By Diepiriyie Sungumote kuku-Siemons
(Note: This article was published in the November issue of CRITIQUE - the monthly of NSI Chapter of Delhi University)
I arrived at Delhi University a few short years ago. There was no orientation session, or any printed or Internet material that explained the full registration and visa application process which involved several bureaus spread across the campus and city. Moreover, the foreign students’ office had no permanent staff and no individual who could directly communicate with the foreign registration office or Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). It proved to be humiliating when I first went to the MHA to deal with my visa. Upon pressing for information regarding the visa application process from the only available attendant, I was abruptly rejected. The attendant barged into the waiting room held my application high in the air and yelled that my case had been denied. My husband followed the attendant back to his office where the man persisted: “It’s their race,” he said. The attendant’s unambiguousness racism was strangely satisfying when compared to the situation I had found myself in when denied a rental property by a landlord who actually smiled in my face just after telling the accompanying property dealer that he did not want to rent to Blacks.
Doors have literally been slammed in my face, library access has been stubbed, pedestrians have jumped from the pavement, gangs of boys have teased and taunted, groups of schoolgirls have picked and prodded, whole crowds have stopped and stared. People are often surprised that I (dare) look back, that I take as much curiosity in them as they demonstrate in me. Unless I offer a disarming grin, when I look back at people in public places, they seem shocked or even threatened and move away quickly, gathering their children and hurriedly moving along.
The nature of the public gaze in Delhi presents itself as hostile; stone faces concealing any intentions, or perhaps afraid to ‘chance’ upon the undefined space between two strangers. At one point, I used a camera to investigate the nature of this gaze, placing the lens as the spectator watching the watcher. Ultimately the videos culminated in a video series on YouTube. The videos have provoked many sharp reactions., In most of the videos, ‘race’ is only mentioned in the title: “Look, a Negro.” Yet, several users have specifically argued that the gawking is sheer curiosity, while few immediately identify internalized oppression (and therefore hatred/fear of the dark ‘other’) as being the cause.. What is curious is that all these responses were provoked by videos that literally show pedestrians in Delhi simply watching. The videos feel tense in their intense, fixed gaze, yet eerily calm amidst the noisy sounds of the city. On the video, Let's stop-n-gawk LIVE ON the DELHI Metro, one user commented:
You have got some balls posting all these cheap-shit videos on youtube and disrespecting my countrymen on why they donot treat you with respect. I can answer that for you I am pretty sure. Firstly, you are a dirty NIGGER and we refer to you all as HABSHI in our country that means dark unclean barbarians. Secondly INDIA is ARYAN and worships ANCIENT ARYAN GODS. Yes white skin is important to us and we look down upon NIGGERS as not worth mixing with. Lastly, on top of that you're GAY. Haha isn’t that the icing on your cake.
For me, it is more than unfriendly to have such epithets directed at me. Yet the comments do not persecute me, per se, but an image those things that naturally threaten the user’s idealized Indian social order: The dark and queer ‘other’. Beastly! In addition, this is mentioned in the comment to emphasise the severity of not only difference, but also supremacy. This sense of racial supremacy exists in spite of ‘modernity’. The higher and faster the rise, the more urgent is the need to define a “we,” particularly when confronted with difference. The ‘we’ which is defined in a more and more narrow manner is then distilled and reproduced.
When I see myself reflected in India’s popular culture- fantasies of virile Black sportsmen or exotic dark muses- I am interested in the “we” on the other side of the fence, that is, the spectator. This is not to lament over the martyrdom of the dark queer ‘other’, but to acknowledge that the process of determining who gets to be inside the circle of “we” becomes increasingly unfair. Or, rather, the modern “we” becomes increasingly fair. For example, Sunday Matrimonials in English dailies are covered with young men and women measured by skin tone- and miraculously not one chocolate or mahogany colored single surfs for a mate.
Choosing to deal with such daily battles more wisely than silence, I joined activist groups that dealt with cross-platform oppression. I was intent upon exploring not only the source of fascination with the dark queer other, but also the sheer manner in which any society confronts alternity. For one year, I wrote India’s first and only regularly featured Gay and Lesbian column in a mainstream magazine. This increased my public profile as a human rights’ activist, which was then amplified through a series of appearances on national news television shows where I was invited to speak exclusively on racism or homophobia in India. Following the racialized violence against Indians in Australia, a national weekly news magazine invited me for an interview, photo session, and the opportunity to publish an article on racism in India. As the initial television appearances and even this magazine project were presented to me, it felt as though I was expected to trash locals on a lack of respect for Africans.
Rather than calling out ‘hypocrisy’, I suggested that moral leadership would be a more effective and sustainable means of responding to domestic and foreign racism since it requires change at home. Instead of blame, we might ask ourselves to account for our own intolerance. In place of marking difference, we might seek common ground. Tolerance is taught and requires constant cultivation. For this cultivation, we are all individually and collectively accountable. We are accountable to maintain an open mind. We must give our youth the tools to engage with others, so that they do not just stop and stare and are not halted by their own fear or apprehension.
Diepiriyie Sungumote kuku-Siemons is an African American Doctoral scholar in Department of Sociology, University of Delhi