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From Color-Bind to Color-Blind

September 2008
From Color-Bind to Color-Blind

By Bhagirath Majmudar

Recently the mainstream media in Atlanta as well as the national Indian American media drew the public’s attention to an Atlanta-area Indian man who was sentenced to life for the horrific crime of hiring a hit man to kill his daughter-in-law because she was black. Sixty-eight-year-old Chiman Rai was charged with the murder of Sparkle, a 22-year-old African American. Prosecutors contended Rai sought to eliminate Sparkle because he believed her marriage to his son was a social embarrassment.

Could this crime be an extreme sample of a widespread—if not similarly malevolent—tendency of Indians to be racially prejudiced against African Americans? An honest appraisal of ourselves as a community may be in order. If asked point blank whether or not Indians look down upon blacks in America, the knee-jerk response of most of us would be, “No, we certainly don’t. In God’s eyes, all people are alike.” Does this answer contain the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Some provocative questions

Are we willing to face unpalatable but soul-searching questions such as the following?

? Are we racially prejudiced against African Americans?

? Do we tend to shun them? Distrust them?

? Do we readily socialize with them as we would with white Americans?

? Do we inwardly enjoy a comment on our fair skin and resent being called dark or black?

? What is our gut reaction when an African American family moves into our neighborhood?

? Do we tend to oppose our son or daughter marrying an African American?

These questions are indeed agonizing, but face them we must. White Americans have done so before us, and have made visible efforts in resolving them. We too need to address these issues in a spirit of self-exploration and change.

Our colorful past

Our history gives us mixed signals about our preferences of color. In our age-old epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both our divine heroes Rama and Krishna are described as dark like a black cloud (“Ghanashyam”). Kali or Mahakali, our much-worshipped Goddess, is black in color. The icons of Gods and Goddesses in our temples are both white and black. Thus our religious traditions embrace both black and white colors equally.

When it comes to social preferences, however, things change radically. A girl with a light complexion (“Gauri”) is considered more beautiful and ranks higher in the Indian marital market than a darker skinned girl. Matrimonial advertisements in Indian newspapers are rife with demands for fair or at least “wheatish” brides, and Indian television channels run commercials for “fairness creams” for both women and men every few minutes. Indeed, the fairness cream industry has burgeoned into a multi-billion-rupee enterprise in the country.

Interestingly just a few decades ago, we were all called “coolies” by many of our British colonizers. And yet, the British believed that not they but Indians were the most color-conscious people in the world. Maybe our dislike of dark color does not descend from our ancestral history but is a product of relatively recent times.

This BMW will not drive us very far

Be that as it may, we continue to divide human beings by the degree of their darkness, with an embedded code of classification that can be summarized as BMW (Black, Medium and White). We instinctively and collectively seem to prefer the white end of this spectrum. Black seems to have negative connotations, while white is associated with virtue, power, wealth and knowledge. For far too long, we have entrapped ourselves in this dysfunctional system. So naturally, it’s a challenge to question it. But it is the nature of truth not to allow itself to be hidden for too long. The emerging truth of the new era will make us realize that this BMW will not drive us very far, any longer. When a surgeon opens a human body, he or she cannot tell if it belongs to a black or a white person. Color is only skin-deep.

Our prejudice may well crop from an unconscious (or conscious) association of African Americans with crime or other such perceived negative factors. However, we need to be vigilant against such simplistic stereotyping. After all, how would we like it if Indian Americans are all projected as convenience store clerks with heavy accents?

Indeed, many of the attributes that are commonly associated with race have other underlying reasons. For example, studies have shown that crime is often more directly linked to poverty than to race. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, India’s past president, has wisely observed, “Power corrupts, but poverty corrupts more.” Similarly, diseases such as AIDS are more a result of lifestyle or accidental infections rather than a racial phenomenon.

Parents of the future, or offsprings of the past?

We are now entering an era of evolution characterized by rapid and radical changes, where we live in a society made up of all races. Our progress is going to depend on our ability to see and accept our inevitable interconnectedness.

Our children on college campuses are going to be global citizens unburdened by the baggage of racial bias. We have to be careful, therefore, of not showing them our past prejudices, which are sure to lose us their respect. I have heard repeatedly from college students how much they resent hearing words like “Kallu”, “Kalia,” and “Dholia” in reference to the racial makeup of a person. We cannot continue to feed them the toxins of our own prejudices. We have a choice to decide whether we want to be the parents of the future or the offsprings of the past.

We should also freely share the comments, opinions, and advice of those friends in our community that have migrated from Africa. They can teach us a lot from their experience. Those who have learnt their lessons from the past will not be condemned to repeat the mistakes registered by history. Let us discolor our colorfast beliefs. I hope movies like Guess Who Is Coming To Dinner and Mississippi Masala prompt us to embrace alternative ways of thinking. “A new idea is always more painful than new technology,” said Professor Harold Laski, the British political theorist, a few decades ago.

I have worked for about 37 years at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, wheremany of my associates at all levels have been black people. I have enjoyed their company, identified with them, and learnt from them. They have nourished me with love, warmth and support like I have been part of their family.

When I moved to Atlanta close to four decades ago, I was warned against white people in the name of KKK and black people in the name of crime and murder because I was brown. I would have made a serious blunder if I had listened to them and not come to Atlanta because of either of those fears.

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