This is a very complicated confusing post with a lot of big things in it. And it starts with a very upsetting story, so watch out for that. But I also seed little fun videos within it, so that should lighten things up a bit. Or, if you want only the serious things, you can ignore the videos.
About a year back I ran across a story that had one of those little “hey! That could be me!” twinges. A female white American grad student researcher was interviewing a film director as part of her research (Mahmood Farooqui who co-directed Peepli Live and has tons and tons of advanced academic and artistic credentials). He invited her to come to his house for dinner and forced her to perform oral sex on him. She reported it, and traveled back and forth from America to India to testify in the court cases and so on for 3 years. And then appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, where the case was thrown out because the judge’s initial judgement was found to be sound. This was the judge’s declaration, the reason for throwing out the case as he put it:
In cases where the parties are known to each other, it could be really difficult to decipher whether a feeble ‘no’ – little or no resistance – actually amounts to denial of consent.
She said “no”, but she didn’t say it the right way, so it meant “yes”. Put it another way, being white meant the “yes” was assumed and the “no” had to be proved.
(I guess this is how she was supposed to say “no”. And maybe watch this video to cheer yourself up if the above bit depressed you)
Put a pin in that story for a moment and listen to this other story. When I was flying to India last, the woman sitting next to me on the plane struck up a conversation because I was a young white woman, non-threatening and also a curiosity in that situation. It came up naturally that I liked Indian movies, and within 10 minutes of meeting, she was telling me about having dinner with Aamir Khan a few weeks earlier and offering to help me meet him.
2 or 3 times a year, I am offered the opportunity to meet a major Indian movie star. And I always turn it down. The same thing has happened to the two other women I know who are like me, young white American women who are serious Indian film scholars, not just fans, but have degrees and so on. It’s truly not hard to get that opportunity if you are a young white woman in America.
But see, that only happened because I am white. And American. And upper class. And young. Not because of my intelligence or my knowledge. In that particular example I gave, she had only spoken to me for ten minutes, all she knew was that I have a slightly higher knowledge of Indian movies than you would expect from a white person, and that I was a white person. A white person wearing “nice” clothes who can afford a trip to India. And so I turned that opportunity down, as I have turned it down every other time that has been offered me, because I didn’t feel I had earned it correctly.
(Me and Dhanush in VIP, same person)
It’s something I struggle with, because I know I am getting these offers because of white privilege. It’s not fair, to me or to the person offering or to the other people who might be just as qualified but less white. I know the world isn’t fair, but at least I can do a small part to make sure it doesn’t become MORE unfair.
If you are an upperclass connected educated desi who comes to America, someone who knows film celebrities in India, even works on films, you will find yourself dropping several classes upon arrival. Suddenly myself, a young white woman from merely a “good” family, will be your equal or your superior. I can take advantage of that if I want, my white and my American privilege, to make these connections, but that would be wrong.
At the same time, I know I am a bit of a curiosity. The white girl with the long hair who actually likes Indian movies. If I were desi, I wouldn’t be that curiosity. I would be less interesting to meet, less of an important thing to offer up to someone as an experience. And so there are, I am sure, young desi American scholars who are struggling for these opportunities that fall into my lap.
And it’s not fair to myself. If I took these opportunities, I would always have that little rough spot in my mind asking “did I get that because I deserved it or just because I am young and white?” I’m not talking about meeting someone as a fan, that’s different. I’m talking about meeting someone as a semi-professional the way I am. Getting a career advantage from (maybe) the color of my skin. That’s part of the reason I like blogging. I certainly don’t hide who I am here, but it’s not the very first thing you see the way it is if you meet me in person. You get my thoughts first, and decide if they are worth paying attention to in a color blind way.
(Not like you are sitting around dreaming of what I might look like, my photo isn’t hard to find, but it also isn’t the very first thing you see)
And there’s that rape story in my head. The whole thing, the young female scholar who thought she was just doing an interview, the older male director who was excited at the idea of this young woman in his home, the evening that surely included a series of danger signs that she ignored because it was a different culture, she didn’t want to be rude, maybe she was misunderstanding him. The attack, the shock of it, the inability to fight back. And then the long long long court case, doing the right thing by filing a case and testifying, flying all the way back to India over and over again. And finally being told, “no, you didn’t say ‘no’ the right way, the way we expected you to, you didn’t act the right way, and so anything that happens to you is okay.”
This is the problem with white women in India. I mean, it’s a problem with all women in India as well, but for white women in particular there is behavior which would be normal and not necessarily sending any signals in white culture but can be seen as a non-verbal “yes” in India that any “feeble no” cannot override. And this is why that story is so chilling for me, because if I were to be that grad student (which I easily could be), I would of course meet someone at their house for dinner (assuming we had already met multiple times in other places) and not think anything of it. I would smile and nod politely when they talked, I would wear shirts that didn’t button all the way to the collar and had sleeves shorter than 3/4 length, I would shake hands, I would make direct eye contact, and I would have no idea of the signals I am sending.
In America, I send a strong signal of “nope!”. I don’t wear make-up, I have long natural hair, I am modest to the point that when I was in college I once had someone ask me if I was a member of some sort of ultra-conservative Christian community with a strict dress code. But in India, the things that to me signal “purely professional and friendly and nothing else” would signal “another white woman, available”.
And I can’t really signal anything else. Even if I wear a sari, I would just look like a white woman in a sari, which is even more tempting. If I say “Namaskar” and fold hands instead of shaking them, I look like a white woman who is into Indian culture and therefore even more available. If I stop smiling at people, I look like a white woman who is troubled and tempting. Plus, I can’t stop smiling, my lips just turn up every 30 seconds and I can’t stop them!
(The smile is not a lie either, I am a happy person who likes people and my face shows it)
Not that I am complaining about this! I am aware that it is a result of my white privilege, which has benefited me in so many ways. I send these signals, wear these clothes, talk freely with men, because I have been raised to believe I am untouchable, I have in fact been untouchable, a smile and a friendly word getting me out of all kinds of situations from airport security lines to thesis extensions in grad school. I am a good person, so I try not to take advantage of my white privilege as much as possible, but it is still always there. And it has made me act free and easy and powerful, smiling at people and shaking hands and wearing low cut tops and tight jeans, that is the gift of an easy life. One of many gifts.
Here’s an example of another gift of my white skin and gender. The first time I was in India with my sister, we were walking down the street in Bombay and we noticed a cool old school, St. Xaviers. We stopped in front and took pictures and then the guard sitting by the gate waved us over and asked if we wanted to go in. We were confused, had a sort of “sure, but is that allowed?” reaction since it was so clearly a locked and guarded gate. The guard unlocked the gate for us and escorted us inside. Inside, there was a film shoot going on (you know this courtyard, it’s been used in dozens of films). One of the people with the production saw us standing there and rushed over to bring us plastic chairs to sit on, and offer water. We sat there for about 45 minutes, watching what was happening (no celebrity sightings, seemed like maybe just an ad shoot) and then wandered out. While we were there, another white tourist came over to us. He had happened upon the shooting in the same way, thought it looked interesting and been invited inside. But, he pointed out in a kind of joking way, “they didn’t offer me a chair!” Being invited in, that was the gift of our skin tone. But being given a chair, that was because of our gender.
This is what it is to be a white woman in India. You are welcome EVERYWHERE. Not just allowed in, but welcomed, offered seats and beverages, fawned over. Especially if you are a young white woman. Especially if you are friendly and interested and asking questions about what an Indian man is doing.
I read a lot of journal articles written from field research in Indian film, and this is essentially how it goes. You just kind of show up, be white (and preferably female), and ask for things. And people give them to you. I know any time I wanted to I could meet movie stars, interview them, have direct access. Not just in the abstract, I know that because it has been offered to me and I’ve turned it down. Offered to me multiple times by multiple people. But, I don’t want it that way.
(DON’T want it this way)
It would be different if someone contacted me through my blog. Or really got to know me before making these offer. Or offered to help me meet a fellow reviewer or scholar or someone else more behind the scenes. Any of those things would indicate that they had a real knowledge of who I am and what my skills are and what I am interested in. But “white girl meeting movie star” is a very different situation. And I don’t want that, I don’t want to be handed up as a curiosity to a celebrity.
Maybe that’s foolish and short-sighted, but that’s how I feel. It would just be wrong. It’s the same reason I won’t do trailer reaction videos on youtube, if you want me to react to a trailer I am going to talk about how the film differs from the director’s previous work and the indications of the themes and so on, I’m not going to play the “white” card and let my skin color do the work for me and be yet another one of those “look at this white girl react the first time she sees _____” videos. I may not be able to get taxis to stop stopping for me or police officers to stop letting me off with a warning, or the TSA to stop waving me through airport security, or all the other advantages I have as a white woman, but I can do this much.
The other reason I turn down these opportunities is because I am scared. Because I know that at least part of that white woman privilege, in India and elsewhere, comes from a place of “and then she will have sex with me”. Or even, “and then she will owe me sex.” And so I don’t want to accept a favor that would end up putting me alone in a room with an Indian man, especially not a middle-aged Indian man. Not the movie star so much, but his secretary or manager or local contact who will be excited at the idea of this sweet young white woman. Who I know is excited (or expected to be excited) at that idea because I am offered this opportunity when all they know about me is that I am young and female and white and sweet.
Middle-aged Indian men scare me sometimes. Very very rarely, but sometimes. I traveled all over Bombay on my first visit, even getting lost and wandering through the back alley areas where they really didn’t expect to see a white tourist, and I was never afraid. People were lovely to me, kind and friendly and helpful and respectful and there was never a moment’s sense that I might be in danger. Back home in America, I live in the Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi neighborhood. I wander in and out of the sweet shops, see the young men sitting at tables watching me, and there is no fear. Sure, they like seeing a young white woman there, but they won’t do anything to me, and if I speak to them, they will smile and be polite and kind. Joke and flirt a little maybe, but no more than that.
The only time I have felt afraid around desi people was a few years back when I went to an academic conference that, eventually, I realized was funded by a Hindu religious organization interested in spreading “Indian culture” (meaning Hinduism). It was very weird. I got there and I was the only white woman in a room of primarily middle-aged Indian men. That sort of “gut check” safety feeling immediately went off. I just somehow did not feel safe. I’ve been the only woman in a room of men before, and that hasn’t scared me. Because, I’m white. And I’m tall and have a loud voice and just generally a confident demeanor. And I’m American, and within my own country I know how the norms are supposed to be and what is supposed to happen so long as I am with other Americans. But there is something different about being with a bunch of upperclass middle-aged men who were born and raised in India and being the only white woman, a young white woman. So I excused myself from that room as soon as possible without being rude* and for the rest of the conference I stuck close to the 3-4 other women and double-locked my door at night.
Probably nothing was ever going to happen, but there was something about the way they looked at me and interacted with me, like even a glance was exciting, like they wanted an excuse to talk to me directly, or touch something I had touched, that made me feel “exotic” in a really ugly way. And that, finally, is what brings me to white female characters in Indian films. They are “exotic”. It is exciting just to be near them, just to show them in the background gives the male audience an immediate high. They are there for that, their white skin and the thrill it gives, not to have characters or personalities or even act.
It is a rare film that lets the white woman be a person. And a truly remarkable film that acknowledges her whiteness and moves past it. One of the many things that Rang De Basanti did well was how they handled the interracial relationship. It starts with Aamir talking to his friends in Hindi in the usual way about this hot white lady. But then it moves past that. He learns to appreciate her passion, her sense of humor, her strength. By the end of the film, he is joking about whether their children will be white or brown, so far beyond the color that it is funny to even pretend it matters.
That’s what I want for myself. I don’t want to be “white and sexually available”. Or “smart for a white girl”. And definitely not “white and therefore automatically smarter and better”. I just want to be smart and good for myself and get ahead that way. Maybe it’s idealistic, certainly it is making my life a lot harder than it needs to be, but that’s how I feel.
Which doesn’t mean you have to feel the same way. But I think we can all agree that being a white person, and a woman, who is studying a non-white culture, is a complex situation that requires constant thoughtfulness.
*I just noticed the “without being rude” that I put in naturally when describing what happened. Because it is always my first thought, how to avoid hurting other peoples’ feelings, how to not make a scene. And that is why I probably shouldn’t risk some situations. Because that well brought up little white girl “don’t be rude, always be nice” instinct could get me in big big trouble if I let it. And I suspect the same is true for many women traveling between cultures, white to desi OR desi to white or any other combination, a lot of behavior that is read as “sexy and easy” is in fact “too polite to know how to get out of this situation within a different culture”.