Saturday, January 1, 2011

Skin Deep: Narratives of Racism in Delhi University

By Aashima Saberwal, Bonojit Hussain and Devika Narayan

(Note: This article was published in the november Issue of CRITIQUE - the occasional magazine of NSI Delhi University chapter) 

Kevin is from Kenya. He studies at the faculty of Law. We ask him whether he likes India (he doesn’t) and about the kinds of challenges he faces. He shrugs and shakes his head “I have don’t face any discrimination” He often repeats this sentence at various points of the discussion. After he tells us about shopkeepers who refuse to sell him milk or before narrating how not a single shop at Patel Chest area was willing to type his assignment. “When you go to buy things from a shop they refuse to sell. If you ask for milk they say ‘no milk’ but you can see the Indians buying milk.” Later he tells us a similar story “My mobile phone was stolen. For one week I was thinking how to get a new one. The shops here don’t sell to Africans.” Kevin doesn't think much of these experiences and dismisses them as insignificant, the ordinary trials of living in a foreign country. A woman on the road provokes a dog, provoking it to bite him, which it does. At Hans Charitable Trust Hospital they ask him for 10,000 rupees for the anti-rabbis injection. This is a service which is provided free of cost, however the small print reads ‘unless you are black’. Our interviews starkly shows that this particular subtext is present everywhere. We don’t realize that for the most mundane of daily activities (like buying milk) there are conditions that apply. The condition that you are not black.

These interviews give us a glimpse of how these students experience classrooms, hostels, streets, the metro and other public spaces. “What does kala bandar mean?” Boniface asks. They point. They laugh. They don’t like sitting next to you in the metro. What must it feel like to enter a strange foreign country where people across the board categorise you as sub-human? Strangers call you black monkey. “When I go back from college to hostel people on the streets keep laughing and staring. It is humiliating” Boniface says. Kevin stayed in a hotel for two months before joining hostel because no one was willing to rent him a room. The entire gamut of racist discrimination faced by the black students of the university includes everything from actual violence to incessant racist remarks, staring and laughing. This is racism in its purest, crudest and most undisguised form. 

If one begins mapping the experiences of these students in north campus of Delhi University there is no choice but to face up to the irrefutable fact that India is a deeply racist society. Yet the idea of racism as a socio-political issue is not one that is associated with India. It grew out of the specific history of European and North American societies and is inextricably linked to the historical fact of colonialism, slavery, displacement and migration. Racism is typically conceived off as exclusively an issue between blacks and white in western societies. We are arguing for the establishment of racism as a serious issue in India, one which is in urgent need of not just study but even basic acknowledgement. However with respect to the particular experiences of these students the onus must be put on Delhi University. The university must be identified as the accountable institution whenever there are instances of racism within its purview; this space includes classrooms, hostels and college campuses. As of now you can call a student a ‘black bitch’ in the university hostel and not face any consequences. As of now racism is not even recognized as a problem. The attitude towards blacks is so normalised and commonplace that the idea of racism as a manifestation of unacceptable bias, prejudice and discrimination is a foreign one. The demand that the university awakens to this issue and takes into consideration the rampant racism which is rooted in university spaces is a basic but essential one. The fact that we have to even demand this basic minimum from the university only goes to show the abysmal degree of neglect. 

“There is segregation in the classrooms. In Ramjas College there are three rows: Indians, foreigners and North Eastern students. There is no interaction. They don’t speak to each other. I have an Ethiopian friend in Arts Faculty. It is the same situation there. No on sits close to him and if somebody does then everyone gossips about them. A friend from law Faculty told me it was very bad there. When he would walk into the classroom some students would walk out” This sounds like something out of segregated America of the 1940s. Most African students do not arrive here with a framework of race and racial politics. Why should they? They are coming from black majority countries to a non-white third world country. They come unprepared and don’t anticipate being treated like non-humans. Unless they have friends in India who have warned them or have some understanding of Indian history they enter student life without being able to contextualise or make sense of this treatment. Joyce says, “There are so many Indians in my country. I’m so used to them. I studied with Indians. My father studied with Indians. We don’t see the difference. That is why I find it strange that people stare at me here.”

Kevin’s interview was particularly revealing. He came having done some research of his own by doing an internet search on “racism”. When faced by a vast amount of matter, all to do with racism in the U.S.A he came to the conclusion that it was by definition an American phenomenon. This is probably why he repeatedly told us that he faces no discrimination, while narrating extremely disturbing instances of overt and explicit racism. When you define racism as an issue solely between blacks and whites, then Indian racism which is as entrenched and brutal as in the white dominated counties of the west is conveniently side-stepped. This is deeply problematic. It is truly appalling that there is no language available to talk about the grotesque form of racism that Kevin faces. The deafening silence on the issue of Indian racism robs victims the right to protest and a sense of injustice. How do you even begin a discussion on racism and our fascination with fair skin when there is a complete absence of any critical understanding? By perpetuating this silence we barricade any possibility of debate. We have to start with the very first step, that of exposing Indian racism for what it is. Why does it not shock us that when Boniface walks back home in the evening people on the street point and laugh? Why is someone by virtue of having black skin an immediate target of ridicule? Why is it, of all things, funny? Why does black skin automatically result in being called a monkey? Why is fair lovely? Why is black ugly? 

Although it seems obvious, it is important to note that skin colour comes with a powerful symbolic loaded-ness. What are the images constructed around black skin? How are they reproduced and sustained? How did black skin come to denote barbarism and savagery? These are huge complex questions which have no simple answer. To address them in a nuanced manner we are required to dig deep into our history and politics. We need to revisit the long history of colonialism and understand how the logic of dominance played itself out; all this while taking a strong political stance against racism as it exists in all its manifestations today. 

Not only is there a pressing need to talk about explicit racism but also to recognise the subtler ways in which our underling prejudices reveal themselves. The fact remains that racism is not an issue of individuals and circumstances but is structural, historical and institutionalized into the very fabric of our society. The general obsession with Europe and the U.S is combined with an absolute neglect of the rest of the world, most of all Africa. It is true this imbalance is a global one and has economic, political and social dimension to it and ultimately whiteness is symbolic of wealth, power and civilization. Black skin came to be constructed as a sign of the uncivilised and barbaric and therefore not 'us', not human. This skewed reality which continues to be reproduced today in the post-colonial world, displays itself plainly all over the university in subtle and not so subtle ways.

Aashima and Devika are Research Scholar and Post-Graduate student at the Department of Sociology, Delhi University; Bonojit is an independent researcher.  Research for this article was assisted by Shobha and Meghana from Dept. of Sociology, DSE


  1. This is fucking bad! I appreciate you taking up this issue on behalf of Kevin and others. Do you know anyone from the southern part of India going through the same ordeal.

  2. I am a Nepali who studied at the Delhi School of Economics for my Master's degree. I graduated two years ago. The casual racism I encountered at the Dschool cafe on a daily basis was simply mind-boggling. The grumpy fat man at the counter was one of the rudest individuals I've seen on this planet. In all the many months I stayed there, I couldn't decently ask the person for the day's dishes and other details pasted on the menu board. The only dish I knew was 'rice and beans' that what I always ate while I saw that all the other Indians were eating other delicacies. One day, I tried to speak to him about the other dishes. He replied in such a rude manner that I decided not to speak to him again. And there was a very elderly gentleman who served food. He was also always rude to me and made fun of whatever I said. The Indians around me would snigger whenever he gave me his retorts. I thought he was just a cranky old man until one day I saw him behave with the greatest civility with my other Indian friends and my professors. Pure racism!

    These are just two instances of racism that I used to experience day in day out in Delhi. And I wondered: why do Indians feel superior to other non-white races? I can guess why they treat a Nepali like me like sh*t -- I have Asian features and resemble Northeasterners who are treated worse. Since the Northeasterners are basically tribals (at least most of them) and hail from an isolated corner, they are very innocent and hence submissive and I've seen many Northeasterners meekly surrender to the many jives they encounter. But I am a citizen of a different country and live in a capital city just like Delhi habitants do. I am not innocent and stupid although my grooming has taught me to be less rude than the people I've had to deal with in the Indian capital. I did raise my voice many times when I felt I was being treated improperly. But voice has its limitations. When I am treated like sh*t again and again and again, I too get exhausted.

    As a citizen of a small country in S. Asia, I grew up admiring Indian history and civilization as well as its old values. When I get mistreated in the Nepal-India border, Gorakhpur, Delhi and where else not, I think of how Indian society has lost its entire spiritual base. Countless Nepali air travellers in transit tell horror tales of incidents of cheating and harassment at the Delhi airport, most try not to use the Delhi transit if they can help it. A Nepali friend of mine who lives in France was actually conned by the airport police big time! I too have experienced my share of such difficulties.

    Surviving Delhi was major achievement in my life. If I can help it, I'm not coming back.

  3. To what extent will Delhi go to prove its backwardness. Seriously, the most rude, uncivilised, immoral, inhuman, and a stain on Indians are the Delhi people. If they can term a whole community based on colour, we can term them the most backward people on earth based on their unsensibility to human behaviour. The capital of such a huge, variated, colourful, and one of the most fast paced rising country has become worse than the non-civilised villages of the central India. Delhi has showed every worse thing a city can have. I don't see that kind of racist, rude, ill-mannered and criminal minded people even in the even bigger, busier and productive city of Mumbai. Seriously, what makes Delhi feel so superior? What the fuck are they learning in the so called most prestigious instiutions in the county. I really feel sad that Delhi is our capital where it resembles a 19th century indian village. The northeasterners they discriminate are better civilised than them.
    And as according the root of racism in India, its the bollywood and television industry which is solely responsible for manipulating this. The ever there need for "fair skin" lead actors whether its male or female, or the ads of people getting fair in a month, does seems like an obsession to put this in people's subconscious, that "fair skin" gets you success, while "black/brown" doesn't.
    People has to be educated in Delhi. They rule the country and don't know how to educate their people and teach them humanity. Its because of them, Indians are being shameful everyday somewhere in this one world. Racism should be illegalised and a penalty for the same should be amended to out book of law. Oh by the way, the lawmakers are same as Delhi people too, who are we expecting.. Just shame, shame, shame.
    One day Delhi, thy will be nuked.

  4. There is data for this:

    Check out the WaPo article and its source.

  5. oh God... the things said above feel unreal...this actually happens somewhere in OUR country?.... I just hope it doesnt have any ripple effects to other states... I am from Kolkata where rape recently is the new cool thing among the gangsters........ but racism here is still unheard of and i pray it stays that way.

  6. Rape and racism...delhi will never lose its charm in entertaining people with their criminal activities and shallow outlook.

    Guys, whoever is reading this, Delhi is not India. We have other beautiful cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and a stunning state called Kerala where people are treated with more respect than you find in Delhi.

    well lets hope there will be a change some day which will hit Delhi.

  7. I ask a Canadian before heading down to USA
    Who to watch out from because I'm Sikh.
    They said black people and I was surprise .

  8. It's sad yet funny how an Indian would laugh at you in the streets... Oh absi, kalu... then come ring your bell begging for employment.

    Delhi or should I say North India is just a hell hole for foreigners of a "lesser god" and reading recent articles it seems like it's just getting worse by the day.

  9. Yes I think Indians are bigger racists than anyone else in the world. It is no wonder that Idi Amin threw them out of Uganda. While they bowed and scraped in front of the White Man, they treated Africans with contempt and discourtesy. I think this is much less in the South but still there.
    A relative from Kerala could not understand how a Ghanian friend of mine could possess an MRCP degree. And this person had spent most of his life in Africa !!!

  10. Indians are the most hypocrites, They will go to the extent of licking the whites and like someone in the comments pointed out white skin is considered beauty, and all the others are treated like shit. It is high time they start respecting the people irrespective of the color, caste, creed, gender and religious beliefs.

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