Mumbai: So, where in Africa are you from?
Originally published on June 4th, 2014 on subollywood2014.wordpress.com
If I wasn’t already incredibly frustrated with the American media industry before coming to India, then I am now. I’m going to make a slight generalization here: Indians do not believe that black people live in America— although, black people (slaves) built America.
Let me break this down: people who do not live in America, mostly learn about America from mainstream American media*. I am, and I am not talking about people who are fortunate enough to travel to America.
Clear and simple, the lack of black and brown faces in American media— especially black faces in this case, claims that America is ‘white’ in ignoring people who are just as American as any white person, in that their ancestors played a huge role in building America, and their families had been living on American soil for hundreds of years.
Where does this come from? Hyphenated Americanism, the notion that black people act a certain way, the lack of color-blind casting in the television and film industries, the notion that films/TV shows with more than two black lead actors are only for black people, AND the very, very incorrect assumption that we live in a post-racial society.
Back to India— so, if people around the world are watching American television programs and films, and only white people are being shown on the screen (i.e., Friends), being portrayed as Americans… will people think that black people live in America?
A woman wrote Africa on my receipt, then proceeded to ask me: “Where in Africa are you from?” This jewelry boutique owner lived in Jersey for four years, but probably not in an area where a lot of black people live.
I wasn’t too offended by this cashier, but I also was because… why do I only have two options of origin— the W.I and Africa? I AM of West Indian descent and I love my culture, but I am American born. I don’t claim being American very much, if at all, but I do claim being a New Yorker.
I was expecting resistance or awe at the fact that I responded “No, I’m from New York,” but this rickshaw driver was well-travelled.
Earlier this year, Shonda Rhimes, the show-runner of two of my favorite television series, Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, won a diversity award from the Director’s Guild of America. This is what she said about it: “When I heard I was getting a Diversity Award, I was really, truly, profoundly honored. I began to get calls from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, etc., and I was asked to comment on the award. Asked how good I felt about the award. Asked if it made me feel like I was doing the right thing. Asked if it had been a struggle making diversity happen on my cast and crews. While I’m still really and truly profoundly honored to receive this award, but I was also a little pissed off.”
This speaks to the lack of, but growing amount of diversity in mainstream American media. There really shouldn’t have to be an award for diversity, and diversity shouldn’t have to be conscious, because well… we live in a diverse country but not every writer/filmmaker feels the need to portray that in a positive light if at all…
Fascinations with Whiteness
Coming to India, I knew the whole deal about colorism. What is colorism? Colorism is a phenomenon that causes people to preference and give privilege to, lighter/whiter-skinned people. Colorism is rooted in the idea that light or white skin is more beautiful than darker skin tones, and that attributes of kindness go hand in hand with that lighter or whiter skin.
So, there’s this whole thing about skin-bleaching that’s very popular in India and one or two West Indian countries, namely Jamaica. People want to be lighter because they think it’ll make their lives better— open doors for them, make them more attractive, etc. Then there’s skin-lightening in photography, the progression of Rihanna from #teambrownskin** to high yellow, Beyonce from #teambrownskin to #teamredbone.
For God’s sake, I was an entire shade lighter for the Bollywood music video shoot. Whitney, must’ve been three shades lighter— that night she was playing for #teamlightskin.
When we go to major stand-still areas (i.e. Juhu Beach, the Gate of India), some of my classmates always get asked to take a picture. Only once have I been asked to take a picture with someone. Based on the nature of what I am speaking about, it should go without saying that these classmates meet the stereotypical standards of beauty.
There is a fascination with whiteness in this country.
I am not in anyway speaking negatively of India or it’s people. Colorism exists in most places on this earth. There’s extreme colorism in the Caribbean, Brazil, America; any place where there are people of color. It’s something that isn’t really out there. It’s subtle, it has to be observe or noticed and it is a repercussion of colonialism.
In Morocco, I got marriage proposals and I was followed all of the time, because of my dark skin. In Europe, Italian men would always, somehow find me and compliment me on my skin. Skin color plays a different role everywhere in the world that you go, and colorism takes on different forms from country to country.
As I was writing this piece, I started to do some research and discovered that in India there is a lot of racism against Africans in this country. More specifically, Nigerians in particular, are heavily discriminated against by Indians, although millions of Indians live in Nigerian and less than 50,000 Nigerians live in India. I won’t really go into this much.
*When I use the term “media” I am referring to television programs and films.
** #teambrownskin, #teamdarksin, #teamlightskin, #teamredbone, and many other skin-color related hashtags are embodiments of colorism seen in the black community that have been given life via social media (mostly in America).
P.S. If you’d like to learn more about colorism, watch D. Chansin Berry’s documentary Dark Girls http://officialdarkgirlsmovie.com