The Indian Census has not included "race" as a category since the early in 1950s. Race might be a "biological fiction" according to geneticists, but the world over, it is a social reality. Racism is a topic Indians have been discussing fervently following the reprehensible attack on a Tanzanian woman by a mob that beat and publicly stripped her in Bengaluru early last month.
The shocking nature of the incident - a toxic mixture of anti-African and anti-woman violence - has forced us to examine once again our attitudes towards all "others" (anyone who is perceived to be different, as well as culturally, intellectually, and even physically inferior). For most of my life I have heard vulgarities such as "Chinki", "Negro", "Red Indian" and even the N-word casually used by many educated Indians without any sense of regret. Racist attacks against Indians hailing from the northeastern states are a tragic reality witnessed regularly in Delhi and other Indian cities.
Sociologists and historians have been studying anti-black bias among Indians at home and abroad for some years now. Certain varieties of anti-black bias are historically shaped. Here is one such example: following the legal abolishment of slavery in the British Empire in the 1830s, Indian indentured labor was brought to places such as Trinidad and Guyana to work in the sugarcane plantations to fill the labor vacuum. 19th century indentured laborers, known pejoratively as coolies, often arrived in the New World in the same slave ships that had carried Africans to the Americas. The newly-arrived coolie, willing to work for far less money than anyone else, was seen as scab labor by the emancipated Afro-Creole slave. The tension worked to the advantage of the white plantation owners. To this day, national politics is sadly polarized along racial lines - East Indian and Afro-Creole - in places such as Trinidad and Guyana.
In the United States, however, anti-black bias among many (though certainly not all) Asians has to be understood differently. Here, it is a matter of Asians perceiving themselves as the so-called model minority, superior to inner-city blacks who suffer from what the American legal scholar Michelle Alexander has called aptly called the New Jim Crow. A number of relatively new Indian immigrants to the United States - those who arrived about 10 to 20 years ago - surprisingly ascribe to the "melting pot" theory of assimilation, a theory that has been discredited by renowned American scholars since at least the 1980s. While the African-American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the critically acclaimed Between the World and Me (2015), warns his son of being shot by the police if he is caught in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time, white-collar Indian immigrants worry more about the alleged anti-Asian discrimination being implemented in Ivy League admissions offices these days. Imagine the two very different sets of worries of Indian and black parents! Imagine the two very different Americas - separate and usually unequal - that they inhabit! Mistrust and mutual resentment between the two groups are not uncommon under these socio-economic circumstances.
Africa and India have a history that predates the arrival of the Portuguese in the late 15th century. In fact, there are African diasporas living in South Asia today. The three main terms to describe these diasporic Africans are: Habshi, Sidi, and Kaffir. These are African communities who have made home in India for over 1,000 years in some cases. Habshi is a corruption of Habash, Arabic for Abyssinia or Ethiopia. Sidi is derived from the Arabic saiyyid, or master, but in India is a designation used for African slaves (or their descendants) in the western part of the subcontinent. Used with a personal name, it is also a type of a title. Kaffir is from the Arabic for infidel. This term is more prevalent in Sri Lanka. The history of the Indian Ocean slave trade is much longer than its Atlantic counterpart, starting as early as the 4th century and peaking between the 9th and 11th centuries.
The Indian Ocean slave trade continued as late the as the end of the 19th century. Slaves from East Africa, for instance, were the most important "raw material" which Arab traders exchanged for cotton from Gujarat. In a cosmopolitan port such as Cambay (Khambhat) in the 14th century, a regular market was held for the selling of slaves. Ideas about slavery in India, particularly in an Islamic context, were quite different from its Atlantic Christian counterpart. Instead of agricultural labor in the Americas, African slaves were often deployed as soldiers in India. Africans who arrived as slaves in the Indian subcontinent went on to occupy widely differing positions over the course of many centuries: soldiers, traders, royalty, and fakirs. The Sidis of Janjira on the Konkan coast, the Habshi rulers of 15th-century Bengal, the famous Malik Ambar (1549-1626), an Ethiopian sold into slavery, who rose to become the Prime Minister of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate, or even the Sidi saints of Gujarat are but some of the faces of the African diaspora in the subcontinent.
It is a matter of great shame that a Tanzanian woman was partially stripped by an angry mob; it is a matter of great shame that Indians - spending countless rupees in pursuit of lighter skin, and blasting hip hop - forget that America's greatest musical exports emanate from praise houses (slave chapels on southern plantations), call and response patterns, and slavery-era shouts (shuffling of feet and clapping of hands that accompanied sacred black music). Enslaved black men and women gave us all - the entire world - the blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll, rap, and hip hop. And for those Indians still rushing to buy the latest skin-lightening creams hoping to look a bit whiter than our darker brethren, I urge you to take a look at Lancome's new face: the Oscar-winning Kenyan actor Lupita Nyong'o. Hip hop swagger, emulated by countless young Bollywood actors and performers such as Yo-Yo Honey Singh, was invented as a creative response by American black youth to desperate social circumstances. It emerges from the bitter history of slavery, institutional racism, and segregation. Indians can adopt the style, the attitude, and the slang, but let us not forget the deep history from which it was born.
Ugly prejudice thrives on soil composed of fear and ignorance. When I was a professor of English literature at Harvard, it was my responsibility to ensure that my students - who were a quite a diverse lot themselves - not only read their Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Eliot, and Joyce, but also learned that world literature is infinitely enriched by the words of Olaudah Equiano, Phyllis Wheatley, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Tayeb Salih, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Derek Walcott, and Jamaica Kincaid. And more recently: Uzodinma Iweala, Namwali Serpell, and Kamel Daoud. This is not just a partial catalogue of western cultural heritage, or even black heritage; this is our world heritage, including India's. Just as Europeans and Americans should read some Kalidasa, Bharavi, Bullhe Shah, Waris Shah, Lal Ded, Tulsidas, Surdas, Mir, Ghalib, or Kampan in order to complete their education, we Indians must enrich ourselves with some of the authors - from Africa and from the vast African diaspora - I have listed above.
Great literature offers no life hacks. It gives us something far more valuable than quick answers. It teaches us to ask the right questions. And occasionally those questions may stop us before we savagely degrade a woman for the color of her skin on the streets of Bengaluru, or beat a man to death on the streets of Delhi because of his hair or his facial features.
(Sharmila Sen is Executive Editor-at-Large at Harvard University Press. She received her BA from Harvard and her PhD from Yale, and prior to a career in publishing she was a member of the faculty in Harvard's English department.)
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