Author – Preethi AnanthaNarasimhan
Racism. Feels distant, doesn’t it? But is it really? I’m not sure how many of you have faced it. It is quite an experience, I must say!
Age, experience or even travel can’t teach you equality.
Having in lived in India for more than 20 years, I was traveling abroad for the first time in my life. Little did I expect from the world! I was an excited tourist on a flight to Rome from Switzerland when I took notice of the elderly looking lady sitting next to me constantly fidgeting. I gave a bright smile as I had made eye contact with her and she looked away a little too soon; I innocently assumed it’s probably not her best day as she looked so uncomfortable. Who knows what people might be going through … Well, I continued chatting away with my sister.
A few minutes later, engrossed in the conversation, I felt a rough edge scratching the outer side of my arm. The sweet lady had very gently placed the worn out- laminated instruction manual for flight safety that every seat is provided with, between herself and my arm – very “delicately” stopping herself from touching me! I however didn’t immediately understand the purpose of it and assumed she must have been reading it and fell asleep in the middle and probably was not feeling up to bending over to put the manual back, so she shoved it in the most convenient place. The thick torn plastic was quite irksome and it started making bruises on my arm and I had to ask her to put it away. But by that time, she was fast asleep. I felt it would be rude to wake up a sleeping person and took the liberty to put the manual back to its place in front of the seat to stop it from causing anymore discomfort to me.
To my shock, seconds after I had done that, she woke up, gave me a sharp look and took the manual again and placed it back where it was; this time, what she was trying to do finally dawned on me. I am an Indian and she was a European. To put it racially, I am black and she was white. She was not happy to be sitting so close to a black person that she literally wanted a physical barrier between us. The realization was quite hurtful and I was trying to understand what had just happened.
You all know the pain of sharing a common hand rest- be it in a cinema, a bus or a flight. A few minutes later she once again squirmed pretty loudly this time and looking straight at me and in a very rude tone said “could you please stop touching me”. To the surprising expression I wore trying to gesture ‘where am I touching you ???’ she signaled at the hand rest with her eyes and sharply turned away readjusting the manual.
At this stage I was over the hurt and disbelief and didn’t give a hoot to what she felt and rested my arm back on the hand rest more comfortably. The chatty mood between me and my sister was long and I had sunk in my own thoughts about the lady next to me and the reality of racism. It filled me with anger, irritation and confusion: how could she?? What right does she have??
By the time I got off the flight, my anger for her had changed into a sort of sympathy for her. She definitely looked like somebody in her 60’s. How could somebody have lived so long and still be so tiny in their minds. Aged so much, well-travelled (I presume flying between countries) and still be so petty and closed minded. How could anybody be so naïve and ignorant and have so much false prestige in life? I felt sorry for she was so shallow and mean. I genuinely felt bad that she couldn’t see beyond my colour J… Equality, I guess is an attitude- one has to realise and develop, somehow on their own.
Studying abroad sure gives you a lot of exposure; some unwanted too. Another harsh reminder of racism was at a grocery store when I was a student. I have heard many of my friends tell me stories of having to wait longer to be served in queues than their white counterparts etc., but had never faced that personally. I was out of my weekly supplies and hadn’t had the time to go to a super market. Although a lot more expensive than the places I shop at, I was short of time and decided to just buy a few bear minimum things at this grocery store on campus for the time being.
I was done shopping and was waiting to be served at the billing counter. A middle aged man was quite free behind the counter and yet didn’t call me straight away. After seeing heaps of things being billed at all other counters and realizing they will not open up anytime soon, he reluctantly opened his counter and called me. We all know how polite and overly friendly people in UK are, yet this man was too ‘cool’ to say hello to me. That’s ok, its still 10 in the morning, may be he’s not a morning person. At the end of the transaction, I was waiting for my change. And this gentleman, literally threw the 5 pound bill in air not wanting to make contact. My hand was innocently waiting for the change! He was long gone by the time I bent down and picked up the pound to look at him walk away- without even a sorry.
I could have made a scene, put up a fight at his behavior. Called the manager of the store and reported it. At the end of the day, it might have given me the satisfaction of making somebody who didn’t treat me right feel bad. Would it solve the problem though? Can I teach him not to be a racist? Besides, should it be taught? – To a fully grown adult? I had nothing to say but to smile at his pettiness…J
Racism and education are two different things!
Although these two experiences were easier to let go, I must admit that they wouldn’t affect my day to day activities, they were one time incidents. The people were strangers and I didn’t have to deal with them every day and probably that was the reason I could shrug it off so quickly.
The tough one was when I had to work with a racist. Working in a team of three people (two Europeans and one Indian), I realized rather slowly that one of them was being racist. We were all of the same age group and had studied masters from the same university – decently educated to say the least. All of us were reporting to the same supervisor and none of us had been granted any leadership as it was a 3 month contact project, and the work was split between three of us.
Anything I had written in joint reports was being rewritten. My points were discarded in team meetings and many such indirect gestures. I decided to give it sometime before I confronted or reported the issue. May be he was taking sometime to warm up. I continued to be polite with both of them, looking forward to a change in the environment. It didn’t seem to come!
The other team-mate was in a pickle since it wasn’t hard to realise what was happening. He decided to ignore it altogether which left me all alone. It is a shame when people take kindness and humility for weakness. One of the projects we were working on, finally gave me an opening to make a stance and I took it with all my might! I worked strong and hard on the project and my work spoke for me when the time came. It took my skills and ability to be accepted. Although, I was happy I could make a point it still left me feeling that the world is unfair.
Should there be fight for equality? Should one prove themselves worthy to just be considered while some get that consideration without any conditions? – What worse, many assume it! Shouldn’t every human get that consideration? What’s the point of education if we have to fight to be looked at equally? Isn’t that supposed to give you the platform of equality- at least at a professional level? I have no answers to that. It is not something that anybody can induce in people. I cannot wait for the day where treating people equals beyond their race and gender, is not exceptional. Equality should become a way of life not a special consideration.
Do join us for more such updates,