"Questioning Racism in the India Diaspora: Cultural Perspectives" was a panel convened by the Swedish South Asian Studies Network (SASNET) of Lund University on June 16, 2020. It featured panelists Amrita Ghosh, Rohit K. Dasgupta, Aruni Kashyap and Bhakti Shringarpure. Below is a video recording along with excerpts from the transcript.
Amrita Ghosh: (Introduction to the converstion) We are witnessing a global movement against racism presently, and when it comes to the Indian diaspora, one of the world’s largest diasporic populations, we have seen a sudden outpouring of support for the BlackLivesMatter movement, especially in the social media performative domain. Yet it is especially imperative that we do some inside work and self-evaluate how we are complicit in the casual and sometimes very aggressive normalization of colorism, racism and antiblackness through a systemic collusion with whiteness. The fairness cream industry in India is estimated at 450$ million and that data is only from 2016. But this goes beyond the fairness creams. India has the world’s largest film industry and Indian films have always carried a dominant cultural signifier for India as a nation. The dominant Indian diaspora in America is also one of the wealthiest in immigrant status and what happens in India impacts the diaspora in varied ways and also activates diaspora politics. So, as scholars who work on representations, race, colonialism and prejudice, we wanted to track the Indian culture industry that affects the Indian diaspora through the long history of film, tv, advertising and publishing industry in India and abroad.
Rohit K. Dasgupta: (Regarding normalizing racism) There is this hypocrisy that is prevalent in the Indian community, kind of in our attempt to appropriate whiteness. And this is very similar to what we’re seeing with all these countless Bollywood stars who have been speaking up for Black Lives Matter and taking the knee. And you know, my question is, “Where were they when it comes to Indian lives within India who continue facing persecution?” Whether it’s in Kashmir, Northeast, the refugees, the growing Islamophobia that we have in the country. I mean, these are the same stars who actually advertised skin-whitening products and now they’re kind of shouting about BLM. But let me do say this, however, I do believe in solidarity politics, you know, in the United Kingdom where I am, there is a very proud history of Black politics where immigrants of African and Carribean heritage and Asian heritage come together to challenge the hierarchy of white cultural hegemony. We saw Black and Brown people proudly marching together, organizing for trade union recognition. Whether it was the 1972 Midland Textiles Industry Strikes, the ’77 Grunswick Strike, you know, which is very, very famous. Or even more recently, raising their voices together against the atrocity of the Grenfell Tower Fire. But it’s also kind of important that when talking about class and race, that for someone like me, you know, I have been reading quite a lot of Sivanandan and many Marxist scholars and white radicals, and they have always maintained that in Black oppression there is as an aspect of class discrimination. But Sivanadan actually argues that despite this common denominator of capitalist oppression, it is not sufficient to bind them together. I’ve actually got a quote from him if that’s alright to read out: “You know, the economic aspect of colonial exploitation may find analogy in the white working class history, but the cultural and psychological dimensions of Black oppression are quite unparalleled.” And I think that’s really, really important because all of these are different vehicles of oppression that we are seeing all the time. And at the end of the day, the idea of what we are seeing in media is to create an ideology, is to normalize certain kind of images and you don’t bat an eyelid after sometime. Now you’re like, “Yeah, that’s why." I think about the Aamir Khan advert from Coke, you know, this was years ago. We did not think about it at that point of time. We thought it was funny. And that’s the point of it, you know, it’s to normalize all of this over a period of time as to who belongs and who does not belong. What does Indian-ness look like? And who is not?
Aruni Kashyap: (Regarding colorism) I think there is a huge difference between colorism and racism. And its that colorism, a lot of it is associated with class and beauty while racism manifests in a denial of common humanity. I’m going to go back to Northeast and speaking from my experience. Most Indians don’t think that people from Northeast are actually equal people and it translates in laws such as which exist still in a lot of states. We are barbaric and we fight contextless wars, we are xenophobic, these are the terms that people in Northeast are often described by. At the same time, the Northeastern subject is also considered a sexy, you know, promiscuous, attractive, something to possess. So it is a sexual adventure to date women from Northeast by mainland Indians. In a recently released film called Axone, there is a mainland Indian character, and he’s the only sort of friendly character to the Northeastern community in this film. He keeps saying despite having a girlfriend and they are not in an open relationship, “I want a Northeastern friend to date.” So this is just one example of how this translates into actuality. But on the other hand, coming back to racism, Black people are considered in many cases, not even human enough. And in many parts of Delhi, in many parts of India, people think that it is normal to attack black people if they are walking on the streets. And I did not know this until I read a personal essay by Kim Barrington Narisetti, an African American professional who lived in Delhi for many years. And in this personal account, she actually mentions an incident where an eight-year-old boy threw a rock at her randomly and she was just walking on the street. Her husband, who is Indian, actually asked the boy why he attacked Barrington. And the boy said, “Because she is African.” So I think this is a very telling and disturbing incident and I don’t really need to say anything else.
Bhakti Shringarpure: (Regarding American television shows made by and featuring the Indian diaspora) In these shows, you get a lot of depiction and visibility of darker subjects, queer subjects, but within the safety net of a narrow American narrative. So it’s the same jokes, the same plots, but reproduced with darker-skinned actors. And then, within that, there’s also a kind of humiliation or subjugation of one’s own heritage with jokes about accents, jokes about your parents and how backward the previous generation was, how troubled my childhood was because my parents were just not hip or cool. And I’m talking specifically about Indians because, you know, there is the Mindy Kaling show and then recently she produced a show called Never Have I Ever. It is always smugly pointed out that she is dark-skinned so she’s moving against the Northern, Punjabi, light-skinned depiction. But I don’t think hers can be considered a grand achievement. In fact, it’s kind of scaling back. She idealizes whiteness; she dates only white men in her shows. There are episodes and episodes that offer depth to the character of Danny, who is the Italian-American, we get to know his mother, we get to know his neighbor. But the Indian parents are scarcely shown and when they are, they’re just jokes, and it aspires for whiteness in all its references. I think Aziz Ansari's Master of None is a more sophisticated Woody Allen-esque humor, talking about New York and so on, and is more loving in how it portrays the parents. But once again, he only loves white and later a European woman. And the one Black character on the show epitomizes the “my Black friend” joke and double check, she’s also gay. So it’s super problematic. And one last thing on Never Have I Ever which has been heavily discussed-- its just the same high school American, white narrative, you know, losing her virginity, dating the jock, and so there is no disruption to the American story. It just plays to the white audience, to the white gaze, and it’s trapped in this cage of its own creation.
Amrita Ghosh is a visiting researcher at SASNET and works on postcolonial conflict zones, borders and subalternity. She is co-editor of Cerebration, a bi-annual literary journal.
Rohit K. Dasgupta is Senior Lecturer at Loughborough University. He is also an elected Councillor & Commissioner for Social Integration & Equalities in the London Borough of Newham. He is the author of Digital Queer Cultures in India.
Bhakti Shringarpure is Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut and founding editor of Warscapes magazine. She is the author of Cold War Assemblages: Decolonization to Digital (Routledge, 2019)
Aruni Kashyap is a writer and translator. He is the author of His Father’s Disease and Other Stories (Context/ Westland Books, 2019) and the novel The House With a Thousand Stories (Viking/ Penguin Random House, 2013). He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, Athens.
The panel wishes to thank Hanna Geschweski at Lund University for all her help.