Speaking for myself: Us and Them

We all exist in two states — one rational, and one given to lazy stereotypes.

Written by Amulya Gopalakrishnan | Updated: May 10, 2014 11:59 pm
Stereotypes aren’t all about force-fitting reality to a set of mental moulds. Stereotypes aren’t all about force-fitting reality to a set of mental moulds.

Watching 2 States, a movie about the encounter between tight-lipped Madrasis and loud Punjabis, the only interesting thing was the audience, which seemed just so hugely tickled by the events. Until the drive home. My husband and I  had a rather fraught exchange, when he told me how, as a person who is a quarter Punjabi and fully north Indian, he was tired of have me mock them, and having to jeer at Malayalis in turn. How this tribal talk would sound if I was saying it about another race or religion or nationality, for instance.

I have to say, I’m pretty alert to group generalisations that stop you from actually seeing the people you’re looking at. I’m aware that they have historically been put to grim uses. But I admit to having this one teeny residual prejudice about Punjabis that occasionally worms its way up.
“I live in Delhi, it’s inevitable,” I told my husband. I didn’t necessarily mean people he or I knew, I meant a cultural disposition, I said. Much as I appreciate the zest, the generosity, I can’t help but feel that all this “spirit” comes at the cost of interiority, a capacity for “bhava”, for mixed emotions. To which he rightly pointed out, for every Punjabi person who fit the stereotype, we knew one who didn’t.

There are two kinds of people, the saying goes: the kind that believe there are two kinds of people, and the kind that don’t. But I suspect many of us have that first instinct, about some group or the other — hipsters, or ostentatiously religious Hindus, or bureaucrats, or whatever. Even those who think they have more evolved, open attitudes could probably find a hard grain of prejudice somewhere. It may not be the Nancy Mitford caricature of insularity — “Frogs are slightly better than Huns or wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends” — but I’m yet to meet someone who is entirely free of reductive judgements about cultures and subcultures.

Stereotypes aren’t all about force-fitting reality to a set of mental moulds. They could be inherited from families, schools and the wider culture, or grounded in observation. Most groups do have recognisable traits, and it’s okay to admit that, if one doesn’t stop there. It would be weird if people who shared a certain set of material and social circumstances for a long time didn’t have something in common. As the Marxist literary scholar Terry Eagleton pointed out, “The upper-class English are indeed for the most part more emotionally reserved than working-class Greeks or Italians, a fact which has more to do with their prep schools than their genes.”

I once briefly dated a Chinese-American guy, whose mother warned him about Indians and their honour killings. My first dumb reaction was, “But that’s not us, that’s Pakistanis!” And he told me about the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, who spoke of prejudice as a positive thing. Broadly speaking, what that means is that accepting your prejudgments is merely understanding your situatedness, the direction from which you come to an experience. You could have your biases rearranged by opening yourself to the experience, but you need that original friction to be able to think at all. Also, one immigrant group’s irrational opinion of another is not racism, it is a power differential that makes this stuff problematic.

Bangalore bloggers used to refer to a certain kind of north Indian techie as “amit_123” — because all north Indians are called Amit. There were cliches like “amit_123’s first criteria for a good actor is a six pack”, and “amit_123 can’t tolerate the fact that nobody understands Hindi here”. There were variations on the theme: cool_amit and amit_just4you (the online stalker type). This may be slightly mean, but it’s hardly offensive. Not all stereotypes are created equal. After all, whatever the Revathy and Amrita Singh characters in 2 States think of each other, their judgments are at par. As reasonably well-off, post-identity IIM types, their children could afford to regard these as mere annoyances, if they chose. Now compare that to what the young Dalit schoolboy in Fandry has to hear from his classmates; the suffocating sense of limits, the brutal insult that group identity entails for him.

What I’m getting at is that we should read stereotypes by the structures of power they operate in. When women are characterised in particular ways in a workplace, or when a politician plays into anxieties about certain minority groups, these judgments matter, and should be widely protested. But I don’t care if you say south Indians are boring, or dark-skinned, or slurp sambar, and you shouldn’t care if I claim drunk Punjabis tend to end up dancing on one leg and balancing bottles on their heads. We’re lucky if that’s all we’re stereotyped as.

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