The Meghan Markle-Prince Harry interview with talk show diva Oprah Winfrey has brought racism to the fore once again; her claim that the British royal family speculated on ‘how dark’ their son might be when he was born electrified viewers the world over.
Whether the interview was a genuine airing of grievances, a classic example of the victim mentality or an attempt to get ahead of potentially damaging revelations on the couple by Buckingham Palace, is a matter of speculation. It might even be read as an attempt to undermine what is arguably the most powerful instrument of soft power globally - the British monarchy.
Whatever the intent, the UK royals, rightly or wrongly, have been accused of an unacceptable solecism. Race is the most sensitive, polemical issue of our times. Social media has already exploded with comments on the controversial interview. In the weeks to come, the Twitter storm will hopefully give way to sober introspection on attitudes to race.
The very fact of racism seems anachronistic, given that the biological sciences – specifically DNA studies - have shown that ‘race’ is a social construct and has little do with genetic make-up. Two persons of Asian descent might have more in common, genetically speaking, with one of European descent than with each other.
‘Ancestry’ is now regarded as a more accurate description of a person’s geographical origins, than ‘race’. Anyone who takes the trouble to trace their ancestry will probably find a mixed bag of genes, from various parts of the world. So, there’s no real scientific basis for ‘race’ as a measure of human diversity. Yet, we all identify as ‘Asian’, ‘Hispanic’, ‘Caucasian’ and so on.
Race dominates social sensitivities and is a political hot-button issue. Last year, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign, which began with the acquittal of a man who shot an African-American teenager, received fresh impetus after police brutality resulted in the death of an African-American man suspected of passing counterfeit currency.
Indian sensibilities are more attuned to caste than race, or so one might expect. But attitudes to people of African and north-east Indian descent argue otherwise. Students from Africa routinely face discrimination in India. Police harassment, difficulty in finding rental accommodation and nasty comments from members of the public make a mockery of ‘atithi devo bhava’ (the guest is like god).
The Indian obsession with fair skin, a colonial hangover, may be partly responsible. While the equivalence between ‘fair’ and ‘lovely’ is beginning to fade, in some measure due to celebrities such as actors Kangana Ranaut and Abhay Deol, who have strongly criticised fairness creams, light skin is still highly prized and conversely, dark skin looked down upon.
Bizarrely, this attitude is accompanied by a perception that people of certain ethnicities tend to be crime-prone and/or morally compromised – a throwback to the father of biological racism, Samuel Morton. Unfounded allegations of smuggling and prostitution have been levelled at people of African origin residing in Delhi – a behaviour exemplified by AAP MLA Somnath Bharti, who allegedly led a mob against Africans in his constituency back in 2014. He was eventually acquitted of the charge.
The nation has consistently been disgraced by the racist behaviour of a section of citizens. Five years ago, a Congolese national was lynched by a mob in New Delhi, a Tanzanian national stripped in Bengaluru, a Nigerian killed in Goa and another attacked in Hyderabad. At one point, a group of African envoys in New Delhi said they did not want to participate in ‘Africa Day’ celebrations because of these repeated assaults.
Compromising ties with African nations will hurt India and the millions of expat Indians currently living there. Last year, anti-Indian rhetoric was heard even in as peaceful a country as Botswana, which responded in an exemplary fashion, by countering allegations against the community. India would benefit from following its example, by publicly emphasising the importance of courteous behaviour vis-a-vis foreign nationals and strict punishment for misbehaviour.
Indians, who encounter racism abroad, can be no less racist at home. For Indian citizens of north-eastern origin who live elsewhere in the country, eve-teasing, racist terminology and cheating are routine problems. Cultural differences are regarded as an excuse or an invitation to harass them. It took the murder of the son of an Arunachal Pradesh MLA in 2014 to focus attention on their ill-treatment.
Geneticists would remind us that all humans are basically African, because Homo Sapiens evolved there, before migrating to other parts of the world. Our differences are literally just skin-deep.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.