We all like to think that we are reasonable, fair and mature, but we still poke fun of that vegetarian at the barbecue or sneer down at that hotdog eater who doesn’t believe in tofu dogs. You tell your friend it’s ok to be whatever shape she is, but proudly inform your spouse later that you coped better with pregnancy pounds than she did with the holidays.
The human ego is wired like that. It constantly wants validation that we are doing the right thing, and are on the right side. We hang out with people who make similar choices as us and we’re quick to judge those who don’t. We ensure that our children learn our values because we think that we stand for the right things. But although we think we are reasonable and unbiased, the verdict in case of a moral conflict is almost always in our favor, because that makes us feel good about our choices. Differences make us feel insecure, unsure and even a little scared sometimes.
So what is right? And since we pride yourself on being rational, how do we define it and back it up with solid proof? Some things are easy—like stealing, doing drugs and being abusive. But other things are not so black and white, and there are many shades in between. Take, for example, food choices or cultural idiosyncrasies. Law, religion and culture further complicate the defining process, and what is considered legal/holy/right by some may be deplorable for others. So each group feels strongly about their choices because they are backed up by so and so law/scripture/philosophy, and scorns the others, forgetting that all facts are relative.
Yes, all facts are relative. Every philosophy—religious or otherwise—has an ideal toward which it aspires, and the directives ensure that its followers can attain it. So everything that’s deemed ‘right’ or ‘holy’ is only so if you’re travelling on that ship and wearing that uniform. The law is driven by socio-economic motives and can quickly do an about-turn in its validations; think about the recent upheaval of state laws on legalizing weed—we all know that keeping minors safe wasn’t the primary motivation for that bill. So just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s always right, and vice versa.
How does all this trickle down to an everyday level? Our self-identity is partly influenced by our family, peers, culture, religion or philosophy of thought and our country, more or less in that order. Since we don’t know what the real definition of right is, it is natural to measure everything around us by matching it up against ourselves and our choices. Some differences are insignificant and we manage to take it in our stride, but some go against our fundamental beliefs and we cannot reason with them. So if someone or something does not conform to this fundamental belief, we assume that they are either wrong, misinformed or inferior. For example, think about someone dear to us dating a much older/younger person, swingers or even something seemingly as minor as women consuming alcohol (modern India is still struggling with this hypocrisy).
Can we change? Maybe in some categories, but definitely not in some. A friend once said that our belief system is built on two things—reason and conviction. The things we can reason with can be rethought, reshaped and expanded but there is no changing conviction. A vegetarian will always see a dead animal on others’ plates and yet flatly disagree with a vegan on how an animal was tortured for that milkshake.
Luckily, for everyday life, we don’t need to reevaluate our entire belief system. A good human being is not one who is fair and empathetic toward everyone; she knows when not to comment, and when to let things be without labeling them. Although we don’t need to agree with everyone else’s choices, we can choose to not judge them as weird, immoral or inferior. We don’t need to be alike somebody, but there is no need to be scared of them, dislike them, or pity them. We won’t be able to follow this all the time, but it might still make us some more friends because we’re not closing them out or hurting them. Of course, reevaluating in the meantime will help us be more rational in the long run and recognize when we react out of reason or strong conviction. It will help us pass on the best of ourselves to the next generation.
You can’t measure the entire world with one yardstick. Nature created us all differently so we could grow, gain depth and learn something new every day. Every snowflake is unique, and yet they all fit in harmony to form a beautiful blanket of snow. So can we.
You want to be unique, so why expect the world to be just like you?
While watching ‘Gravity’ the other day, I realized something. The main characters were all white… and brown. I then realized that brown as the color of on-screen diversity wasn’t such a new concept. Remember Ranjit in ‘How I met your Mother’? Or Rajesh Koothrappali in ‘Big Bang Theory, Fez in ‘That 70’s show’ and Aziz Ansari in ‘Parks and Recreation?’ And then there are many guest characters as well, like ‘Modern Family’ and ‘Rules of Engagement’. And although unrelated to this post, let’s not forget the many brown stand-up comedians who have made it big.
My first thought was that it’s fascinating how shows/movies about all walks of life think that Indians (or people from that general region) are now an integral part of their lives. And they don’t seem to mind it too much. I take part credit on behalf of my brethren, because we truly do our best to fit in. Although we may step on your toes in lines, we try not to do that culturally. Part of it is our cultural conditioning. Most Indians are partly proud and partly uncomfortable about their heritage. The slight inferiority complex means that we adjust to our host’s culture, and we adjust to our immigrants’ cultural differences too. This makes us excellent immigrants and excellent hosts to immigrants at the same time.
But there’s a certain cultural stereotype that the media has boxed us into:
- Brown means brown: All Indians on TV are just the right shade of mocha, although we commonly range from caramel to espresso. All women are especially dark mocha, have long straight black hair and are composed, naïve, domesticated and have arranged marriages.
- Thank you come again: All Indians on TV have a specific, comical way of speaking, something that is exaggerated and actually spoken by only a percentage of real Indians.
- Social placement: Indians are generally shown as belonging to two sections of society—either as a highly educated nerd (with a funny accent) or a gas station/grocery store/taxi owner (with a funny accent).
If cultures were a book, then we are comic strips. Most Indians portrayed on screen are good-humored, somehow amusing (mostly because of the accent) and get to say very little in the screenplay. It is mostly a good thing, as all our tags are mostly positive and shows amiable acceptance by the local community. Maybe that’s why we seem to be gaining on the other overdone on-screen cultural stereotypes .
Before my fellow countrymen get all riled up about me accepting our social stereotype, may I remind them of how we treat our own cultural differences? Seen any Bollywood movies? Or Mollywood, Kollywood, etc etc etc? Let me highlight some salient stereotypes:
- All South-Indians are ‘Madrasis’. Madrasis are dark, have a funny accent and are in general, the jokers of the movie. Madrasi women are naïve, have long black hair and are domesticated. You got it, the Hollywood stereotype for Indians is the Bollywood stereotype for South Indians.
- In South Indian movies, North Indians mostly wear a turban, speak comically rough Punjabi and frequently say ‘Balle Balle’, and are in general, the jokers of the movie.
To be fair, contemporary Indian movies have tried to move away from this. But movies cater to real people, and cultural stereotyping is real and sometimes not funny. Just a few weeks ago, I was called a Madrasi by a friend, and I shot back, “You’re a Bihari!” Of course, both the action and reaction were outdated and prejudiced. But it happened, and it’s not uncommon.
But the point stands, we handle our own cultural differences by poking fun at them, maybe other cultures have picked up on it too.
Nevertheless, it is much better to carve a humorous niche for yourself than a violent or scary one. As we integrate deeper into the cultures where we now belong, it will go a long way into promoting enriching cultural exchanges. Never mind the media, the people of the world already know there’s more to Indian culture than Yoga, Kamasutra and Ayurveda. Soon (hopefully) the media will reflect that too.
Until then, who’s your favorite Brown?