Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Did I practice racism?

The title is the question I am asking myself, and to reveal the secret, by the end of the post, I will not be able to answer the question.
My reading a newspaper Op-Ed piece [1] sent me hurling back to 1981, to Lexington, Kentucky, USA. First about the article. It is a well-argued and well-written piece – made more relevant by taking reference to something that had happened to the writer – on how Indian racism may have diluted its caste character but has acquired racial characters, as practiced against Indians from the Northeastern states or black Africans. I ended up nodding much of the way through the piece. And, at one point I shook my head vigorously because I was loath to admit that I must have acted as a racist at least at one point in my adult life.
This post is to question myself whether I was a racist in the aftermath of an incident that happened to me on the campus on a fateful night that year.
I was walking back from the computer center at about midnight on a Friday-Saturday intervening night, just when fraternity parties are at their most boisterous mood. I had that greenish tint that appears on the well-shaven face that is the curse of fairness. So, it was not all that rare that I was mistaken for an Iranian.
Being an Indian and being misidentified as an Iranian, most Indian students on the campus thought, was an insult. Though many Iranians on the campus took up part time jobs, that was mostly to feed their partying, we knew (wrongly, but who was to tell us?) Most of us were from IITs, on fellowships or assistantships (in reality, big time beggars), the special breed and to be equated to lowly yet rich Iranians? Tut, tut…
Then, I was showered by a stream of beer from the front lawns of a fraternity house where a party was in full swing. Heard alongside the frothy beer was the throaty shout, “Go home, you bloody Iranian!” An instant thereafter an empty beer can was thrown in my direction, but no harm (drunken aim!).
Though a male, being alone in the middle of the night near a drunken and potentially hostile crowd is not my idea of a safe walk back home. I must have walked with hurried steps, yet not quite running (what they say about dogs), to get off the precinct. I did reach my apartment safely.
Why was there hostility towards Iranians? Those were the heydays of “Hate Iranian” campaign, as Americans were held as hostage in their embassy in Teheran. Notwithstanding the fact that multiple shenanigans of the US government in that region of the world must have played a not insignificant role in creating the situation, it is but natural that Americans would feel kinship with those captive compatriots in a far off land. It is the anger of impotency on the part of ordinary people that fizzed the beer and directed the can at me.
Now, coming to my racism. The next day, did I ask, “Why was I assaulted?” or “Why did the fraternity boys threw the beer can?” Note the absence of "at me” in the second question. There is a difference.
In the first, I am making myself distinct from Iranians, with the tacit understanding, “Had they fizzed an Iranian, I would not have bothered.” Would I have been indifferent because Iranians are, at least were in my opinion of those days, low life? Racist extraordinaire! Or, would it have been so because of instincts of survival, “Did not happen to me. Thank God!”
If I had directed my question at the frat boys, I do not need to expound on why that would not have been a racist question (of course, it is another matter I did not have a high opinion of fraternity boys or sorority girls; all those Greeks and their alphabet made my head swim!).
It is only because I do not remember the question I asked myself the next day, I do not know whether I practiced racism then.
The newspaper piece given under reference asserts the different types of racism and I endeavored to acknowledge, in my personal sphere, race or nationality based racism.
Raghuram Ekambaram

1.    Changing colours of racism, Vikram Kapur, The Hindu, March 12, 2014 (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/changing-colours-of-racism/article5774255.ece?homepage=true)


palahali said...

Most of us practice some type of exclusivenss - cast,class,race. I am just not happy with anybody other than me(a times it may include me also!)

mandakolathur said...

That is so well said, pala. This is the source of what we call "cognitive dissonance", the feeling that one is not as good as he thinks of himself!

Thanks so much.