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"The land of Gandhi can never be racist": is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

“If we were indeed racist, why would we live with the South Indians?" was how one politician addressed the debate. 

When we were kids, my younger brother and I would spend much of our time thinking up new and innovative ways to get under each other’s skin, as siblings often do. One of the most reliable weapons in my brother’s arsenal was a taunt about skin colour - he was quite fair even by Punjabi standards, a fact that he was inordinately proud of. I on the other hand, had a permanent tan. This is now politely referred to as a "dusky" complexion, but back then was just "kaala" (black).

Being older, I generally had the upper hand in this cold war of insults and condescension, but my brother employed this particular tactic to great success for a couple of years. Because it rankled, it really did. No amount of explanation about melanin and sun exposure, or the fact that we were both "brown" in the eyes of the world made a difference. He was fair, I was not, and that was that. We didn’t have the context or the vocabulary to articulate why that minor difference in skin tone was important, but we knew instinctively that it was. It took us years to realise how problematic these little exchanges were. By then, we had  recognised how racism and prejudice about skin colour had wormed its way into our psyches at a young age, even growing up in a fairly liberal household. We laugh about it now, and my brother is more than a little embarrassed about that short phase during his pre-adolescent years. But as recent events have reminded us, for many people in India, racism and colourism is no laughing matter.

Two weeks ago, a video posted on Facebook by the African Students Association of India (AASI) went viral. It showed a mob of 40-odd Indians armed with snooker cues, dustbins and chairs brutally assaulting two Nigerian students inside a mall in Greater Noida, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just 40km from the national capital, and home to hundreds of students from Africa who study in the city’s many private colleges and universities. This was part of a wave of violence unleashed by residents of the city that saw at least four Nigerian students admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, and countless others being treated for minor injuries. The details of what transpired over that week are as familiar as they are sordid - a missing Indian student, who was later found, and died in the hospital of a suspected drug overdose. Rumours of Africans being "cannibals", a new addition to the long, long list of racist stereotypes about black Africans that are bandied about to justify such violence. Demands that all African residents of the area be kicked out. And eventually, inevitably, mob violence.

The response by the government and the police followed the general SOP for when such attacks happen - and they do, with alarming frequency. There were promises of swift action (which rarely materialises), brazen denials that the violence was motivated by racism or xenophobia (“Criminal not racial” is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described one attack in 2016) and victim-blaming (“Africans are involved in drug-dealing, Africans don’t assimilate”).

Then there is the Gandhi factor. “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha…we can never have a racist mindset,” declared a pompous Swaraj, conveniently ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself was a proponent of anti-blackness in his early years, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” The truth is that, despite three centuries of experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of British colonisers, India’s unrequited love affair with whiteness has remained undimmed. We - specifically the North Indians who dominate so much of our national political and cultural discourse - take pride in our "Aryan" heritage, thereby aligning ourselves with global white hegemony. We have internalised the pseudo-scientific European racial theories that were in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century, but have lingered on in our school textbooks long after they were debunked. Indeed, when black Africans in India talk about being treated like a caged animal in a zoo, it’s hard not to make connections with 19th century Europe’s infamous "human zoos".

But while much of India's anti-blackness can be traced back to a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own indigenous strain of "colourism", one that predates European theories of racial superiority. Last week, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay went on an Al Jazeera programme to talk about the recent spate of attacks. “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?,” he said. “We have blacks…black people around us.” In his attempt to defend India from charges of anti-blackness, Vijay inadvertently laid bare the full extent of India’s problem with skin colour-based bigotry - our othering of not just black Africans but also of the darker-skinned citizens from our own country. It’s not hard to guess who the "we" in that statement is - the fairer, upper caste North Indian Hindus that form the BJP’s core constituency, and who have for ages thought of themselves as the template for the "true Indian". Everyone else, whether it’s Dalits and lower caste citizens from across the country, or the Dravidian residents of the southern parts of the country (both associated, though not entirely accurately, with darker skin colour), are merely tolerated. These two strains of bigotry - race and caste - combine to create a society where darkness is, at best, treated as a personal failing, something that you must strive to overcome. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and, eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for the persistence of such toxic attitudes towards skin colour rest with India’s pop culture and mass media industries. Bollywood, as always, has been a pioneer. For decades, people of darker skin colour have been pushed to the margins, relegated to the role of caricature or villain. Take for example the still iconic song from the 1965 film Gumnaam, in which comedian Mehmood tries to win the attention of Anglo-Indian actress Helen. “Hum kaale hue to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I’m black, I still love you),” he sings, reinforcing the improbability of a beautiful (read fair-skinned) woman like Helen falling in love with a dark-skinned man. More recently, there was the 2008 film Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to a black man. There’s also a long history of Indian films featuring "blackface" and racist stereotypes of black Africans, best exemplified by a horrifying scene from 2000 film Hadh Kar Di Aapne, in which… actually, just watch it yourself because I can’t figure out a way to put it into words without throwing my laptop out the window.

Indian television is no different, with dark-skinned actors - especially women - so rarely seen on programmes or advertising, that any advertisement that dares to break the norm is celebrated as groundbreakingly progressive. And then there’s the fairness cream industry, endorsed by a host of top film and television celebrities, with advertisements that inextricably link fairness not just to beauty but also to employability, self-confidence and suitability for marriage. Just take a look at this epic five part tele-commercial by Ponds, appropriately titled White Beauty. The focus on whiteness is relentless, and this colourism runs rampant even as Indian movies and television borrow and steal from black culture at will, even bringing in rap artists like Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to perform on Bollywood songs. It’s another thing that Snoop Dogg - or anyone with the same skin colour - has as much chance of playing the lead in Bollywood as I have of becoming Potus.

In recent years, as Indians outrage about racist attacks against non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the US and Europe and get involved in global conversations about racism and cultural appropriation, many of us have also started turning a spotlight on racism back home. The fairness cream industry is facing increasing criticism, even from high profile actors like Abhay Deol who would otherwise earn big money by appearing in their ads. Explicit racism in film and in advertising no longer goes unchallenged. When former Miss World and current Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai appeared in a print ad for a jewellery brand that alluded to 17th century European paintings of noblewomen, complete with emaciated black child servant holding up a red parasol, she was met with a barrage of criticism and outrage that forced the company to withdraw the ad. But as last month’s attacks make clear, this is not nearly enough.

First, the Indian government and our political class needs to acknowledge that racism and anti-blackness are a real problem, instead of trying to brush it under the carpet. Step one would be to bring in a long overdue law against racial discrimination. But as the persistence of caste despite the legal abolition of caste distinctions 70 year ago shows, having laws on the books is not enough. We need massive programmes to sensitise police, bureaucrats and the public at large about the toxic effects of racism and how to counter it. Racist stereotypes in media and public discourse should be shut down, not tolerated or even reproduced by political leaders as they are now. Anti-racist and anti-caste discourse should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Celebrities, activists and civil society needs to be much more vocal in their critique of racist and colourist speech and actions. There are more than enough policy prescriptions out there, if we can find the political will to put them into action. And we must find it soon. Or our kids will continue to grow up with the notion that social worth is tied to where you are on the Fitzpatrick scale, they will continue to weaponise skin colour in schools and in playgrounds. And for those of us with darker skin, whether black Africans or "black" Indians, the possibility of sudden, explosive violence will always lurk around the corner.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

Steve Bannon with Donald Trump. Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump was Steve Bannon's creation. What happens now he's gone?

Steve Bannon championed the "economic nationalism" agenda which drove Trump's election win and the early days of his presidency.

Steve Bannon, perhaps more than any single person other than the man himself, is the reason Donald Trump is President of the United States.

Bannon is a choleric figure who once described himself as a “Leninist” who wanted to “destroy the state” and “bring everything crashing down”. It must be said that he has come pretty close to doing so. He served as chief architect of Trump's presidential campaign from the Republican national convention until election day, and then as the senior strategist in the Trump White House, a position from which he has just been ousted.

Why have I heard the name recently? It's very familiar, but in a weird context.

Well, until Friday he was the senior adviser to the president and one of the most powerful people in America.

No, that wasn't it. Something about... this doesn't sound right, but something about sucking his own...

...yeah. That was a quote from a gloriously unhinged phone call between Ryan Lizza, a reporter for the New Yorker magazine, and Anthony Scaramucci, who spent a week as White House Communications Director before being ignominiously canned, in part for giving this quote.

What he said exactly was: “I'm not Steve Bannon, I'm not trying to suck my own cock.”

Can Bannon actually do that?

According to rock and roll legend, Marilyn Manson had two of his own ribs surgically removed in order to autofellate; Bannon, by comparison, looks like he had two dozen ribs for breakfast already. The man is a crepuscular Hutt who looks like he'd rather smother his own firstborn than even enter a yoga studio. I would bet good money that he cannot.

I think Scaramucci meant it figuratively.

So apart from that, why is this such big news?

Bannon was responsible for Trump's victory, and for shaping his early presidency. He came on board at a key moment in the presidential race, after the debacle of the Republican convention, and was campaign CEO through to election day. He helped shape the Trump campaign into the white supremacist dog-whistle-fest that it became. The idea that, far from building coalitions, it was possible to run a campaign that would play directly to the core white male base was, in part, Bannon's particular inspiration.

As the former chief of the far-right news site Breitbart, Bannon was one of the key figures in the online radicalisation of the cluster of more-or-less white supremacist Hentai-fetishists who have come to be known as the “alt-right”. He is the thread that links Gamergate, the misogynistic troll campaign against female influence in video game production and industry news coverage, to what became Trump's rabid online following of lonely, racist white guys. The masses who became keyboard-warriors for Trump from their parents' basement, hanging out on The_Donald subreddit and 4chan's /pol/ board, were an army built by Bannon and Breitbart.

He popularised “economic nationalism”, a position based on the the twistedly brilliant insight that while making race the naked focus of the campaign would run up too hard against American political taboos, you could successfully use “trade” and “immigration” as effective proxies.

From Bannon also in part came the idea that Trump ought to run as much against the “mainstream media” as against his nominal opponent, Hillary Clinton. He brought his anarchic, burn-it-all-down ideology across from Breitbart – the website which Bannon once bragged about having made “the platform for the alt-right” – almost wholesale.

Most likely, Bannon is the reason it took Trump so long to condemn the neo-Nazis marching in support of his presidency in Charlottesville last weekend, and was responsible for the near-fatal cognitive dissonance the president visibly struggled with when he did so.

Why is Bannon out?

The Trump White House has been riven with divisions and factional warfare from the very beginning. In particular, Bannon, whose ex-wife once claimed that he said that he didn't want his children “going to school with Jews” (he denies this), butted heads with Trump's Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner and his faction of Wall Street-friendly pinstripe-drones and sundry moderate Republican clingers.

Bannon was the figurehead and leader of the nationalist, alt-right faction surrounding the president, while Kushner was the figurehead for the Wall Street moderates in his administration. In the early days of the administration Bannon seemed set for victory over the Kushnerites – he had installed himself on the National Security Council and had the president's ear. Trump's early moves – the travel-ban, leaving NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership – all had Bannon's fingerprints all over them.

Early on in the administration Bannon also clashed with Trump's first chief of staff, former Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus. A lifelong adenoidal Republican functionary, the result of a secret government experiment to breed a human being entirely without a spine, Priebus reportedly made peace with Bannon despite constant schoolyard bullying from most of the president's team, and the two formed an unlikely alliance within the White House.

But the president is nothing if not mercurial in his affections, and he appeared to sour on both Priebus and Bannon in later months, especially after Bannon was featured on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Great Manipulator”, which is said to have irritated the thin-skinned president.

In July, in a chaotic shake-up of his White House staff, Trump replaced Priebus with a retired Marine Corps general, John Kelly, and tasked him with bringing a semblance of militaristic order to his administration. Once Priebus was gone, Bannon became the target of Kelly's next purge, especially as events in Charlottesville played out.

What does this mean for Trump's agenda?

In the first instance, Trump and his supporters will hope that some of the hailstorm of criticism he's been receiving following his apparent endorsement of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia a week ago will abate following Bannon's exit.

The bat-shit crazy impromptu press conference the president gave on Tuesday was illuminating in that it showed the faultines in Trump's advice, between advisers telling him to condemn the Nazis and others pushing the Bannonite view that the “alt-left” were equally at fault and that there was “blame on both sides”.

This is the way Trump operates. Again and again, he floats half-baked ideas to see what will stick. After Charlottesville, he tried things Bannon's way – the Breitbart chief has long courted the nationalist right – but, unluckily for Bannon, the narcissistic president found that the ratings and reviews for that approach were poor.

As far as Trump's agenda is concerned, it seems unlikely that Bannon's departure will change the president's behaviour much at this point. The damage is, in a way, done; the course Bannon helped Trump chart is now set, and whether or not Bannon has his hand directly on the tiller, his ideological influence will still be felt in everything Trump does, because more than anyone else Trump was a Steve Bannon creation.

What about the balance of power in the White House?

Now that is likely to change dramatically without Bannon.

With a few exceptions – like Miller – the most influential advisers remaining in the clown-car White House are globalists and militarists. According to a Buzzfeed report, Bannon leaves behind an executive dominated by “hawks and internationalists” like Kushner, economic adviser and former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn, and National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster.

Bannon was a “voice for restraint” against the military adventurism such as missile-strikes against Syria and increased troop numbers in Afghanistan, according to the report.

Have we seen the last of Bannon?

Unfortunately not. On Friday, Bannon told Joshua Green, the author of Devil's Bargain, a book about Bannon's rise to power: “I'm leaving the White House and I'm going to war for Trump against his opponents – on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America.”

What that means is a return to Breitbart, which is likely to become the administration's media mouthpiece even more than before. Bannon will take up the position of Executive Chairman of the publication. “Breitbart's pace of global expansion will only accelerate with Steve back,” Breitbart CEO Larry Solov said in a statement. “The sky's the limit.”

One Breitbart staffer simply tweeted: “WAR”.

However, there is already speculation that Bannon will return to Trump's side when – or if – the president begins in earnest to run for re-election in 2020.

And in the meantime, Bannon's exit has left the odious Stephen Miller, in many ways Bannon's ideological protege, as Trump's senior policy adviser.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.