Monday, August 04, 2008

Are Indians & Pakistanis Racist Towards African-Americans?


I'd like to make a cultural observation that's frankly left me puzzled. There's rarely much analysis written about it in the mainstream media but there's often a palpable tension or almost imperceptible negative energy directed towards black Americans that seems to emanate from some Pakistanis and Indians who live here in the United States.

Not just in the States either. Back in January, 2008 I blogged about the Indian cricket player Harbhajan Singh (pictured left) who faced charges for repeated racial epithets and obnoxious on-field actions against black opponents during cricket matches.

I've experienced it many times while riding in or trying to hail Yellow Cabs here in New York City (that's a blog site unto itself). I've felt and experienced it in bodegas and delis as well. Most recently I experienced it last Sunday, August 3rd in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey while visiting my mother's house.

She lives in a nice subdivision of interconnected town houses that sits off a two lane semi-rural road about two miles from the crowded Route One corridor in South Brunswick. The local area is comprised of a mixture of dwindling farmland and sprawling neighborhoods of recently- built Toll Brothers homes that look too large to be sitting next to each other on the heavily-taxed 3/4 acre lots they sit on.

Many areas of central New Jersey have seen huge increases in the population of well-educated Asian professionals and families settling into the suburban communities for the school systems and access to both New York and Philadelphia as well as the large corporate presence in and around Princeton.

Many have moved into the sub-division where my mother lives and often times, they stare at us. Now I know the difference between a cursory glance at someone you see in a neighborhood and a lingering stare and it's the latter.

Almost a disassociated observation with little concern for tact. If it sounds a rather un-definitive and abstract notion, it is.

Subtle, not in your face but you can feel it in looks and cars that seem to slow down for the occupants to look at you. My brother was driving me back to my apartment on Sunday afternoon and as we drove towards the exit of the sub-division he hopped out of my mom's 2007 Honda SUV to see if his glasses were in the trunk. A woman in a sari driving a grey four-door Japanese sedan drove by and slowed as she passed.

My brother spends a lot more time out there than I do and he noticed her watching him right off, it annoys him. Bugs me too. My mom has owned the townhouse she's lived in ever since my father died of cancer in 1996 and we sold the house we'd built in West Windsor, New Jersey.

We were both raised in middle-upper class neighborhoods; our parents were both professionals with college degrees - my brother has an undergraduate degree from Rutgers, a degree from the Princeton Theological Seminary and is about to start his dissertation at Columbia. My older sister was Merit Scholar who went to Brown. I graduated from Penn State, played football there and was also an NFL player. We trace our family tree back to a slave brought to the United States in the 1700's - but all the woman who drove by us saw was our skin color.

Bear in mind I harbor no resentment towards Indians and Pakistanis. There's no anti-Hindu or Muslim feeling behind this post. I'm just sharing something I know exists that I never see US media cover - and I am far from the only African-American or person for that matter to notice this.

Check out this 1998 article about Pakistani racism written by Saad Shafqat - a Pakistani. It's entitled, "The Overlooked Problem of Pakistani Racism"

Is it scorn? Is it resentment? Or perhaps the product of cultures that have long-held and deeply ingrained simplistic assumptions about skin color and a mind-set forged from a rigid caste-system mentality that survives in various forms in India to this day.

As my mother has often told me, we all bring baggage to the door when we date someone; it seems there are people bringing cultural baggage with them to the doors of the United States.

Strange that certain members of these cultures direct such feelings towards African-Americans when racism is still directed towards both Indians and Pakistanis in places like England; as in the recent case of Indian actress Shilpa Shetty.

11 comments:

the said...

Sorry but I am one but not an american and I get enough crap from them myself. The majority are so irritatingly bitter and love to look down on others. Theres so many different sub groups in india and pakistan and they hate eachother since pak/india has basically had tribal feuding since the first days. I come from a south pakistan family right by the coast which is more welcoming, educated and kinder area and we prefer black muslims married into our family rather than other groups in the same country. Hence I have lot's of black family. Theres a lot like us but unfortunately i think you have the idiotic northern pak/ind villagers migrated over there in usa

abnerdoon said...

It's a shame to see, but from my experience and observation many I've had occasion to interface with although not giving you something 'tangible' so that you can say 'Ah Ha', seem to behave with what I can only describe as contempt toward you. Consider I was born and raised in England, the second generation of west indian immigrant parents that along with Indian and Pakistani immigrants went over to the UK post WWII because of british recuitments for people to work in british factories and the like while the economy was being rebuilt so they had common experiences dealing with racism and integration back then.

I lived in east London cheek by jowl with Indians, Pakistanis, African, West Indian, English, Irish, Turkish, Greek, Cypriot, etc, etc, etc..I guess by the time I was born; and no small part because of the area in East London I was raised in tensions between the ethnic people was little to none, perhaps it was my age also but for the most part everyone seemed to get along rather fine.

Of course there was the occasional flare up, mostly it was police brutality and intimidation post the Margaret Thatcher era (Mid 80's), but for myself some of my closest boyhood friends were Indian and have fond memories of my youth.

Now I have lived in the US for 20+ years and am in my late 30's so have been observant of the east indian growth here, what has appalled me is the unveiled rude and contemptuous manner in which I see and have on occasion experienced from Indian people for no reason I can fathom other than that I am black.

It's a blatant open rudeness that I am often unsure of how to respond to, on a number of occasions I have asked "why are you talking to me like this? What is the problem here?" but it is never endingly followed up with "what are you talking about, What do you want?" as if they have no idea what I'm talking about and am taking up unnecessary time and need to hurry up. (it is generally because I am patronizing their business: dunkin-donuts, gas station, etc). I had taken my Mother to the hospital for a surgical procedure a couple of years back and our doctor (Indian) adopted a behaviour of talking 'at' and 'down' to us, why he was doing so absolutely baffled us and when asked not to do so, acted as if he had no idea what we were talking about.

Growing up, we would have communal comments that we would notice that the Indian males would defer to the Caucasian on everything, behaving quite affably toward them but when having to interact with a black skinned person they would be quite short and aggressive toward us.

We have a familiarization to a degree (I dont live it obviously) to the Caste system and it's sort of marriage with the English Class system which has produced some 'strange kind of brew' that I suppose only someone of Indian descent can clearly explain if they are so inclined to do so.

It's as shame that for my attempts to establish friendliness toward someone nothing has materialized in my adulthood. They seem more of a closed community than I had recalled and experienced in England during my youth, perhaps it was just that I was a kid so the barriers that are erected to a full grown male were not exercised. I simply have not has occasion to be be able to ask someone to honestly lend explanation to this.

They stress family orientation, and as such keep much of what they do within the extended family and community and as an admittedly course generalization on my part so please forgive, find little want or need to fully engage or embrace the larger community except if it would be one that would speak to inclusion into a higher 'class' of Caucasian group and the like. There is communal prestige to being embraced, and included in 'high-class' white society.

I wont state that as a fact, I wouldnt be so bold or pretend to know so much about the inner workings of the Indian culture but as someone that has had occasion to have my own observations over my lifetime I would say this is what I have noticed.

Sorry I rambled on way longer than I thought I would but what compelled me to leave a comment was yet another 'ambiguous' incident that occured this past few days of being poorly treated and dismissed when I asked why I was being addressed in such a manner when the folks before me had no such treatment. (I was at a dunkin-donuts daring to get a cup of coffee....)

Pan-Subcontinentalism said...

Hi,

I am an Indian, and I am trying to find words to describe this phenomenon, and to pinpoint where the problem lies.

When Indians show deference to Europeans, to Whites, it is not just a phenomenon limited to Indians alone. You will see this in all sorts of places - South Korea, Japan, Arab countries even, and yes in Africa as well.

People tend to take over habits of a dominant culture, making them their own, so as to show themselves as higher up in the hierarchy. In the US, Indians would take up the snobbishness or racism of the Whites, partly justifying it, partly identifying with it.

Indians were for a long time colonized by the British and before that by the Muslim invaders from Central Asia, so in many ways, Indians have lost their traditional openness and egalitarianism.

The whole caste-system stuff is a much later invention, when Indians became overly protective of their herd in face of foreign occupations. Caste-system may be something Europeans would offer as an explanation, but it is misleading.

Often Indians are very judgmental about the civilization that the other represents. If they feel somebody comes from a "higher" civilization, i.e. a civilization that has produced much more marvels, they tend to show more respect, otherwise they show less.

The problem is the insularity of Indians and Afro-Americans. There is too little interaction. Indians don't get a chance to learn about the Afro-American worldview. They see a few things in the mainstream media and think that is Afro-Americans.

I personally think, there is a world of heart-to-heart friendships between Indians and Africans, just waiting to happen. I would give Indians the same advice, that they should come out of their mental-shells, but I would request Afro-Americans to be patient with us.

Indians too are just stepping out in the world, after a thousand years of subjugation, and we need to find our feet.

But I would urge Afro-Americans to go out and make friends with Indians. The more friends you make, it will have an exponential effect.

Don't take Indian hesitation at face value. That is a very thin shell. Behind that shell, I can promise you, there are deep hearts. Indians tend to make deep friendships and both our people would be richer through them.

Habibie said...

Very true, not only towards blacks though because I thought those Paki/Indians look down also on people who have chinese/oriental appearance with scorn and contempt and look up to white people only as though they held a racist pyramid concept on their mind. I have nothing against them but MOST of them (men) in the street stare with scornful smug at me and usually utter words like chinky, chinaman, nihao, china disrespectfully although not loudly but I've yet to confront them as I don't want to get physical with those racists. It's almost always happen with YOUNG and AGGRESSIVE looking South-Asian men or Arabs. FYI I live in Europe, so the phenomenon about them is common. It has something to do with their upbringing and culture. If they only believe in primitive homogeinity why should they go "strayed" in countries that uphold liberty and freedom for all such as US ?? and Europe has become less tolerant because of these people's intolerance first can't give a good example on how to live multiculturally.

Black Jacobin said...

Interesting,

However as someone like the earlier comment who has live din the USA and UK, I can assure the 'problem' is with Indians.
The very idea that African Americans need to make the effort too a recent community arrival is absurd.
The effort needs to come from Indians, whom are attempting to become more outward looking.
That having been said doesn't address the fundamental issue which is one of RACISM.
The term racism comes the belief that one race is superior to another.
This idea is widely held amongst Indians.
I have worked in India (Bangalore Delhi, Hydra) and Pakistan.
The irony of which is that the racist attitude is much less obvious than those who immigrate to the west.
Personally as Indians attempt to assimilate and face the racism that they comfortably dish out to African Americans.
As Indians get attacked and discriminated against like the other races, this will temper them to the point where they will join in the anti racist institution's that many have spent hundreds of years building up to further there own agenda.
However from having lived in the UK Indian's will NOT see themselves as having commonality with African Americans.
This is going to be a very painful lesson to Indians as when the spotlight is further shone on there outdated practises at home and exported abroad.There will be resistance to working with them.
The choice Indians have to make is how painful do they want there journey to be.

Unknown said...

well these comments have helped me in the sense that i thought i was doing alot of assumptions. i am black, but from the caribbean. i happen to live in an appartment complex next to two indian families. funny enough that when the husbands are out to work, am assuming, the women would be either making comments and laughing loudly when me and my one year old are passing and they are out with their children. my husband has not experienced this so much, so mostly it's just women again, lol. i have no harsh feelings towards indians because my native land is made up of as much indians as there are blacks. racism exists back home as well however these women seem much more overt with it than i've experienced before. they do other stuff too but that will take alot of writing. anyways, i just wanted to get the steam off so that i can stay saved and not sin my soul on the account of stupidity. have a good one all.

SweetWaterGringo said...

I am white and live in a community in Michigan with a sizable Indian population. I have also traveled to India twice. I cannot speak to Indian treatment of blacks, but I can say that the Indians that I have met are extremely rude. Whether dealing with blacks or whites they just ill-mannered people. You should see how they treat other Indians in line at stores fast-food restaurants, etc. Queue jumping is practically the national pastime. I think the heritage of the caste system has left them with a constant need to prove themselves better than their neighbors and do so by treating everyone rudely.

SweetWaterGringo said...

I am white and live in a community in Michigan with a sizable Indian population. I have also traveled to India twice. I cannot speak to Indian treatment of blacks, but I can say that the Indians that I have met are extremely rude. Whether dealing with blacks or whites they just ill-mannered people. You should see how they treat other Indians in line at stores fast-food restaurants, etc. Queue jumping is practically the national pastime. I think the heritage of the caste system has left them with a constant need to prove themselves better than their neighbors and do so by treating everyone rudely.

Delitedbylife said...

I worked for an Indian company for three years. I worked closely with the owner and his wife. They spend a few months a year in the US splitting a majority of their time in Delhi. I had access to the owner's wife's email for administrative reasons and was surprised one day to read an email where she referred to the reception staff in one of the Indian offices as "peons". At first I laughed because I thought the word was really outdated but after a moment I began to wonder how they referred to me. My interactions with both my boss and his wife (both young and Punjabi) was always pleasant but I thought it she refers to her own people as peons I probably did not rate much higher.
I have been hit on by several Indian men...a little bit of the forbidden fruit syndrome I think but I have never felt an attraction toward Indian men (although many of them are physically very attractive) I think it is the issue of the cultural divide of trying to meet all of the requirements is not worth the effort.
One commenter spoke about the racism that Indians are now experiencing may cause them to relate to the "black experience" a bit more. I think there is truth in the statement. One of the most successful civil rights actions was designed to gain equal rights for blacks in the United States and I anticipate that Indian will also channel "MLK" (acknowledging Ghandi's influence on MLK) to ask for equal treatment. I think right now it is not so much and issue because as one other poster said "Indian's embrace a closed community" attitude, but I think as the generations evolve; like in London the children will want to assimilate more; hence the struggle of acceptance begins.
I live in Europe now and visited London over the Christmas/New Year's holiday. I was surprised at the youth anger in the Indian/Paki community. While we were out the most vocal, angry, aggressive and DRUNK demographic was those who had brown skin! I was surprised. I asked my British friends why were the Indians were so angry. Their thoughts were 2nd and 3rd generations have the British pedigree. Right education, right accent but wrong face. Although London is fast becoming one of the most diverse cities in the world I think the Indians are still fighting for acceptance to be acknowledged as being "very" British and the old guard is not having it! It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

Unknown said...

My name is Fazeel Chauhan and I live in Los Angeles. My family is from India and Pakistan. We spent 35 years in Saudi Arabia and were the target of racism there. On behalf of the Pakistani community, on behalf of the Indian community, on behalf of the Muslim community, on behalf of the Saudi Arabian community I apologize to all African Americans and people of color.
I'm sorry that some of 'my people" have not learned the lesson that racism, bigotry, stereotyping, generalizations, etc are cruel, wrong, and unwise specially when we ourself are a person of color and frequent target of racism. I also want to thank all the African Americans I have encountered in my life who have been very sweet to me, and have schooled me in endless ways about life in America. I wrote a small article in 1997 which can be found on the internet "Honoring African Americans". I don't have excuses.

Fazeel Chauhan said...

My name is Fazeel Chauhan and I live in Los Angeles. My family is from India and Pakistan. We spent 35 years in Saudi Arabia and were the target of racism there. On behalf of the Pakistani community, on behalf of the Indian community, on behalf of the Muslim community, on behalf of the Saudi Arabian community I apologize to all African Americans and people of color.
I'm sorry that some of 'my people" have not learned the lesson that racism, bigotry, stereotyping, generalizations, etc are cruel, wrong, and unwise specially when we ourself are a person of color and frequent target of racism. I also want to thank all the African Americans I have encountered in my life who have been very sweet to me, and have schooled me in endless ways about life in America. I wrote a small article in 1997 which can be found on the internet "Honoring African Americans". I don't have excuses.