My best friend wanted to talk. I knew it was serious when he leaned forward and paused the movie we were watching. He never interrupted Fight Club.
“Marwan, I need you to be truthful with me,” he said, looking anxious. “Do – do you have an opinion about me…dating Maggie?”
I didn’t understand what he meant. Ten minutes later I was finally beginning to get an idea. My best friend Ahmed, who like me is from Kerala, was asking me if I had an opinion about him dating Maggie, who is a white Canadian girl.
Njan vellakariye premikkunathil ninakku virodhamundo? (“Do you object to me dating a white girl?”)
Ah…where do I start?
“Why do you feel I would have an opinion about you dating Maggie?” I asked, switching off the T.V. This was a serious conversation, and I had no time for Tyler Durdan.
Ahmed looked like he didn’t know where to start. “It’s just…well, yesterday, me and Maggie were on the bus, right? And I said something that made her laugh out loud, and just then I caught an Indian girl looking at me. She immediately looked away, but I could almost see what she was thinking…”
I frowned and leaned forward to pick up my Starbucks coffee cup from the table in front. “What do you think she was thinking?”
“I don’t know. It was as though she was…annoyed? Or like, you know, ‘Oh you think you are…better than us? Because you’re dating this white girl?’”
I sighed. There was so much to unpack here.
Each of us have different experiences when it comes to the intersection between “race”, culture and romance. Growing up in a moderately religious Malayali household, I never actually encountered this “issue”. In fact, my real-world interactions were almost always homogeneous in nature. All my uncles and aunts, family friends and friends’ families displayed consistency in terms of skin colour, religion, culture and language.
So the first time I grasped the concept of “interracial relationships” was when I heard stand up comedians like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. They openly talked about how society reacts to a white girl dating a black guy. And when Ahmed mentioned the Indian girl looking at him with judgemental eyes, I was reminded of something Chris Rock mentioned. “Black women dislike black men dating white women.”
But those cultural issues are only in the West, right? We Indians (and especially Malayalis) don’t have any such opinions?
“Would your parents be okay with you marrying Maggie?” I asked. Ahmed vehemently shook his head. “Obviously not. I mean, she’s not Muslim right…”
I nodded. Religion is our first main divide in India. But what if…
“Supposing Maggie was Muslim. Then? Would they be fine with you marrying her?”
Ahmed looked both sceptical and wistful at the same time, if that was possible. “Ah…I – I don’t know. I mean, my grandparents would want to be able to talk to their grand-daughter-in-law, you know?”
I sighed. “Okay, sheri, let’s say Maggie learnt Malayalam and spoke it fluently. Then?”
Ahmed was getting unreasonably enthusiastic about this purely hypothetical (and nearly impossible) scenario. “Oh, yeah, then that would be…”
Would it though? If a white lady became a member of your family and spoke Malayalam, would she be treated like her Malayali counterparts? Even if you don’t have personal experience to back it up, you can imagine how it’s going to be. It’ll differ depending on your family’s socio-economic status. Do you think relatives will crowd around her, gawking at her fair skin and marvelling at her blonde hair? Or is that scenario too outdated? Will your relatives take several months or even years to cross paths with her, since they live in different corners of the world and have different schedules to follow?
Ahmed’s enthusiasm had dampened considerably by this point. “I don’t know, man. My family and relatives are kinda conservative. They might judge me for…I mean, nobody really likes love marriages in my circles, you know?”
Oh, you mean you’re a typical Malayali? I wanted to ask, but now wasn’t the time.
“He’s understating things!” Karthick, my other roommate chuckled when I told him about the conversation later in the evening. He cut the call he was on and turned his full attention towards me. “At the wedding, my relatives would smile and act extra polite in front of the white girl who joined the family, but trust me, once they are back in the car and heading home, they’ll be making snide comments about the lady’s…how shall I put it…morality?”
Ah yes, it’s funny how conversations can remind you of stereotypes you never knew you’d filed away in your mind. Some Malayalis consider Westerners to have loose morals, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’d probably consider the white girl in front of them beautifully decked out in a traditional saree and large bindi to be nothing but a wily seductress.
“Okay, it’s maybe not that bad. It’s an old stereotype,” Karthick admitted as he was about to return to his call. “But these are just vestiges of thoughts that might linger in people’s mind. The world is changing though. Malayalis are a lot more global in their outlook now. Things are getting better.”
Maybe, but sometimes you hear something that makes you wonder just what goes on in people’s minds. Such as when I told my classmate Prithvi about Ahmed’s predicament. He looked up from his phone and cried out so loudly that most of the people around us in the Starbucks queue could overhear. Thankfully he’d spoken in Malayalam.
“Athavan engane oppichu?”
How would you, fellow Malayali, translate that for our non-Malayali readers? “How did he manage that?” Does that capture the implication in his tone? Convey what he meant when his eyes went wide as a partly mischievous, partly surprised, mostly admiring smile formed on his face.
That’s how I knew there was something to what Ahmed said in the beginning. Would you treat a Malayali guy differently if he was dating a vellakari (white girl)? Prithvi would. And I bet he’s not the only one. There are plenty of Malayali guys out there who’ll spot a comrade on a date with a Caucasian female and wonder how he was able to ask her out.
Which raises the question. Are they thinking white women are that tough to impress? Or that they, as owners of brown skin, curly hair and thick accent, are that unimpressive?
I’ve changed the second question I’d like to pose. Originally, it was this: what if the girl this Malayali guy was dating wasn’t white. What is she was black?
And it’s precisely because some of you instinctively raised your eyebrows or grimaced in anticipation of the landmines this article was about to step on that I’ve amended the second question. Let’s go for something less controversial.
If Prithvi’s female Malayali friends were with him at that moment, how would they have reacted? Would they know that he finds dating a white girl impressive? And would they wonder what’s so impressive about it? Because if dating someone is impressive, doesn’t that mean dating someone else isn’t as impressive?
Is that what Ahmed saw in the eyes of that Indian girl when he made Maggie laugh? Was that Indian girl annoyed that he was chasing a firangi when he should be talking to an Indian? Even if she didn’t explicitly feel that, is it possible those resentments exist within?
Am I overthinking this? Am I, in fact, a racist for dividing people in terms of colour? Isn’t love simply about the person, and not their skin or hair or eyes? Definitely. But this isn’t about the man and woman, though, is it? It’s about everyone around them. We all know love works in mysterious ways. But standards of beauty, cultural outlook on marriage, perceptions about morality…these are all up for debate and discussion, right?
Because if you are a guy who’s shaking his head and confidently declaring that a person’s skin colour and other physical features doesn’t influence you or shape your perceptions of beauty, let me ask you this. Think of all the women you’ve ever been attracted to in the digital world. Meaning, exclude childhood crushes on classmates or fellow students at the tuition centre. I’m talking about the Scarlett Johanssons and Emma Watsons of your world.
Is there a pattern there? If you were to compile a headshot of every actress, model, celebrity and pornstar you’ve ever been aroused by, would they have much in common?
Ahmed’s eyes were wide when I told him this, and I think he knew what was coming.
“So,” I said as gently as possible, realizing this was perhaps too much for him to hear. “Do you think there’s maybe a reason why you were attracted to Maggie in the first place?”
“Bro…” he whispered, shaking his head in sorrow. “You – you think I liked Maggie just because she’s white? What the hell man. I’m – I’m not that shallow!”
I took another sip of my Starbucks Machiatto, even though it’d turned cold. “No, no, Ahmed, this isn’t an attack on you. Trust me man, this – this is something natural. We all suffer from it in some form or the other.”
Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you ever encountered a white man or woman and noticed you talk a little differently? Oh, I don’t mean the instant upgrade in accent. That’s just a minor part. But do you sense how your mind operates? Are you more eager to impress this Westerner/European/Sayip/White person? More enthusiastic about helping them? More impressed by what they say, even if it’s just an accented version of what your friends and family might have been telling you?
I’m sure this is a prevalent phenomenon in Kerala. And I wish I knew the scientific reason for it. Does it have something to do with us being former colonial subjects? But many, like me, were born much after Independence and far away from India. So is it just simple power dynamics? Are white people sometimes celebrities in brown people’s lives? Especially if, like true celebrities, they are rare to find and slightly intimidating to interact with?
How does that tie in with our country’s obsession with whitening creams? Wait a minute. Do the women in India use whitening creams because they think the men in India like women who are white? If so, do men in India go abroad and quickly fall for white women? And are white women generally so intimidating to interact with (perhaps because of language and cultural barriers) that when an Indian guy does succeed, his friends might comment that he managed to valaykkal her? (How do I translate “valaykkal” in English. It’s an ickier version of “making her fall for him” I guess?”)
Why am I even discussing any of this? I certainly didn’t help Ahmed. He left the house questioning whether he actually liked Maggie for who she was, or he’d simply ignored other brown girls around him because he was drawn to her blue eyes, white skin and blonde hair. Is he a normal human being who was attracted to someone beautiful by his standards? Or do his apparent standards of beauty deserve condemnation? Is he simply a product of his environment, culture, geopolitics and mass media? Or is he quite simply, a racist? A self-loathing one at that!
And what about our female comrades? Have they ever noticed their male friends’ fascination with white skin? Are they similarly fascinated by white men? Do they resent cute Malayali guys who date pretty white women? Are they like the women Chris Rock joked about?
A part of me fears to post this article on PinkLungi. After writing the first draft, I mentioned this topic to a dear friend of mine. I asked him if he had any thoughts about a fellow Malayali dating a white girl. It deeply offended him, perhaps rightly. Because he saw that as extremely shallow and prejudicial. And even questioning him about it seemed to imply there was a possibility he was part of that despicable mentality.
At that point, I considered scrapping this article. I didn’t want to risk offending people. By implying that they are shallow enough to be attracted to someone due to the colour of their skin or gullible enough to be impressed and subservient because of it. But then I realized why I should post this. I believe far too often we surrender genuine thoughts to the realm of taboo. We are so afraid of being deemed racist that we’ve decided to silence our internal biases. My friend was offended because he thought having such biases is offensive. But it isn’t. Letting them fester and grow is dangerous. Isn’t it time to examine them instead?
Two days later, as the bus sped through town, I looked up from the Chuck Palahnuick book I was reading and spotted a Malayali guy greeting a white girl with a hug. A few metres away, several Malayali guys and girls stood in a group. I tried to scan their faces. What were they thinking as they watched this interaction?
What would you be thinking?