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.

Young-Woman-Covering-Mouth-Featured

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.

 

Advertisements

White Hinduism Case Study- Kumare the Movie

A fake or a genius? A skeptic of Eastern religion and Indian American, Vikram Gandhi takes on a social experiment by becoming a “fake guru” and builds a following (mostly of white Americans in Arizona) with made up teachings. He exposes blind adoption of fad religion, and cultural misappropriation, but somehow discovers true teachings and real relationships through it all.

His followers varied from yoga teachers, unemployed adults in transition, college students, recovered drug addicts, and working mothers. Vikram became Kumare by making up his own religion and passing it off as “spiritual teachings from the East.” He grew his following to about 15 people who took him to be a spiritual teacher from India, a rishi, a yogi, an enlightened person who was far from the troubles of an individualistic, capitalistic, Western society.

kumare_Hinduism_America

Vikram takes his teachings  to the extreme and builds a whole persona around Kumare, spending months giving teachings and advising his followers how to do different meditations and chants which he completely made up, pawning them off as ancient practices. People share their lives with him, share their problems, and ask his advice as they begin to trust him. Vikram begins to feel tension of his disguise as he builds authentic relationships with his followers.

The amazing part is that through the experience Kumare helps a number of people realize who they really are, and what they want to become in life. In the process Vikram (Kumare) changes as well, and actually becomes more and more like Kumare than his old self.

When Vikram exposes his American identity, something amazing happens. Instead of being angry, hurt, or feeling stupid, a few of the followers accept him wholeheartedly, and see it as all part of the teaching. They didn’t care if their “guru” was from Rishikesh or New York City. They were looking for peace, a friend, and someone they could trust, and they found all of that in Vikram/Kumare.

Those who were looking for a religious fad, a new meditative tactic that they could use in their own teachings, or something impressive to tell their friends, all rejected Vikram, and felt stupid for getting sucked into a scheme of this sorts. They threw his teachings out, and moved on looking for the next fad.

Those who were really searching, found what they were looking for, and didn’t care where it came from. In the end, these were the real disciples.

 

We are the 15%. Making a point with interracial marriage.

A few months ago, the Cheerios ad showing an interracial couple and their child sparked all kinds of ridiculous controversy which made thousands in our country hang their heads in shame. Reactions to this ad show a disgraceful state of backwards individuals that still exist in the USA today.

According to the 2008 census, 15% of new marriages are interracial. So, why does it feel weird to some to see an ad representing a normal consumer population on TV? The website We Are the 15 Percent aims to change that. This is one effort to show the real faces of interracial families. Hundreds of families have submitted their photos to show that interracial marriage isn’t all that strange anymore- but is a normal part of our society.

But there is one reaction to racism which makes me very uncomfortable.

Believe it or not, there are people out there who are determined to marry someone of a different race, just to make a point. 

Photo credit- This American Life
Photo credit- This American Life


Have you ever heard someone say “I like white girls” or “I am only attracted to black men” or “I fit better with desi guys.”

Isn’t this another form of objectifying someone for their race? Isn’t this classifying someone as part of a group which they may or may not fit into?

Something is wrong with a person who is attracted to someone just for their ethnic label.  A person’s race is only one quality that expresses who they are.  Putting an individual in a box is a dangerous game to play when considering about a lifelong relationship. If a person marries another primarily because of their race, they will be disappointed when that person surprises them by being an individual with a mind of their own.

I recently heard a story on This American Life about a white American man who only wanted to date Asian women. Eventually he got what he wanted, when he met a Chinese woman online and got married. He was really disappointed and surprised after a few months of marriage when she showed him that she had a unique personality and didn’t fit into his little box of what he thought an Asian woman was supposed to be.

Marriage is not a project. Marriage is not a label. Marriage isn’t something a person should do to prove anything to someone else. Marriage isn’t a statement.  A strong marriage is built on commonalities, interests, and shared values.  Marriage is a commitment to an individual (and their family.) Each person is different, and can not be defined just by their race. Human beings are complex, and each marriage is different, be it “interracial” or not.

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.

KareenaKapoorFevicol_IndiaProstitution

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.

Bridging the Gap with Millennials in the Workplace

Millennials are infiltrating the workplace like never before.

As a person on the cusp of Gen X and Gen Y, I am used to being the “young person” in the office surrounded by Generation Xers. But now that more Gen Yers (or Millennials) are entering the marketplace, the whole workforce must adjust. I often find myself on the border, being used to identifying with Gen Xers, but having an unspoken synergy with my younger Gen Y professionals.

Close relationships with my younger siblings have taught me an incredible amount about what it really means to be a Millennial. My youngest sibling is 15 years younger than me, and I feel blessed to be able to have an inside view of what is going on in American high schools and colleges. I’m fortunate to have inside access via unfiltered conversations with my siblings as we have done life together, even while bridging a significant age gap.

Growing Up Together
Embracing the Age Gap

As I watch my younger siblings navigate the marketplace, look for jobs, and determine which line of work to go into, I’ve learned that there is a significant difference between the way that Gen X and Gen Y view their professions.

 

 

For Millennials:

  1. Lack of Hierarchy Matters— Millenials are seeking a truly flat structure. Snobs are out. Inclusiveness is in. Particularly in the workplace it is essential to give young workers direct access to managers, superiors, and CEOs . Millennials don’t do well with hierarchical relationships in which there are impersonal barriers, or expectations of a senior dumping work on a junior employee.
  2. Relationships Matter— even with raging individualism of the West, young people still look for community and relationships in interesting ways. A solid group of friends is something everyone longs for, and this is no exception for Millennials. In the workplace, being able to relate to co-workers is equally important.
  3. Technology Matters— Duh. If you don’t text your Gen Y colleagues or connect with them on social media you might as well not exist. Many Millennials are more open to having a conversation on social media than they would be face to face. This builds trust and crosses the impersonal barrier which often exists in the workplace.
  4. A New Form of Individualism — American Millennials still embody the rugged individualism of our culture, yet are looking for those close relationships and inclusive community. Showing even a little bit of interest in “really getting to know” a Millennial communicates volumes.
  5. Generosity Goes a Long Way. In a generation of people who have been raised with everything, small acts of kindness and generosity have a lot of impact. A person who is willing to give their time and possessions away to another person, makes a big impression.

For those of us on the generational border, we have an opportunity to help Millennials feel at home in the workplace.

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

DowntonAbbey

KabhiKhushiKabhiGham
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.

Don’t Risk Being a Bollywood Outsider

We recently started getting Hindi channels at home in the US. The other day I mentioned to another non-desi friend, that I had watched the Colors Screen Awards on my new channels.

Bollywood Female Actors at the Colors Screen Awards, January 2013.
Bollywood Female Actors at the 19th Annual Colors Screen Awards- January 12, 2013.

When I mentioned this, she asked me “Wow Jess, so do you know the actors and actresses enough to get all the nuances of an awards show?”
I replied, “Of course! You kind of HAVE to!”

As she asked this, I realized how much Bollywood matters to understanding modern culture of the subcontinent.

Bollywood is something that unites the nation. Indians from all over the country watch Bollywood- from Chhattisgarh to Chennai, Kashmir to Kerala, Himachal Pradesh to Hyderabad in addition to their regional film industries. Bollywood brings together the many cultures and subcultures of India. To bring further unification, many stars even act in multiple cinemas (for example Ashwariya Rai’s work in Tamil, Telegu, Bengali, Hindi films, and Hollywood). The music of Bollywood represents many classical and fusion styles celebrated across the subcontinent. Sociocultural trends are addressed, and everyone from rich and poor pine for new spins on the classic “boy-meets-girl” love story that Bollywood does so well.

Bollywood is bringing together more international themes into stories, as the Indian diaspora is increasing in number across the world. The popularity of Bollywood across the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa has never been greater.

To contrast, in the US, if you don’t know who Orlando Bloom is, or Amy Adams, no one will judge you. It is perfectly acceptable to say “Oh, I don’t have cable” or “I am more of a theater fan” and one is immediately excused from needing to know about Hollywood stars. While some people actually read People magazine and watch the Entertainment Channel, there is a large part of the culture that does not.

Unlike in India, if you confess to not knowing who Ranbir Kapoor is or Katrina Kaif, people will look at you as if you have a horn growing from your forehead. These actors are icons of success, beauty, wealth- and many Indians hold them up as icons to the world as national heroes. Nearly everyone in India has a TV, from rich to poor- and Bollywood is one of the major morsels of consumption via TV. Whether you like it or not, Bollywood actors serve as cultural icons.  They often set controversial cultural trends- inter-religious marriages, marrying someone much different in age, divorcing, deciding not have children. People watch Bollywood actors every move- and love to gossip and speculate on the lives of these cultural icons.

But if you admit that you don’t follow Bollywood, you are immediately labeled an outsider. And honestly, you kind of are an outsider. It is impossible to avoid the infiltration of the stars on every TV ad, billboards, blurbs of personal Bollywood star information on the national news, and in conversational topics as they take place in desi communities and homes.

If you’re interested in learning about Indian culture, don’t underestimate the power of film. Don’t risk being an outsider. Follow Bollywood.

Nomadic Professionalism and Living Cross Culturally