Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Racializing Difference (in the Indian context)

By Rajeev Ravisankar, Research Assistant at the Kirwan Institute

“She is really beautiful and has good skin…she has a nice complexion with fair, healthy skin.” A classmate of mine made this comment about Jayalalithaa, the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu state located in South India. She was quick to defend herself by saying she didn’t mean it “that way.” What exactly did she mean then?

Since coming to Chennai, India six months ago, I’ve tried to examine what “that way” is and how it is commonly understood. It encompasses more than just this example where a comment was made based on dominant, racialized notions of beauty and an acidic kind of color consciousness. More broadly, it is about how various identities are negotiated, and how race and color are operationalized.

In this social context, race and racism are considered when trying to explain difference, whether it is community, linguistic, regional, national, religious, etc. The charge of calling somebody ‘racist’ is used if they insult a specific identity. For example, a slur about someone from Gujarat (the westernmost state) by someone from another part of the country could very well take on racial connotations. The regional/linguistic identity of being Gujarati transforms into the Gujarati race. The same is applicable when dealing with nationalities as well. Verbal abuse directed at a visiting student from Afghanistan is perceived by other Indian students and the Afghan student as racism.

Employing the concept of race like this is a way to maintain boundaries on various levels and to easily ‘other’ one’s counterpart. The demarcation of identities occurs simultaneously as efforts are taken to create uniformity. As domestic ‘racial’ difference is negotiated, a unified national identity is asserted, which is again associated with race.

The major problem is that the understanding and application of race as something immutable and static only adds to an existing multi-layered social stratification. This racial conception strengthens already constructed barriers that are continually reproduced at the intersection of caste, gender, class, etc.

The operation of race in the Indian context is not limited to the aforementioned discussion. There continue to be political and social ramifications related to the Aryan/Dravidian divide, which colonial era historians sought as fit their narrative a dominant group subjugating a supposedly weaker people. While this narrative has not held up under historical scrutiny, it still influences the socio-political landscape of Tamil Nadu to some degree.

So while difference may be socially constructed, it continues to have significant social meaning and must therefore be challenged. Considering how much hinges on the coded meaning of words, it is necessary to interrogate language. Otherwise, the durability of race, racism and the notion of “that way” will continue to persist.

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