Approaching a Conversation on Whiteness in India (Part I)

In light of the international conversation on racial justice and equity,[1]  for this blog post, I’m deviating from my experience working on distance learning to write about something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time: white people in India.[2]

White people in India. By white, I mean foreigners of ‘Western’ decent who are white or white-passing and are able to utilize their white privilege to gain undeserved advantage. You may be thinking, why center the conversation on white people, when there is a global conversation going on about the role of white supremacy in upholding systematic racial violence and discrimination around the world? (at least, that’s what I’m thinking!) As a white person, it’s the perspective that I must take, but I hope that by including perspectives from Indian and American friends, colleagues, and students in this piece, I’ll pull off embedding my voice in context.

There are so many ‘lenses’ I could apply to explore the spaces that white and white passing foreigners occupy in India. I will bore you with the details to explain my process here—but not because I intended to torture you with my running stream of consciousness. I think we can all learn something from taking the time to review approaches to having conversations about race, to clarify where we are coming from. I’m sharing my approach with you to give my reader a better picture of ideas and concepts I think about.

A selfie I took with my friend Annu, en route to a wedding in Kochi, Kerala in January 2020.

First, I thought to write about myself. I could retell the ‘single story’[3] of India that I believed when I first stepped in to the Delhi heat in 2017, and how that narrative has been almost constantly edited and revised in the 36+ months since—but I realized that if you want to learn about the dangers of the ‘single story’ narrative, you should re-watch Chimamanda Adichie’s incredible TedTalk.[4]

Next, I wanted to write about the white savior complex. I could attempt to explain and unpack how foreigners (like myself) with good intentions often do harm if they are not working vigilantly to undermine white privilege, question their legitimacy, and constantly re-evaluate their relationships with the community—but I realized that, having been called a white savior myself, I still don’t feel qualified to lecture you, despite a year of tremendous learning and growth. If you want to learn about the white savior complex, turn to No White Saviors.[5]

A topic I might feasibly be able to tackle is the stereotypical ‘cringe foreigner.’ She complains about ‘Delhi belly,’ heat, traffic, corruption, waste management, toilet paper access, and the like. In general, her perception of India’s ‘deviation’ from Western standards makes India deficient.[6]  We all know one. Or two. Possibly dozens. Another aspect of the ‘cringe foreigner’ is ‘undue deference,’ a term (that I possibly have coined, unsure) to explain the phenomena I often observe among myself and white friends, who usually receive and accept their privilege without realizing that they are reinforcing white supremacy by doing so.

But ‘undue deference’ is a huge topic to take on in a short blog post. So. I am going to unpack just ONE aspect of ‘undue deference’ by focusing on: the selfie.

Let’s start with an anecdote.

Pratik, a college student in Nagpur, is vacationing with two friends, Kush and Amogh, in Goa. Winding through the shops of Baga Beach, they search for a place to relax, eat, and drink. From a distance away, a voice calls out: “Nice t-shirt!” His shirt reads “No RAGRETS” in reference to We are the Millers, a feel-good Hollywood movie starring Jennifer Aniston, who happens to be one of his favourite actresses. He turns to see who this mysterious voice belongs to. A group of white women approach them, and ask him to click their photo with their digital camera. He kindly obliges, and is turning to go when Amogh busts out – “Ma’am, may I have a selfie?” She says sure, and Amogh clicks a photo with one arm around her shoulders, the other reaching out to ensure everyone is seen by the camera lens. Pratik audibly groans. Later that night, he chastises his friend. “Why do you treat them as celebrities? They are not celebrities! Do you think white people stop brown people on the street to take photos in America?”

I’m going to explore a scenario we’re all familiar with that makes everyone, regardless of native place, profoundly uncomfortable – the phenomena of the selfie. What has time and time again frustrated me about the selfie is that that too often, conversations on the selfie center around how this makes white people uncomfortable because it is invasive—but that’s not the whole story. In this piece, I’d like to ask why the Indian person is motivated to ask a foreigner for a selfie, which is just as important is what motivates that foreigner to accept. So in this blog series, I examine both.

Why did Amogh ask the white woman for a selfie?

Why did the white woman accept the request for a selfie?

A disclaimer: I am by no means an expert on how to discuss or unpack this concept. But what I have had is ample opportunity to discuss the selfie with a broad spectrum of people – colleagues from metro areas, travelers and wanderers, students of Hindi language and culture, and schoolgirls from rural Jharkhand– about their takes. And unsurprisingly, there are many, many takes.

I’ve selected a few takes to share– in my next blog.

Footnotes & References

[1] which I attribute in part to the murders of Black civilians by police that catalyzed millions to join the #BlackLivesMatter and participate in peaceful protests, demonstrations, and organizing across the U.S. and the world,

[2] If you know me, trust my judgement, and don’t feel the need to read for next 5-8 paragraphs on why I’ve decided to write on this, go ahead and skip down to “Let’s start with an anecdote.”

[3] A term coined by Chimamanda Adichie in her 2009 TedTalk, The Danger of a Single Story.

[4] Actually watch the TedTalk – it’s linked again here: The Danger of a Single Story

[5] No White Saviors. Instagram.

[6]Referring specifically to my Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) orientation in Washington, DC, where we spent hours talking about all the ways living in India would be challenging because spicy food, malaria, lack of toilet paper, poor people, etc. which would all cause problems for us. An excerpt from the the CLS Participant Handbook reads: “Smiling simply to make friends does not work in India, especially for women. A smile… should not be abused by offering it to everyone. It may also attract unwarranted attention.” Cool, will definitely frown at people the entire summer!

Jane is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Yuwa in Ranchi, Jharkhand. For her Fellowship project, she is developing a life skills curriculum for adolescent girls from vulnerable backgrounds around sports-based training to enhance education, build confidence, and improve health. As a student of economics and politics, Jane has been captivated by the beauty and complexity of India throughout her college years. She first traveled to India in the summer of 2017 to work with a social enterprise in Delhi. She has participated in a variety of India-based projects, including working as a research assistant at her university’s Delhi Jal Board Yamuna River Project in New Delhi, co-launching an apparel brand with young female entrepreneurs in rural Uttar Pradesh, and working for a Delhi-based environmental action group to evaluate sustainable solid waste management practices. She interned with the United Nations ESCAP to research women’s entrepreneurship in the informal sector, and participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship to study Hindi in Jaipur. She is ecstatic about better understanding localized approaches to gender equity and development by serving on the AIF Clinton Fellowship. Ultimately, she hopes to become an expert in poverty alleviation in South Asia and to work in policy implementation by identifying best-practices, promoting accountability through monitoring and evaluation, and collaborating with governments to improve social protection for the most vulnerable.

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