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White Noise

One American writer tasks himself with disentangling the distinct, but overlapping, privileges engendered by a foreign passport, and those that stem from the colour of his skin.

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We might as well start with gay sex.

For the past two weeks, the back of my mind has been occupied by thoughts of how to start writing about my experience as a white man in India. The list of potential anecdotes is interminable. Perhaps a theoretical grounding would prove a more incisive framework. Or maybe I need to talk about everything that I am.I am more than a skin colour. I am a gender. I am a nationality. I am a language. I am a class. I am a sexual orientation. The overlapping privileges encompassed in a straight, white, English-speaking, relatively affluent American man can be more difficult to disentangle than one might imagine.

But those thoughts gave little purchase as an entry point into my experience.

And so we start with gay sex, because it illustrates one of the ways in which people’s ideas about what I am inform the manner in which they interact with me. And, I’ll be honest, because it’s a good hook for the first line of an article.

Nearly five years ago, I traveled, alone, to Pondicherry. Walking through Bharathi Park, I was stopped by an autorickshaw driver who claimed to be curious what I was listening to on my headphones. Prabhu and I spent the next two days together. I gave him three hundred rupees a day and bought his food and drink. He showed me the environs of Pondicherry, and he did it well.

On our second day together, he arranged to meet me at my slightly dodgy hotel, far outside of the charming French colonial centre of Pondicherry. As he packed ganja into a cigarette – his cousin, he told me, had a business in marijuana, or mary-ja-vanna as he put it – he coyly began his questioning:

“Sooooooooo... you are coming from Goa?

“Yep, it was my first time.”

“People are telling me that sometimes, in Goa, boys are having sex with boys.” Long pause. “Is it true?”

“Well, I suppose so, but I’m pretty sure that just about everywhere, boys are having sex with boys.”

“Sooooooooo… do YOU have sex with boys?”

“No, Prabhu, I don’t.”

He erupted into strained laughter as he reassured me: “No, no, no, no, no. Not ALL the time.”

Pause.

Then ever so slyly: “But maybe sometimes?”

“No. Sorry, Prabhu. Not even sometimes.”

And then he tried to give me a massage.

I had only been in India for a few months at this point, but it wasn’t the first time that a man very obviously tried to have sex with me, nor would it be the last. And it’s not that I’ve never been flirted with or hit on by men in the United States. It’s just that it’s not usually so direct and obvious. In India, the approach ranges from something in the vein of Prabhu’s attempt to an outright grab for my cock.

And I’ve thought a lot about why this might be. I have three non-exclusive hypotheses:

- Obviously, a premium is placed on fair skin.

- White people are – not entirely unjustifiably – viewed as being sluts. We’ll do anything, the thinking goes.

- White tourists are more or less risk-free, in terms of social networks. I’m pretty sure Prabhu’s family isn’t aware of his preferences, and there’s a vanishingly slim chance that I’ll ever run into anyone he knows.

And so although an unusual number of unwanted sexual advances are hardly emblematic of any kind of privilege, they illuminate the simple fact that the positions from which I’m viewed and the way they impact my interactions can, at times, be non-obvious.

Indeed, both obvious and subtle forms of privilege intertwine so thoroughly that they can be difficult to distinguish. A friend – a white American who used to live in India – recently pointed out that many foreigners are able to come to India and succeed in endeavours at which they had failed at home. The observation may as well have been pointed at me; I’m in the process of leaving my cushy, well-paid NGO job to work full time as a freelance writer and DJ. I have absolutely no illusions that I could pay my rent every month were I to make a go of this profession back home. In Delhi, my biggest concerns are visa related.

At this point, I don’t really think – this article excepted – that my whiteness holds much sway when editors consider my pitches. But it’s too easy to stop there. Because my whiteness is absolutely implicated in the fact that I have the editor’s email address and phone number in the first place. It’s implicated in the fact that I have access to a network of people that make decisions about who plays in what clubs. And as an American, it builds – rather ironically, if you stop and think for even a moment – my credibility when playing hip-hop.

The logical conclusion, then, might be that all of my friends – brown, by and large – are racists who make their social decisions based on my skin colour. But that would absurdly reduce the complex nature of identity and the palimpsest of biases – class, race, gender and more – within which we all operate.

The reality is that my alabaster complexion says more about me than simply that my ancestors came from Europe. Looking at me and knowing that I’m living and working in India, one can reasonably infer that I’m internationally traveled, educated, English speaking, and relatively affluent. Which is probably a de facto bar – for better or worse – that many of my friends implicitly consider as a process of social screening. I’m given the presumption of acceptability. One can go a long way with that.

And not only does my whiteness open doors and imply certain assumptions about my abilities in a professional context, but I also get to trade on it in every day office encounters. I will admit that I find the sheer number of rules and processes, and the focus on group activities and conforming to group norms in the standard Indian office to be flabbergasting. But I routinely flout small norms and resist all attempts to form one big happy family. Administrators scold me and tell me that my activities won’t be seen as team-friendly.

I respond that I’ve never been much for teams.

And I get away with it because the reaction is something along the lines of “Woh gore log aise hi hai”, with a dismissive cluck.

The police are another matter entirely. I don’t enjoy immunity from prosecution – if anything I’m a target for bribe requests – and I don’t seem to get any special treatment when I have to deal with paperwork in a police station. But those non-privileges pale in front of the two massive privileges I do enjoy: I will not be held on suspicion without charges and I won’t be beaten. Anything that will shine an embassy light on police malpractice is unwelcome indeed; the press follow.

Even this immunity is complex, and highlights some of the ways in which my white privilege intersects with others. In the thana, it is my passport that keeps me safe. My skin colour is only a signifier. If I were desi, but had my American passport in hand, I suspect the police would feel the same hesitation. Likewise, I must recognize that I predominantly socialize with the children of India’s economic and (English speaking) cultural elite. Whether it’s a friend, a cousin, or a father’s business associate, I suspect that many of them have contacts that provide far more protection from the police than my passport ever could.

But, perhaps because it’s so personal, it is in thinking and writing about my romantic life that I struggle the most. My dating life in India has been neither more nor less active than it was when I was in Washington, DC. And I don’t know what to make of that. But I do know that the majority of women that I’ve dated in India have dated at least one foreigner before me. Given the percentage of foreigners in the population, there would seem to be some selection bias at work.

In fact, I know there is. Because there is a conversation – it is usually post-coital and it is never initiated by me – that I have had more times than I would like. This conversation is very long and, typically, she uses a great many convoluted words. But the gist is always the same. She’s telling me that she likes to date foreign men because Indian men are sexist. I am not sure if I am more uncomfortable taking part in this conversation or writing about it in this public forum. I am, in any case, intensely uncomfortable with both.

My discomfort is likely rooted in the way this conversation lays bare the extent of the privilege that I enjoy. It’s not that my wan complexion causes dresses to suddenly fall to the floor; it’s the fact that the interaction that ultimately gets us there may never have happened were my hue a touch swarthier.

I hate the conversation because it makes me feel complicit in what is admitted discrimination on the basis of race. And I hate the conversation because it makes me realize that I could easily remove myself from this association merely by not ending up in that bed in the first place. By virtue of being there, I have made myself complicit. I hate it because the brazenness of the admission serves to remind me of the myriad ways in which I benefit from unadmitted processes of discrimination. It is a signifier for all of the privileges I enjoy, but sometimes succeed in forgetting about.

I am also torn. I am torn because half of me wants to defend the many kind, gentle, respectful Indian men I know. And because the other half of me admits that on occasion, I have been shocked by the way that some of my close friends in Delhi speak about women when none are around. I recently questioned a woman I once dated – a woman who had previous experience with white skin – about these issues. She explained to me that if a white boy caught her eyes in the club, she’d be likely to chat him up. In the case of a desi boy, however, she’d stay away unless he was known and vetted, in some way, through her social circle. The reason, she explained, was that if she changed her mind at any point and told the gora to fuck off, he’d probably fuck off. She didn’t feel nearly as confident that desi boy would do the same.

And by airing her view, I neither endorse nor reject it. This is not an arena I have to deal with. Despite the anecdote with which I begin this piece, I have never felt sexually threatened. Living in Delhi, I would never tell a woman that she should change any behaviour that makes her feel safer. But I also have no basis to determine if her filter is merely the product of deeply ingrained biases around the kind of identities that we collectively ascribe to certain groups.

Because they are outweighed so heavily by my privileges, I am hesitant to publically acknowledge the fact that there are also disadvantages to my origins. But one is worth mentioning.

India can be a very alienating place.

I have never been an Indian in America, though I have known many, and I have discussed this with them. But although one may certainly feel like an other in the United States, I don’t observe – at least in our coastal cities – the overt process of othering that I often encounter in India.

I tend to fall back on the most overt example, from graduate school, in Bombay. A professor of mine felt that she could easily dismiss any argument of mine that ran counter to her own by telling me “well, yes, I could see how that could make sense from a western perspective,” her words dripping with contemptuous distaste. I would often pass my time in her class thinking about the reactions I would get if I told her that the problem with her argument was the frightfully eastern nature of her thinking.

But far more troubling are the myriad ways in which I’m constantly and subtly reminded that I just don’t, can’t, understand. It could be a girlfriend explaining to me how I just don’t understand her family. Or a friend attacking my political argument because, of course, my classical liberal views can be dismissed offhand as a product of my American upbringing. And the truth is, I probably don’t understand her family. At least not as well as I’d like to. But I’m not going to reflexively reject your JNU leftism just because you’re a South Delhi Bengali.

This isn’t the piece that I planned on writing.

I wanted to be serious and rigorous and form a sound theoretical framework. I wanted to drawn on the deep well of literature on white privilege. I didn’t want to just spend these pages talking about myself. And so I dove into the literature on white privilege, only to discover that much of it focuses on whiteness in opposition to blackness. And while newer work often looks at other races, academic literature seems, by and large, to have overlooked the privilege enjoyed by white foreigners in India.

I dug further and spoke to several academics who work on related streams of thought. The best they could come up with was research looking at the social positions of foreigners elsewhere in the region: Singapore, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates. Though I would imagine most Motherland readers have a foreigner or two in their social circle, the number of foreigners of any kind in India is vanishingly small when compared to many of our neighbours.

For two years, I lived in a neighbourhood on the eastern edges of Bombay. In those two years, I never saw a foreigner in the streets who wasn’t with me. And for that reason, I was known to everyone nearby, from the president of the housing society and the panwalla to the barber and to Ratan and Raju, the two men who slept in the street next to my house.

I have never been to Singapore, but I suspect that such an experience would be rare. And so I tossed out the theory that I had, and I started with what I knew. And it isn’t rigorous, and it isn’t firmly grounded in anything other than my thoughts and conversations.

But it’s a start.

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Author: Kerry Harwin

Published: March 2014

Illustration: Reshidev RK