Early in the morning, my brother’s message wakes me up from my slumber: “…and it has started!”
My nephew told his parents that one of his friends at school informed him that half of the class does not want to play with him because they do not like Chinese faces. How does the friend know this? It seems he asked the other kids.
My nephew is six years old — a truly beautiful boy of Chinese-Indian parentage growing up in Oxford. My brother and his wife both have PhDs in economics and finance, and hold faculty positions.
And, yet, it has started for the little boy. A life that is full of small daily rejections, token acceptance and patronising tolerance.
The United Kingdom even celebrates a “tolerance day” at school. That is the best my nephew will get. Not wholehearted acceptance, not joyful assimilation, but tolerance, for one day of the year. In a Twitter post, a Chinese Oxford faculty member reported that he was asked to step aside as white tourists wanted to take a photograph of an “authentic Oxford setting”.
When I was studying for my PhD in the UK, shopkeepers would talk loudly to me, lest I do not understand their English. “You speak English very well” was the usual compliment to Indians and we were asked if we have doctors in India. Statistics tell us that Indians form the largest English-speaking population outside the US, and the NHS, the government health provider in England, is mostly run by Indian doctors and nurses. But can you fight prejudice with statistics?
Better, then, to fight it with humour and a certain level of arrogance. When I was asked whether we have mangoes in India, I just laughed, as I had never sighted a mango tree on the green pastures of England. When I was told that I must try the black pudding or bacon, I responded with, “I do not relish pigs, dogs or frogs, but respect those who do”.
Yet, we realised that no amount of jokes can make us equal. When we are amongst a group of white people, many of them will not notice us or remember meeting us the next time. Their gaze will just pass over us as if we do not exist. We learnt that love conquers all, but not race. Being a girlfriend/ boyfriend is ok, but when it is time for commitment, it will boil down to, “you will not be able to adjust to British culture” or “wouldn’t the children face an identity crisis?”
All of this plays in my head like a reel. My heart sinks.
It starts with school. Everywhere.
I was six years old — the same age as my nephew is now — when my teacher, a Maharashtrian, called me to her and asked, “Your father writes from right to left, na?” My father was Muslim and she meant to mock his Urdu writing — a “reverse” language to her simple mind. I was perplexed. Why would my father write incorrectly? When I asked my mother, she must have been as devastated as my brother is now by the helplessness of not being able to protect one’s child from a harsh, ignorant world.
My father and his clan were Konkani Muslims and most of them spoke and wrote impeccable Marathi. Yet, we got compliments on how we speak Marathi “very well”. When, as a five-year-old, I got the first rank in Sanskrit recitation, the teachers all huddled together to discuss whether someone with that kind of name should be given an award for Sanskrit.
My brother once painted a picture of a blue sky with a crescent moon and sparkling stars. His teacher was not happy. She asked, “Why did you paint this picture? Like the flag of Pakistan? Is it because you are Muslim?” My brother was stunned. Was he a Muslim? And what was Pakistan?
As children of Hindu, Muslim, socialist parentage, we were raised on Russian books, Dalit poetry and revolutionary songs. However, since our father was born Muslim, we were marked as Muslim. Patriarchy is an unimaginative system.
The same patriarchy spared me the worst experiences because I was a girl. A Muslim girl needs saving from her own community — from abusive husbands with four wives, from oral triple talaq. My brother, however, was a boy and so definitely an “enemy”. When he was 12 years old, the boys who lost to him on the playground turned hostile, they began a tirade against him and all Muslims. “Rajputs finished the Mughals, now we will finish you,” they yelled. The intricate relationship between masculinity and violence puts little boys in harm’s way. The history classes turned into “us” vs “them”, where everyone would look at the lone Muslim boy, blaming him for the battles between Aurangzeb and Shivaji. The boys routinely taunted my brother and cousins using a derogatory term for circumcised men.
The school becomes a rite of passage to a senseless world. In parallel experiences, Dalit autobiographies recount the branding and degradation that first-generation learners face when they enter schools. It is not the difficulty of subjects such as math, science or languages that causes failure and dropouts among poor, Dalit/ Muslim/ OBC students. It is the hostility of upper-caste teachers and classmates that makes learning impossible.
Childhood humiliation haunts all of us well into our adult lives. The 36-year-old, super-educated, confident self cannot protect the six-year-old confused and hurt self. Must the next generation face it all over again?
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 21, 2021 under the title ‘The first lesson in prejudice’. The writer is a professor at Jindal Global Law School
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