Being One in a Billion

By: Shola Powell

September 25, 2015

“You look Indian,” Suchi said at dinner, as she skillfully molded a ball of rice with her hand, before lifting it to her mouth. It had been a couple of weeks into my study abroad experience, and Suchi is one of five Indian girls who live in the hostel where four other girls in the program and I are staying. I found her comment ironic, since for the first couple of weeks, and even to this day, I am still not fully accustomed to the stares, double-takes, and head-turning that the rest of my study abroad group and I attract.

As a group of 17 students, most of whom are white, we draw quite a lot of attention walking through the streets of Pune. As the only black person within that group, it is an interesting experience for me to see how people react to us, a group of foreign students, and me as an individual. Pune is a bustling city in the state of Maharashtra, about three hours from Mumbai. There are so many colleges in the city that Pune is considered one of the “smartest cities in India,” and thousands of college students from both inside and outside of the city go there for higher education.

It is a city that boasts its diversity; however, unlike other large metropolises that I have visited, Pune does not have a lot of racial diversity. In India, a country of over a billion people, a lot of conversations on the topic of diversity are focused on differences in language, religion, and cuisine. Racial dialogues, however, are quite uncommon as discrimination based on caste is often seen as India’s version of racism. The caste system is based on ancient Hindu holy scripts: the Dalits, or untouchables, are at the bottom of a hierarchy, and the Brahmins are at the top, each with their own roles in society.

Having lived in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, I am used to seeing many faces that don’t look like mine, but I am also used to finding a community of people who do. Here in India, racial diversity is much more limited. Although my skin color is much closer to the locals’ in Pune than that of the other students on my program, I am still viewed as an outsider because I am not Indian. But this is nothing new to me. I have always been aware of my blackness and how my “otherness” may be perceived: awareness that I image the Dalits also hold. Although they may not have distinct physical traits that differ to other castes, indicators such as their family name and occupation are constant reminders to both them and others that they are Dalit. Most of my peers, however, have not always been so conscious of themselves.

In one discussion with Becca, a girl from my program who is concentrating on South Asian culture, she described how being in Pune has made her more aware of her whiteness. The surrounding community will always see her as a white woman no matter if she wore a sari, learned Hindi, and lived in India for 10 years. This is because for the first time, she is the “other.” I found this fascinating and realized how for many of my peers, being white had not been pointed out to them until now; being stared at was not uncomfortable just because they are foreigners, but because it also reminds them that they are not currently, and will never be like, the majority of the people around them.

Before coming to India, although I knew that being a person of color affected my perspective on life, it never occurred to me that it would influence my experience as a foreigner in a country where people of color are the majority. Although race is seemingly not an issue here, I have learned how awareness of someone’s “otherness” and embracing that difference can make you truly one in a billion.

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