Dealing with casual racism

November 18, 2019
muscle man

The above tweet triggered quite a response in me. During my stay in the US, casual and extremely rarely the non-casual kind were a constant source of dissatisfaction in an otherwise comfortable life.

After my return to India, many of the projects that I took on were also from the US or from the Europe and the casual racism was even more pronounced and frequent. Part of the reason for starting Puthir was a need to provide affirmation and confidence to kids that will inhabit this increasingly divisive but completely connected world.

Indian men don’t have muscles

Is that racist? Isn’t it just a fact? Is it alright to say that in front of an Indian family with a young kid? What was the tone of the comment? What was context? What was the intention?

The problem with casual racism is any reaction to it will always be labelled as over-reaction or hyper-sensitivity or can’t take a joke. This particular comment is racist and sexist at the same time (since it was suffixed with, hey look, my wife has more muscles than Indian men) since the only purpose was to be derogatory.

The story of an Indian man

I met with an accident a while back. I was rendered paraplegic and a spinal fixation was recommended. At some point in time, the surgery I went through was considered a failure and I was sent back home for recovery. My organization at that time completely screwed up the corporate insurance, so the financial burden was on me and my family. Loans from family and friends kept us afloat.

There was this one time, when we needed 10K and my dad went to get it from a bank in a city (Yeah, no ATMs near our house then). On his way back, he got mugged and lost the 10K. He came back home inconsolable. I lay in my bed, unable to move, hearing a grown man wailing outside. The next day he took my mom’s jewelry and went to the city again and brought home the 10K. My dad didn’t have muscles.

I worked hard (remember Kill Bill’s tell your mind to tell your leg to tell your foot to move your toe - I had to do that) and recovered and went back to work first with two crutches, with one, with a stick and then on my feet with a weird gait. I paid off my loans and some more. I don’t have muscles.

The lack of muscles in Indian men has a rich story behind it. In fact several stories. Each belonging to a muscleless man.

Stereotypes without stories

Stereotyping is unavoidable. We all do it. But education and civilization have brought us to a point where we can control our instincts and apply rationality. It is important to know the story behind a stereotype. If someone fails to take that step to know the story they are making a mistake. If they repeat their behavior, they are racist.

Avoiding casual racism at work

It is hard to combat casual racism when there is a power imbalance. In order to avoid this, leadership needs to be strong and vocal and call out inappropriate behavior when it happens. Perhaps all that is needed is a talk, a swapping of stories. Perhaps sometimes, something stronger.

A wake up call.