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Looking into our own backyard

"Let's face it. India is obsessed with light skin. Racism is not a 'western' issue. Discrimination based on skin color is everyone's issue. Here's a story of what happens in the underbelly of our country, in our homes, in our schools, in our justice system. After a long hiatus, there’s a new read on my blog - I hope it angers you, makes you uncomfortable, and encourages you to share it in your networks. Happy Reading!" - shares Ashitha Nayak, Melton Fellow — Bangalore, India, in this Storytelling for Change interview outlining the imminent presence of racism and colorism in India and beyond.

Tens of thousands of people have been protesting for social justice (especially for Black Americans) in the United States and beyond over the last few weeks. By now, most people know why. Or we think we know why. And yet, a large portion of India is continuing to live life every day as though it doesn’t concern us. Some have called out the hypocrisy of Indians supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. One such statement I remember reading, “Before you start lecturing everyone about Blacks and Whites, please dear Indians, look into your own backyard.”

Let’s do that, shall we? Look into our own backyard? “She’d be so much prettier if she were a little fairer, no?” “He’s from South India probably — tall, dark, and handsome.” “I keep telling my daughter to try Olay for skin whitening, but she’s so lazy.” “Such a mismatched couple — She’s so ‘fair’, and look at his skin tone! Must be a love marriage.” “Please mention clearly! Looking for a fair, slim bride for a fair, wealthy boy. I don’t want dark-toned grandchildren!” “I’m so fair! And she still rejected me.” “So many Africans have started moving to India. Such a menace!”

I can go on. These are all sentences that have been said in front of me, in perhaps just the last year. And they’re forgotten just as easily as they are said. India’s obsession with lighter skin is centuries old. Have you avoided someone because they have a dark skin complexion? Have you felt good about yourself because you are lighter than your friends? Have you made jokes about the color of someone’s skin? Have you witnessed someone else joke about it and participated? Have you tried a ‘fairness’ treatment? Do you have friends or family who differentiate based on skin color? Have you seen or heard of similar stories and not stepped in to correct the narrative?

I would have to say yes to at least one of the above questions. And chances are, you’d have to as well. It may have been ignorance, bias, or outright racism that made us complicit to discrimination of this nature, but no person today can say ‘This doesn’t concern me.’ With today’s story, I’m not attacking you, blaming you, or trying to guilt you. I’m trying to get you to start a conversation. An important, urgent, and relevant conversation.

Today, we venture into the story of Tryphine Clara Dzimbanete, a Zimbabwean student living in India for the last five years. One of my recent memories of Tryphine Clara is of her expressing her genuine sympathies and love to four African Americans currently protesting and living in New Orleans. She said to them,

If we could fight slavery, we can do this.

Tryphine Clara was born in February of 1994, in the small Gweru town of Zimbabwe, and spent her early years growing up with her grandmother and mother. In 2012, she graduated high school, and given the inability to afford a college education in Zimbabwe, she started her search for scholarships to study in any university in the world where she would receive a well-rounded education. The search quickly turned into a long drawn struggle and it was only in February 2015, that Tryphine Clara received a concessional scholarship to study at Christ University, Bangalore, India. In June 2015, a wide-eyed Tryphine landed at Kempegowda International Airport, Bangalore. And here is where her story begins. Settle in. 🙂

What made you choose India to pursue your college education? What were the early days like?

TC: I can pretty confidently say India chose me. I was open to studying anywhere really. I went to South Africa, Mozambique, applied to the US, etc. I just wanted an intercultural experience, quality education, and access to some decent opportunities, of course, as long as I could afford it. Back home, we have this TV channel, Zee World. We watched all the Indian shows, songs, and dances growing up! When I received the scholarship from Christ University, I remember thinking — hey, maybe I’ll get to meet Priyanka Chopra! Haha. Also, I’d heard of many African students studying in India, and mostly the feedback was positive. There were a few red flags about how Indians perceive us, but I thought it to be a small price to pay.

When I arrived here, the first few weeks flew by. Christ University has very strict rules about discriminating against foreign students and the culture, in general, is very inclusive. I lived on campus, and there were also other students from various countries in Africa. Within that bubble, life seemed great. I did experience a huge culture shock — I remember feeling overwhelmed by the population density here. It felt like all the people of Gweru could fit in Koramangala! My discomfort began when I decided to explore the city. On one Sunday, I was taking an elevator in a shopping mall, and a group of girls entered the elevator, and as soon as they saw me, they moved away into the corner, at least 2 feet away from me. That ride was tense. They got out as soon as the doors opened, and it felt like they were relieved. There have been other instances of subtle micro-aggressions like this — people would touch my hair without my permission, address me in the singular, dismiss me easily, and I began feeling very aware that not everyone wanted me here.

That must have been incredibly hard to experience. Unfortunately, such incidents are almost wilfully ignored by our society. How did you adjust to life in India? What happened next?

TC: The real problems began when I had to move out of campus housing and had to find a home to rent. A friend of mine (also Black) and I, started looking for an apartment close to the university campus. One landlord saw us approaching and even before I could say hello, quite literally chased us away!

At this point in the interview, Tryphine was giggling. She imitated the landlord, and with the best Indian accent, she could muster-up, animatedly recited his words to me.

“No, no, no, no, no! You Africans are not welcome. Don’t come back here! Go! Go away now!”

TC: I remember the incident as if it happened yesterday. As soon as he realized we wanted to rent his house, the landlord vigorously shook his head saying no at least a dozen times. He didn’t want my name, background, qualifications — nothing. Next time, we were prepared. We telephoned first. I introduced myself, came to an agreement on the rent, and this landlord decided to meet me that evening. Now when I recollect, I don’t think he’d realized I was Black. As soon as we met, his face went from bewildered to annoyed rather quickly. Once again, we were unsuccessful. In some cases, we did find men who were willing to rent to us, but their wives thought we would be a bad influence on their children. Eventually, after about a hundred houses, I did find a home. A Mr. Somanath in S.G Palya Koramangala rented to us. He was well-read, knew about Zimbabwe, told me about his favorite India-Zimbabwe cricket matches, and to date, is one the kindest people I’ve met in India.

But people like him, were far too few. And the next three years taught me to never recommend any other Black person to come study in India.

Starting in 2016 and to this day, multiple Indian men have assumed I am a prostitute. Many a time, I am nonchalantly asked for my ‘rate’ for the night. On more evenings than I can count, I’ve come back home in tears and googled the meaning of the words ‘bartiya’ (will you come?), and much worse that I don’t want to mention now. My guy friends — almost always perceived to be drug peddlers. We’ve been approached in broad daylight for buying drugs, and for buying our bodies. The first time I went dancing at a club in Bangalore, I was man-handled, spoken to derogatorily, and assumed to be present to pick up customers. I thought that happened because the men were drunk? Because of my dressing? Because of the atmosphere? Because it happens to all girls, black or not? And I convinced myself it won’t happen again. Next time it happened on the street. The next, at a grocery store. The next, on public transportation.

My neighbor, who I once made the mistake of accepting a favor from (I’d asked him to help me translate something from Hindi to English), thought it was okay to come knocking at midnight and make moves on me. My visible discomfort translated as me being coy or shy because clearly, he thought this was ‘common’ where I came from. Just last year, I was in Kerala for a non-profit project with a local school, and I was groped. In 2017, I was on my roof hanging clothes out to dry, and I was flashed. I’m immune to these experiences now. It’s so unfortunate, but I am.

I’ve also been presumed to be ‘uncultured’ for how I dressed, talked, sat, or stood! Now that is something that confused me.

In my culture, married women are not supposed to expose their belly or their stomach. But in India, most married women wear sarees, and evidently they do expose their stomach area. Never once did I think that was wrong. In fact, I instantly understood that it was a cultural difference, one that I actually appreciated. So when I accept your norms as cultural differences, why do you get to tag mine as indecency?

Tryphine Clara had fallen silent. So had I. As a girl, I shared her anger, her frustration. We hear stories of public harassment of women almost every day. But listening to her also taught me that conversations about racial and gender-based discrimination are not mutually exclusive. A feminist issue can very much be a racist issue. The experiences of an African girl in a fairly progressive society are far more worrisome and so different than those of a White girl, a Brown girl, and by extension, other people of color. I tried to gather my thoughts, and after some more conversation, I decided to ask her the question that perhaps has crossed your mind too by now. These incidents you are describing to me are clearly criminal in nature. They’re illegal. They must be reported. Did you ever share or report these incidents? What has your experience been like with the government, local police, and authorities here?

TC: Free speech in India is a joke. Politicians seem to only care about those who can vote for them. There was once a time when a cab driver deboarded me at midnight in Kothnur because I wouldn’t give him five times the fare. I’m not great with directions, and I got lost. Nearby I saw a police station and felt an immense relief, and decided to approach the cops who were standing outside. They saw me walking towards them and simply ignored me. They walked away, didn’t help, and didn’t try to communicate with me. I was then rescued by another Black friend who happened to be in the area. As I educated myself more, I realized how the justice system in India is blind to the needs of Black students. In February 2017, a twenty-five-year-old Ugandan girl was brutally murdered in Bangalore, and the story was widely reported as ‘prostitution gone wrong’. No follow-ups, no clarity, and clearly she did not live to tell the tale. Less than a month ago, a Nigerian was murdered in Bangalore at a party.

We come here to study or work, and we end up dead, and nobody seems to care. Worse, they seem to think — ‘Served them right’.

So I don’t have faith in anyone else protecting me anymore. I look out for myself. I keep a low-profile, triple-check my surroundings when I’m outside, and look over my shoulder every damn day.

Before I moved here, I’d heard of a few red flags about how Indians perceive us, but I thought it to be a small price to pay. I was mistaken.

I didn’t have the courage to ask her to keep going. It felt like my skin was on fire. We live a few miles away and yet our worlds are completely different. I could feel my cheeks getting hot, fighting to hold back tears, and she stared back at me — calm, composed, and ready as ever for my next question.
In what were the last few minutes of our conversation, I requested her to share with me what she would want to say to someone reading her story. She answered almost instantly,

TC: To my fellow Black people living in India –

We’ve got to learn to survive. To choose our battles wisely. To live carefully on borrowed time so we don’t end up as just another statistic. If you’re having a tough time, try and see the big picture. Why did you move here? What are your goals, your hopes and dreams? If you feel yourself being dragged into crime or illegal activities, if you are in the wrong, seek help. No matter how difficult, do the right thing.

To the authorities –

Your relationship with Africa needs to go beyond the local embassy. Lend your support not just in international law and trade, but in my home as well. Implement laws to protect us, see the need for a systemic change.

To Indians reading –

Your country is beautiful. I love your food, your music, your weather, and your culture. I respect your values. Just like how there are bad and good people in your community, may be there are in mine as well. Don’t treat all of us as expendable. As a threat. Indians who visit any country in Africa are mostly treated with the highest respect. Can’t I expect the same?

Hi Reader,

Tryphine Clara is a brilliant young woman, part of her university choir, former VP, and acting President of FISA-B, a federation of international student associations in Bangalore, and has created an impeccable impact as part of social impact organizations like the Melton Foundation and others — and yet, this is her reality.

By not taking an opposing stand, we enable her reality. By letting the color of someone’s skin disadvantage them, we enable her reality. At the beginning of this story, I shared the need for each of us to have an important, urgent, and relevant conversation. It’s time. It’s time indeed, to look into our own backyard.

Global issues need local solutions. Will you be part of the solution — sign petitions, make donations, not let a pigment decide a human being’s worth? Will you have that conversation? You know where to start.

— Ashi

The above post was originally published on Melton Fellow Ashitha Nayak’s Storytelling for Change Blog. Reach out to her at facebook.com/AskAshiBlog and Instagram to ask.ashi for any queries, suggestions, and feedback.