Teachwell | What my Mother Taught me about Race
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What my Mother Taught me about Race

By Hari Singh (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Hari Singh (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So the next few posts will be all about race, ethnicity, identity, black history month and humanitarianism. These are based on my experiences, and my experiences alone, they are not intended as generalisations for any group including those which I belong to.

Where to begin?

Let’s begin at the beginning then, with my mother, who like all humans has her strengths and flaws. On reflection, she, more than anyone, shaped my attitudes and behaviours when it came to other people.

She would describe people using many terms to reflect categories including skin colour, nationalities, regions, religions and caste.

  • ‘gora/e’ (white/s),
  • valethi (English – origin of the word Blighty and what Indian people call folk from England regardless of our origins),
  • kala (black),
  • Pakistani,
  • Indian,
  • Bengali,
  • Sikh,
  • Muslim,
  • Hindu,
  • Christian,
  • Punjabi,
  • Gujarati,
  • Jat  (caste)
  • Chamar (caste)
  • and so on.

So the family down the road were ‘gore’ but they were not valethi because they were French.

It was a mixed up state of affairs alright, but it was the way she would distinguish people. Equally there were apni (our people) who fitted into the exact category as her – Punjabi-speaking Sikhs born in the part of the Punjab that remains in India.

People were grouped in so many different ways based on so many different criteria that the idea of western concepts of race, while there, were not simply not prominent. Not to say my parents were progressive forward thinkers in all matters. They wanted me to marry someone not only from the same religion as them but region and caste (which still unfortunately holds sway).

Yet in defining ‘us’ in such a specific way, it meant that the ‘other’ consisted of a myriad of people who were different due to a myriad of different reasons. It certainly did not fit the grouping of people into categories that European race theory promoted.

Race Theory:

When I taught in London, I worked in a school in which members of staff (some happily and some involuntarily) were segregated along racial lines socially but also in terms of year groups. It hit me that it was assumed that the idea of ‘races’ had taken hold equally across the world. That the grouping of people by colour and categorisation as human and sub-human was as deeply embedded in India as it was in South Africa or the USA. That somehow these ideas of humans and sub-humans based on this were held equally among people around the world.

Yet there is no real evidence of that being true. Indeed, India was, and is, such a vast country that for ideas to take hold takes a long time. This can be both positive and negative (see women’s rights in India, for example). In addition, it is a sub-continent and therefore its internal differences are much more like those found across nations in Europe. To make millions of people believe ideas about humans and categorise them in ways that was alien to them, was never going to be an easy matter in a country with no mass education system. More to the point most Indian people never had any real contact with the British ruling them or indeed their ideas about race and divisions of people around the world. Lets face it, none of us just go around agreeing with every idea presented to us, sometimes we even go along with ideas simply to get by even if we disagree with them. 

That is not to say that people from Indian backgrounds are not ignorant, prejudiced or indeed racist, simply that race theory itself did not systematically pervade the everyday beliefs and ideas for all Indian people.

Yet like all people around the globe, Indians are no less immune to ideas of superiority or inferiority or dehumanising others. This ugly aspect of human nature is there for all to see be it race theory or in caste systems.

Yet for all this there have always been humanitarians who have passed on this idea to as a truth among us not a utopian ideal, like perfectionism, that if only we could manage it would great. That strain of thought is just as deeply held as beliefs in biologistic or socially constructed racial groups that are just too fundamentally different to relate to. Just as some may parrot horrible ideas to survive, so others parrot socially acceptable ideas in order to get on. Neither of these are deeply held beliefs and it is only when one challenges oneself that one can truly see what we do or do not belief.

Thoughts and Actions:

Mum is an interesting character. She talked about other people using stereotypes that she had learned or picked up. Having learnt about racism and xenophobia at school, I would often question and challenge her on these and her reply was always the same. She would listen, think about it and then say:

“Well in the end, we are all human and there is good and bad among all people.”

This was usually accompanied by an anecdote or story similar to that of the Good Samaritan – where some Sikh Punjabi had done something awful and where someone from some other group had done something great.

No matter who you were being a good person was the ultimate that any of us could achieve and whoever achieved it deserved respect for what they had done. Because what they had done was an example to all other humans and what we were capable of at our best.

And it is this belief that meant that Mum could not bring herself to treat other people differently because in the end it was a spiritual and moral matter to treat other human beings as human beings. There was always a basic level of respect that one had for other people which could not be disregarded simply because they were different to us in some way. If others treated her badly, that was a different matter and so it should be. 

Yet she seemed to be quite capable of distinguishing between someone having a bad day, making an honest mistake, ignorance, prejudice and racism. Too many times I have seen people jump to race/racism and assumptions of people playing race card as though there is simply no other explanation.Equally she was unshakeable in her belief that there were some relationships that were simply more important than any group a person might belong to. My next post will deal with this in more depth.

Next Post: Stories my Mother Told Me (and her Grandparents Told Her)

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