Shola Powell is a student at Georgetown University and studied abroad through IFSA-Butler in India‘s partner the Alliance for Global Education on the Contemporary India: Development, Economy, Society program in Pune, India.
“You look Indian” Suchi said at dinner, as she skillfully molded a ball of rice with her hand, before lifting it to her mouth.
It had been a couple of weeks into my study abroad experience in Pune, India and Suchi was one of five Indian girls who lived in the hostel attachment of my host mom’s apartment, where myself and four other girls in my program were staying. I found her comment ironic, since for the first couple of weeks until that point, and even the remainder of my time in India, I was still not fully accustomed to the stares, double-takes, and head turning that myself and the rest of my study abroad group attracted.
As a group of 17 students, most of whom were white, we drew quite a lot of attention walking through the streets of Pune. As the only Black person within that group, it was interesting for me to experience and compare how people reacted to us as a group of foreign students and how they reacted to myself as an individual. Pune is a bustling city with a population of 2.5 million, in the state Maharashtra, about 3 hours from Mumbai. There are so many colleges in the city that Pune is considered one of the “smartest cities in India” and thousands of college students from inside and outside the city go there for higher education.
It is a city that boasts of its diversity; however, unlike other large metropolitans that I have visited, Pune does not have a lot of racial diversity. In India, a country of over a billion people, a lot of conversations on “diversity” are focused on differences in language, religion, and cuisine.
Racial dialogues, however, I found to be quite uncommon as discrimination based on caste is often seen as India’s version of racism. The caste system is based on ancient Hindu holy scripts: the Dalits, or Untouchables, are at the bottom of a hierarchy and the Brahmins are at the top, each with their own roles in society.
Having lived in the UK, France, and the US, I am used to seeing many faces that don’t look like mine, but I am also used to finding a community of people who do. During my time in India, racial diversity was much more limited.
Although my skin color is much closer to the locals in Pune than that of the other students on my program, I was still viewed as an outsider because I am not Indian.
My hair, though braided and often tied up in a bun, was always a point of interest, with many asking when I would let my natural hair out, excited by the potential to see an afro. Even those who could not speak a lot of English, particularly children, would muster up the courage to ask “West Indies? Africa?” and would smile with content having successfully identified my Caribbean heritage. But this is nothing new to me. I have always been aware of my Blackness and how my “otherness” may be perceived. My peers, on the other hand, had not.
For a long time during my semester abroad I was impatient with my white peers. Although at first they had brushed off the stares and pointing, many had started to feel uncomfortable with the attention and so found comfort in talking about our “shared experience as foreigners”.
In a conversation I had with a girl from my program who is concentrating on South Asian culture, she described how living in Pune had made her more aware of her whiteness. She realized that the surrounding community will always see her as a white woman no matter if she wore a sari, learned Hindi, and lived in India for 10 years.
For the first time, she truly saw herself as the “other” and in that she saw our experience as equal, because I too was “other,” but our experience was not shared, nor was it equal. Yes, we all received stares and pointing, but I would get double takes and people soliciting their friends to also have a look. Yes, we were all asked to be in a selfie, but I would be singled out even when in a group of foreigners. Yes, none of us are Indian, but I’m Black.
In recognizing their whiteness many of my peers had failed to recognize their privilege. They failed to acknowledge the not-so-distant colonial history of India and the legacy of power that white people have held. They failed to notice the prevalence of colorism—TV shows starring fair skinned Indians and bleaching creams on almost every billboard—and how I had to fight not to internalize a similar anti-Black rhetoric.
They failed to understand that although we were all foreign students living in Pune, we did not all have the same experience. I had to take a moment (or several) of reflection, as you often do when studying abroad, and think of the best way to share how my experience was different to my peers without chastising them or patronizing them for only now realizing what millions of people of color go through everyday all over the world.
I had to understand that for many of my peers being white had not been pointed out to them until they landed in a brown country, and like in many experiences that we share with others, they were looking to have a shared experience, but sometimes that’s just not possible.
Before coming to India, although I knew that being a person of color affected my perspective on life, it never occurred to me that it would influence my experience as a foreigner in a country where people of color are the majority. Although I was a foreign student in a group of foreign students learning how to navigate Pune and other Indian cities, our experiences were not the same—but they are all valid.
We may learn about race, otherness and self-identity at different rates, but through honest dialogue with one another we helped to open each other’s eyes to other experiences and understandings.
Studying abroad is about learning more outside of yourself, pushing yourself to step up to new challenges, and being exposed to something completely new, even if it isn’t new to someone else.