Even as Spelling Bee champ Ananya Vinay was subjected to casual racism, we look at whether Indians are always at the receiving end.
The land of snake charmers and elephants, India has been the centre of much intrigue for her culture and the stereotypes. However, even in 2017, the West has found it hard to let go of these labels. For example, 12-year-old Ananya Vinay, winner of the National Spelling Bee in the US this week was casually told by a news anchor that she was ‘probably used to Sanskrit,’ as she was made to spell out the Donald Trump typo, ‘cofveve’. Deepika Padukone too had been confused as Priyanka Chopra by the US paparazzi, and that didn’t go down well with either actress.
However, while many think of it as an overreaction, many others argue that Indians are quite racist as well. Former BJP Parliamentarian Tarun Vijay drew flak when he tried to defend Indians as non-racists. ‘If we were racist, why would we have all the entire south…Tamil, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra…why do we live with them? We have black people around us,’ he was heard saying in a video.
“People from the West associating and linking Sanskrit with India is only a common thing, and I don’t think there is anything wrong about that,” says writer and social commentator Charu Nivedita. “One should not expect everyone to speak and act in a rational or intellectual way all the time. This is blown out of proportion,” he remarks.
“We should learn to loosen up a little,” concurs actor Dalip Tahil. “Especially today, since when we are globally emerging in various spheres and coming to the forefront,” he says. Interestingly, he has faced a unique ‘reverse racism’. “For me, it has been reverse racism because of my light skin colour and my English diction. It would often confuse them. I was nothing like what they expected. I would have to go out of my way to convince them that I am Indian,” he adds.
Such stereotypes, according to Dalip, are prevalent everywhere and India should lighten up. “We have stereotyped Chinese, African, and so many others including Americans. There is nothing to be ashamed of, and we need not over defend ourselves,” he says.
Professor Avatthi Ramaiah from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) has another interesting outlook to the narrative. She says, “Since this question was asked in the US, it’s taken for granted to some extent — but if it had been asked here in India, it would altogether have been a different perspective.” She is pointing at the casteism interlaced in the traditional learning of Sanskrit. “I say this because there is a dominant stereotype — that Indian, who knows Sanskrit, is capable of doing anything.
But those who are associated with Sanskrit, by and large, are Brahmins. So this would also mean that Brahmins are capable of doing anything and not others — this is where the controversy starts. And most of the NRIs in the US, probably before this decade, were either Brahmins or the upper castes — so the West are more familiar with Sanskrit.”
While the professor’s theory is certainly adding the subaltern layer to the argument, social commentator Pritish Nandy admits that he never encountered racism aboard, though he has seen some in this country. “Much of it (racism) I have witnessed in India, for example, against dark-skinned people, especially Africans.” He says the entire issue is a reflection of the world we are living in. “Today the whole world has become aggressive. And to understand that you have to look at the stand-up comics — most often the jokes are mean and impolite. Today, politeness is almost an anachronism. So, if there are these racial comments, this is how we live and function, and not just in a particular country but everywhere,” he says.
While Dalip counsels his countrymen to loosen up, he makes another valid observation. “Today the hyper-nationalism that our nation is going through is an interesting phase because, in a country as young as ours, it is a process to come to terms with who we are and who should we be,” he concludes.
— With inputs from Balajee CR