The guilty privilege of being a white woman in India

On a pedestal.
On a pedestal.
Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
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“Why so tan!” my Chittaranjan Park downstairs neighbor, Patty, who ran a small beauty parlor, asked me the first time she saw me after my skin had been in the sun long enough that it wouldn’t glow in the dark. I took it to be a compliment—I had been to the beach while in Italy, why thank you very much!

She was not impressed. “Looks dirty,” she said, with the hint of a disgusted smirk. I was still new to Delhi, and the directness of her comment baffled me (in the years that followed, I learned to be somewhat nonplussed when my Indian friends and acquaintances noted, somewhat matter-of-factly, that I was “too skinny, you look sick!” or that I had “finally put on weight”). Patty, she liked my being “fair.” I soon learned she was not alone: My white skin was, for many, my biggest asset—and indeed through the years I spent in India, my white privilege cloak worked as an armor to keep me safe, and as a passcode to grant me admission to circles of society much higher than what I belonged to.

Whether at home in Delhi, or traveling elsewhere in the country, I hardly felt unwelcome: Sure, I had to watch for arbitrary overcharges and minor scams, but that, too, never felt hostile. “Sonia Gandhi!” friendly strangers would tell me, when I said I was from Italy. I doubt she (or I) would have been taken in with such open arms, with a dark skin.

But to be white in India is to be powerful, even as a woman.

Since I worked for an Indian company that paid me a local salary, I never really lived in an expat bubble. I tried to live like an urban middle-class Indian, and I fooled myself to the point that, often enough, I forgot I wasn’t one. I mostly stopped noticing that I was subject of insistent curious staring, bar the occasional theatrical episode—a young motorcyclist nearly crashing into my bicycle, his head turned to me as he tried to make sense of this blonde biking an Atlas to work; a baby in the crowded Delhi metro, her eyes widening with curiosity first, terror later, screamed at the freak that I was. “Nalis, she was Indian in her previous life,” my friends would joke, making me inordinately proud; I was a lychee (white outside, brown inside), they said.

But that was it—I was white outside. In a city that was horribly dangerous to women, I lived by myself and would go out alone, where and when I wanted, casually taking late night rides on taxis, even autorickshaws, to my home in Malviya Nagar—a carefree behavior that would require my Indian friends (not to mention anyone who looked eastern Asian, or who was black) so much courage. I didn’t feel in danger, because I was aware that my appearance carried a cachet of power and intimidation. My skin tone afforded me a freedom, and lifestyle, that were literally far above my paycheck.

Delhi never felt more dangerous than any big world metropolis—for a white woman, that is. Once, a short, skinny man in off-white polyester pants and threadbare bottom-up shirt followed me to my front door and, when I looked at him inquisitively, he asked me “you do massage?” I sternly assured him that I did not “do massage” and no, I was not letting him inside, no matter how many more times he suggested “me, inside, massage?” I literally ordered him “jao, na, jao!” (go, OK?, go) and he indeed went away, leaving me somewhat amused, contemplating the role of foreign female representation in Bollywood films.

For me, India was mostly a wonderful land where I could crash a complete stranger’s wedding and be treated like a guest of honor, a place where people were kind and warm beyond what I actually deserved. Their welcoming attitude made India my home—and contributed to the sheer joy that I experienced there. It was, too, the place where I internalized a privilege so marked that I would always be shocked—shocked! And oh so annoyed!—when things weren’t done my way, where too often I mistook courtesy for rights.

Sometimes I try to picture what would happen in the US, where I live now, or in my home at Italy, if immigrants displayed half the arrogance of white people in India—too often trying to teach how things should work, too frequently demanding that their rules be followed.

But the kind of welcome I enjoyed, being treated with utmost respect, at times even deference, was the flip side of the insults and aggressions that were commonplace towards my African neighbors, only a few blocks away in Khirki extension, who were commonly denied rent elsewhere in the city. My top place on the skin tone hierarchy—well exploited and perpetuated through the mythical “fairness scale” of skin whiteners—existed because of a dark, disenfranchised bottom.

Once, my lovely housekeeper Usha, an illiterate woman who worked hard to send her daughters to college, told me that only one of them was sundar (beautiful)the other was, like herself, dark. I snapped at her and used all the little Hindi I know to sternly tell her that she, too, was sundar, and so was her daughter—the perfect paradox of a white woman who scolds her maid on loving her own skin.

Color, religion, origin, gender: the line of Indian discrimination is a moving target. A friend told me, once, laughing, that his parents would be happy to let him choose his own bride, so long as he didn’t pick a “BMW”—black, Muslim, or white woman (in this order of desirability); in the end, I remember thinking, not without surprise, even my fair skin wasn’t good enough.

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