We are all online watching people post-black squares with #BlackOutTuesday. We see #BlackLivesMatter trending. We understand the United States literally on fire, and we are appalled. The country that gives us – English speaking India, our favourite movies and music and TV shows, is burning. We get on Instagram and immediately share our outrage. How dare white people act so cruelly, so callously towards their own countrymen?
Now is also the time to take a moment and make sure that you are not as bad as those you condemn. Take a moment and think about whether you have ever made a racist comment or joke. Have you ever made an assumption about someone because of their skin colour? Have you mentally categorized someone as lazy or undeserving, as a criminal or a thief because of their facial features? Features that they were born into. Features they had no choice but to live with. Features that make them easy targets, scapegoats, for the police and people in power.
For example, have you ever assumed someone was a prostitute because of the way their eyes slanted? Have you ever called someone ugly because their skin is dark? Have you ever called someone a chinki or a madrasi because you think it’s funny? Have you ever dropped the n-word because you see rappers do it and you think it’s cold?
Maybe you have. What’s done is done, you can’t change what has already happened, but you can change what you do going forward. You can correct your actions. I grew up a misogynist. I hated being a woman because I thought women were inferior, lesser than, and that I was the exception. With a lot of reading, learning, travelling, and conversations with other women, I realized that it was my definition of femininity that was narrow and not inferior women.
Similarly goes with racism. I grew up in India, believing or instead accepting that light skin is superior. That’s all I had known. Those with dark skin were meant to hide and wear dark colours and make sure they stayed out of the sun. Then I moved to Atlanta for college. A city with a vastly African American population. My college had students from the African American community as well as first-generation African immigrants. Immigrants like me, who had moved to the US to study. Seeing dark skin celebrated changed me. I had never seen people with dark skin wear bright colours and confidently dance up a storm, celebrating their beauty. I began to unlearn the colourism I grew up with, the racism I had normalized.
Let me break down the steps I took to unlearn misogyny and racism.
Step 1: Acknowledge the line between a joke and a slur
There’s a concept in a comedy called punching up. It’s okay to make fun of someone in a position “above” you. Someone more influential or wealthy or well-read. For example, if Shashi Tharoor makes a typo in his tweets and someone makes a joke about it, that’s okay because he’s widely known to have an impressive vocabulary and command over English. But if you laugh at a grammatical error made by someone whose second or third language is English, that’s not okay. They’re learning, they’re trying, and you are punching down.
As a rule, any comment made about a group that has been marginalized, oppressed, or historically poorly treated, will not count as a joke. It’s a slur. You cannot make fun of a woman being in the kitchen because historically, women have been prevented from leaving the house, pursuing education, and have been forced to drop their careers to stay at home. You’re making fun of oppression which is not cool. Similarly, if you live in Bangalore and you call someone from the North East a ‘chinki’, it’s racist. They are the minority, you are the majority, and you’re punching down. But if they make fun of you, that’s still okay. They’re punching up, towards the majority. If you get offended by that, imagine how much worse they feel. You hear it once, but they listen to it a thousand times.
Step 2: Acknowledge your privilege
If you’re reading this in English on a smartphone, congratulations, you are privileged. If you speak in English regularly, if you’ve travelled abroad, if you go on holiday with your friends, you are exempt. As soon as you acknowledge that, you can become more mindful of whether you are punching up or punching down when you make a comment or what you think is a joke.
Of course, not all of us are privileged in every way. Some of us are rich, but rich women have less privilege than rich men. A gay, rich, able-bodied man has different struggles than a straight, rich man in a wheelchair. Figure out where you stand and be honest about the things that you DON’T have to deal with every day. It’s easy to figure out what’s difficult for you, but it’s difficult to admit what’s easy for you.
Step 3: Observe your inner voice.
We all have an inner voice that speaks out of habit. My inner misogynist wants to say “ugh, women drivers are the worst.” but I have to stop myself and remember that it’s not okay to think or say that because I’m perpetuating a stereotype. Maybe that wrong driver is a woman, but she’s not necessarily a wrong driver BECAUSE she’s a woman. There are plenty of great women drivers and bad male drivers.
Your inner voice might be racist, sexist, or homophobic. Still, the key is to hear it, acknowledge it, and correct it every single time you have a thought that perpetuates oppression and stereotyping. Understandably it’s easier to navigate the world by observing patterns and adjusting accordingly, but remember that a pattern has exceptions, and stay open to the idea that your assumption may be incorrect.
Step 4: Intervene. Call out.
The best way to create change is to start with those closest to you. You will have a much more significant impact calling out your friend for using the n-word than you will be sharing a post on Instagram. Start having uncomfortable conversations. Even if you don’t change the mind of the person you’re arguing with, there might be a bystander listening and learning from you. There might be a bystander who had given up hope that someone would stand up for someone like them, but they see you do it, and they have faith again.
Use your privilege wisely. If people pay more attention to you because you’re in a position of right and power, use that voice well. Use it to amplify the voices of those who have pushed aside, silenced, and discredited. It can be as simple as this telling someone who made fun of dark skin that it’s not cool to do that. You might have to deal with an uncomfortable conversation, but that is still less painful than living your whole life believing and feeling ugly because you’ve been told that your dark skin makes you less beautiful.
To cite some cliches – change begins at home, be the change you want to see, stand up for what you believe in, and have hope that your words and actions make a difference. The world is not cold, cruel, and unchanging. The world is also not going to fix itself. It is our collective action that will make a difference. So start today, start small, and believe that even if one person benefits from your efforts, you’ve changed the world.