Category Archives: Stereotypes

The Racist Inside

Growing up I thought racism was something “out there.” Slavery, the KKK, and white supremacists were what I thought of when I heard the word “racism.” Of course, it wasn’t something that hit close to home for me or that I even acknowledged as a problem. I knew there were racists in our country, but it was something that I only saw on TV, or read about in my children’s US history books about the evils of slavery.

I regret that only recently I’ve becoming aware, of white privilege and systematic oppression of people of color (POC), particularly African Americans. With extreme cases like Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Michael Brown we are confronted with a pervasive racism in our country which needs to be addressed. But not only this, but even on a much smaller scale, in daily interactions, we need to be aware of the racism that POC face.

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As I’ve become more aware of this I feel two things: “How come didn’t I clearly see this earlier?” and “How should I respond?”  I’d like to address some of my feelings on the second question in how I feel white Americans can respond to racism in our country:

 

1) Listen first 

This is an uncomfortable place. If you’re like me, you will naturally react in your mind when you hear people talk about “white supremacy of America”, “white privilege”, or “systematic oppression.” If you’re like me, you will feel reactions against what is being said to you and excuse yourself from injustices that you feel you had nothing to do with. Acknowledge that while you might feel non-racist, push yourself to LISTEN first. Speak less. Think about the things in your life which might have strings of prejudice attached and start pondering there.

If someone says they are being discriminated against, don’t write them off. Really listen. Consider it from multiple perspectives.

2) Push back against your “filter against anger”

No one likes to be yelled at, cursed at or called names. The reaction is to stop listening immediately. But look beyond that. Challenge yourself and your way of thinking.

There is a lot of talk about the angry black folks and people discarding what black people say if there is a slight twinge of anger in their voice. Being a communications professional, I’m particularly sensitive to mediums of effective communication, but if one is to be superbly understanding, look beyond the emotional response of the communicator and listen to the content of the message. People have a right to be angry about institutionalized racism, and it is our place as the listener to filter through the anger, and listen to the underlying message. Find voices out there who are balanced, intellectual, and bold like Michele Alexander or Ta-Nehisi Coates.

3) Don’t embrace self hatred for being white

Feeling a deep sense of “white guilt” or feeling regret about your race is not going to help you.  Part of the initial guilt is a good thing, helping us to realize the privileges we have in this country due to our race. However, you can do something about it. While other people may stoop to the level of saying hateful things about someone based on their race, you don’t have to let it soak into your skin.  Acknowledge your privilege, but don’t hate yourself for it. See my article “Why I’m OK Being White” which talks a little about my personal experience of discovering my whiteness as it pertains to being in relationships with POC.

4) Be an advocate

One way to fight back against racism instead of sitting back and doing nothing, is to be an ally. Look at your race and privilege as an opportunity to build others up. When you see an injustice going on, speak up. If you’re put in a position of power which a POC color deserves, step down (easier said than done).

5) Speak up 

Even though some people say white people need to “shut the f* up,” I disagree. If one listens first, there is great power when someone with privilege gives it up and speaks out against it. If only people of color are speaking out against racism, we will not get very far in seeing it actually eradicated.

 

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Does Bollywood Portray Sex Slavery as Cute and Funny?

One of the hottest songs of 2012 “Fevicol” from Dabangg 2 shows item girl Kareena Kapoor Khan dancing with Salman Khan, in a neon lit Kanpur brothel. Available girls hang from every window and the clinking of payal can practically be heard as young girls follow Kareena in a seductive dance.  By-standing men throw wads of rupees in the air rejoicing. Kareena’s playful attitude and cute smile makes the whole scene innocent enough, but what is the underlying message that songs like this are sending?

The Chief Judicial Magistrate of Muzaffarpur, Bihar called attention to “Fevicol” as a harmful portrayal of women in an inappropriate sensual manner, as so many women fight sexual harassment and abuse in India.  The official claimed that this song was condoning overt sexuality at already troubling time for women, after the gang rape of a 23 year old in Delhi, which created a national uproar.

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But where do these ideas come from? Does Bollywood gloss over the sex trade and try to make it look ok? Films like Dabangg 2 show a funny, vibrant and even “innocent” side of prostitution. All the girls are middle aged, beautiful,  flirtatious and willing. What about the millions who aren’t there by choice- those who are trafficked? There are all kinds of prostitution that exist in India, including what they fantasize in the movies, but this does not portray the reality for a huge percentage of women, girls and boys and even men trapped in the sex trade.

Most “sex workers” in India are under-aged, poor, and not there by choice. Some a trapped by poverty, some by pimps, some by abusive relatives, and some by mere shame. If only Bollywood films were to show 3 year old boys being sold, AIDS orphans digging through garbage, and pregnant woman selling themselves to feed their other hungry children, we would have a more accurate picture of what the sex industry really looks like.

There are a few moves like “Agneepath” that show glimpses of the reality of human trafficking. Also films like “Devdas” and “Umraao Jaan” show the pain and suffering of a courtesan life, even in the midst of glamour and riches. But the vast majority of films still portray the glitz and glamour of item songs, and beautiful 20-something girls willingly available, while the reality is glaringly different.

When considering patronizing films like Dabangg 2, and others which are openly glorifying prostitution, lets remember the reality of the sex trade in India. Even though Kareena plays it off as cute and funny, it certainly is not.

What Downton Abbey Teaches Us About Indian Society

“We all have our parts to play in society, and we must all be allowed to play them.” -Lord Grantham

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Ideal, yet troubled families: the Granthams from Downton Abbey and the Raichand’s from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham

There are striking similarities between the formal, high context cultures of the grand homes of early 20th century England and modern Indian society. Many of the quotable moments of the  much beloved English drama are almost exact translations of what you hear in Bollywood films or Indian TV serials (similar to soap operas).

From master/servant dramas to “inter-caste” marriage (Sybil & Tom), to dowry pressure (Mary’s inability to inherit the estate), you will find a wealth of similar problems in the Grantham family as you would a modern Delhi-dwelling family of Sharmas.

Hierarchy within the Family

The hierarchy of respect is still in place in most Indian families. The pressure to accommodate the wishes and traditions of the elderly over personal happiness are still as strong as ever. The matriarch of the family reserves the right to run the rest like puppets. The Dowager Countess of Grantham  is like a manipulative Bollywood Daadiji, going behind unsuspecting youngsters’ backs to arrange a match, managing the family estate without actually lifting a finger, or keeping unwanted guests away with a cold breeze of indirect disdain. If Daddiji/Granny wants something done, it best be done, or there is a fire of manipulation about to consume those in the way.

Servants/Master Dynamic

One of the thriving themes of Downton is the tension between the servants and masters. Jealousies run rampant and loyalties are tested. While there seems to be a much greater distance between servants and masters in Indian society, similar rules apply when it comes to unspoken rules of employment. It is never the servant’s  place to  personally advise ladies and lords, even more so in Indian society. As an employer, servants can never be your friends, and one must keep the professional and impersonal. Downton clearly indicates this distance whenever someone from upstairs enters the servant’s hall and the staff stand immediately. Servants in India still do this today and often greet their employers with a formal “Namaste” or “Pranaam.” Close servants who live with the master sometimes touch the feet of employers and employer’s relatives as a sign of outward respect, and establishment of position.

High Value of Virtue and Reputation

Reputation does not depend on what one says about oneself, but on what the larger community thinks. Especially for women, the values of cleanliness, external beauty, upright behavior, and purity are main criteria of which she is evaluated.  The Grantham family goes to great lengths to hide Mary’s one night stand with the Turkish diplomat. Mary’s line “Pappa will be ruined,” sounds like a line from a desi dulhan juggling the thought of running away with her lover the night before her arranged marriage. Other external factors such as a veering from adventure and danger are highly valued. For example: The modesty of women riding side saddle (horse in Downton, scooter in India) is an indication of femininity, modesty, and an avoidance of perceived speed and danger. High virtues of women are of imminent value.

Marriages of Status

Money is a major factor for marriage in Downton. Mary and Matthew are the ideal match as money, status, and love come in one package. In dramas like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, the son of the wealthy, high-caste Raichand family (played by Shahrukh Khan) diverts from the norms by marrying simple townsperson (Kajol) and spends the rest of his life trying to resolve his broken relationship with his family. Similar rebels like Sybil and Tom Branson, who wed against all societal norms, have a serious price to pay for their love.  There is an “us VS. them” mentality” which binds the Granthams to the Raichands.  Mary sums it up by telling Sybil “He just isn’t our kind of people.” Arranged marriages in India certainly have flavors of status, money, and position of the family, much like the Granthams.

Bent on Tragedy

In Bollywood and Downton Abbey, there are no shortage of tragic moments. The fatalistic times of post war Europe set the stage for death and financial ruin. An upwardly mobile India still carries the memories of lack of healthcare, ethnic clashes, and financial struggle. Economic difficult times still cloud the majority of the population. In films, tragedy and pain are an expected part of the story and a way of adding extra drama which the masses can relate to.

Formalities of all kinds exist in Indian society, which are represented in parallel in Downton Abbey, set in the pre-departure time of the British Raj. While the West experienced modernity at the turn of the century, India has been experiencing a similar wave of societal change since 1991. The times may be different, the focus on formalities, family structure, and societal pressures are shockingly similar.

3 Reasons Why We Need to Change Our Minds About Bihar

As I am now a regular visitor of Bihar, I hear a lot of talk about Bihar being lawless and corrupt. The picture of the past is still lingering, but people either haven’t seen the new Bihar, or are unwilling to let go of the old dusty stereotypes. For too long, Bihar has been seen as that weak little brother that everyone likes to make fun of. I find a different and promising Bihar.


1) Language and Cultural Stronghold

While Bihar has a reputation for being uneducated and backwards, I find that preserving culture and language is a priority here. Unlike some other places in India, where kids are growing up with butchered Hinglish, I’ve been shocked with modern youngsters in Bihar who are comfortable with speaking high level “shudh Hindi” in normal conversation along with studying English in school. In places like Delhi, I hear youngsters who can only speak their parent’s mother tongue half-heartedly or revert to English entirely. I can’t remember the last time in Delhi where I heard someone give me change at a store and without thinking hand me over “ek sau teis” rather than “hundred twenty three” rupees. Its refreshing to see high scale malls unashamedly flaunting billboards in pure simple Hindi, rather than adulterated ads like “Drink Karo, Enjoy Karo.” Bihar is a Hindi learner’s paradise.Another complaint of urban Indians is that highly populated cities are becoming Westernized in all the wrong ways, but I don’t find that in Patna. I find the people very connected to their traditions while also moving forward for a better Bihar.

2) Tourist Attractions

Although Bihar might not be the first place you think of when you think about the sights of India, but Bihar hosts international tourists at spots like Bodh gaya. Between 2003 and 2008, the inflow of foreign tourists to Bihar saw a near-sixfold rise from 61,000 to 346,000. (Wikipedia) Who knows what else is around the corner?

3) Developing Forward

Nitish Kumar

While the memory of Laluji still lingers on, the legacy of Bihar belongs to progress. If one plans to carry on any intelligent conversation, you cannot underestimate the importance of knowing about Nitish Kumar. He is leading the way in development and showing other states how to do it.

In 2011, Bihar was actually identified as the “least corrupt state” in a study by economists Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari.

Most of the people I find who criticize Bihar are A) people who have never here B) people who only know manual laborers and gypsies from Bihar who have settled elsewhere C) snobs from other states who are trying to prove their state is better. The future of Bihar is promising. The tides have turned. The old stereotypes of a rough, backwoods Bihar needs to be unraveled and forgotten.

Why I’m OK Being White

In the past couple of years I’ve noticed that many caucasian people I’ve come in contact with are experiencing a growing discomfort with being white. Something within us feels a bit guilty, like we are the ones who have caused the world’s problems. We think of the Nazis, the British in India, slavery in the US, and remember all the times in history that white people have made non-white people’s lives miserable.

Authors Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp have so appropriately named this comfort “Great White Guilt” in their book Being White: Finding our Place in a Multiethnic World. This feeling makes us feel like somehow our ancestors were responsible for suffering in the world and that we today are responsible. We hear the voices from the from the outside world, and the more powerful feeling from within. Something that tells us that being white is not OK.

In my community, I spend time with a lot of non-white people, and the white people I do spend time with behave with some level of “brownness.” There are some people who I meet who it is so obvious they are trying to fit into a brown culture that they’ve totally lost themselves. And I don’t blame them, because it is very easy to. I lived in India for a number of years and there was a lot to pressure to “be Indian”. To dress Indian, to eat Indian, to walk Indian, to talk Indian. There was simply no other right way, and when nearly everyone in society corrects your “white behavior”, the pressures wear on you. Finally, you start to think less of yourself and question if being white is really OK. Then you feel that being who you are is wrong or shameful. Being white becomes not OK.

I’ve been told many times that I am a “white Indian.” I used to take this as a compliment as I had worked very hard to learn the Hindi language and adopt certain lifestyle changes in order to survive in India. They eventually became a part of me. Now when someone says that, it bothers me. Why?

There is a theory called the “Coconut Generation” where it has been said that some Indian American kids are “brown on the outside, white on the inside”. I find a growing trend of white people who somehow are striving for the opposite “white on the outside and brown on the inside.” Personally, I think it is a short-sighted and an awfully one dimensional way to look at a person or to view oneself.

Cross cultural change is good and important. We need to learn about each other’s lives. Adopt behaviors which come to us naturally, enjoy each other’s cultures and be comfortable in our own skin.

As we think about atrocities like slavery in the US, the British occupying India, and the holocaust, we have to consider that these atrocities were caused by white people who oppressed others out of fear because they were insecure in their own racial identity.

I’m writing this because I think that white people need to move past “Great White Guilt” and move into healthy reconciliation. There are lots of reminders and pressures in this world to make us feel guilty for bad things that white people have done in the past. We don’t have to deny this and disassociate completely. Realize that you can do your part in creating positive change in society, but don’t try to be someone else while doing it. Be yourself. Be white.

The New America at the Laundromat

There are a few places where I like to go to people watch and reconnect myself with the ever changing population of my urban neighborhood. There are some places that are thriving with life, freshness, and diversity. The Laundromat is one of these places where one can keep their finger on the pulse of “the New America”.

Few places in this country allow you to see the real grit and hardship of people. The fights they choose to pick in public, the dirty laundry they bring in, the things they keep themselves busy with while waiting for their laundry to spin…

A tragic but telling story unfolded before my eyes a few months ago. Dozens gravitated to the laundromat on a Friday night, slowly trudging in with huge bags of dirty laundry. A Pakistani mother in law/ daughter in law dragged a week’s worth of clothing, bedsheets and cloth diapers. A single African American mom fed her kids Cheetos and Mountain Dew for dinner while her hands worked almost disconnected folding clothes while keeping her eyes glued to the TV monitor above. Some brought in carts, while others dragged cotton bags across the busy streets. Around 10:00pm, two gang members rushed in chasing a teenage boy of a different color. The boy had no shirt and was running at full speed. He came for refuge, but what he got was a beating. Dozens of us stood in shock as the two boys beat this boy to the ground. Blood gushed from his nose and after about 30 seconds some other men stepped in and starting yelling. The two gang members sprinted off, banging the glass doors on the way out, and the rest of us stood in shock, some trying to mind their own business, while others looking wide eyed trying to memorize the culprits’ features so that we could report them to the police.

The Somalian woman across from me paused her phone conversation, as she stood motionaless in a purple polyester burkha with her phone tucked into the side of her hijaab next to her right ear. The Latino twins that were previously enamored with the telenovela playing at maximum volume on the TV mounted on the wall, stared at the bloody teen while their popcicles dripped on the floor, mouths hung open in shock. After about 20 minutes, the cops showed up, took the boy’s story, and took him off to a safe place. We all breathed a little easier.

Some call my community in Chicago a melting pot. I’d call it more of a stew pot. Everyone is thrown together, but people often keep separated. Indians over here, the Orthodox Jews over there, The West African Muslims over there. Living in a community where many people are FOBs (fresh-off-the-boat), sometime the FOB mentality never goes away. People recreate a community where their ethnic group is safe, protected, and free. When outbursts like this occur, you can almost feel the stereotypes of other ethnic groups being reinforced and prejudices forming. I almost wonder if our little ethnic communities are more harmful than helpful. Are they breeding grounds for prejudice, fear and stereotypes? I think about that boy and realize the impression he made on all of us at the laundromat. Will we harbor fear and anxiety about ethnic groups that we are afraid of? Or will we let it go?

Why I Found NBC’s “Outsourced” Irrelevant

A lot of people have asked me over the past year:

“What do you think of the show Outsourced?”
“Did Outsourced really depict India?”
“Is the work environment in India really like that”

In the beginning NBC had a lot of potential material to work with. Most Americans are curious about exotic India. A fascinating world of elephants, masalas, chaotic traffic patterns, and sarees…and almost every American has had the experience of call center frustrations. How are these two worlds compatible?

As frustrated as Americans are about calling a call center, most Indians who work in a call center are equally as frustrated. Long hours. working at night, dealing with rude ethnocentric people. There was A LOT of potential material that could have been used for the TV program.

Creative Downfall

I understand the “Office-like” concept of the show. Overstretching stereotypes to the point that everyone feels uncomfortable with the overly awkward dialogues. You laugh at the expense of the characters and ‘foot in mouth’ outbursts.

But the script writers ran out of intelligible content fast. Then the show digressed to blatant sexual humor, and overstretching some very untrue stereotypes. It simply became a trashy “America Pie” type of show.

I don’t know why, but I had a vague hope that this would be something that lightly poked fun at common stereotypes and helped people understand cultural differences.

Harmful Stereotypes Reinforced

From someone who lived and worked in India for a number of years….If anyone behaved like Charlie or Todd, you won’t survive.

Yes, we know that America is far more open with our lack of shame. But do we need to make each episode a moral debauchery of Americans?

Bachelor parties? An Australian mother and an American call center manager having a rendevous in plain sight on an balcony above a busy Indian market? Sleeping with the boss then bragging about it in the workplace? The blatant sexuality was too much. Even for American TV.  Americans already have to deal with some Indians assuming we are all morally inferior, un-spiritual, hypocrites. Why would we air a show that projected this harmful and untrue stereotype?

As in most declining TV shows, dirty humour is used as a sad replacement for clever witty interactions. Another cheap American show filled with filth to get ratings and attempt to entertain viewers with false stereotypes.

Character Flaws

Least Realistic/ Most Exaggerated Characters:

  • Charlie– The awkward American cowboy, perverted borderline sex offender. I’m met very few of them in life. And certainly none in India.
  • Tonya- Obviously she was a complete skank and too undignified to be believable. If a woman behaves like that in India without a support system, she will most likely have her ‘easy going’ attitude broken by perverts grabbers on the street, or possibly even become the victim of rape. The show portrayed her as a happy go lucky professional who seemed to bounce back from any situation. Not possible.
  • Rajeev — His character was far too articulate for someone who would typically be so closed minded and money hungry. Like an Indian Michael Scott, he was far too verbally abusive to be real.

Semi-Realistic/ Semi-Exaggerated

  • Aasha- You will find some confused Desi women caught in the middle of a modern and traditional world, but her Indian accent was so bad it was hard to ever believe her character. Sorry Rebecca Hazlewood. Stick to British films next time.
  • Todd– The football loving American boy that just wants to watch football and hook up with pretty women certainly exists, but don’t last long in India. Generally his open romantic relationships would have gotten him a lot of disrespect from subordinates rather than being the fun loving boss that the show depicted.
  • Manmeet– The awkward and womanizing cassanova definitely exists. Men who want to be a stud, but not sure how. Manmeet was too openly determined and eager. You will find sneakier versions of this character in real life. People who behave this week behind closed doors, but are ashamed to openly talk about it.

Most Realistic Characters/Least Exaggerated characters

  • Madhuri–The shy and naive woman is the fact that a lot of Indian woman like to put on. I found her to be one of the most loveable characters as she would occasionally let her fun side come out.
  • Gupta–His character was realistic to the point is that this is how some 14 year old boys behave in India, not 30 year old men. His charming sense of humor was the only thing that kept the show going for a few months. He was a partially embodied “Michael Scott” of the show. The man that refuses to grow up.
  • In short…

    I had hopes in the beginning….and was ashamed in the end.

    The show reinforced harmful stereotypes of Indians being bobbleheaded order takers. AND Westerns being moral bottomfeeders that slept around with every living breathing human available.
    This is not the message that our world needs today. Thankfully the American public is smarter than that, got bored with it, and the show got cancelled. One less cheap show with worthless content crowding the airwaves.