Diversity in discrimination

A common subject of conversation among Indians who have travelled to the U.S. is about what their airport security calls a ‘random search’. We see in this some sort of racial profiling. Ever so often, an Indian celebrity appears on television complaining about the ‘treatment’. For that matter I have myself narrated stories of what I have perceived as rank discrimination while travelling in that country. There is no denying that because of the racial stereotyping of the terrorist the world over, people with certain features are more randomly checked than others. But somewhere behind this lies something intrinsic, a deep-seated suspicion, discomfiture, even a sense of superiority. This neither starts nor stops at U.S. airports. Sections of the ‘whites’ in certain states are clearly colour-phobic.

But are we, ‘tanned’ Indians, any different? No. We have our own ‘traditions’ of racism. People of African descent studying or working in India routinely face our version of racism. Let us be honest enough to admit that we stare and snigger at them and say the rudest imaginable thing about their looks. This low is our sense of humour! Watching the government’s Atithi Devo Bhava campaign, I strongly felt that in our perception the atithi is almost always a white or far eastern male.

But this isn’t new. Many of us have heard our grandmothers preen about the daughter-in-law’s fairness. Even today, matrimonial ads contain the old ugly phrase ‘wanted fair girl’ and fairness creams are advertised extensively. Within our non-white skin shades, we seek the whitest of them all. Let us not make the mistake of presuming that these practices are largely found in ‘uneducated’ communities. They are as prevalent among the most educated sections of urban society. The language may be subtle but the attitude is the same. What is worse, we associate personal hygiene with skin colour. The darker skin is considered less ‘clean’ than the brown and white. But our bias does not stop with just skin colour, does it?

People from the northeast who live in other states as students and professionals are constantly singled out for their facial features; in fact the ‘mainstream Indian’ (whoever that is!) does not consider them quite Indian. Don’t they look ‘Chinese’? Irrespective of whether the city is New Delhi or Chennai, women from the northeast are seen through very sexual eyes by men who hold this perverted notion that women with Mongoloid features are ‘easy’.

It is not just about colour or race; we are also homophobic. People with a different sexual orientation are targets for ridicule, seen as abnormal and even sexually violent. Insensitivity towards lesbians and gays is rampant. The situation for the transgender is even worse. They are not even given the respect of human beings. I am ashamed to confess that even with all my awareness, I have to consciously tell myself to discard my inhibitions and wariness when a transgender approaches me. My conditioning is so deep.

The good old forms of caste- and gender-related discriminations still slither around us. Even today there are households where a separate drinking glass is used for the household help or for the low-caste/class outsider. There are still streets and temples where the Dalit is not permitted. We read about these struggles in our newspapers and brush them aside as stray happenings, not realising that similar ideas lurk within our own minds. We differ only in degrees.

Patriarchy remains the foundational basis for our society. Religious bias is not far behind with the Muslim facing the brunt of this abuse. Typecast into a visual mould of a man with a skullcap or as a woman wearing a hijab, they are homogenised as a visual image only to further typecast the community as dangerous. Collectively we continue to push the Muslim onto the rim of society.

The ‘diversity in discrimination’ we practice is frightening. This is us. Every society is unequal, but that does not make our underling attitudes passable. Furthermore we cannot remain blind to the blatant discriminations that we practice and perpetuate. The first step is for us to look within and acknowledge our predispositions. In this honest acceptance of our prejudices, we can hope to find the strength to change. We have to celebrate our differences and see people for what they are: unique human beings. Being a part of any kind of majority does not make it the norm or ‘ideal’. It in fact obligates it to be that much less judgmental, prescriptive and biased.

Originally written for The Hindu

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