Dispatch From India

The first time it happened, we were rather amused. A stranger approached us on the street and asked if he could take a selfie with us. We thought it an odd request, and suspected that a marble or two may have strayed outside the fellow’s ring. But he appeared harmless enough, so we acquiesced, and he went away with his photo, seemingly quite thrilled.

We’d hardly had time to shrug off this episode when it happened again. And again, and again. Sometimes they’d also chat with us; they always wanted to know where we were from, and when we told them America, they were doubly delighted. And yet, even though Indians are particularly in awe of Americans, nationality obviously wasn’t what prompted them to engage us in the first place. So what was it? Inevitably my suspicions kept pointing to our skin color. While Indians tend to be curious about, and welcoming to, outsiders in general, it appears they find something particularly glamorous and appealing about white people.

This was corroborated whenever I went shopping (and had the attention of pretty much all the store personnel lavished upon me) — and browsed through the toiletries and cosmetics in quest of sunscreen. That product can be hard to find in India, but one thing you’ll find plenty of is lotion designed to lighten the complexion, in a package adorned by a photo of a Bollywood-pale model. Indians go for their lightening tonic the way white Americans go for their tanning beds. A friend commented that if our hair had been blond, we would have been gawked at even more.

Interestingly, my time in India coincided with the 75th anniversary of its independence from Great Britain, a nation that often mistreated natives — some establishments even posted signs outside saying “no dogs or Indians”. In India. And yet here they are, fawning over every Anglo foreigner that comes down the pike.

Part of the explanation can be traced back, as explanations so often can, to religion. According to the tenets of Hinduism, you deserve whatever you get in this life because of what you did in the past one(s). And if you just bear your burden stoically, you’ll have better luck next time around. This no doubt contributes to the strong work ethic that inspires those at the bottom of the social ladder to cheerfully break their backs in service to those higher up. Thing is, I can’t help but notice that those who perform the grunt work overwhelmingly tend to be those with darker skin. And many Indians, bred on a strict caste system, seem quite willing to accept ethnic hierarchy, whether explicit or implicit.

India isn’t the only place where this phenomenon has occurred, of course. The attitude, overt or subtle, that there is something preferable and even glorified about being palefaced, is both widespread and longstanding. There are many factors that may have contributed, but the one I would like to speculate about here is what I call the unwarranted extension of symbolic values.

Briefly, my theory can be summarized as follows. Long, long ago, humankind (and human unkind) became aware that sunlight and fire made life warmer, easier, more convenient, more survivable; while night and ash brought cold, uncertainty, danger. And they noticed that many objects become darker when they get dirtier; that, for example, teeth are pearly white when new, but yellow, brown or even black when they are corrupted.

Thus, humans began to associate lighter colors with positive values, and darker colors with negative values. Naturally, then, the two extremes — white and black — came to represent good and bad respectively. Human beings were being observant when they noticed the pattern that many white things are desirable and many black things undesirable; but when they began applying that pattern to all things, they were falling prey to some all-too-common fallacies such as false equivalence and over-generalization. (That Caucasian fascination with tanning, by the way, is a different, but related fallacy. Privileged white people often relish affecting a bronzed — though not drastically darkened — complexion because they falsely associate it with health and robustness, since being exposed to sunlight darkens the pigmentation.)

If you think this kind of perspective is consigned to the hoary past, you couldn’t be more mistaken. Here in our enlightened modern westernized era (when we elect racist white reality TV stars as president) it’s still very much upon us. Research repeatedly indicates that people view those with darker skin as more suspicious and untrustworthy — this includes even those who themselves have darker skin. Add to this the long, ugly history of racism and racial oppression, and you have a very (if you will forgive the color symbolism) dark and lengthy shadow indeed.

By chance it happened that shortly after my arrival in India I finally began reading — well okay, listening to the audiobook of — The 1619 Project, which chronicles and analyzes the long, shameful history of racial oppression and exploitation in America. The book is so brutal and frank, so illuminating, so unsettling, that it’s been viciously attacked by reactionaries who’d prefer to keep inconvenient truths buried. (More about that in a future post.)

The white supremacist ruling class is perfectly content to keep society ignorant about history. Because they are perfectly content to bask in a social order that exalts their whiteness. But I am not.

To be clear, I really love India. It’s a fascinating, colorful, vibrant land full of natural, historical and colorful riches. The food is fantastic, the people are friendly, cheerful and helpful — usually without expecting anything in return — and the cost of living is rock-bottom. But inevitably there are also things here that annoy me. Like the insufferable heat and humidity during summer. And the power outages that occur several times a day. And constantly having to step around the ubiquitous blend of mud and cow shit. And constantly being thrust into the spotlight, whether proffered with benign intentions or otherwise.

I don’t enjoy being the center of attention. I don’t enjoy being temporarily “befriended” by strangers just because they regard me as some sort of good luck charm. I don’t enjoy being given preferential treatment. I don’t enjoy having store clerks follow me around within two or three feet, sometimes even trying to take my shopping list and do my shopping for me. I don’t enjoy being the target of every con artist, hustler and huckster in town. And I certainly don’t enjoy being followed by little kids saying “money, money, money” — sometimes because they actually hope to get it and sometimes because they just want to annoy someone they presume to be loaded.

I have a dream. That one day skin color will be just another descriptive trait, like eye or hair color. Not a badge of distinction, or an indicator of class or privilege — or the lack thereof.


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