Writing From The Mud Edition Of Stereotyping

As a ‘natives’ of what is still considered today ‘The Third World’ sometimes we get asked the silliest questions, as my students and I were discussing today. It never fails to amaze me how deep and inanely hilarious — where hilarious is the new heartbreaking — stereotypes are. Especially when they are as sensitive as, “Have you ever seen an American toilet?” or “Eaten waffles?”. Another popular one is the assumption that Indians smell of dogs with rabies or something more pungent; we laughed when I brought this one up today but I remember it wasn’t nearly as funny when my friend called me in tears from the UK where some woman got up from her seat just so she could be ‘saved’ from the obviously Poisonous Emissions Of The BrownPeople. Another favourite anecdote is when a woman told me “I didn’t know people could be so educated in India” after I’d given her directions in fluent French. Or when in movie after movie, Indian culture is exoticised, appropriated and eventually reduced to the country that “makes that pepper thingy”, my skin just leaps up in joy. I am not talking about how my pride as an ‘Indian’ — whether I will ever be able to say ‘nationalism’ without sarcasm is an ongoing experiment people of the Olde Interwebes — is tarnished when I hear or am asked such questions but rather how tiny and contained my ‘box’ as this ‘Indian’ is.

Last year, I was sitting at a coffee-house, reading a book and a woman walks up to me and starts inquiring about the book in a rather loud tone. Then she asked me if I could understand the book considering it was in American. Surely, now I cannot think of this anecdote without openly laughing but then I felt as if she was talking to a different version of me, preferably one that was three centuries removed from the present time zone and I was expected to be that way. Frustratingly and sadly these aren’t the only instances of such blatant Othering I can remember. And I’m surely not the only one with such experiences, I’ve heard similar accounts from many people all highlighting that “we” as a culture are somewhere lost in the space-time continuum and can only squeak out a few words of English when addressed to in an ear-shattering decibel and/or accompanied by hand gestures. The point here isn’t how incriminating these remarks are — well not too much anyway — but how people are so ready to stereotype and box people, cultures and ethnicities. Readers of the Olde Interwebes, you will probably defend yourself by saying, “I don’t stereotype people!” or even better “I’m an extremely progressive person with Liberal leanings. Surely I don’t fit into these slots” to which I can only say, let the LadyBrain explains what she means.

When thinking of India, probably the first image that comes up is hordes of people gathered in a crowd, preferably looking uneasy. Or the global favourite — The Charmingly Poor Indian Who Squats In The Mud With The Flies Around Zie’s Face. One assumption is that somehow all Indians squat in the mud, for the longest amount of time; as if squatting in the mud is something that we do, regularly, professionally and perhaps even recreationally. I will not say that we never squat in the mud but just that it isn’t exactly a hobby, to put it delicately. There are hordes of Indians that set out of their homes with a small bucket of water each day, squat on railway tracks while pooping. Again, this isn’t a choice or even remotely entertaining. Instead of considering Indians to be ‘mud-squatters’ it’d do people good if you look at the conditions behind the said mud-squatting. Perhaps tiny annoying facts like neo-colonisation by capitalist markets, cultural imperialist reasons that allow some people to exploit other broken backs, acute and harsh desperation will make one see how mud-squatting isn’t as culturally neutral as it seems. That way, tourists won’t specifically ask to see ‘slum people’ and then proceed to take their photos as one would for a biology study. At least, I hope not.

Despite all your vehement denials, most liberal spaces — virtual or otherwise — even the ones specifically dedicated to ‘Radical Inclusion’ will reserve seats for the ‘limbless handmade paper maker’ (preferably with a few flies always abuzz his face) but will have no space for people that fit into my demographic. This barrier can be easily overcome if I can possibly procure old and historic looking documents that would affirm that I do descend from the MudSquatters as well, hereby reaffirming my comfortably exotic status, ripe for exoticising and appropriating as one wants. Attempts at pathetic humour aside, I get many comments and e-mails that praise my ‘good grasp of the Western world’ along with a remark or two about how UnIndian I ‘seem’ like because apparently I don’t talk like someone who spent their whole life huddled in the corner of a ditch. Or in some backwater place where all sorts of germs and diseases have infested my body. For what use is a healthy person of colour? But, I digress.

The point is, for a person like me i.e. educated, occasionally smart, comfortably affluent and searching ways to negotiate my colonised body and psyche to a space with as few ‘isms’ and ‘ists’ as possible, I (or my ilk) get either spaces dominated by the Canon, White discourse or a space culturally so removed — ironically all the ‘tokens’ of my culture are present there — that I end up feeling alienated. I’m not condoning the activity of encouraging less privileged people as the ever attractive MudSquatters a chance to voice themselves but rather displeased that this middle point of access that I currently embody means nothing to so many people. I used to teach at a school for children of low socio-economic background, donors would request me and other teachers to give whatever they wanted to offer only to the ‘truly needy’. As if the kid who is slightly better off economically speaking doesn’t deserve the perks the other ‘truly deserving’ — another phrase that has yet to be said without sarcasm — get. Even in popular media, either the plot revolves around a rural setting or the extreme élite. The middle-class representation is evidently missing, as if this stubble called the ‘middle ground’ never existed. Similarly, as a WOC, I’m expected to fulfill Cartesian roles : Either to be as far removed from my culture as possible that I’m ‘assimilated’ into the bigger White default discourse or be so ‘exotically’ and ‘consumable’ that my culture becomes a marker for all that I am. It all comes down to ‘To Squat In The Mud Or To Not To Squat In The Mud’. There are no easy answers, except for this one thing I firmly believe in — No matter how much I represent ideal Indianness or not, I’ll never ever be able to do anything just right to anyone’s specifications. So to end with the ever quotable Dorothy Parker, this is my message trying to fit anyone in a cultural box so tiny that even Matthew Arnold wouldn’t like —

” But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do;
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you!”

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3 Comments

  1. Allison Floyd

     /  December 18, 2010

    Wandered over here from Shakesville. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea of there still being people who think of “India” (or, worse, Everywhere Not Here) as though it were one monolithic entity. And yet I know that I’m insulated from a lot of the casual ignorance. Americans are particularly bad about this, with our offhand “Oh, you’re from Canada? Do you know PersonX?” as though Canada were perhaps the size of East Brunswick. My company has an office in Hyderabad; it’s a nice office, with lots of friendly engineers; perhaps this is “too western” for people to consider as being Real India. My best friend at my office is from a middle-class family in Kashmir, and her version of India resembles the mythology about as well as you’d expect somebody from Manhattan to resemble a 19th century ranch hand in Kansas. Is her experience different from mine? Absolutely. Does it fit any of the stereotypes? Not so much.

    Apart from simply trying to educate people one at a time that a monolithic view of The Other is bad and also incorrect, how do we break out of this?

    Reply
    • India is definitely the go-to place when it comes to call centers, engineers and just other professions that fit into the “smart Asian” trope. Real India is nowhere close to Bangalore, Mumbai, Technoparks or hell, even a well-constructed road. Because of repeated use of Indian people with images and general ideas of poverty, slums, to divorce that ‘India’ is very difficult from our daily realities.

      To break out of this cast, I suggest steely determination with the side of really offensive amounts of patience, because it’s really that frustrating trying to ‘educate’ people and STILL have them say, “But, I wasn’t talking about Indians like you, I was just talking about those poor buggers who poop on the streets!”. I’d say, having as many stories, voices, narratives that validate ‘our’ experience as close to it can get, is a good start. Another option — the only option in my view — is to understand how cultural appropriation works, to understand how so many identities are ‘created’ and ‘manufactured’ to fit into the existing world order. Once we are comfortable with the idea that everything we see, hear and read isn’t necessarily a representative of that country or religion, it becomes easier to see the individual behind said action. Once the face behind the stereotype becomes visible, it becomes quite difficult to fix and fit people in confined spaces.

      Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  2. Dominique Millette

     /  May 28, 2011

    This is an incisive and trenchant argument. We truly need to get away from these ideas, and only massive immigration and population exchanges will do the trick. However, I would not blame India for not wanting any more non-Indians from colonizing countries to drop in and actually live there. So the raising of consciousness will only likely occur in the other direction.

    Reply

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