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Race backlash against Nina Davuluri shows OUR true colours

September 21, 2013 14:37 IST

The global stigma of discrimination will go only when Asians and Africans have the self-confidence to be themselves, says Sunanda K Datta-Ray

Disraeli was wrong. Race isn't quite the ultimate reality.

As Nina Davuluri, the spunky new Miss America, is finding out, colour is.

This was already in the news when Nina was crowned beauty queen. Naomi Campbell, the first black model to grace the cover of Vogue magazine, had just launched a stinging attack on discrimination in the multi-trillion dollar fashion industry.

This applies to America rather than Britain. The British have made a heroic about-turn on what used to be called the colour bar. You never hear the phrase nowadays. London, in particular, is determinedly multiracial, treating blacks, browns, yellows and whites the same in every sphere, with the same deference or disregard.

Those 'No Coloureds' signs vanished long ago. Patronising old Englishwomen don’t any longer go about jabbing coloured men with their bags and brollies to be able to smile sweetly and apologise! The secret pockets of resistance are not generally seen or heard.

It’s different in the United States. There, Nina’s experience and Naomi's complaint are reminders of the Biblical Ham, Noah's son, whose progeny was 'doomed and cursed to be hewers of wood and drawers of water". In fact, Ham’s grandson was called Cush, the Hebraic word for black. Africans are said to be his descendants.

The Bible itself doesn’t claim whites are superior but perceptions and interpretations matter more than literal truth. Not only is the faith of the Bible associated with Caucasians but South Africa’s former apartheid regime used the legend of Ham to justify their repugnant system.

Everyone knows there’s a scientific explanation for pigmentation. Everyone also knows the political and economic reasons for identifying whites with mastery. Much has been written about both. If colonialism expressed white dominance, Bandung, non-alignment and even perhaps Islamicism express the underdog’s rejection of the status quo.

Naomi Campbell, who has modelled for Yves St Laurent and Versace, laments that only six per cent of the models in the recent New York Fashion Week were black and nine per cent Asian. She contrasted the 85 per cent white domination with New York City’s 45 per cent white population.

It’s a truism that blacks, browns and yellows vastly outnumber the world’s whites. But numbers don’t denote power. Certainly not when the majority wants to resemble the minority.

That’s where the rub lies. Discrimination persists not just because whites are supremacist but also because blacks, browns and yellows want to be white. All the self-styled whites and political reds in Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop were actually black.

Rabindranath Tagore declared bitterly after a brush with San Francisco immigration that Christ himself would be refused entry to the US because he was "Asiatic".

Jawaharlal Nehru wrote feelingly about the global hierarchy descending from Anglo-Saxons through the Mediterranean races to Latin Americans. Asians and Africans were at the bottom. But those who encountered Nehru in real life didn’t think this global caste system affected the cordiality with which he treated Caucasians.

Could any Indian journalist say with James Cameron, a British reporter I knew, liked and admired, that Nehru had peeled apples for him at breakfast?

Trinidad-born V S Naipaul, with Indian parents, presents another paradox. Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford when Naipaul was honoured in some way long before the Nobel Prize,

"That clever little nigger Naipaul has won another literary prize. Oh for a black face!"

But it’s doubtful if despite sentimental journeys to the land of his fathers, Naipaul thinks of himself as other than an upper-class English gentleman.

An entry in the diary of his English first wife hinted at what Derek Walcott, another West Indian writer but of Negro descent from the island of St Lucia, who won the Nobel Prize in 1992, called "Naipaul’s repulsion towards Negroes".

Walcott mocked him as "V S Nightfall".

At lower, non-intellectual levels, the soaring sales of skin whiteners and hair straighteners, the popularity in the Far East of eye-straightening operations and Indian obsession with "wheat-complexioned" brides acknowledge a surreptitious admiration for Caucasians.

The Japanese used their financial clout to demand "honorary white" status in apartheid South Africa. Even the Chinese look down on pigmented skin.

The stigma will go only when Asians and Africans have the self-confidence to be themselves. It will happen one day.

To adapt St Joan's poignant question, "O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will its majority stop yearning to be like the minority? How long, O Lord, how long?"

Nina’s spirited response to abuse may have been a straw in the wind of change.

Image: Nina Davuluri at the Miss America contest ' Photograph: Reuters

Sunanda K Datta-Ray