Treating Africans With Respect: Why is it So Difficult?

(The following article is being republished from The Quint’s archives in light of the latest attack on a Nigerian national in Delhi’s Malviya Nagar. A video showing the man being mercilessly thrashed for an alleged theft emerged on Monday. The article was originally published on 3 April 2017.)

Last year, while I was attending a summer school in Germany, I met someone from an African country. He was a research scholar at the institute and when I told him I was from India, he immediately said – "Oh, we have a colonial bond. We were both colonised.”

He was a nice person and interesting to talk to.

When we visited the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, I asked him what he thought and he said, "We have had our own holocaust. It is interesting that we don’t talk about it as much".

We didn’t speak a lot, but these were some things that I learnt from him.

I didn’t tell him that while we do have a “colonial bond”, we Indians also have a colonial hangover. We continue to love our colonisers and we even discriminate against the fellow colonised i.e. Africans in India. We do to them exactly what was done to us – something we condemned and yet internalised.

Are We Truly ‘Independent’?

I must admit that our first interaction, wherein he brought up the “colonial bond”, took me by surprise. I wondered why he was talking about this. It was history, after all; we’re independent now.

But now when I think about it, I wonder if we really are independent? In our minds, we are still colonised. The truth is that we don’t really mind racism or discrimination on the basis of colour because we have grown up believing that "white" is the colour to revere and anyone who is not white is not human. We do this to ourselves but are much worse to them (Africans). While the world has moved towards breaking stereotypes and problematising pre-conceived definitions, understandings, fixed images of populations, we Indians are still stuck in the colonial era.

Some people physically attacked Africans but a lot of us mock, snigger, pass comments at them and this is no less a crime. I have come across many Africans in shopping places in Delhi – and I never see them asking an Indian for help. I’ve rarely seen them approach an Indian, and have always found them keeping to themselves, not looking at anyone. This is in contrast to white tourists who I’ve often seen ask for directions or assistance. Now, when I think about it, I reason that they probably avoid Indians because they don’t want to get in trouble. They don’t know if we will treat them well.

I am also sure that they must be accustomed to the way we look at them and behave with them.

The Stereotypes Need to Stop

It is such an irony that this happens in the country where we say “attiti devo bhava” and regard our guests to be like God. Perhaps we’d be able to imagine what they went through if we left our country and went to live in a Western one. The sense of liberation that some may feel is accompanied by a sense of fear, insecurity and unpredictability. One often feels lost. In countries where English is not the main language, things are tougher. We cannot be sure about how we would be treated.

Life is harsher for refugees outside. They not only struggle for space but for dignity. The Africans in India do not really come as refugees.

They come as students, employees, medical patients, etc. We need to empathise with them. They are no different. We know that the Africans have had a cruel history; several African countries are still suffering and we, the people of a developing nation, are also being cruel to them. We cannot stereotype an entire community because of acts that we have only heard about because we’ve never really made an attempt to interact with them, know them.

We need to stop being such racists. We need to reach out to them, understand them and accept them.

(Devika Mittal is pursuing a Ph.D in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics. She is the Convener(India) of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, a joint Indo-Pak Friendship initiative and a core committee member of Mission Bhartiyam. She tweets at @devikasmittal)

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