By Rheea Mukherjee
In 2012, I had a fabulous poet and social activist stay with us at home, with her two kids. She was African-Canadian and had a tremendous sense of style. Walking the streets of Bangalore, she would get the inevitable stares: some curious, some awed; and some expressions were inscrutable. Her two very young children had big hair. One had dreads, and the other, a giant bush that adorned his round face.
Once, Shanti, my house help at the time, was cutting vegetables in the kitchen. One of the boys popped out of the bedroom and walked into the kitchen. She looked at him and shrieked. Yes, she quite literally screamed in terror, then stood, frozen until I went up to her and looked at her in astonished embarrassment.
“I got so scared, I have never seen anyone who looks like this.”
I picked up the kid and my words tumbled out, a series of sentences that seemed bizarre, unnecessary and frantic.
“He is just a kid, why are you scared of him? He is visiting India with his mother, he has a brother too, he’s in the bedroom.”
She had never seen a black person before; on TV yes, but not in real life, much less a small child–with hair a texture and style she couldn’t fathom. In her world, he was an alien.
A few days later she had become extraordinary friendly with them, carrying them around the house and touching their hair, curling it around her fingers with unadulterated fascination.
This is an under-discussed reality; a much more textured and layered paradigm of race, class, and bias. Shanti acted in a way that some may call “racist”–but it isn’t. It is a product of class and a limited access to the wider world. Had she decided not to interact with them after her initial shock, it could then be interpreted as bigotry or an inability to interact with a person that is different from self. Once you know or are informed of a certain colour, sexuality, culture, or practice, it is up to you to perceive it positively, negatively or ambiguously.
We globalized folk might perceive Shanti’s initial reaction to be politically incorrect. Now try telling that to Shanti. Political correctness has evolved into a privileged bubble that does nothing more than inflate itself with homogenous assumptions, ironically lacking an understanding of basic human behavior.
My rant on political correctness comes from its increasingly sharp presence in social media: How not to talk to the gay community, how not to talk to women about their soon-to-whimper-and-die ovaries, how not to ask people if they eat curry in Sri Lanka, and how not to use certain words or make off-colour jokes about certain communities.
I am a curious person known to ask blunt questions and get into thick subjects quickly. But the crux of the matter is this: most humans are curious people. We want to know more, we want to feel, touch, listen, and figure out things we don’t understand. When we approach the world with hate, apathy, or disgust, it usually comes from a place of ignorance or an unwillingness to know more. Alternatively we also actively avoid or hide from things we don’t understand or are not used to. Some of us watch from the sidelines as spectators, never to participate. But what remains, whether you want to admit it or not, is raw curiosity. Our guts boil a thick concoction of politically incorrect questions and comments.
And here’s the deal. Political correctness is measured by obnoxiously elite parameters. Today we privileged folk have gotten ourselves into a stinky stew. We are still ignorant about a plethora of things, people, cultures, and countries. If that’s not burden enough, we have this unsaid, vague, and media-enforced set of social polite rules to abide by. There is a pressure to say the right thing and ask the right questions publicly; so we stay poised, suave, nice and as ignorant as ever.
How you react after you know all Indians aren’t Hindu is a result of your personality, your sense of humor, and your pro-activeness to engage, discuss, and take forward that information. How you react after you have had the opportunity to understand that homosexuality is not a choice, and that love is something universal and can be genderless–which is opposed to your social training–is a result of you. This individual reaction and its evolution is the very thing being denied to us. We are actively encouraging a void in human connection by setting rules on how to ask, how to find out, and what to question. And PC’s creepy-crawly hands have scratched us all, we are rapidly being taught to be defensive about questions.
“None of your business, don’t ask me stupid questions, go educate yourself.”
How is anyone going to get an education in anything human related unless we indulge in the very basic, unsophisticated, raw power of conversation? Your alien is my everyday; my everyday is your science fiction. Perspective is uniquely idiosyncratic. Experience and culture may render links but each individual will have a new way to say it. And to say it, we have to go beyond our tiny world of what is correct and what is not.
PC is not inclusive. It assumes you’ve had a certain amount of exposure, then it assumes your questions are offensive, it then begs the people being questioned to get offended by a certain question (formulated a certain way). This becomes a media-centric and very English-speaking cultural construct of how social politeness needs to be orchestrated.
Having lived both in the U.S and in India, I’ve witnessed the tightrope that both countries walk. America with its candied social greetings and stark rules on personal boundaries, also happens to be a country where expressing yourself is valued, where you talk about feelings.
India has its in-your-face questions (that would be deemed offensive and too personal in the west) like–When are you getting married, and having kids? Why was that boy in your house that night? But Indians aren’t culturally accustomed to talking about feelings, about individual needs and desires. Even saying “I love you” to your kids and parents is rare. Any increase in its occurrence is a result of globalization. Disclaimer: this is India where the exceptions might as well be as many as my stereotyped analyses.
Here are two ironic social cultures that contradict its social protocol. We are missing something much larger in this puzzle. Let us assume that puzzle pieces are groups of people. There is one large group of people who say politically incorrect things every day–“Homosexuality is a western import”, “Black people are druggies”, “Indians are inefficient”, “White people are dumb”. And there is another, small, tiny group of PC people. Not asking too many questions, trying to facilitate “community discussions” while not saying or asking anything “offensive”.
Then there are the Shantis, millions of people who genuinely have had no access to the pedagogy of polite social dynamics in this one mainstream-internet-PC-kind-of-way. People who will react and act to things and people in a more authentic way once they are exposed. They’ll ask “stupid” questions, they’ll examine, they’ll consider the deal with this new reality. They’ll step out into the world with a new experience, a spanking new data point and reference.
The embarrassment I felt when Shanti screamed at the little boy was a product of my taught political correctness. How could I be put in this situation, where someone is being so out rightly incorrect in her response to another human? How could she be so ignorant? So unaccustomed to something just a little bit different?
And that is taught PC. My own mind that has been trained to be offended by curiosity, offended by a natural reaction to a woman who had never, honestly seen a human being that was not stereotypically Indian looking.
I am not advocating sympathy for ignorance, bigotry and utter stupidity. I admit to getting riled up when someone says something “ignorant”, “idiotic” or “uniformed”. I can be dismissive of people who don’t think “with an open mind.” I also know I have to be able to discern a curious question from hateful speech.
We have to be able to talk, to explain things we think don’t need explaining, we have to be able not to get offended. Some people will always be fascinated with the bindi (the dot on the forehead), some others will always be mesmerized by the texture of black hair. And some people will just have to know who the “man” is in that particular gay relationship. And each answer can and will be different. We need to be able to ask. We need to be able to expose ourselves to the entire world: naked, open, vulnerable, and very much human.
(The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Kitaab, or any other entity under Kitaab International Pte Ltd.)
Rheea Mukherjee received her MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Her work has been published in Ultra Violet, Southern Humanities Review, CHA : An Asian Literary Magazine, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, The Bombay Literary Magazine, A Gathering of Tribes, Everyday Fiction, Bengal Lights and Out Of Print Magazine. Her unpublished collection of stories, In These Cities WeDreamed, was a Semi-Finalist in the Black Lawrence Press, St Lawrence Book Award, 2011. In 2012 she co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop, and currently co-runs Write Leela Write, a design and content laboratory in Bangalore.