Ram Eachambadi, a New York-licensed tax attorney and a 2018 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, discusses the need for a more critical attitude towards racism in India…
In 2017, Tarun Vijay, a former MP from India’s ruling party and member of a far-right Hindu religious group, remarked with a glaring display of ignorance that Indians cannot be racist because they live with South Indians who are “Black.” Putting aside the dimwitted logic of talking about north and south Indians as two different races and the massive trivialization of the real Black struggle, Vijay’s statement that “Indians cannot be racist” is ludicrous.
I was born in Trichy, now Tiruchirapalli, and raised in what I adamantly continue to call Madras, though it’s now officially Chennai. Both cities are in the state of Tamil Nadu in India. On September 22, 2000, at the age of 17, I first relocated to the US with my parents, landing in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the US. I had just finished high school and was looking to get into college. I enrolled at Cerritos College, a community college in Norwalk, California, and transferred to California State University in Los Angeles after two years.
Both campuses were the most diverse campuses I have ever seen. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians (not including Indians), and Indians constituted the majority at both schools while Whites were a minority. I did not fully realize it then, but my experience in Los Angeles contributed significantly to my personality, identity, and my transformation from child to adult. Fast forward from Los Angeles to my graduate education at Iowa State University, everyone I saw was blond-haired and blue-eyed. Even brunettes and redheads were a minority. I embellish, of course, but it was still a total contrast to Los Angeles. My later years in Denver and Pittsburgh were experiences that fell somewhere in between Iowa and Los Angeles, and they were both pleasant.
Any racism I experienced in Los Angeles felt minimal compared to the discriminatory treatment African Americans faced from other Indians. I saw this quite often, and it disgusted me. When I started at Cerritos College, unlike other new Indian immigrants, I did not socialize within “only” Indian circles, but rather with everyone – predominantly Black, Asian, and Hispanic students. White friends came more into the picture in Iowa. To this date, I have stubbornly refused to limit my socialization to members of my ethnicity or race.
When I did socialize with other Indians, I saw an ugly side of my race. Derogatory remarks toward African Americans, people of African origin in general, and Asians were common. My parents noticed this, as well. What I did not know at the time was that this was not new to my parents. My mother worked at a bank in Madras, India, and once a world-famous (America not included) cricketer from the West Indies team came in. Apparently, no one recognized him, and he was labeled a “troublemaker” and turned away for no reason other than being Black. My mother did recognize him, though, and his treatment made her angry. I was shocked hearing about this, and I remember saying to myself that he deserved better. I now say to myself, “No, every Black man and woman deserves better – whether they are famous cricketers or not.”
There were other instances of racism, of course, like when a Black woman and I attracted stares from Indians at a Pittsburgh amusement park. They looked on us as though we were extraterrestrials. At a DMV in California, my brother and I witnessed an Indian person being so disrespectful to Black people that my brother remarked later that he wanted to tell the others that we were Pakistani to disassociate ourselves.
I also remember an incident involving my mother at a store in Los Angeles. An Egyptian security person let my mother bring in her own grocery bag but refused to permit the Black man standing behind her to do the same. He rightfully asked why my mother could bring hers. My mother heard and walked back to security and handed over her bag. The security person took my mother aside and tried to tell her that “it’s okay, you can take it. He is ‘Black.’ They steal.” My mother said, “No, it’s not right,” and gave him the bag. My mother set the right example there, and I still think of her proudly for that.
My very first experience with racism, however, involved northeast Indians in India. Contrary to Mr. Vijay’s distorted notions of race, “native” Indians can really only be classified into two major races, at least in the traditional sociological sense – Caucasoid (all but northeast India) and Mongoloid (northeast India). By using the term Caucasoid, I am by no means referring to Indians as Whites. As the US Supreme Court once declared, “Caucasian” does not necessarily mean “White.” For convenience, I will refer to these two groups as the “majority group” and “northeast Indians.”
I first encountered northeast Indians when I was 11-years-old. I mistakenly thought they were Chinese and was rightly physically shut-up for it by a northeast Indian kid (no harm was done – we got along after that). My parents then explained who northeast Indians were and, more importantly, that they were “not” Chinese. However, even during my most recent visits to India, I have seen many from the majority group laugh at them behind their backs and exchange derogatory remarks. While these are intentional acts of racism, there are other unintentional ones born out of ignorance. I believe that the Indian government has failed its citizens here. Not many have the benefit of educated, knowledgeable parents as I did. There are poorer sections of the majority group who simply do not even know about the existence of northeast Indians and unintentionally offend them by calling them Chinese. Northeast Indians, in this sense, are invisible Indians. I am yet to see a northeast Indian cricketer, and I highly doubt this is because they are disinterested.
I know not every Indian is racist. However, many of us in the majority-group are sadly guilty of the racist behaviors I mentioned above. Until we acknowledge this as a race, we cannot fix the problem. For my part, I unequivocally reject Mr. Vijay’s comments that Indians cannot be racist and refuse to accept India’s innocence for its involvement in racism. It is hypocritical to cry out racism and play the victim when it is directed against us and then subject others to our own racist and hateful views. “It is also hypocritical to say “Indians cannot be racist” and then continue to aggressively run and promote fairness cream commercials on TV and elsewhere. Fair is not the only “lovely” or “handsome.”
The Black Lives Matter movement today is an opportunity for Indians to acknowledge the role we have played as a race in promoting racism towards others. It is an opportunity to unequivocally condemn racism in whatever forms and wherever it happens – India, the US, Canada, or elsewhere, even if that means losing a few friends (as I did on Facebook – I am not complaining). This is not about politics anymore. Indians in the US would do well to remember that they enjoy the privileges they do because Martin Luther King Jr. fought not just for Black civil rights but also the rights of all minorities. We must speak up against racism and hate now – for George Floyd, for northeast Indians, for Kashmiris, for Palestinians, and for anyone who needs a voice.
Ram Eachambadi is a New York-licensed tax attorney and a 2018 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. In 2017-18 he served as JURIST’s Chief of Staff.
Suggested citation: Ram Eachambadi, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and the Much-Needed Indian Role in Anti-Racism, JURIST – Academic Commentary, July 6, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/07/ram-eachambadi-need-for-Indian-antiracism/.
This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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