Cover Photo: Gage Skidmore, 2019
By SALINA KUO and SANTOSH MURALIDARAN,
2nd-year Students in the Middle East-Mediterranean Campus of MENTON
It wasn’t the first time a group of Black people in India had been accused of being cannibals. The story was starting to become frighteningly familiar: a young Indian boy goes missing or suffers a mysterious death. His friends, family, and fellow community members long for explanations. To eradicate the ambiguity, even the most outrageous of explanations can suffice. With hardly enough breathing time to mourn the lost, a mob attack and bloodshed ensue, the attackers in pursuit of finding the chopped-up body parts of the missing boy. Why? As per the quickly disseminated rumors, the Black residents are the ones who ate him.
As Kamala Harris is the daughter of a Black Jamaican-American father and an Indian-American mother, India was elated this Saturday when Biden and Harris had won the U.S. elections. Indian-American actress Mindy Kaling explains Indian admiration for Harris best, when speaking to Harris in 2019: “I don’t know that everyone knows you’re [Indian], but I find that wherever I go and meet people on the supermarket or the street, people are like ‘You know Kamala Harris is Indian, right?’. It’s like our thing that we’re so excited about.”
Wherever I go and meet people on the supermarket or the street, people are like ‘You know Kamala Harris is Indian, right?’. It’s like our thing that we’re so excited about. “Mindy Kaling, 2019
This week, Thulasendrapuram, the tiny South Indian town where Kamala Harris’s grandfather was born, illuminated itself in celebration. Yet even as its Hindu temples were congested with ecstatic crowds; as its roads were dotted with exploding firecrackers radiating energy reminiscent of Diwali; as its people proudly exclaimed Harris was the “daughter of [their] village“—India struggles, as a nation, to address and reconcile with its long history of colorism and anti-blackness. When the conversation about Harris’s half-Black, half-Indian heritage and its implications with regards to the history of anti-blackness and colorism in India goes unaddressed in Indian celebrations of her triumph, the question arises: Do India and its diaspora have a right to “claim” Harris?
The Pursuit of Whiteness: A Remnant from India’s Past
Colorism in India dates back centuries, with roots in the caste system and colonialism. Under British rule, lighter-skinned Indians were treated more favorably than those who were darker-skinned, being given access to government jobs unavailable to their dark-skinned counterparts. This power dynamic bled into the region’s long-standing caste system, where higher castes were fairer which became equated to superior while lower castes were darker and therefore inferior. While both structures have been legally abolished, their legacy runs deep in Indian communities, where people with lighter skin tones are often rewarded in a dangerous cyclical perpetuation of colorism.
For example, Bollywood, India’s lucrative film industry, is known for casting light-skinned Indian actors who have set an Indian beauty standard. Moreover, beauty pageant winner and Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra, in the promotional video (below) for the not-so-subtly named skincare product “White Beauty,” stares in despair at her lover walking away with a girl who has “fairer skin”; then, the video cuts to the product promotion, explaining that “White Beauty” is her solution to lure the eyes of (equally light-skinned, of course) Indian men.
India’s pursuit of whiteness is not limited to its borders. For example, for purposes of immigration, Bhagat Singh Thind, who cited his status as “a high caste Hindu of full Indian blood,” yearned to be legally classified as white and naturalized as a U.S. citizen in the 1923 Supreme Court case of United States v. Thind. The court denied, explaining that the words “white person” must be understood as “the common man, synonymous with the word ‘Caucasian’.” This case demonstrated the deep-seated association between the notion of being white and the fact of being high-caste and how it extends beyond the immediate environs of India.
“Nigerians are Wild Animals”—Anti-Blackness in India
When internalized colorism disparages dark brown skin within the Indian community itself, it transforms into a supercilious form of anti-blackness in the racialized outside world. Approximately 25,000 students from Africa, mostly Nigeria and Sudan, are full-time students at Indian universities or colleges, with many more Africans living in India to seek work. Yet attacks, such as the aforementioned raids on the individuals accused of cannibalism, are fairly common.
In 2016, a 23-year-old Congolese individual was playing loud music in his car when he was eventually physically beaten up and tied to a pole in the southern city of Bangalore. Indian politician Somnath Bharti had once falsely accused Nigerian and Ugandan women in New Delhi of coordinating a drug ring and thus raided their home, then, in the name of a drug test, forced one to urinate in public. That same year in the same city, three men from Gabon and Burkina Faso were beaten in a metro station by a mob who yelled “Victory for Mother India“. In 2013, banners in the popular tourist state of Goa accused Nigerians of being drug dealers leading many Goan landlords refusing to rent rooms to Nigerians. Shubash Phaldesai, Goan state legislator, described Nigerians as “wild animals whose bodies are pumped with drugs“.
Disturbingly but profoundly symbolic, this post by a correspondent in the LA Times speaks for itself:
“Blindian”-ness, the Stigma Against it, and Kamala Harris
Anti-blackness manifests itself as not only heinous attacks against Black people in India, but a taboo surrounding Black-Indian interracial relationships—like those similar to that of Kamala Harris’s parents.
S. Kaur, having grown up in a traditional Punjabi household in the U.S., knew the drill: her friends were to only be Punjabi or white. The south Indians were “too dark” and the Black Americans would rob her because they are poor. Despite falling in love with a Black man and unlearning the anti-black stereotypes ingrained in her head since childhood, the thought of having a child together worries her: “The idea of burdening a child with the history of both my blood and his blood is scary. I don’t care if that makes me sound racist. It’s the truth,” she writes.
Amit, British-Indian, hid his relationship with his British-Ghanaian now-wife Michelle for years as he heard racist statements reverberate amongst his South Asian community: “We don’t marry Black people”, “Black people are known to be violent, loud, aggressive” and, after he opened up about his relationship, “You’re a sellout to the Indian community“. Jonah Batambuze, Black American of Ugandan heritage and founder of the social media campaign #BlindianProject which allows Blindian (Black-Indian) couples from around the world to share their photos on social media, recounts his Indian wife’s family crying upon learning he was her boyfriend, as if “there was death in the family“.
Yet as Kamala Harris represents someone who is indeed Blindian herself, the Indian commendation of Kamala Harris cannot be as simple as citing her masala wisdom, as this tweet did:
For Indians back in South Asia to applaud Harris for her success calls into question the substance of their praise. In her own book “The Truths We Hold,” Harris reasonably acknowledges that her lived experiences are very much associated with that of the Black community, saying that her Indian mother “understood very well that she was raising two Black daughters.” Anti-blackness in the Indian community continues to be very real, but perhaps Harris’s so-called “Blackness” is cast aside in the perception of Indians as they raise her to a pedestal. Then, the Indian veneration of Kamala Harris rings hollow as she is stripped of her recognition as a woman who has faced hardships in part because of the color of her skin and as she is denied recognition of her mixed Indian-Black identity—the very same mixed identity that, in nearly all other cases, would still be the source of strict controversy in Indian communities. Indeed, while Harris’s professional merits are praise-worthy on their own, it does not exonerate or absolve the pervasive internalization of anti-blackness in Indian society. If anything, it suggests a degree of hypocrisy that is ultimately harmful for everyday dark-skinned Indians or Black people in India in the long-term: Unlike the “wild animal” Nigerians accused of distributing drugs in Goa or the “aggressive and violent” Black people with whom Indians must not fall in love or marry, dark skin and blackness can be the source of Indian pride—if it’s the face of the newly elected Vice President of the United States.
Harris’s mere existence is the embodiment of resistance against an Indian society that stigmatizes dark skin in all its forms, and an Indian celebration of her success without sincere acknowledgement of and determined action to combat colorism and anti-blackness in Indian culture only further perpetuates outdated, racist norms—albeit this time, silently. For the Indians who suffer, who lose, who are denied their humanity for daring to dream while having skin tones like or darker than Harris’s; for daring to love or simply befriend someone who looks like Harris’s Black father; for daring to reach for success while being part of a family that is like Harris’s, where culture has pitted everything against Blindian families—Harris’s victory may well represent a success story worthy of communal celebration.
To the rest of India and its diaspora, however, it must serve as a pressing reminder that the strings of anti-blackness and colorism remain intricately interwoven deep in the fabric of Indian society and culture, and are in dire need of careful but urgent untangling. ▣