‘Purging Racism, The Enemy Within’- An Analysis


March 21 is the UN International Day for Elimination of Racism reminding us of our collective responsibility for promoting and protecting these ideals. Many of us Africans have chosen to study and work in India. Delhi is always a magnet being a capital city: it is known that the best education can be obtained here. We came to India not just for education, but also enlightenment! We remain particularly disturbed by racist taunts and harassment we experience. Certainly in the wake of recent attacks we feel disrespected and unsafe. So much of Africa was colonised mainly by the British who divided and exploit us as was India. We have so much in common: such experiences of racism deeply offend anger, upset and sadden us. Why is this happening and are there any solutions to these problems? We spoke with Dr Kusum Gopal in whose diverse expertise includes redressing race and ethnic tensions in the Indian subcontinent, south-east Asia, northern Europe, East and West Africa and the MENA region.

Q: Why is there so much racism directed specifically against Africans in India? These attacks on Africans happen in groups and no one does anything! Please explain.

Racism remains an extremely alarming phenomena and many non Europeans have been at its receiving end since colonialism came into being over five centuries ago defining attitudes of acceptance, of  rejection, with the fabrications of superior versus the inferior races. We must recall Eric Williams, the former Prime Minister of Jamaica who noted that racism was born out of slavery and not the other way around!

Before understanding the basis of racism as we reflect on the pernicious colonial legacy which continues to operate with impunity, we in India as indeed those Indians abroad need also to acknowledge, to reflect and to address publicly and privately, the colonisation of our conscience as an anthropologist has perceptively described it; the mental paralysis and ignorance we remain submerged in is affecting detrimentally our value judgements, ethics, indeed, our aesthetics, sixty-seven years after we gained Independence.  We are yet to acknowledge or recognise that it is such an entrenched malaise punishing specifically not just Africans but also Indians. Of course I am not stating that racism against Africans can be put on the same platform as racism against Indians, but it can be understood better within such a context.  It is evident just watching the billboards advertising various products, or attending fashion shows, the IPL — events that are happening in the public arena at the national level, in all instances, white-skinned European models are preferred to Indian models in India! Ironically, Indians are regarded, even envied as extremely beautiful people and those who have won Miss World/Miss Universe titles are mainly dark-skinned women. Yet many Indian film actors continue to be painted white on the big and small screens looking rather unattractive, lifeless, indeed, pasty faced: all images are being doctored deliberately. There is a serious need to advocate the Black is beautiful slogans which grew from the tormenting experience of African Americans to educate people here, indeed, to state unequivocally that or all shades of black/brown are to die for.

You may have read reports on the sexual violence against women, girls and boys, most recently racism against the teenager who was brutally murdered, Nido Tanian. You may have also seen the obnoxious fair and lovely advertisements on T.V by various cosmetic companies which are endorsed by misguided celebrities who are causing such harm poisoning minds advocating that those with lighter skin are beautiful, they are role models to aspire to making viewers feel inadequate, lacking and inferior!  Some girls and women bleach their faces indeed as also men in a bid to lighten their natural skin tones with chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, ammonia and so forth. It is absurd for us living as we do now in independent India, to allow, indeed, even to accept that being light skinned is to be beautiful while 99% of the population are deemed inferior or ugly.  Needless to say, these advertisements are nauseating in the extreme and should be banned. Our government and institutions need to step in immediately to expunge the rot within! We must address collectively as a people our instinctive self-loathing and how it has consequences on questions of ethics, on aesthetics which disinherits and disenfranchises us.

Attacking in groups lynching –is criminal, and also an act of cowardice, a menacing experience indeed! It is not that nothing is happening. Legal action is happening albeit at a  rather slow pace which is because there is, distressingly, such a  deep divide as far as accountability goes between the formal law and informal laws with concealed power structures that operate all over the countries of the Subcontinent, indeed beyond as you must know only too well.

Bear in mind also that racism has taken many forms in China, sharp differentiation exists of Han versus Hakka; the Uyghurs feel severely marginalised, indeed, many non Chinese origin people are being denied citizenship in Hong Kong; some forced to emigrate. Similarly, WASP dominance in north America and western Europe in governance and finance; it was not so long ago when those of Jewish origin were demonised and persecuted on the basis of their faith in their lands, it is still happening today Palestine, Central African Republic, Sudan being just a few examples. Indeed, while all expressions of racism are deeply disturbing and simply unacceptable, resolutions are possible.

Q: What are the official definitions of racism? 

The tenets of UN Charters such as the famous Universal Declaration of Human Rights against racism are very clear. The first article affirms that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The term “racial discrimination” as defined by Article 10 is: any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life. Since then, there have been the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action  in 2001, the international community’s efforts to prevent, combat and eradicate racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and the UN Charter of 2010. India is one of the signatories of the Declaration. It is against the Indian Constitution to discriminate against any human being on grounds of religion, colour, creed, language, race or sex. And, these are deemed criminal offences punishable by law. It is indeed, quite deplorable… we urgently need to address also concomitant crimes against lower-castes as indeed the alarming frequency of recurring widespread sexual violence against women, girls as also, less reported rapes and related forms of aggression against boys and men. Indeed, let us remind ourselves: that United Nations has condemned colonialism and all practices of segregation and discrimination associated therewith, in particular, the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples proclaimed in particular the necessity of bringing colonialism to a speedy and unconditional end. Further, the Declaration of Human Rights and UNESCO Declarations which clearly state, that any doctrine of racial differentiation or superiority is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and that there is no justification for racial discrimination either in theory or in practice. All propaganda and organizations based on ideas or theories of the superiority of one race or group of persons of one colour or ethnic origin with a view to justifying or promoting racial discrimination in any form shall be severely condemned. Further, that all incitement to or acts of violence, whether by individuals or organizations against any race or group of persons of another colour or ethnic origin shall be considered an offence against society and punishable under law.

Q: Also, what about caste from which people could not escape? Is that also not racist? 

Yes, caste is discriminatory as it exists today- but that is also changing. It is important to recognise that we need to re-examine all the philological scholarship of colonial administrators beginning with William Jones mainly,  to re-evaluate once again this vast corpus of literature that came to be codified by the Black Letter Law. While excellent critiques exists, and such erudition has been published, academics have been remiss, indeed deeply careless in not making available such findings to the public as also, indeed the government and its institutions. As I have stated elsewhere, Caste is known to have been derived from Manusmriti or Manu Dharma Sastra, a segment of the richly diverse Indian philosophical systems. The Manusmriti is not a legal code, but a darshana or interpretation of philosophic systems: all ancient philosophical systems in India are known as darsanas, meaning, calling insights or points of view.  None of the darsanas — almost 3000 verses codify cosmogony; four ashramas, government, domestic affairs, caste and morality are binding. In the etymology of Indian words, Manusmriti has come to be erroneously interpreted during the colonial period as the unchangeable Laws of Manu. Eminent Sanskrit scholars do not accept the translation of smriti as laws. Smritis are remembered knowledge of the sages, derived from shrutis or divine revelations and thus are not binding. The philosophical and lexical richness of the darsanas needs to be interpreted within the cultural context of Sanskrit.Under colonial rule, for the first time, through random physical measurements, classification and separation of the subject populations using anthropometry, skin colour, racial classifications, and, creation of ethnic identities occurred. H H Risley, an influential administrator for example whom we discussed earlier, ludicrously determined that, the social position of the caste varies inversely as the nasal index, that, caste status was fixed, unchangeable; nearly all native practices and customs were reinterpreted distorting indigenous understandings and legislated customary ways of being out of existence. The colonial system supplemented its own formal institutions by manipulating these indigenous social networks in producing and reproducing social and political identities– for ordinary people such official social identities ultimately determined their fate, and they were forced by circumstance into relying upon those identities.

It is now clear from authoritative research that although one was born into a caste, his or her caste status was not fixed; one could change and did change caste and intermarriage was rife. With the movements of people, occupations and social relationships were always in a state of flux. For example, under the Turko-Afghans, the Mughals, groups of people who came to be known as the Kayasths became the backbone of the administration married into the Pathans, Turks  and other groups of people or, the Banjaras who are now reduced to poverty, were once very influential and wealthy traders  – salt carriers of the Mughals. Prior to the British all those who came to Indian subcontinent had intermarried, integrated and, accepted the people as they were accepted by them. This is why colonialism was markedly different from previous empires and governance- it emphasised differences and created separatism on basis of race and religion. For nearly two hundred years, the formal codification of differences among peoples their religions, racial/ caste discrimination, separatist movements of language purification led to the Partitions.

Q: Could you describe further the pernicious colonial legacy? In Nigeria, Central Africa as in many parts of Africa, this has of course led to some severe tensions.

We know that race constructions or tribe constructions did not originate from the existence of ‘races’ or tribes. It was created through European colonialism which institutionalised processes of social division into arbitrary categories fixing racial profiles independent of peoples somatic, cultural, religious belief systems. Applying the Stammbäume(charting family trees) model (not as used by Darwin) to grade levels, how  superior to inferior races were governed by selection, regardless of historical evidence, reciprocal influences between scientific thought and species  discusses how orders and levels came to represent an ascending staircase of social-cultural evolution, all non Europeans natives occupying the lowest rungs graded by skin colour. Certainly this ludicrous evolutionary scheme has been discarded since —the entire race grading of people is indeed, unscientific and fallacious. We have to reject outright colonial anthropometry —the cephalic index, the bigonial diameter, the bizygomatic diameter as indeed, all the rest. At any rate, there has always been so much interbreeding between human populations that it would be meaningless to talk of fixed boundaries between races in most parts of the world. Also, the distribution of hereditary physical traits does not follow clear boundaries. In other words, there is often greater variation within a “racial” group than there is systematic variation between two groups. Institutionalising such thinking has led to the hardening of inward-looking attitudes which formed the basis of classifications leading to continuous wrangling, and prejudice.

With reference to the regions under discussion: let us first pluck at, and engage with the pre-colonial oral and literary traditions of the great African continent and those of the Subcontinent, the ways of seeing, that evolved naturally over millennia. We are aware that in Africa from the exemplary scholarship and observations by Mudimbe, Bourdieu and Fabian among others on the enduring weight of colonial libraries and its tenacious grip. In most parts of Africa, as I have said elsewhere, there was no indigenous concept of race, colour, tribe or people other than identification based on dialects, language and attire as people intermarried more frequently than acknowledged contributing to the natural history of the human race, one of its distinguishing features. As a geneticist has noted, the scientific rejection of taxonomy… far from splitting up into subspecies which would be definitely adapted to the particular environment in which they had settled, and would differ from each other all the more for being genetically isolated (a frequent occurrence in animal species), the human race is composed of populations whose inheritances are being continually modified by gene exchanges. Social interactions between individuals and within communities of people did not recognise tribe, but rather, strangers identified each other as belonging to clans mbeyu and not, their tribe, kabila– the case in east Africa for example. Similarly, the was the case of the Indian subcontinent whose ancient cultures are renowned for their immanent traditions. Integral to open frontier traditions has been acceptance to forge voluntarily kinship relations between different groups and individuals through formal adoption of one by the other mainly by the offer of sanctuary, intermarriage, offer of material goods, of land made explicit through sophisticated ceremonial rituals of mutual exchange and reciprocity.

Ethnicity is wrongly interpreted using colonial and Euro-American terms of reference needs to be qualified within the context of the history and syncretism of this region, In the Indian subcontinent, H.H Risley in 1910 an influential Utilitarian, colonial administrator developed an official typology of racial types formulating grades in caste defined by the proportion of Aryan blood and the nasal index, along a gradient from the highest castes to the lowest- the classic evolutionary model from which modern classification, basis of race developed. He absurdly determined, “the social position of a caste varies inversely as its nasal index measuring the definition of a community as either a tribe or a Hindu caste or a Muslim,  when  we know that Hindus Muslims, Sikhs Buddhists and others in the Subcontinent are peoples who cannot be separated thus: such flawed thinking must be debunked. Indeed, in biological terms, our physical and mental development as human beings are a result of our heredities, our environments, a consequence of millennia of inter-breeding, inheritances being continually modified by gene exchanges as different peoples intermarried with migrant human populations, repeated episodes of territorial expansion and shrinkage, and frequent cross-breeding, a testimony to the millennial cultures that stretched from Tibet  to Kanyakumari and from Afghanistan to Burma. Even today those who think they are of Aryan descent or Dravidian, indeed any other category need to re-educate themselves. The terms to describe races ‘Aryan’, ‘Dravidian’ and so forth have been proven to be gravely erroneous. As the eminent historian Romila Thapar had observed that we do not know what the Aryans looked like and certainly these Aryan speaking peoples had intermarried with other peoples in their migrations for several hundred centuries. Similarly the term Dravidian conjured by a British linguist Henry Caldwell is inaccurate in its usage. There are no Aryans or Dravidian people, and racial divides in scales are unscientific, arbitrary fixtures. Intermarriage and integration has been way of life for millennia. The proof is in the pudding: that phonology, syntax, vocabulary, cuisines, music, dance, indeed, all forms of human expression have integrated in the Indian subcontinent for millennia as various peoples settled embracing these timeless syncretic traditions until the advent of European colonialism.

Disturbing as it is official administrative knowledge of human diversity remains influenced by these descriptions written some over four centuries ago under the aegis of European colonial regimes around the world. Images of origin and purity helped most practically to justify efforts to describe and propagate divisiveness, territorially distinct races; politics of society was determined by the politics of knowledge expressed through race. Obsession with purity was embedded in European colonial cultures. In Spain for example, in this important book, Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina, by Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan poet and journalist describes the intricate hierarchy measured by sangre azul or blue blood. Paintings by the Old Masters sometimes reveal how a nobleman demonstrated his pedigree by holding up his sword arm to display the filigree of blue-blooded veins beneath his pale skin as a testimony that his birth had not been contaminated by the dark-skinned enemy. Sangre azul became a euphemism for being a white man the limpieza de sangre doctrine was also very common in the colonization of the Americas. It led to the invention of a rather intricate taxonomic list to describe one’s precise race and, by consequence, one’s place in society. It included, among others terms, Mestizo (50% Spaniard and 50% Native American), Castizo (75% European and 25% Native American), Spaniard (87.5% European and 12.5% Native American), Mulatto (50% European and 50% African),Albarazado (43.75% Native American, 29.6875% European, and 26.5625% African), and so forth. This is just one example; there exist other classifications peculiar to each colonial power. Thus, extraneously, instituted values equated with the ought, to, the norm or the moral came to be separated from how colonised peoples defined their own identities. I remain of the firm opinion that the term race must be done away with immediately: it has been proved to be unscientific, and is most certainly extraneous to the cultures of the Subcontinent (as indeed, east and west Africa): there has been everywhere so much interbreeding among human populations that fortuitously, there is no such thing as a pure race anywhere in the world.

Q: How can we change these entrenched attitudes? Is that possible?

Just criminalising racism will not eradicate it; indeed, it could even have the opposite effect. We know from experience that it is no use ignoring the values ascribed to race in the hope that people will stop thinking in racial terms and therefore the problems will solve itself gradually.  In the US and UK, many European countries have actively set up committees and institutions to educate people.  The Thirteenth Amendment in US Constitution abolished slavery in 1865 and yet it has taken almost 150 years for them to elect a black American President.  One should not aim just for political correctness but education of the mind and the spirit, humanistic understandings deepening from within.

However, knowledge of the truth does not always help change knee-jerk reactions or emotional thoughts that draw their real strength from the subconscious or from happenings beside the real issue. But it could however, prevent validations of criminal acts or behaviour prompted by feelings which men and women  cannot easily express openly. To regulate conflicts of this kind governmental and institutional intervention is essential. The longer it is postponed, the more harm it is likely to cause and we must act with immediacy.

We have to begin with dissemination of knowledge with dialogues. Dialogues must be registered as conversations between equals and, from that, interactions between parties concerned must be based on mutual hospitality, empathy and, some humility- after all only understanding can ensure any form of progress. There are so many practical strategies and measures that would be able to be put into effect once these processes are initiated and this can happen in concurrence with education without walls, discussions in the parliament, legislative assemblies, panchayats, communities, shops, markets, clubs, and places of religious worship, schools, universities and beyond. Thirdly, there is the worrying ignorance of our histories and cultures in schools: we need to acknowledge the dire need for reforming the education system, in particular through the detailed examination and revision of the school textbooks. Critically, to learn about and emphasise the syncretic cultures that enveloped the Subcontinent for millennia which encouraged rich cultures of tolerance allowing diverse peoples to intermarry, integrate and philosophies of being to co-exist!  In doing so, there is a need to deconstruct the logic of prejudices that are detrimental to mutual understanding – and this can be done through scientific, philosophical and literary anthologies and writings, ethnographic studies- that take into account oral traditions. Another method is the media– through education, and by films, negative images of others, religious intolerance, incitement of hatred, violence and contempt for one other could be removed. Teachers must be trained as they are the educators and they must not only transmit knowledge but also comment critically on the transmitted knowledge and its content. Cultural diversity is integral to these regions and has always been. It is important to recognise that personal identities are intimately linked with political processes and that social identities are not given once and for all, but are negotiated over. Thus, we urgently need to legislate and discuss areas where we can co-operate and improve our lives and those of others.

Q: You emphasise culture and can you explain its role as the critical point of entry?

To conclude, we must work with the understanding that human beings are always in culture and it would be a good idea to study and respect specific cultural mores wherever one resides. Equally important is to engage with experts in their culture as they can play a key role in increasing mutual understanding and eliminating prejudices in their own culture and, in those which they study. Each culture needs to build up an understanding on the basis of its own specific characteristics -positive life experiences in inter-cultural contexts within the region as a start working towards mutual interdependence and conviviality. Perhaps, the best method would be that all foreigners, regardless of origin, be allowed to attend free classes on cultural education and some language arranged for by the embassies in each country to learn what locals are sensitive to, for example, to know beforehand before going to Japan that that Japanese abhor those who blow their noses in public, or in Thailand the monarch is equated to the divine and, hence above all criticism, or that in the Indian Subcontinent, in most parts, women must not be stared at, approached or talked to by strangers/ men without prior introduction as it can be construed as predatory sexual behaviour. There are extremely powerful humanist shared oral traditions and belief systems that can be relied upon in Africa as in India: we urgently need for these traditions to be resuscitated over and above all that has happened and, brought to the forefront of dialogues which need to begin through voluntary efforts. It is only by acknowledging mutual interdependence and similarities can foundations be laid. And, we need to draw on the inherent strengths of our cultures and traditions in these regions.  We can consequently forge avenues for co-operation, by learning languages; set up industries, health and education programmes together addressing pressing needs for guaranteeing security of livelihood that will ensure dignity of personhood for every citizen in these regions, indeed beyond.

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Dr Kusum Gopal

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