"My intention is not to place blame or point fingers, and it’s important to remember that, globally, it is white people who have to do the serious work of unlearning racism."
In the Fall of 2017, Mika Yaakoba-Zohar spent the semester studying abroad with CIEE in Hyderabad, a city in the South Indian state of Telangana. As part of the program, participants enrolled directly in classes at the University of Hyderabad, and spent most of their time on campus. Mika says it was a wonderful experience that she would definitely recommend, but like anything, it wasn’t always positive, and she always tried to think critically about many aspects of her experience. The following is a piece she wrote for her program’s newsletter, Hydertales, in which she attempts to analyze in a political light the attention she would receive as a foreigner.
If you’re in Hyderabad and you are white and female-passing, you will be stared at. I’m sure if you are in Hyderabad and you are a number of other things you will also be stared at, but I can only speak to my experience. And let me tell you, the experience is not always fun, especially at first.
During orientation, CIEE took its students, five white girls (coincidentally all blue-eyed, as one participant noticed) to the old city. Once ruled by the Muslim Mughal Empire, Hyderabad became an independent region when viceroy Asif Jah I declared its sovereignty in the 18th century and became its first Nizam. During British colonialism, the city continued to be ruled by the Nizams as a princely state. The city therefore has a strong Muslim influence, and the old city remains a predominantly Muslim area. So, as you might imagine, a group of five white girls walking through a very crowded street filled with burkas can draw some attention. Navigating the packed streets, as I stretched further and further outside my comfort zone, the weight of my decision to study abroad in India set in.
But it’s not only in these more extreme situations that the stares are palpable. Just standing on the side of the road waiting for a rickshaw every morning—let alone mornings when I walk to school—draws looks that even when I’m in a good mood are hard to ignore.
At first being constantly looked at was quite unsettling, especially for someone like me who is not only unaccustomed to but also pretty uncomfortable with receiving attention in the first place. And I found that actually a good way to cope with this newfound attention was regarding it intellectually, distancing myself from it, asking myself, Why is it so interesting to look at someone who is different from you? We’ve all had experiences in which we see someone different and can’t help but stare. It’s part of our humanity; we are wired to be curious about someone different. We want to see the human in them, to see that they are like us even though they don’t look like us. Our values are illuminated in the conclusions we draw from that difference, but the curiosity itself is not malevolent. Regarding it in this rather detached way helped me deal with a pretty uncomfortable feeling and encouraged me to sympathize with the people around me.
But it wasn’t long before I began considering the attention I was getting in a political light, especially as certain incidents became increasingly ambiguous in their innocuousness. For example, especially when we’re in a group, people often ask to take pictures with us. I’ve experienced this much less since establishing a routine, but the first couple of times I was confused and unsure what to do. After some preliminary thought my attitude about it was pretty casual, thinking, what harm could taking a picture with some Indian children do? But the more it happened the more uneasy I felt. It’s not just that people want to take pictures of you, which would be weird enough; they want to take pictures with you, as if you’re somebody not just different, but important. I couldn’t imagine a reverse situation in which a white person asked to take a picture with a black or brown person. I don’t know what this discrepancy really means, and it’s likely that for every individual or family that asks to take a picture the motivation is different, but it feels significant. And for me it feels like consenting to being photographed is accepting not only a way of thought but also a systemic reality that regards me as superior, one which I want to work towards resisting.
Other experiences are more clearly about the value of my skin color. Recently two other CIEE students and I went to a school for disadvantaged children. As we were shown around the school, in every classroom the lesson was stopped in order for us to have basic conversations with the children, all the while our host was taking pictures of us. And I don’t blame him; three white girls smiling down at eager brown children is really photogenic, and we’re flooded with these images all the time. But recognizing the harm in them is extremely important. Visually privileging white presence in such a way tends to eliminate indigenous work and activism, a representational omission that has real effects on the ground and often works to discredit the voices that matter most. After all, it is the teachers in the school, whose lessons we were allowed to interrupt, who are ultimately the ones making a difference, not us.
My intention is not to place blame or point fingers, and it’s important to remember that, globally, it is white people who have to do the serious work of unlearning racism. I’m still figuring out how to have these conversations with my Indian friends and classmates without getting frustrated at the wrong people. I’m still figuring out when my presence is political, or rather should be politicized, and when people’s actions in response to my difference should be politicized or just taken as human dispositions.
I also don’t intend to judge or shame any white person’s reactions to these situations. But it’s important to have these conversations both with similarly privileged people and with our Indian classmates because they matter, not only here but also in our communities back home, which are not immune to the valuing of white bodies over others’. I hope that in learning to better navigate these tricky situations of power and privilege we will continue to grow and maybe, just maybe, make a small difference.