Traveling while Black: India

Namaste. Mirenam Dieynabou he. Me America se-who. My Hindi has greatly improved since my first visit to my research village. I can now introduce myself and ask for Pani (water), which is crucial here in Rajasthan.

I am working in a team of four people — an NGO professional based in Delhi, a Master’s student from Kerala and a Master’s student of political science from Sweden. We all bring different perspectives, skills and knowledge-bases to the team. Together, we are working with the Manjari Foundation, an NGO that specializes in women’s empowerment and livelihood. Manjari is a young organization; it was founded in 2015 and is financed by Hindustan Zinc’s and Vedanta’s CSR engagements. Hindustan Zinc and Vedanta are large mining operations in India, and just like any large corporation, people have very strong feelings about their ethics.


            Meeting with our NGO mentors and engaging in some team bonding

 Within our research village, Manjari’s work focuses on building women’s institutions, or self-help groups (SHGs). These groups work as money-lending institutions, where a group of women (10-15 members) comes together to pool a specific amount of money per month. Women from the group are able to borrow money at a low-interest rate of about 2 percent. The interest that is returned belongs to the whole group. There are also two higher level organizations. The first is the village organization. Two representatives from each SHG in a village form a village organization where they discuss empowerment at the village level. The highest level is the federation, where representatives from the village organization come together to discuss empowerment and livelihood at the Block or District level (think county or city). Manjari recognizes that having access to money does not lead to empowerment. Its hope is to leverage the SHGs so as to create institutions that lead to empowerment and livelihood.


Three different sections of our research village

During our first village visit, we set out to learn what resources and institutions exist at the village, who has access and who uses the resources, and identify some preliminary problems that we could research deeper. To meet these learning objectives, as a team, we planned to meet with different people in the village and have informal conversations, walk around the village to get a lay of the land and engage some villagers in a social mapping exercise. All of this played out, but not without roadblocks.


Familiarizing ourselves with our research village and the resources available to its residents

The main roadblock for my team was language. India is a large and diverse country; therefore, there are many languages spoken. In my village, which I won’t name for confidentiality purposes, people speak a mix of Hindi and a local language, Mewari. In my group, we have one strong Hindi speaker. Another group member picked up Hindi while living in Delhi for two years. Another member of my group and I primarily use English in India. Therefore, the two non-Indians really struggled to be a part of conversations with the villagers. Although our two other group members tried to translate and ask questions on our behalf, we were not able to build rapport with the people we met.


Social mapping exercise and meeting with a government high school principal

Another roadblock for me is anti-blackness in India. I do not use this word lightly. As a black woman traveling abroad, I recognize that it is much harder to travel because people will be curious about me. They will stare and try to place me. Where am I coming from? What I am doing there? I completely understand this natural curiosity in instances where people have never seen a black person before. In India, the staring is quite ridiculous. Whether they are walking or driving, people slow down to catch a long glimpse. They get close and look at you straight in the face and look away when you look back. Sometimes it’s a bit much and I get overwhelmed; I hate being the center of attention. But the staring is something that I can become accustomed to because I am different.

However, there’s another dimension that is unique to India, the caste system. The caste system designates your position in Indian society. It designates the schools you attend, the jobs you have, the social capital you can build, etc. For instance, in my research village, although mixed-caste, certain castes live together, they attend certain temples, they live closer or farther to public resources. The General caste (a mix of high caste groups) has better jobs, larger homes, more assets in their homes, and live closer to public resources. In the village that I am living in, about 1 km away, the same is true. Despite this, caste does not dictate every part of your life. In conversations with my Indian colleagues and professors, there are mixed thoughts on whether the caste system still has a strong influence on social mobility and social influence. Therefore, I recognize that my experiences with caste are (1) limited, and (2) perceived through my experiences with social inequities in the U.S.

In the field, one conversation highlighted the caste demarcations in India. A wedding was happening across the street, but my host family was not attending. My group members and I found this odd, as they are neighbors. We asked why our host family was not attending. Our host’s daughter said, “We are from a high caste group and they are from a lower caste, so we won’t attend”. We probed further. We learned that as a higher caste, their mother has informed them not to mix with the lower caste. They can be friends, but they cannot eat at their friend’s home because they are dirtier and they can’t attend their social gatherings. I was honestly shocked by how matter-of-fact she spoke about this. From my observations, there were not many differences between the families except that my host family was more well off. As an outsider, I question what makes my host family better than their neighbors beyond caste.

Colorism is also deeply-ingrained in India, just like many other parts of the world. Indian societal norms say that the lighter you are, the more beautiful you are. Many Indians avoid tanning and some use bleach creams to lighten their complexion — nearly all of the creams, deodorants and beauty products are whitening or anti-tan. I have had conversations with the other Indian students, professors and professionals, and they have confirmed that these beliefs and practices exist.

So what does this mean for my interactions in my research village? What I have concluded is that given these social hierarchies, I am looked down upon. In the village, people assume that I am in the world’s version of the “lower caste group” because I am black. Therefore, people don’t engage with me. I am traveling with two native Indians and a white Swede. The disparities in how I am treated are quite apparent. I am not met with open hostility, but I am completely ignored during meetings. When I ask questions, people address my other group members and ask them questions in return. If people were curious about me, I believe they would ask me about myself as they do with my colleagues, but instead they do not give me attention. Given that I only spent 3 days in the villages, I am hoping during my longer field visits, the situation improves. This is something that I will continue to grapple with during my time with India and on which I would like to further reflect, so I’ll post an update in due time.

“Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” – Zora Neale Hurston



No meeting is complete without chai

4 thoughts on “Traveling while Black: India

  1. Thank you so much for writing about this and bringing attention to it! Colorism is virtually impossible to detangle from Indian culture. As a darker-skinned Indian woman, I have dealt with colorism my entire life given so much of my family is still in India and hasn’t had much of a motive to open their minds to values that the aren’t familiar with. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to grapple with these issues as a Black woman.

  2. Such a thoughtful post. Bangladesh is not a Hindu country, but traces of the caste system still permeate. You’re making me come to new realizations about my experiences in Bangladesh with your writing, even if it’s indirectly relevant: “my experiences with caste are perceived through my experiences with social inequities in the U.S.” Such good writing.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Tasfia. Can’t wait to discuss this more in person! I’d love to hear more about your experiences in Bangladesh.

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