Monday, April 24, 2006

Mister Brown to you

A couple of links from DP (see! see! I do love you guys!) to posts talking about racism (this one by Dinesh, and this other one by Amardeep featuring an immigration incident with Amartya Sen) inspired me (hey, it's Monday morning - I'm grasping at straws here) to do my own post about racism.

Personally, I've always been fairly impressed with how genuinely multi-cultural the West (by which I mean, of course, primarily the US [1]) is. I mean okay, so you'll get the occasional oddball who'll have an issue with you because you didn't come over with the Mayflower (like the guy at the Philadelphia Airport check-in counter who spent ten minutes 'checking' whether he could let me on to the plane if the only id I had was my Indian passport - as though it were okay to let me into the country with the thing, but not okay to let me fly to Greensboro, NC on it), but there are messed up people everywhere.

The point is that, at least in my experience, these incidents are few and far between, and, which is more important, they are cautious and implied, rather than explicit. In general, even the most bigoted among us recognise that racial prejudice, if proven against them, could get them into serious trouble. So they're extremely careful about what they'll try to pull. You can argue that that kind of political correctness is a sham, but it's a comforting sham, because the fact that we're all forced to adhere to it is a statement about where we want to go as a society. That's a standard that Indian society itself, as many people have pointed out, often fails to meet.

Ironically enough, my own sense is that, being an Indian student in the US, the stereotype actually works in my favour. I remember flying in to the US a few years ago on a tourist visa to meet my then girlfriend, and being subjected to a long list of questions, simply because I didn't fit into any of the familiar moulds that the immigration folks were used to dealing with. No, I wasn't a student. No, I didn't have family in the US. Yes, I understood that I wasn't allowed to work on a tourist visa, but I didn't want to anyway. I was just on vacation, meeting up with friends. They couldn't believe it. People were supposed to go to India for exotic vacations, not the other way around. Hell, Columbus, Ohio doesn't even have a Lonely Planet guide of its own.

Now, though, I get no such hassle. Being an Indian student in the US is such a cliche that the bored looking immigration officer at EWR didn't even bother to comment on it. He just stamped my passport with a bored expression and waved me on.

The only time I can actually claim to have experienced blatant racism was in Switzerland. I was at a conference there, and I and a couple of other Indian students were coming back from a day-trip to Interlaken when a scruffy looking guy on the train started shouting at us. It was wierd. There was no provocation, no obvious trigger, one minute we're sitting peacefully in the train, admiring the scenery, the next minute this guy's glaring down at us and ranting about how 'people like us' are ruining the country and it's obscene how we all show up here like insects, etc. etc. We were so surprised we let him go on for a good two or three minutes. Then, at some point, he said something like "Who the hell asked you people to come here anyway?", to which we promptly replied "errrmm...actually the University, along with the Ministry of Education, invited us to come present at a conference" (okay, so we made up the Ministry of Education bit, but you know). That shut him up. It was one of the sweetest moments of my life.

The point is though that that's pretty much the only time I can remember being actively attacked or heckled for being Indian. Which doesn't mean that people aren't surprised when you don't fit the stereotype, of course. I remember going for the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in Philly last year, where my friend and I weren't just the only South Asian people present, we were probably the only people who didn't vote Republican, didn't eat grits for breakfast on a regular basis and were actually wearing trousers and a shirt! You should have seen the shock on the faces of the cowboys sitting around drinking beer from the back of their pick-up trucks when we showed up. They couldn't believe we were there to listen to Skynyrd. But they weren't upset about it - once they got over their initial surprise (which took a while - it was a hot day and their beer cooler was already half empty) they were entirely delighted with the idea that people had heard of their favourite band half way across the world.

We're all welcome to make our assumptions about other people. Just as long as we're willing (and happy) to find that we're wrong.

P.S. If you were reading the post carefully, you're probably wondering why I spend so much time travelling to morgues like Columbus or Greensboro. I know. I keep asking myself that too.

[1] It hasn't escaped my notice that neither of the incidents in the posts DP links to actually happen in the US. But I'm not going to let something as trivial as factual consistency stop me, am I?

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Patrix said...

(see! see! I do love you guys!)

LOL! never in doubt about that one. I wish I could link to my post on a certain wacko immigration officer right here in the States. I guess, racism is not a American perogrative. Heck, we desis are some of its avowed followers.

R S said...

"We're all welcome to make our assumptions about other people. Just as long as we're willing (and happy) to find that we're wrong" - Dear, this statement doesnt fit well within your artcile.
Its boils down to geographical intrusion. A dog urinates and marks its geography. When pack of them do it, they form a race.

One solution to stop racism - Be a Roman in Rome! Don't be an Indian in U.S:) - kiddin

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, maybe that's something to do with you living up North ?

Patrix can sure tell you tales of outright racial violence in his little university town. And though I live in 'diverse' Houston, I still feel more aware of my 'Indian-ness', 'outsider-ness' here than elsewhere.

Veena said...

Hmm..something about music makes people get over prejudices, you think? Reminded me of this loud Texan that I came across in Ollayantaytambo. Heard him hurl racist comments at everyone, so tried to avoid him. Didn't succeed, I was walking down a steep slope when I heard this deep Texan drawl behind me "Simon and Garfunkel? Simon and Garfunkel? Where did you hear Simon and Garfunkel?!". I was so sure he thought I had stolen my t-shirt from some American tourist. But then I told him and we got around to talking and he wasn't so bad after all. (I guess one could argue that a Texan traveling outside the country is less of a racist that 99% of Texas, but still.)

Speaking of music, the package arrived. Listening as I type this. Danke.

Anonymous said...

Patrix and Ash have a point.

Its much worseso I have heard in Texas, but atleast on the East Coast, I have never faced any problems. Not even one covert incident of racism I can recall.

The situation in Uk, my friends inform is much worse, the London bomb blasts have not helped.

Perhaps, the answer lies in the different system of immigration US and European nations have followed. Here the emphasis is on assimilation, joining the main stream. On the other hand in UK, the minorities have been left alone, in their own little shanty towns.

Also, the profile of immigrants in both the countries is quite different. Compared to UK, US attracts a much more well educated class. That helps-I think.

And Ash and Pat

I love DP and you guys too!

Falstaff said...

Patrix: :-). Ya, well, was a little surprised by how my attack on the ASG article suddenly turned into a discussion of the merits of DP, which is totally not where I'd planned to take it.

r s: Perhaps. I guess I was reacting to the comment over on Amardeep's post about racism (and racial profiling) being a form of empiricism. The point is not that there isn't any truth to stereotypes, the point is that the good empiricist recognises that probability is not certainty and doesn't allow hypotheses drawn from stereotype to trump the manifest truth.

ash: Actually, come to think of it, that's probably true. I remember going on a road trip to the South-East and feeling a lot less welcome. But you know, what can you expect if you go live in a Red state.

veena: I don't know about music overcoming prejudice. Remember Wagner? I think it's more curiosity getting the better of bias. Oh, and you're welcome.

confused: True, true. Yet more evidence (as if more was needed) that New York City is the only place to be. Saul Steinberg lives.

R S said...

Dear Falstaff, or whoever you are, racism is not a form of empiricism ( sorry if some Amardeep has said it) but empiricism (to be more precise, "imperialistic attitude) COULD develop because of racism.

Before it becomes an 'ism', it goes through so much process (or agony or anger) .

First part of your comment you say you have addressed or opposed amardeep's view of racism...the next part seems to be a definition of a 'good imperialist'...

what do u mean falstaff...or u confused, by any chance?

R S said...

"The point is not that " ...please talking about 'points'...there can never be a point...the point blots into circles, smudges into a smoldering mass...

dazedandconfused said...

St. Gallens @ Switzerland, falstaff? :)

Anonymous said...

@r s: Leaving aside whether there "can" or "cannot" be a point, your comments surely have none. For starters, you could read Amardeep's post (link provided in the first paragraph of this post) before you apologize on his behalf (!) and look up the meanings of empiricism/imperialism.

R S said...

jus havin a go! dont take me seriosuly:)