seen in others).

apu said...

You definitely have a point, but I'd like to point out - "gora" (or for that matter, "kalu" "chinky" etc) is different from "firang". Firang simply means foreigner, and to my knowledge is not meant to be racist in any way. It applies to anybody who is a foreigner in this country, irrespective of color.

Matt said...

There is nothing in the nicknames, frankly. I am a mallu, i have friends who are tams, bhaiyyas, gujjus, jaats, chinkies. Racism is not in the names, I think. It is in what you actually do to people. PC often makes us forget the real problems, and we try to cure what we think are the symptoms of racism. I may or may not have a privileged and enlightened group of friends, but calling out to another by his race-nick is considered an endearment. It all depends on the self-confidence of the listener, and the name-caller. The word is given more importance than what one feels, and then this is what happens.

Vi said...

"Racism is not in the names, I think."

I'd have to disagree. There's something different when someone is called "brown" (which doesn't just refer to Indians) versus calling someone a "spic", for example. There are power behind those words, perpetuated by history (and a history that cannot be ignored nor written off as inconsequential.)

Anonymous said...

Gora means white (literally) and Firang means 'white foreigner' (comes from French who were the first to arrive majorly in these parts).

Firang may be ignorant usage as not all whites are French. But can be excused in comparison to geographical blunder that native americans face in getting called 'Indians'; or the historical blunder of Indians being called Pakis (pakistanis) [ Pakistan was created from India and not vice versa]

Regarding 'Gora', I can't understand why a person who calls himself/herself white takes offence at being called 'white' in a different language?.

Or is it being called with a different word in a different language that makes it uncomfortable? If so, then welcome to the club! Real name of India in Hindi is Bharat (and not India) and for Indians is Bharatiya. You guys should attempt to call the country with it's real name before taking imaginary offenses.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought it is due to the fact that India is not multicultural in the sense of race. Apart from tourists and the occasional Asian immigrant, we have not grown up with people from other countries. Therefore, reactions to such people are rather unrefined. We have not had enough experiences to travel along the Political Correctness path.
That's one side of it.
The other side is that, since India is so diverse intra-racially, we do have names/labels for everyone (like matt said). If you were from one part of India and grew up in another part of it, you would have a name.

I think names and labels become racist when history attaches to them. That's why "Paki" is a derogative term. "Gora" is a rather literal term. There is a term for white people in Tamil that has some baggage from the British Raj era: I would not use it because my grandfather uses it with some disdain, being was an Indian freedom fighter. "Firang" sometimes strikes me as leaning that way.

But anyway, coming back to what I said before, the Western countries have had immigration for years, and have had their own travelling outside. In India, that journey is just beginning.

Blue said...

I'm not sure the story and poem you cite here are examples of "mocking" the white other. They seem to be about promoting the self and promoting one's culture/community, particularly the story about God's Oven. They reverse the white sense of "us" and "them," making Indians the "us" and everyone else the "them."

The poem is a bit harsher than the story, but it's not meanspirited mocking. It's making a careful social point.

Either way, as an "uncooked" person I took neither of your examples with offense. Was there something in the tone the God's Oven story was told that made it seem offensive or cruel?

Anonymous said...

I can understand why someone would be so sensitive to this even though I have never lived in a society where I was a minority.

But the difference is, and I do think this is important, that the Gora is coming into the society and therefore needs to expect that he or she will be treated differently.

You are indeed a "white other" and you should just accept that. You come from outside of India. You aren't part of India.

All these poems/stories are to give the Indian people pride in the colour of their skin. Pride that the British took away from them. As a Gora myself, I don't see why I should begrudge them that.

In the country I come from words have terrible terrible effects. There is one word I have been taught not ever to say, not ever to think, ever. It can never be mentioned in my society except for its first letter. But perhaps others just see words as not being that powerful.

Words describing white people, if they are supposed to have an effect on me they never have. I know Gingo is supposed to be a Spanish insult but I don't care. I am a proud Gingo. The only word aimed at whites I guess I do get offended by is the R-nek word even though I have grown up in middle class suburbia and so I personally have never been called a R-nek. I still though think it should be a banned word in our society just like the word that must not ever be uttered is.

Anonymous said...

I am an Indian and would be the first to admit that a lot of Indians are openly very racist, not just towards foreigners, but towards their own kind.

Gora simply means "fair" or "white." The word by itself is not racist, and would depend on the context it is being used in. Similarly "firang" simply means foreigner.

I'm sorry if people have been racist towards you. We do have a long way to go.

Zoey said...

Perhaps I should clarify. It's not the words themselves that bother me; it's the fact that I've lived here for about two years, and I am still referred to as "the firang." Within my office, I am white, and apparently nothing else. It often comes off as no one having learned my name. I do understand that I have chosen to live in India, and that I have chosen to marry an Indian, and I can't expect everyone to cater to my needs. But it is a bit exhausting for people to constantly rail against "the Americans," the white people and their crazy ways, or talk about racism in other countries -- of which they have only anecdotal evidence -- when they call me a firang or a gora, rather than referring to me by name, and it has been consistent usage for a long, long period of time. Separate from this, I would mention that my breasts are grabbed or my bottom is pinched at least once a week when I'm doing things like shopping, children walk behind me and shriek about the gora, entranced young men sing romantic ditties about goras, and I've been spat upon after rolling my eyes when someone solicited me on the street. I'm not saying these things don't happen in the U.S.; I suppose everyone needs to vent sometimes. I am saying, however, that before people get up in arms, defensive about being India and attacking others for crimes they may or may not have perpetrated, one should take stock of his or herself.

Anonymous said...

Zoey, you could be there ten years and still be treated like a Firang, like a Gora, because that is what you are.

You aren't an Indian. You will never be an Indian.

As for what happens to you on a daily basis, I really feel sorry for you. It is very hard to be an expatriate, even harder to be a female expatriate. I myself can't imagine leaving my homeland to go to some different place oversea.

I believe the world would be a much happier place if people just stayed home instead of going to where they aren't welcomed.

Anonymous said...

As I said in a previous post where I come from, words are very powerful.

You know that word, that word that must not be uttered and can only be referred to by its first letter. Well there is another word that means miserly, stingy. It has nothing to do with the word that must not be uttered. Its word orgin is not related to the word that must not be uttered in any manner. The words aren't related in any way at all.

Except this word sounds kind of like the word that must never be uttered and due to that it can never be uttered as well. They might as well erase the word from the dictionary.

Words are very powerful in my country indeed. It is more important what you say than what you do where I come from.

Scott said...

Sure, there's racism in America. But America is one of the few places in the world where you can actually become a member of that society.

You could never become an Indian, but it is possible to become an American. Perhaps never accepted as an American by all the people all the time, but by most of the people most of the time especially if you talk without an accent.

I don't know if it is possible to espect this of other cultures. India for example talks of their "diaspora" and their NRI (not residential Indians). For them citizenship doesn't matter as much as ethnicity. Mind you India is not alone in relating citizenship to ethnicity as that is how it commonly is throughout the world. Places like America where ethnicity and citizenship aren't related are rare.

I have to say that I believe we have come to a place in the world due to technology where for the most part immigration causes more problems than it solves. It is time that people focus on making the place they were born better instead of going off somewhere else hoping they can find a better deal.

America should end immigration for all but the most exceptional cases. And in return we shouldn't be going around living in other places in the world.

Anita said...

Zoey, I am sorry about you having been physically felt up while outside...but believe me, that is not exclusively because you are white; but because you are a woman. The same has happened to all my friends (all Indian) at various points and places. As for people being racist towards you, Indians are quite racist, though may not always be deliberately, and often refer to our own people from the North, West, East and South with nicknames which a lot of your readers will know. But most racist comments, especially towards the North-Eastern Indians and Blacks, are not mocking; because India does not have a violent past with these peoples. But White for us still means British, to a large extent. Probably will take a few years before we realise our inherent racism...

Anonymous said...

Please attempt to call 'Bijumon Ramachandran' with his real name, before blaming others for not calling you with yours.

Foreign names are hard for anyone. Though used to long Indian names, I still find long Chinese and Slavic names hard to crack!

It is not just the length of the names, I have encountered many Americans hesitant to call Indians with 3 or even 2 syllable names. Is it the fear of getting it wrong? Or is the fear of the 'other'? I don't understand.

Am I a racist and anti-Japanese, if I don't like 'Sushi' and say I hate it? Do I need to really like others cultures to be called 'tolerant'? Isn't it just enough if I follow 'live and let live'?

I wouldn't jump the gun to call someone racist just because they cannot say my name, or don't understand my culture or don't like my food. Reason - I don't expect them to!

Criticism of Americans has more to do with Politics than the race. Despite everything, our political interests don't match on a plethora of issues - Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan, China etc. It would also help to remember the strong influence anti-American/anti-West 'Leftists' have on the Indian psyche. This often results in the decadent American psyche kind of articles you've quoted (elsewhere) and the kind of Americans-this Americans-that discussions (that I hate).

Groping is a sexist behavior, which is felt not just by white females, but also countless Indian women too. India is still getting used to seeing women working and wearing Western clothes. B-grade Hollywood movies are also to blame to a great extent, which show white women to be adulterous and of low moral character who are ready to sleep with anyone, anywhere and anytime. People whose only exposure to West is through such movies ( how many whites live in India?) take them at face-value and behave as such. I'm not justifying such behavior, but wanted to highlight the image of West created by Hollywood.

Someone wrote people speaking unaccented American English are accepted in US. True. But then how many of you even attempt to speak the unaccented native language? How many of you participate in local festivals, feasts, religious celebrations etc.?

Read the reactions to your post. Xenophobic Indians repenting and saying sorry for the racism of their fellow countrymen (which they didn't commit), while the tolerant Americans proposing to close their borders to others. If this doesn't tell you something about so-called 'tolerance', nothing else will.

PS: Note to my fellow country men - Calling someone Tam, Mallu, Gujju etc is more Regionalism, Linguicism, may be even casteism. But how's it racism? We all belong to the same Indic race! Don't confuse issues here.

Anonymous said...

Political Correctness goes by another term. It is "Cultural Marxism". Look that term up when you have a chance.