Scrolling down my newsfeed, I stumbled upon a TED video that my professor had shared. The TED talk was by the renowned Turkish author Elif Shafak, and was titled ‘The politics of fiction’. Intrigued, I opened the link and heard the author out. In the talk, the author illustrates the art of storytelling, and the power it holds to puncture our mental recesses. But it was her brief explanation of her grandmother’s healing abilities that made me think. According to Shafak’s grandmother, if one is to destroy something, maybe a blemish or an acne, one needs to simply surround it with thick high walls and the blemish inside will wither away. Similarly, Shafak explains that human beings too are born within a certain socio-cultural circle, creates their own cluster of similarities, and builds high walls around themselves. Such an act can only dry up the humans from inside.
The term ‘circles’ remained stuck in my mind. Why might you ask? Why am I not getting straight to the point? What is the point of these circles? These circles have resonated with me since I moved out of my circle or my country India, to another circle, the Netherlands, in order to pursue my higher studies. It has been a year now since I moved to this teeny-weeny country, known for its high HDI and high levels of tolerance. But it was not long before I encountered the fences erected by people. Innumerable times I was asked and questioned regarding my command over English! I tried to explain it to a Dutch friend how this seemingly simple question bothered me. The friend dismissed it and said people are only appreciating my language skills. But it was more; the tone was rather, ‘How could I, someone from a developing country, someone who is not white, have such a good grasp of English?’ However, to my friend, who was surrounded by walls as well, my explanation made little sense.
I distinctly remember going to the cinema theatre once with my Dutch friend. The cinema had IMAX, and quite casually my friend remarks, ‘Oh but you must not have this in India, this is really good technology’, and ‘our theatres are very comfortable and full of facilities, how is it in India?’. If only I could have snapped the friend’s head, but then I did not want to languish in a jail dominated by the notions of white privilege! Controlling my fury, I responded that India produces the highest number of films in the world, and we probably have more IMAX theatres than whole of the Netherlands put together. But no, it did not stop there; the friend then says, ‘ah! but quantity does not signify quality’, and I retorted, ‘yeh, right! As if Hollywood is the epitome of good quality cinema, but no questions about that, right?’ Is it any wonder that the same person thought that the schools and education in the Netherlands are of superior quality, and the education in India is absolutely neglected and in dire state. But hey, I wonder then how with my Indian education I, or for that matter any other Indian studying abroad, was able to gain admission abroad.
I never really understood the concept of white privilege till I moved to the Netherlands. White privilege is a false sense of entitlement, to a false sense of universality due to the virtue of being white or belonging to a first world nation. Anything contrary is deemed inferior. So Indian sartorial fare becomes a carnivalesque costume, whereas the clothing of Europe becomes the norm. Overtime I have come to observe and recognise an almost blase or unimpressed or even indifferent expression that people display when making sweeping statements. People have a hard time believing that the Delhi Metro system far surpasses many subway systems in Europe. It is inconceivable to them that something that is not in the first world, or not produced by the whites, can be equally good, if not better.
Another friend once happened to mention that an acquaintance believed the reason there are fair-skinned people in India is due to inter-marriages between Indians and Britishers during colonial rule! I was torn between guffawing and expressing my bewilderment. This was by far the most bizarre assumption that I had ever heard. Patiently, I had to explain otherwise.
As part of the Schengen area, the Dutch can travel freely, but often what I have realised is that for them travelling to Spain or Portugal imparts them with all ‘worldly’ knowledge. But the reality is that they have never moved beyond their Euro-centric circle. I have been lucky enough to encounter a few who have moved beyond their circles, and are sensitive and perceptive to the notions of white privilege. For instance my Dutch flatmate who has travelled beyond Europe is one of the most politically conscious people I have come across, and I even know of a Dutch person who studied in India. Such instances give me hope and I have been welcomed with open arms into this country, into their homes. Maybe with increasing transnational movement of people across borders, and the aggressive marketing by my university to attract internationals, people will slowly make an attempt to climb over their walls.
Article by Anubha Sarkar