Am I a racist?

Am I Racist?

I grew up in a small town called Mersing. Being a Malaysian of Indian origin and living in a small town, we literally knew all the Indians in town. My parents were working class people and were considered poor, even though my father was a proud man, who provided us enough, to live comfortably. However, being Indians in a small town there were always people who thought they  were “superior” to us whereas we ourselves  thought we were superior to some others . Let me explain.

While growing up, I noticed that the social status or rank among the Indian population in this small town was dependent on the colour of the skin. The highest ranked Indians in Mersing were the Punjabis, who had the fairest of skin. At the same rank as the Punjabis were  the north Indians (Sindhi, Gujarati etc),  again perhaps due to their fair complexion. Just below them were the Malayalees (from Kerala) who were mostly fair and good looking. Then perhaps came the Telugus (from Andra Pradesh) who were also fair skinned but most of them were from the working class and so ranked below the Malayalees who were mostly in the educated group working as officers in the government. Below these were the Tamilians. Brahmin Tamilians who were fair  ranked with the Brahmins at the top whereas the Dalit or Untouchables (the lowest in the Indian caste system, so sorry for saying this) at the bottom. The rest of the Tamilians were somewhere in between. . To make things worse, Tamilians were further divided according to the sects they belonged to, such as the Chettiars, Gounders and so on who again, looked down upon others who did not belong to their sect. The only misnomer in this ranking, were the Sri Lankan Tamils, also previously known as Ceylonese. They were generally dark-skinned but ranked perhaps at the level of the Punjabis or even higher because of their higher education.

My father, who was half-Tamil and half-Telugu, referred to himself as Tamil. My mother who is actually Telugu (both her parents were Telugu) also calls herself Tamil. Both of them could understand some Telugu but only spoke Tamil. We were not very dark yet not that fair. We were  neither Brahmins nor untouchables so we were  the ones who were ranked, in between. My parents talked about these differences to us, their children, probably partly in envy and partly detest. I remember looking up to the fair-skinned people in Mersing and looking down on the dark-skinned ones. I myself have a slightly lighter skin colour, which perhaps I am proud of. Am I a racist?

Mersing town is full of Chinese. They live in a different parallel world, a world of business. Although, I had a few Chinese friends in school, I did not understand how they ranked themselves socially. Most of the Chinese have similar skin colour, although some are fairer than others. I thought social ranking among them was determined more by wealth.

Does religion play a role in the social rank among Indians? Most Indians are Hindus, some Christians and others Muslim. The Punjabis are of course mostly Sikhs. Again while growing up, I felt that the Christian Indians ranked themselves higher than the Hindu Indians. As for the Muslim Indians, they were in  a class of their own and I felt they did not come under the Indian category. Most of them were businessman.

These were my feeling while growing up in a small town. When I moved away from Mersing to the real world, some of these thoughts and feelings remained inside me. I am fortunate that my wife was not brought up in such a manner and she being fair herself, lived in a childhood where such discrimination was not discussed by her parents. So, fortunately our children were never exposed to such discrimination. My children (who don’t speak Tamil) do not see the world as I did when I was young and do not discriminate people by the colour of their skin. This is perhaps because of the way they were brought up, particularly by my wife. However, my daughter who is a medical officer is often asked by her patients whether she is a Punjabi because she is fair skinned and quite tall, a typical feature of a Punjabi.

Racism is something that we look down upon in this modern world.  Almost everything is based on the colour of your skin. The darker the skin the lower your rank and the more you are affected by racism. I have never heard of a dark-skinned person, said to be a racist against a lighter-skinned one. It is always the darker-skinned envying the lighter-skinned and the lighter-skinned looking down on the darker-skinned.  Racism begins at home.  It begins on how we talk to our children and how they view the world by the colour of the skin.

I have always wondered what I would say if my daughter brought home a dark-skinned man as her future partner. Will I look down upon him because of his skin colour Or will I see instead the good qualities he possesses? Am I a racist? Perhaps I am and so are all of you my readers, in one way or another.



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Dr. Selva

Dr S. Selva (Sevellaraja Supermaniam) is a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist and a subspecialist in Reproductive Medicine at a private hospital in Melaka, Malaysia. He heads the O&G unit and the IVF Centre at the hospital.

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