Talk of the Quad: Two Bowdoin men talk about race
Ryan and Parikshit reflect on their journeys in northern India this past summer and their encounters with racial dynamics in an increasingly globalized society. Ryan, a white American citizen, worked with an NGO in Jaipur. Parikshit, an Indian citizen native to the Himalayan region, worked at a development bank in Delhi.
Fifty-three days into my summer position in India, I, Ryan, found myself shaking hands with the Prince of Jaipur in his private peacock gardens. If you know anything about me, you’re probably wondering how such an unkempt, odoriferous man-child such as myself was ever asked to dine with royalty. I admit that I had the same questions at the time, although I was quick to assume that “all Indians are just super nice.” It took longer than expected to realize the foolishness of my perceptions, recognizing the greater powers at play when considering the presence I brought to India as a white man in a post-colonial society.
It didn’t take long to realize how differently I was treated from other non-white travelers. Gradually, the small gestures of appreciation and praise morphed into more telling dispositions as my summer progressed. I recognized I never had to clear my own dishes, throw away my own trash, clean my own messes. A few times in the classroom where I volunteered, I had to argue with my students after accidently spelling their name wrong that I, in fact, was the one who was incorrect, not them. I was invited to party after party, welcomed to visit friend’s homes to meet family. Strangers would ask me to tutor their children. Passersby would ask for photos.
The most challenging situation occurred within my last week, when a friend, established in the Indian fashion industry, begged me to pose as a member of his international team for the annual statewide beauty pageant, claiming that having an American co-worker would grant him more respect as a professional. It was telling how much social capital a white body held seeing how readily my friend was willing to compromise his own ethics to get me on board. I agreed to this charade, believing there wasn’t much harm in aiding a friend in need. I posed for photos with models, met actresses and directors, lied in interviews, gave bullshit advice on runway walks and headshots and was even called on stage and awarded a trophy during the televised event. But as I looked out at the crowd, I was filled with guilt as I saw the number of Indians that had worked day and night, forfeited time, energy and money to obtain such recognition; whereas, I was able to roll out of bed, slap on my one good pair of pants, show up and get an award. My ease in climbing the social hierarchy was a privilege I was afforded by my whiteness—something that has come to represent great symbolic, cultural capital among the Indian public.
Being in India, a country dominated by mostly non-white bodies, I assumed my race would hold less significance in such a homogenous community. What I wish I realized sooner was how easy it was to use the color of my skin, a physicality so intertwined with class, to produce unconditional perceptions of intellect, modernity and wealth, to access spaces and opportunities in India traditionally barred from the general population. My involvement in Jaipur this summer helped me better conceptualize global power dynamics—although I still struggle to understand how my racial privilege travels with me and how it has come to position me higher on certain locations’ social hierarchies, in places that I certainly do not deserve, value or understand. —Ryan “It’s a brave new world,” I thought as my Hindi-speaking German co-worker haggled, well, tried to haggle, with a rickshaw driver. Throughout the ride I heard his rant (in English), about how he gets charged more because he is white. But, my Hindi-speaking German co-worker was quick to point out how the extra amount is less than a few euros. The economist in me quickly starts thinking about this “premium of being white in India,” making a big deal about getting charged more but enjoying informal services way cheaper than developed nations. Before I could flesh out this theory further, our ride brought us to our destination, Green Park, the heart of “expat” Delhi. Rising rents ergo rising gentrification, gated communities, sprawling parks graced with ramparts of Delhi’s Mughal history and artsy bookstores and cafes characterize these posh south Delhi enclaves that are home for a significant proportion of the growing white population in Delhi.
Some days later, I found myself playing soccer with a Nigerian friend and learned how a different narrative exists for the black “immigrant” population. Scattered throughout the city in varied socio-economic neighborhoods, African immigrants from Nigeria, Congo, Ghana, Uganda and other African nations, who come to India mostly as international students and as economic immigrants, now call Delhi home. Researching a bit more I discovered, and sadly so, that Delhi hasn’t always made them feel at home. I came across newspaper reports and documentaries about discrimination against African immigrants in India. Further, my friend tells me how the Association of African Students took to the streets earlier this year to protest xenophobia, incidents of targeted violence, being stereotyped as drug-dealers and having to brave micro-aggressions in public places.
Economic liberalization took India to the world and now forces of globalization are bringing the world to us. And in doing that these forces are stress-testing the idea of India, an idea based on its post-colonial identity and forged in a celebration of its diversity. Being white in such an India, be it a soul-searching traveler or a wealthy expat, backed by powerful passports, favorable exchange rates and the inadvertent social privilege Ryan describes, enable one to celebrate India’s mythical unity in diversity, to freely explore and question it and even to write about it. The story is not the same, though, for those who do not embody the institutional and social privilege that comes with being white. —Parikshit
Ryan Herman and Parikshit Sharma are members of the Class of 2017.