In South Africa, the Indian diaspora are the secret peddlers of discrimination rooted in an archaic and irrelevant structural system that has no place or value in the socio-political climate of a country intent on charting a course toward harmony in diversity.
But why are they secret peddlers?
Perhaps secret is not the appropriate adjective here. Maybe ignorance is more suitable. But that seems a bit harsh.
Although both descriptors apply. The perpetuation of discrimination within the Indian communities of South Africa lacks discourse and recognition.
Those intent on spreading the biased poison have little knowledge of what their judgements are actually based on. The tortured history of the kind of systemic prejudice they practice is one that is adopted but never addressed.
When someone criticises a family member for being too dark skinned for example, it is never followed by a healthy dose of interrogation and introspection.
“Why do I think that?”, is hardly ever a question the oppressors will ask themselves.
Newer generations like myself are to blame as well. We love self-identifying as “progressive” and “woke”.
We speak with the grammar of social justice. We use the language of negotiation and outrage. Our identities have been curated with the ingredients of coveted cultural currencies, protest and passion.
Our feet are planted firmly on a ground made of discourse that encompasses the struggles of conservatism, gender discrimination and standards of beauty.
But for all our talking, we find ourselves tongue-tied in the face of family for example. Or at least I know I do.
For example, I recently found myself being attacked for the colour of my skin, the muscle in my calves no less and the greying of my hair by a group of family members over the course of about six hours.
The criticisms fell on me like hail. Hard and fast. Repetitive and painful.
“Why are you so burned”.
“You are so black”.
“You used to be so beautiful and now you are just dark”.
“I keep putting sunblock on the baby because I don’t want him to turn out like you”.
These are just a few examples of the shit-storm I fell prisoner to. I quietly smiled my way through it but when I returned home I burned with self-loathing and insecurity.
Mostly I was angry with myself for not saying anything. But what to say?
Usually I neatly file this type of interaction under “colourism and conservatism”, but that seemed too easy in this instance. So upon further investigation, I realised that both the injustices mentioned above cannot and should not be separated from caste.
In South Africa, I have found that the remnants of casteism remain in the minds of the Indian diaspora generations after indentured labourers reached this country’s shores from the Mother Land, God’s Own Country - India.
Casteism lies in the minds of migrants like an over-riding undiagnosed cancer that manifests in this idea that things like wealth and more European features (including fairer skin and straighter hair) separates a supreme group of people (mostly hailing from the North of India) from the lesser other.
This supreme group is excused from having healthy social standards when it comes to justice.
They can ignore variables like equality, respect and acceptance of people who differ from the ones they’re used to - the ones they encounter on a daily basis in their homogenous societies and social circles.
But because I am so far removed from this system having been born and socialised in a South Africa where this kind of intra-racial and intra-cultural structural class does not exist (or so I thought) I was always suspicious of reading casteism into this degrading kind of family “communication”.
After my recent experience, I realised that by not saying anything, I was normalising this kind of oppression.
In the Bollywood universe and even in the socio-political context of India - the home of this system - caste has become a vulgarity.
A curse. A swear word. It is reserved for smaller, insulated towns where it is used to mobilise people who can benefit from land ownership and business opportunities.
Outside of these towns it is dismissed and frowned upon.
In South Africa, the equivalent of this insulated town is the Indian community.
Laudium in Tshwane for example fits snugly into this spatial category. A place where the oppressive nature of casteism has penetrated other races that have nothing to do with this culture.
(In this respect, casteism cannot be separated from its still thriving and more popular cousin: racism).
Domestic workers are still called “girls” and male service providers who are black are still called “boys”. Sickening.
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds”, sang Bob Marley.
And it is true. Family members need to take action against the colonial norms they revere and the shackles of castetism that allow for enthused insulting statements toward their nieces, who are the products of inter-caste and intercultural marriages, which result in the discrimination of their skin colour for example.
The sad truth is, in my experience, that these offenders are far too busy discussing the things that perpetuate this notion that they are “upper castes”: Their outfits, their cars and other material things of no significance.
There is no time for accountability. Self-castigation even. Education.
Which brings me to a stark yet seemingly obvious realiSation: When I am silent and I often am, out of some weird “respect your elders” bullshit, I am an inadvertent oppressor who operates on the inside.
A space where I could have the most value if I protested instead.
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