I was invited to a private party at the residence of a US diplomat when I first arrived in Delhi. The hostess was a woman with artful red round rimmed glasses and dressed in fashionably mix matched clothes that accentuated her blond diplomatic hairstyle and quirky personality. To match this eccentricity were the guests. The mixture of Indians and expatriates in attendance ranged from politicians and diplomats to young up-and-coming artists and fashion designers soon to be showing at fashion week. I was intrigued but also really enjoying the bottomless drinks from the white uniformed servers while Vampire Weekend tunes playing in the background. While trying to navigate the temptation to indulge in my third mini burger from the array of hor’s d’oeuvres that were circling me, I found myself in the presence of a stout little BJP politician with a sugary personality. Giddy in the presence of me and my friend, the politician began to flirtatiously engage with us rather aggressively before I tore my attention away. My eyes began to wander across the grouping of self-important merry personalities when I noticed a rather serious looking Indian man dressed in an all-white linen kurta that was watching our little spectacle. Finally, when I found myself alone, away from the lively conversation that my friend and the BJP politician were holding, the serious man approached me.
Without so much as a greeting, the man began to question me.
“How long does it take to make your hair,” he asked rather abruptly while looking at my head.
“About five hours,” I replied.
“Can you wash it?” he then asked.
“Yes I can,” I simply replied. He was quiet for a few moments while I patiently waited for an actual conversation. He studied my hair revealing neither a disdain nor a particularly liking for what he saw. He nodded his head abruptly and then as suddenly as he had appeared he had turned and walked off. I felt like I’d been the victim of an awkward social hit and run as I stood alone again at the party. Suddenly I was more conscious of the fact that I was the only one with braids and the only Black person in the room.
Before arriving to Delhi I made the conscious decision to get braids. I had been wearing braids the better part of the previous year while working and living in Kinshasa and had started to grow attached to the relative ease of styling that braids provides me. My longish red and black twisted braids, which were done by a family friend from Ghana, had garnered such positive attention the summer before my arrival that I felt they should remain. At the back of my mind, I did consider that they could draw some attention during my fellowship in India. However, I never expected quite how that attention would translate.
Initially, once I got a little settled in Delhi, I didn’t quite care for or understand the fascination with my presence. Especially when just entering Select City Mall in Saket- a gigantic shopping centre boasting loads of Western attractions – I found on any given day a strong presence of Africans comfortably enjoying the mall. Women carrying a variety of braiding styles on their heads sitting outside cafes and the men strutting by me so fashionably dressed I’m sure Punjabi men can’t help but take note. When riding in my rickshaw on my way to work I would routinely see young Black students patiently waiting at bus stations on their way to class or women heading into a local fruit market to do some shopping. I clearly wasn’t the only Black woman in Delhi so I didn’t want it to be a big deal. However, the attention I would receive- the gawking and staring- never seemed to desist both in Delhi and elsewhere in India wherever I travelled.
If it’s not Indians endlessly curious about my braids then its expats and tourists passing through curious as to how I’m ‘surviving’ being Black or as one politely put it- a person of color in India. It is something that I would and continue to ponder in flits. My attitude not particularly negative but not overly positive either.
There are those days when the auto walla gods shine upon me and I don’t have to haggle my life out of getting a fair auto ride price- rather they just agree to the meter, when walking down the street I may be greeted with one friendly face rather than a plethora of unsmiling faces staring down the life out of me or maybe someone will surprise me with a warm greeting on the street when I pass by (the Californian in me appreciates this very much).
Those are the days where I don’t feel different and attention isn’t so heavily drawn on me to address my ‘otherness’. However those days can often be few and far in between or can at least feel that way.
What I normally face is tolerance. I tend to incur an extra level of courtesy in most situations-particularly in the office or in large gatherings. And it’s this adjusted politeness that I experience which belies the extra effort to be tolerant my presence. There is no interest in what I do or where I’ve come from but rather a focus on what I look like. This manifestation of exotification, which can derive from a sense of superiority and domination, though sometimes flattering, is still indicative of both discriminatory and racist attitudes. It is disconcerting and thwarts any progress in acceptance and respect of my racial identity.
The discourse on racism, discrimination and stereotyping in India is grossly lacking- particularly in regards to the treatment of the small Black community who has settled here. A quick scan of articles and blogs written on the subject from a few Black men and women, who’ve come to study in Delhi and other cities in India, reveals this frustration and anger coupled with a pervasive passivity as a coping mechanism in dealing with their day to day plight. Having to nurse public mistreatment from discriminatory stereotypes, having to endure racist taunting and or having to endure being exotified only compounds the ability for one to feel safe and comfortable in an already aggressive and difficult city.
This discussion is important, regardless of how large or small the Black community in India. Particularly on the basis that it impacts our safety and could help India approach addressing and respecting the diversity of its citizens from the Northeast to the Southwest, who continue to be threatened by and suffer from various forms of racism. And in Delhi, a disorientating city that is as fun and interesting as it is complex if not plain complicated, racist attitudes and discrimination towards Black people is unignorable even if it at the moment it remains unwavering
If my being here is such a subject of curiosity, skepticism, or debate this discussion in any case serves to address questions or concerns for any person of color- male or female- looking to come to India to visit, work or study. It is preparation for coping with what to expect and not to expect regarding the experience one may have.
In my time here, it’s fair to say I’ve learned a few things. One is that you need a thick skin to be a foreigner in this country- White or Black. And it’s also fair to say that you may need an even thicker skin if you’re a person of color, have dark skin and/or chose to carry your hair braided.