The Indian census has not included “race” as a category since the early 1950s. Race might be a “biological fiction” according to geneticists, but the world over, it is a social reality. Racism is a topic Indians have been discussing fervently following the reprehensible attack on a Tanzanian woman by a mob that beat and publicly stripped her in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) in India early last month.
Ugly prejudice thrives on soil composed of fear and ignorance. When I was a professor of English literature at Harvard, it was my responsibility to ensure that my students—who were quite a diverse lot themselves—not only read their Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Eliot and Joyce but also learned that world literature is infinitely enriched by the words of Olaudah Equiano, Phyllis Wheatley, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Chinua Achebe, Ngùgì wa Thiong’o, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Tayeb Salih, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Derek Walcott and Jamaica Kincaid. And more recently: Uzodinma Iweala, Namwali Serpell and Kamel Daoud.
Sociologists and historians have been studying tensions between blacks and Indians at home and abroad for some years now. Certain varieties of anti-black bias are historically shaped. Here is one such example: Following the legal abolishment of slavery in the British Empire in the 1830s, Indian indentured labor was brought to places such as Trinidad and Guyana to work in the sugarcane plantations to fill the labor vacuum. Nineteenth-century indentured laborers, known pejoratively as coolies, were willing to work for far less money than anyone else and were seen as scab labor by the emancipated Afro-Creole slave. The tension worked to the advantage of the white plantation owners. To this day, national politics are sadly polarized along racial lines—East Indian and Afro-Creole—in places such as Trinidad and Guyana.
In the United States, however, anti-black bias among many (though certainly not all) Asians has to be understood differently. Here, it is a matter of Asians perceiving themselves as the so-called model minority, superior to inner-city blacks who suffer from what the legal scholar Michelle Alexander has aptly called the new Jim Crow. A number of relatively new Indian immigrants to the United States—those who arrived about 10 to 20 years ago—surprisingly ascribe to the “melting pot” theory of assimilation, a theory that has been discredited by renowned American scholars since at least the 1980s.
While journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the critically acclaimed Between the World and Me (2015), warns his son of being shot by the police if he is caught in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time, white-collar Indian immigrants worry more about the alleged anti-Asian discrimination being implemented in Ivy League admissions offices these days. Imagine the two very different sets of worries of Indian and black parents. Imagine the two very different Americas—separate and usually unequal—that they inhabit. Mistrust and mutual resentment between the two groups are not uncommon under these socioeconomic circumstances.
It is a matter of great shame that a Tanzanian woman was partially stripped by an angry mob; it is a matter of great shame that Indians, spending countless rupees in pursuit of lighter skin, don’t recognize Lancome’s new face, the Oscar-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o—or forget that hip-hop swagger, emulated by countless young Bollywood actors and performers such as Yo-Yo Honey Singh, was invented as a creative response by American black youths to desperate social circumstances. The musical genre emerges from the bitter history of slavery, institutional racism and segregation. Indians can adopt the style, the attitude and the slang, but let us not forget the deep history from which it was born.
This is not just a partial catalog of Western cultural heritage, or even black heritage; this is our world heritage, including India’s. Just as Europeans and Americans should read some Kalidasa, Bharavi, Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, Lal Ded, Tulsidas, Surdas, Mir, Ghalib or Kampan in order to complete their education, we Indians must enrich ourselves with some of the authors—from Africa and from the vast African Diaspora—I have listed above.
Great literature offers no life hacks. It gives us something far more valuable than quick answers. It teaches us to ask the right questions. And occasionally, those questions may stop us before we savagely degrade a woman for the color of her skin on the streets of Bengaluru, or beat a man to death on the streets of Delhi because of his hair or his facial features.
Editor’s note: A version of this article was originally published by NDTV.
Sharmila Sen is executive editor at large at Harvard University Press. She received her bachelor’s from Harvard and her Ph.D. from Yale, and prior to a career in publishing, she was a member of the faculty in Harvard’s English department.