I was reading President Obama’s response to the Trayvon Martin murder, and couldn’t help wonder at how similar all the people in the world are, once you cut through the jazz of lifestyle, region and developed versus developing economies.
While reading the articles (I hope there aren’t many who don’t know what I’m talking about, but if you are one of them, I do hope you have clicked on the link by now) I was reminded of this one instance where I was having a particularly tough day in college, and poor mom called at the wrong time.
Well, Bengalis have a bit of racial snobbishness ingrained in them, and I had just been exposed to new levels of inanity – a Gucci wearing classmate who had just said something to the tune of Thomas Hardy being one of the Hardy boys—I kid you not. And she was my partner for an assignment which I obviously was doing all by myself, not trusting her film evaluating capabilities after that statement.
Now the mother is a riddle. She is your average middle-class Indian parent with middle-class values that are constantly having head-on collisions with the urban, global platform the kid brother and I find ourselves operating in.
And yet, from time to time, she will say or do things that will totally overwhelm us with the “modern” approach (“of course your daughter should get out of your house and live by herself. She is 19. How else will she learn to be independent?”) and make us thank our collective stars.
For those of you who are a little lost, it is not very average for kids in middle-class India to be on their own. Hell, we have 40 year old men living with their parents. Some families resist the move on excuses of safety, others do not even think of it as an option, especially if it is a girl, and yet others don’t just accept the fact that there are things in life that you never learn unless you are on your own, paying your own bills.
So while I went on a tirade on how I could lose my culturally rich Bengali mind if I was exposed to such intellectual stimulus for 2 years, my mom stopped me, and said, “You have to learn to deal with everyone and learn that beneath all the jazz, we are all the same. You are a Bengali and you like your books and music, but she is from the class that makes the money. Each people have their own skills and that does not make anyone good or bad. She might drop dead if she finds out about your great mathematical skills.”
Despite that reality check (yeah ok, I suck at math), I still can’t wrap my head around Thomas Hardy being Fenton Hardy’s fictitious son. But the bit about ‘everyone being basically the same” stuck on, and has helped me appreciate a lot of people in life.
What does this have to do with Martin? A lot, I think. I am not going to get into a discourse on the unfairness or the unbelievable outrageousness of the entire episode. That will take 100 pages. But to my non-American eyes, it did bring out one basic problem in the American society that most of us are only too happy to ignore, or overlook.
People in the “emerging world” celebrated with absolute gusto when Obama was made the President. Office chatter revolved predominantly around how “only in America can you break free of the slave trading history and have a Black president”, college kids wore “yes you can” T shirts and bags, and people sang praises of the great democracy.
No conflicts of opinion there— it is, in many ways, a great country with great people.
But the image most Indians or South Asians have of this country is kind of airbrushed.
And as the Martin murder shows, the problems here are not only about distant issues of Ponzi schemers and rich, irate ex bankers.
We deal with our cross of caste and creed, and Americans deal with their baggage of apartheid. And it is a dangerous baggage. Most people (needless to keep reminding everyone, most in this blog is most of those I met or have interacted with) in the country that has a black President still largely sees “blacks” as a group to be avoided when you are a minority in numbers, categorizes fashion in terms of “this is very black, I am not sure I can wear it”, and advises you not live in areas dominated by them. My through and through American familiarization guide categorically told me this and this block is more black and so unsafe and my rental agent told me she would not set up viewings in those areas at all, even if there were good or cheap apartments. Not that I had any particular liking for any of the off-limits places or that I am challenging their judgment. These women have been doing it for more than 15 years and they know their job.
But that is pretty much like we treat Muslims in India, I thought. Most of us have Muslim friends, respect the fact that there are many erudite Muslims who are a blessing to the society, and know that there is no reason for any educated and rational being to feel any bit threatened by them, and yet we treat Muslims pretty much like how black men and women are here. Avoid in large groups, steer clear of areas dominated by them especially after dark, discard fashion that is associated with them, and go on in our fake erudite lives without accepting that this is a problem.
Now I know from experience that there is some valid argument to this. At least in India, it is true that many Muslim neighbourhoods tend to have high crime rates, and from what I hear, such is the case here too. As a Muslim friend says, “it is true that all of us are not terrorists, but it is also true that 99 percent of terrorists are Muslims.” So ok, no smoke without fire, agreed.
But India is a backward, developing nation that is still struggling with basics like clean drinking water everywhere (which is not available everywhere in the US either by the way), female infanticide and general discrimination against girls (which I would love my American friends to give my Indian friends a lesson in), and so on and so forth. So on that level, I still grudgingly accept the fact that the large lot of Indians will have these illogical biases. But how does this persist in one of the most developed nations in the world? What is their excuse?
There need be none, because like my mother in her non English speaking wisdom realized, basic human nature tends to stay the same despite the differences of how and where you grow up. More so in its fallacies and biases.
PS: did you know apartheid is still a huge problem in South Africa, as vouched for by my South African friend on a project here? "If I date a black guy no white guy will ever date me again." Her words, not mine. And judging from the fact that this is a 30-something working individual who has traveled quite a bit of the world, I would bet it is not a "certain section of the society" there that we are talking about. I mean if the urban, working crowd says this, it can't be any better in the really rural, orthodox parts of the country. So all in all, it is the story of the pot calling the kettle black.
Oh, pun was not intended. Maybe we should change that idiom and make it "dirty" or "sooty".