In the late 90s, my husband and I spent a couple of months in a small town in central England. One weekend, we decided to explore London. We boarded an underground train in Central London eager to find out what the City held.
I was excited because it was not just my first time there, it was also my first trip to any big city outside India. As the train slowed down at a station, my arm that held the railing above, brushed against a fellow passenger’s shoulder.
The lady casually turned around, lifted her dainty hands and dusted her shoulder clean and moved away from me. I don’t remember anything else.
It is not the clothes, language or even a good neighbourhood. It was and is never ever about me. It is about people like the “racist card” lady who spoke from a place of entitlement and privilege. Privilege only because of colour — a non-colour that is — just whiteness and the freedom that comes with it
All I remember is how I felt. I quickly apologised and I checked if the arms of my long jacket had any dirt and moved away further.
Our blind spots
Shame and a sense of being filthy crept deep inside. My stomach tightened and I hoped nobody paid any attention. Why did I feel what I felt — I had no idea. Later that day, I asked my husband if I stank, or if there was some dirt sticking out in a blind spot of my jacket or was I simply shabbily dressed.
Two decades later, I can still feel the hurt linger inside me. Many hours of Oprah and many books later, I know what that simple act of brushing off the shoulder means. Undoubtedly, I am unable to let go of my anger that seethes within me — that I apologised for my insult.
Racism was not something I was ready for when I stepped outside of India way back in 98. In my idealistic simple world, I assumed, they happened many years before and that the world had grown wiser.
I first learnt this word in school in my village. The teacher told us clearly that, “White people did bad things to black people”. Nowhere did the teacher mention that, brown was nearly black or that brown is just non-white.
After the initial first hand encounter of disrespect, I spent many agonising hours to figure out how to overcome the hurt. Mind you, the person who wronged probably went on about living happy lives.
But, I took the insult personally. I believed that I had brought upon the act because of something within me — a deficit that I had to overcome.
What exactly it was — I didn’t know. Perhaps it was language or accent or clothes or affluence — I wanted to explore everything.
Never for once, I doubted the lady in the train. I was putting myself through a series of ideas so that two hands could simply hold on to a railing and not worry about causing discomfort. How wrong I was!
When we moved into a neighbourhood that had mixed nationalities, I was thrilled that Sid my then 10 year old would get to play with all these kids. “Imagine how many languages he could learn”, I gushed. But, the following week, lil Sid came home with tears.
“Some of the kids call me Hindi Bacha”, he said. I comforted him and gave him an unconvincing, vague explanation. Very soon, I became their target too. I ignored it because I didn’t know how to tell off a bunch of little kids.
But, it bothered me that children as young as 9 and 10 had enough courage to give funny names to adults. Worse, I couldn’t help wondering how they learnt those names.
Barrage of racist insults
That was not all. One day, when my son stood up for himself against a barrage of racist insults, one white lady called him out and told him, “son, you can’t pull the racecard”. She not only sent my son home with some more words, but also made it a point to complain to me.
To this day, I wonder, why she called him out instead of telling off the other kids. What gave her the right to talk to my son about “racecard”? And, the best part is, the other kids never learnt that they were wrong.
It is not the clothes, language or even a good neighbourhood. It was and is never ever about me. It is about people like the “racist card” lady who spoke from a place of entitlement and privilege. Privilege only because of colour — a non-colour that is — just whiteness and the freedom that comes with it.
She never doubted the other white children because of the superior notion that she thrives in. Superiority that translates to, “I am right and everyone else is wrong”. A right to do anything and get away. A power that can brush aside any wrong doing with not as much as sorry. No wonder the world is engulfed in scars.
Today, after reading many news stories that have cropped up in the past week about black lives, my wounds have shown up. There is a gnawing pain in my stomach.
Although I know that the chances of me being shot by a few white men is minimal, it is not non-existent. But, guns or not, I know that people of colour always suffer from wounds.
Wounds that are inflicted not just by weapons, but by words, looks, actions, grimaces. Some of these can cripple a person for life.
I wish I can go back to my village and tell my teacher a thing or two about racism. Yes. Nobody wants racism to exist. But, it does — in those looks, nudges, rolling of eyes, those whispers and brute physical force. And, the good news is — it is never too late for a better world.
The “white world” has the power to make this world colour neutral. All they have to do is practice mutual respect. Surprisingly, it is not hard.
For this, they should be able to stand next to a person of colour in a crowded underground train and be OK with it. Can they do that?
— Sudha Subramanian is an author and freelance writer based in Dubai. Twitter: @sudhasubraman