The racism of the third degree

Updated: Jun 23, 2020, 07:32 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

Think of it as looking pious while sinning. Racism in the third degree is where you can be racist while claiming not to be.

Silveria Jacobs, prime minister of Sint Maarten
Silveria Jacobs, prime minister of Sint Maarten

C Y GopinathLet's call him Mr Dodge. That's not his real name but he's a real fellow, out there in the tiny country called Sint Maarten. Two columns ago, I wrote about its remarkable Prime Minister, Silveria Jacobs, who kept coronavirus out of her country through quick, scientific and compassionate action. I included her in a list of women leaders who had vanquished the virus while arrogant macho rulers of countries like the USA, Brazil, Russia, the UK and India had bungled it. Their countries now lead the world in coronavirus infections.

The story was widely shared. I devoted last week's column to some particularly bigoted replies. This week, I was homing in on how to make a perfect rasam — except that I got a letter from Mr Dodge. It changed everything.

It was short, just two sentences. Why didn't you show a picture of Ms. Jacobs? asked Mr Dodge. It's so easily obtainable and makes one wonder if it is because of her skin color.

Ms Silveria Jacobs' photo was indeed absent from my column. The accompanying photo montage featured six women, all of them white Caucasian, even though my column had led with Ms Jacobs. Was this racism so subtle that even the racists were unaware of it?

I explained to Mr Dodge that I was only the piano player and had nothing to do with the photo selection but promised to pass on his point to mid-day. Maybe they could fix it in their online edition.

Three days later, Mr Dodge went for my jugular.

I have not yet seen any changes to the picture, he wrote. You're a fake and a racist. Thanks for nothing.

I will be honest. Mr Dodge pressed all my buttons. I will resist the temptation to call you a douchebag, I replied. I was the one who chose to start my article with the inspiring example of Silveria Jacobs rather than some other woman leader. I did it because she was a woman. Her colour did not even cross my mind — but it clearly crosses your mind continuously. I wonder who the racist is?

He wrote back, triumphant: Wow, wow and wow again. My, my, my, aren't you a little thin-skinned?

A day later, this: Don't forget that Indians are one of the most racist people in the world what with their caste system. This doesn't imply that you are racist, but it definitely shows that Midday is.

I was absolved, it seems, but 1.3 billion people and a newspaper now stood indicted.

I'm a dog with a bone now. The bone is racism. I've lived in Kenya and Thailand, meeting Indians in both places. I have to agree with Mr Dodge — racism comes easy to Indians. Kenyan Indians look down on Kenya's native blacks, referring to them as kallus or yeh kaale log, while deprecating their body odour, laziness or lack of enterprise.

Visiting Indians denigrate Thais as unintelligent and timid though Mumbai could learn a few lessons from them on how to run a city. African students in India are bullied and harassed, sometimes arrested. Matrimonial ads specify that only fair maidens need apply. I am yet to meet an Indian who married a dark-skinned woman by choice.

Racism is about assumed inferiority, and colour sometimes becomes a token of that. It's about Chinese "re-education camps" for the Uyghurs. Trump is racist in word and deed and savages even children who are not his colour or do not speak English. Most Hindus do not consider Muslims their equals. Bengal's Bengalis pass snide remarks about Bangladesh's Bengalis.

An article by John Rice in The Atlantic defines three degrees of racism. The first is blatant racism, such as harsher treatment and scrutiny of people considered racially inferior. It is the racism of saying, "There's nothing wrong with Dalits but they should know their place."

The second degree of racism is when you oppose or turn your backs on anti-racism efforts — such as calling Aamir Khan a traitor and treasonous because he called out Hindu godmen in his film PK. How dare a Muslim call any Hindu a fake, even in a movie?

The most toxic is the third degree of racism. When you claim to be non-racist but do nothing to dismantle systems that disadvantage persons of colour, hiding behind words like meritocracy and equal opportunity. Looking pious while sinning.

That's racism worth fighting. It exists in India, America, every coloniser, and everyone who thinks the world is made up of developing and developed countries.

Oh, and mid-day is not even slightly racist. In the chaos and turbulence of putting together the next day's newspaper while working from home during a lockdown, it hadn't crossed anyone's mind that Sint Maarten might be a country of black people.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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