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It's Not All Black And White

It's Not All Black And White

October 03, 2009

Sweeping generalisations get us nowhere. Why can’t we let the melting pot melt, than create a ‘them’ and ‘us’?

At some stage or other we've all heard someone we know say something that troubles us. When I was younger, I was with several aunts who were drinking away cups of tea at leisure. One of them was a social worker and began mentioning the trouble with Muslim family sizes. I was immediately taken aback. She claimed that like other black and white communities within the area, these families deliberately had lots of children to entitle them to more benefits from the government. Although this may have been the case for certain individuals, it was the fact that it had been mentioned as a sweeping generalisation which troubled me the most. Taking things on a case by case basis is fine, but it’s when we begin to make assumptions about others that racism actually begins.

Another way of looking at the situation may of course be to look at our own prejudices. Indians come from a class-based societal system. This has been part of our inherent culture, so it is no wonder that we view others with suspicion – although we really should have dropped this by now. In modern day Britain, we expect that our freedom to geographical and social mobility renders such divisions invisible, but this untrue. I remember when my friend Rosie and I were talking to some English friends about why we could never marry. We explained that my caste was different to hers, so our parents (well our respective villages of origin) may not allow it. Hypothetically of course. Rosie is a lovely girl, but not my type. But it doesn't stop there; tensions created from Indian independence are still strong. As modern NRIs we’ve learnt to leave some of these behind, but when we least expect it, something still comes through - and it's not pretty. The word 'pendu' is often thrown about by young people, but I stop and wonder if they understand that their parents may have been subjected to such taunts. Is it fair to label someone who is experiencing something for the very first time - simply for their lack of experience? What is meant by saying such a thing any way? Is there a need to create a 'them' and an 'us' - and if so, shouldn't it be on different grounds to caste, immigration-status or lifestyle. I'd much rather base it on intellect, interest or merit.

It does get worse. You may have recently come across a case in India where the media branded skin lightening creams as racist. Rightly so. A lot of the advertisements work on the basis that a lighter skin tone will indeed lead to better prospects in life. Naturally this won't be a great deal of help when it comes to dealing with racism in the west, will it? How do we fight against external racism when something is obviously rotten at the core? One can understand that lighter skin during feudal times may have indicated wealth (due to shorter time spent outdoors) - but how can we still adhere to such ancient notions in an era when thousands of people globally rely on fake tan?

I suppose you could pin a lot of it down to either insecurity or peer influence. Note the difference between peer pressure and peer influence. If your father’s always talking about the funny smells and sites from next door, are you likely to consider the neighbours with the same mistrust, based on the assumptive nature of another? These days, we get taught about other cultures a fair bit, if it’s not in school, then it’s been covered on t.v. So very little should come as a surprise. However it doesn’t seem to stop the vulnerable from adopting the views around them. Are they just very impressionable? I still fail to understand why so many Londoners are not Chelsea fans and favour Manchester United instead, but then realise that they formed this allegiance during childhood. If I tell my friend’s gran that group A is significantly better than group B, will she believe me? Does she know any better, can she be forgiven? Maybe – maybe not – but it’s not something that I would expect from a second generation NRI though. This makes me consider why, as an NRI, I would encounter any racism between peers – surely we’re all cosmopolitan enough? Then again, maybe we’re not. Maybe through taking our cultural identities into an international arena, we’re just holding onto them stronger and tighter – not allowing the melting pot to melt. I can only see things improving as more doors open. Yet this could be too much to ask of a generation which will never find itself working in the city, going to pubs and clubs or transcending into a world where judgement is based on personality.

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