46-year-old George Floyd was arrested in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25 on the charge of having used forged currency. When police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, while seizing him, he may not have even remotely guessed the gravity of the spark his actions were about to ignite. After 10 minutes of begging for his life, Floyd passed away. The pressure was too much; the weight was too much, the length of time was too much – Floyd’s pleas for life had fallen on deaf ears. The video of him repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe,” went viral and started a mass movement across America that sent shivers down its collective spine.
#Blacklivesmatter became a call for unity against oppression for which millions of Americans came out in solidarity in marches across the country. Riots ensued, and so did looting… the movement gained momentum and mirrored-marches took place in other parts of the world. Officer Chauvin was slapped with several charges, ranging from murder to manslaughter and taken into custody along with his fellow police officers, who were with him when Floyd breathed his last. Too little, too late – the world had awoken to a whole different kind of revolution.
Dialogue revolving around the treatment of African Americans and other minorities has been raging in the US for quite some time now. The Police, in particular, have been blamed for brutality, often found guilty of using excessive force while dealing with non-white ethnic groups. And all this over the colour of one’s skin! In this day and age?
Skin colour has been an issue in Asia and India for millennia. Through racial diversity, there has arisen a form of racism here that is perhaps not as obvious as that in the US, but prevalent nonetheless. There are all those obvious clichés – where the bride must be of a certain complexion; even the groom is considered a better catch if he’s two shades fairer. All this is, of course, ingrained into people’s minds by not only an orthodox system of society but surprisingly enough, by popular media as well.
Bollywood has accentuated differences in skin-colour for years. Stars have often endorsed fairness creams and bleach-based products and earned big-bucks for doing so. John Abraham has starred in commercials selling Garnier’s whitening cream, using a shade-card as a prop to show how much fairer one’s skin gets post using the product. Deepika Padukone has done the same for Garnier’s women’s range and Aishwarya Rai and Sonam Kapoor for L’Oreal’s whitening skincare range. But none of them compares to the stellar endorsement given to a single whitening cream than that done by King Khan himself – Shah Rukh for Emami’s Fair and Handsome.
Over several years SRK has endorsed the product by way of a string of ads, where the message is pretty clear, don’t use Fair & Lovely, that’s for the ladies, and use Fair & Handsome, a cream that will take you from being considered just another shoulder to a stud (kandha se bandha). What’s irritatingly prevalent throughout the ad is the message that if you’re a certain skin colour, life for you will not be as great as it can be were you a few shades lighter. One might argue that this is a pretty benign thought, but it is, in fact, the very germ that gives birth to an entire movement of unseen racism… with SRK’s blessings to boost.
This message permeates into parts of society, and mind’s in ways that one can hardly fathom. Born on the lighter side of the Pantone card, I never really had to naturally examine the challenges that come along with a regressed, skin-colour based mindset. But at 18 I spied my brother buying a skin-whitening cream from the aisle of a convenience store in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Hours of playing cricket outside had tanned him, so he wanted a solution for the tan. The cream was Fair & Lovely, a male version was yet to hit the market, and I spent hours brutally teasing him for wanting to use a girly cream.
A few years later, when I was working part-time at a hotel in the UK, I was told by a commis chef in the kitchen to ‘take a hike,’ before being explained that ‘this wasn’t India’. Not making much of his statement I narrated the episode to my colleagues behind the reception, one of whom immediately went barging into the kitchen and fired the chef on the spot. What was the man’s crime? He had been racist… he had remarked on my nationality in a derogatory way. And that was wrong! Wrong enough to have him out on his derrière on a rainy road.
Personal incidents like these are two sides of the same coin. While no great harm was done through either of them, I will, however, remember them for the rest of my life. They define racism in a very real way to me. Now imagine, the man or woman, boy or girl, who has to go through life experiencing different doses of this same treatment every day! Being told that one is not good enough and are in some ways bad, can have a profound impact on one’s psychology and self-worth. This eventually also defines the rest of a person’s life trajectory.
Great strides have been made for racial equality throughout history – Lincoln, Mandela, Gandhi and Ambedkar. These men have spent their lives fighting for equality and to negate a thought-process that is ultimately at the root of so much evil in the world. And while we today have equal laws, the time has come for equal opportunities and equal respect – something that can only happen if that thought, that mindset is changed and eradicated forever. Until then, those oppressed will keep rising in protest – the only way they can justify the senseless killing of men like George Floyd. – Vishwaveer Singh