Approaching a Conversation on Whiteness in India (Part II)

This post is Part II of a two-part series on approaching and engaging with whiteness in India. I can only engage with race from my perspective, so please take some time to read my first post to better understand what I’m trying to discuss and why.

To pick up where we left off in my last blog post:

Why did Amogh ask the white woman for a selfie?

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

As I mentioned in my first post, too often, conversations on the selfie center around how this makes white people uncomfortable because it is invasive, so my clear focus in on the factors that may have influenced Amogh. Why would Amogh ask a stranger for a selfie?[1] Would he ask an Indian woman the same question? A white man? What motivates him to share the selfie?

I wasn’t able to speak to Amogh myself to ask these questions, but I have been able to speak with friends, classmates, and students of mine to try to understand. I received a broad range of answers, and I’ll group them into three categories: the curious, the colorist, and the sinister. These explanations are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, more likely to be cumulative in nature.

Amogh wants a selfie because he’s curious about white people, and wants a photo memento.

Amogh asked this woman for a picture because he’s curious to meet someone from outside the country, and wants a photo to remember her by. Maybe he has never seen someone white in real life; although India is highly linguistically and ethnically diverse, most who live there have family roots in the South Asian subcontinent.  Perhaps the interest is due to ‘looking different’ and an unusual sight to see in daily life. Perhaps a white person asked for a photo with him, a ‘local,’ in his childhood,[2] and as an adult he’d like a photo with a foreigner.

Amogh wants a selfie because he has been taught by Western influence to believe that whites are superior.

Amogh is influenced by the colorism and privilege given to fair people he observes in his society, and was motivated to take this photo because he believes that white people are ‘celebrities.’ He’s treating her the way he would a Bollywood star and wants to show his friends that he’s actually met and befriended a white person. Why would Amogh subconsciously or consciously believe this about white people?

For centuries, prejudice over skin tones or ‘colorism’ has been a feature of Indian society, but was greatly intensified by British colonialists who used white supremacy as a justification for imperial rule and who systematically favored light-skinned persons for government jobs.[3] The fact that Amogh asked a white, foreign woman—and not a light-skinned Indian person—suggest that the ‘celebrity’ status goes beyond conventional notions of color, and is actually about race.

The white supremacy narrative is rampant around the world, and India is no exception. The narrative promotes the idea that white-majority, Western nations are superior to any and all other nations—ideas that are spread and reinforced by Western propaganda machines such as the media, academia, global trade patterns, politics, and more. These influencers generate content that constantly portray Western countries as the heroes – better educated, wealthier, and ideal, relative to lower-income countries.[4]

By taking a photo with Amogh, is the white woman reinforcing what Amogh may believe about white people? Promise, we will get to this!

Amogh wants a selfie because he believes it could be easy to have sex with white women

Amogh may believe that white women are inherently sexual, reckless, and hyper progressive. White women are the primary characters in the sexual exchanges he views online. He may have asked the white woman for a more sinister reason – to claim that he has had sex with her, or to propagate her image in a way that objectifies or reduces her.

Next, let’s move to the white woman. What motivates her to accept the selfie request from a stranger? Would she also accept a selfie from a white man? An Indian woman? How does she feel about the selfie?

Again, I wasn’t able to speak to this stranger myself to ask these questions, but I myself have been in this situation before, and I have also been able to speak with friends and classmates. I received a broad range of answers, and I’ll group them into two categories: the cringe foreigner and the self-conscious. Again, these explanations are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, more likely to be cumulative in nature.

The woman accepts the selfie because she feels the photo is harmless.

The woman does not feel uncomfortable about the selfie, and is happy to oblige Amogh. She actually feels ‘exotic’[5] when people ask for her photo taken and accepts it is normal for locals to ask outsiders for photos. She enjoys the celebrity. She may even believe that she deserves extra attention and respect as an outsider. She may unconsciously believe that she is superior to the Indian people who ask for a photo, and enjoys the ‘celebrity’ she receives.[6] Although she would never accept a photo with a stranger in her home country, she sees no issue with it abroad.

The woman accepts the selfie because she feels obligated to.

The woman feels uncomfortable when Amogh asks her to take a photo with him. She feels uncomfortable because the concept of taking a photo is a violation of her privacy, and she is entitled to own her own image. However, there may be several reasons at play that compel her to take the photo against her judgement.  Because she is a guest in the country, she may feel a duty to comply with local practices, such as taking selfies with outsiders. She may feel that saying no could violate her personal safety (particularly because Amogh is with a group of men), and it would be easier to say yes. Since Amogh has just taken a photo for her, she also feels the reciprocal obligation to take a photo with him. Sometimes, it’s easier to go along with something than to say no. She also may or may not realize the relevance of her white skin.

The solution

Was it wrong for Amogh to ask for a selfie? Was is wrong for the woman to accept? After consideration of possible reasonings that motivate their choices, my answer is no for both of them. Amogh may have asked for a selfie because he has been influenced by the regime of white supremacy. The white woman may have accepted because she felt uncomfortable saying no. And besides, there are a multitude of reasons in between.

In my experience with selfies, I recommend taking pause. If the situation is appropriate – ask yourself, why? After you ask yourself, ask the same question to the other person -whether you are the person clicking the picture or the one who’s been asked to be clicked. Don’t assume the other person’s reason, ask them, and see if they are willing to tell you. That way, you can work with the other party to understand where they are coming from.


Footnotes/References:

[1] Assuming he thought twice about it!

[2] Tripadvisor Forum

[3] Arora & Maheshwari. “Criticism of Skin Lighteners Brings Retreat by Unilever and Johnson & Johnson.” The New York Times. 25 June 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/25/business/unilever-jj-skin-care-lightening.html

[4] This paragraph could use substantially more explanation – for more, check out the Globalization of Racism by Macedo & Gounari (2006).

[5] Tripadvisor Forum

[6] Rarely do travelers start conversations about colorism because it’s awkward and hard – they accept the selfie request and take the picture, and possibly claim to feel ‘really uncomfortable with being exploited in that way.’

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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