Reading Sunil Laxman’s rather chilling brush with racist violence got me thinking about similar experiences I have had during my 6 years of life in the US. Fortunately, no bottles have been thrown at me and none of the bad experiences I have had were violent in nature.
Being singled out because of the color of your skin is such a common experience that you become inured to it. Smiles of shopkeepers vanish mysteriously when they see my brown skin, aloofness enters the voice of the grocery store clerk, the seat adjacent to me in a bus is often the last place to be filled up (which is a good thing incidentally). Not for a moment I am saying that I have never encountered smiling faces or a friendly “Hello”————far from that. But there have been quite a few times I have seen people’s attitudes change the moment they have had to deal with brown skinned people.
My first brush with verbal abuse (because of my color of skin) was in New York city during the Thanksgiving day parade of 1999. A horribly dreary, rainy day—- we took shelter beneath a structure as the parade (rather a let-down I may add…..give me “Durgapujo Bhashan” anyday) winded itself down Broadway towards Macy’s. As we took shelter, there was already a family of four (husband wife and 2 kids) standing there. The moment they saw 5 desi guys (there was an American guy with us also but they possibly didn’t think he was with us), the wife told the husband in a tone loud enough for all of us to hear:
“Let’s go somewhere else, those sand niggers are here.”
Not some drunk lowlife throwing bottles. Sometimes when dispossessed, bitter people say such stuff I can understand………because they think, mistakenly, that we, South Asians, have come here and taken their jobs. But this family was anything but that.—a typical urbane, affluent New York family if there was one.
And yet their hatred for us was so ingrained, so embedded that the wife did not think twice before sprewing obscenities in front of her kids. Or maybe “sand nigger” is considered a perfectly acceptable way of referring to people of South Asian origin in their family.
There was another time when a few of us went to a restaurant where the sign asked us to “Wait to be seated.” We told the waitress that there were 4 of us. She told us to wait. Despite empty seats patently visible, she kept us waiting. That may well be their store policy.
But then a group of 6 white Americans came and were immediately seated ! And then another group of Americans—-yes sir please come in ! Two of us in that group ( a friend of mine and me) were combative and called the store manager. He kept on insisting that it had been an “oversight” and they thought we were standing for a take-out (Of course noone asked us if we were).
My friend took down the store’s franchise number (which they were exceedingly reluctant to give) and we threatened to take this up with the “authorities”. However being overworked grad students, none of us had the “tempo” to take the matter up in right earnest. My friend received a subsequent call on his cellphone from someone higher up in the store, he didn’t take it then and said he was too lazy to call back. In any case, we had made our point that day in the store itself.
There was another time when there was 12 of us, Jadavpur University old boys, who were going to take the Metro. Now the machine dispensing tickets had very ambiguous instructions and the person in charge of buying tickets bought 12 one-way tickets. Or so he thought. What he had bought instead was one ticket for 12 one-way rides !
So our man Friday goes to the “customer service” counter (who also oversees the turnstiles) and tries to negotiate a solution. The man brusquely says “nothing doing” —you will just have to buy the tickets again. Ok fine….we were idiots….we pay the price for it.
And then it happened. Right in front of us, another group of people, none of them brown, make the exact same mistake. The same man smiles, nods his head and just lets them through.
A few of us lost it. We wanted to see the man’s id batch, soon we were surrounded by his mates all of whom insisted that nothing of the sort happened (it’s another thing that none of his pals were even close enough to know). Very soon, the supervisor comes upto us and tells us to just mail the tickets back to so-and-so address, tell them what happened and we will get a refund.
(Our kind “customer service” man didn’t even tell us this).
Again being true blue Indians, we dropped the whole thing. One of my friend’s hypothesis (which may have been true in this case) was that we were discriminated against not because we were Indians but because we were guys—-it was true that the non-brown group that was allowed “passage” consisted of people who look good in short skirts and tank tops. Which none of us were wearing. At least that day we weren’t.
In the next incident there was however no room for doubt.
2002. I was at Copenhagen international airport , going to attend CAV (Computer Aided Verification). On seeing my Indian passport, I was whisked out of line and made to stand aside while the whole planefull of people waded through immigration. Even after the people have gone, I was left standing. An official, in the most discourteous way possible, asked me to come in (as if calling a dog) to the booth. Then he made me take out my wallet, show him how much money I have, my credit cards (which he photocopied)………..then he asked me why I am in Denmark. On showing him an invitation letter from the conference to deliver a talk, the official sniggered and asked me, with a look of condescending disdain, —“Can you explain what verification is?”
I would presume they would have verified my antecedents when they gave me my visa. (I was asked to provide my bank statement, invitation letter….all the paraphernalia when I got my visa). But here in Copenhagen, they made me go through the entire procedure again. And I was the only one who had to go through this rigmarole. Because there were two brown people in the plane—-and one of them had an American passport.
They made me feel miserable—-as if I was an illegal immigrant who had been caught in the baggage compartment of the plane.
To give credit where it is due, I have also traveled a lot in US and never have I ever encountered any such “attitude” coming from the officials. US has gone through a lot in the last few years, and for many people there is no difference between us and Arabs (because we look the same. As an aside: can we Indians make a difference between a man from Ghana and Tanzania ?). Yet I have seen, countless number of times, US officials bending backwards so that they do not racially profile people.
But the officials at Copenhagen showed no such reticence…….they found nothing wrong in delaying me by more than one hour and leafing through my wallet—in their book it’s acceptable behavior to a brown guy with an Indian passport.
A sand nigger—-no more no less.