racism

The Ignorant Traveler: How to Deal with Racism on the Road

Image by Flickr user Amy Clarke.

I’m Indian. The color of my skin, the anatomy of my face, the raven hair – they are all dead giveaways.

I embrace these descriptions, for they carry with them a weight I value. I have my father’s nose, my mother’s hair and my grandfather’s jawline. I carry the lineage of my family and those of my ancestors — their struggles, triumphs, and follies.

I absolutely love being the easily recognizable brown girl. What I’m not okay with is ONLY being that girl.

I’m more than my race, religion, or ancestry. Heck, even I haven’t figured out the total sum of my parts. Yet, there will always be those who simplify you on the basis of things you have no control over.

Racism is real,  and in a world where even passports have varying values, discrimination becomes an undeniable reality of travel. Dealing with racism can be infuriating, disappointing, and exhausting. Usually, the easiest thing to do is walk away.

But if you have the patience, the best way to deal with a problem is to find its source.

Ignorance

Growing up, I believed that the world operated like a Benetton advertisement: people of different races jamming it together like a Michael Jackson song.

I grew up. I travelled. I’ve had experiences that have moved me. I’ve been at the receiving end of overwhelming kindness from complete strangers. Most of all, people have just minded their own business.

But I’ve also had seemingly regular conversations suddenly turn uncomfortable with the subtle interjection of racism.

Oh! But your English is so good!

Thou art compli-sulting; an insult wrapped in a compliment is still an insult.

Are you not eating meat because you guys worship cows?

Hindu scriptures regard all living creatures as sacred. Not all Indians are Hindu, not all Hindus are vegetarian, and, just like the rest of the world, some people do not eat meat because that’s their choice.

You mean you guys have a Forever 21 in India? Wow! Not bad at all!

You’d be surprised the number of times I’ve been asked that very question. Yes, we have malls and stuff.

I don’t even want to get to Slum Dog Millionaire and the curious discussions on where/how Indians excrete.

Though cloyingly annoying, I’ve noticed that most everyday racism and stereotyping usually comes from ignorance and not contempt. The racists don’t know they’re being racists. Ignorance is not an excuse, but the only logical way to battle it is with knowledge.

So when I’m asked these questions…

I partake all the knowledge I have. I tell them that a lot of Indians have the privilege of attending great schools, and a lot of them don’t. I also tell them that some Indians don’t speak English because we have 144 active languages with 21 languages having more than 1 million native speakers. Two hundred and forty million Indians are multilingual, with millions of them being trilingual. It so happens that sometimes this bilingualism does not include English.

This approach of spreading knowledge takes work, but there is one less person who thinks INDIAN is the national language of India.

Context

8751413744_d0a8ba38cf_zImage by Flickr user George A. Spiva Center for the Arts.

A shoe seller in a Thai market refused to show me her wares, gestured me out of her store, and hurled abuses in my direction. All I had asked for was the price.

“Indian ask price, no buy,” she said.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been accosted with the cheap tag. I’ve tried to battle this extensively — I tip more than necessary, and I rarely initiate a bargain. Even if I do, I do so in a timid tone that announces defeat before the game begins (and we all know a good bargain depends on how well you play the game).

But, the more I did it, the more I realized that I was overcompensating for somebody else’s shortcoming. Racism is never about the victim; it’s about the perpetrator.

“I don’t get why Indians are so cheap. They bargain for everything,” asked a well-travelled American tourist. He worked at a luxury car dealership and was baffled that only his Indian clients bargained when purchasing expensive automobiles.

He had travelled far and wide – he wasn’t ignorant; he lacked context. It’s impossible to understand a country’s cultural subtext from the outside. When we hear stories without context, we often fill the gaps with our own assumptions or life lessons. A childhood in Iowa is nothing like a childhood in Mumbai, and even a little introduction to perspective can go a long away.

I explained to the traveller that what may be considered cheap in his social environment could be considered thrifty in another. There are rules to the exception, but chances are that most Indians he’s met were probably brought up in hardworking middle-class families. A good bargain is a default setting for many of us, who are taught to haggle for everything from a box of carrots to a rickshaw ride.

If you watch closely, you’ll realize that the bargaining is not about the money; it’s the satisfaction of scoring a good deal. It’s a middle-class value that doesn’t disappear, even high up the economic ladder.

What about those downright brutal racist assaults?

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Image by Flickr user Dustin Gaffke.

Those who don’t understand can be taught. But those who refuse to understand cannot be cured.

I know friends who have gotten egged  without provocation. I’ve been asked to go back to where I came from more times than I can count.

There are some who live under layers of bigotry, waiting at the sidelines to spew hateful dialogue. Call them out, address the issue and not the person, or simply just walk away. I’ve tried not to let one person determine how I view an entire country – reverse racism is just as bad. And if there is anything the dress that broke the Internet has taught us, it’s that our snap, surface-level judgements can be a load of baloney. Dealing with racism while traveling is hard, but it gets easier if you don’t take it personally.

So, dear guy-who-made-that-senseless-joke-about-all-Indians-smelling-like-curry, thank you because curry smells delicious.

What have you found to be the best approach to racist comments? Share below.

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