Coming to the United States for college has taught me a lot more about colonialism across the world and in my own country than I would have ever learnt staying in India. However, this is not to say it was an easy or painless process of learning. No, the everyday lived experiences of students of colour in American classrooms (and elsewhere) can be psychologically damaging. I recall one of my classmates from the United States, another woman of colour, explaining how we do not talk about what happens to students of colour in classrooms as violence. But, there is no two ways about it. We no longer live in a world where we will be silenced, and that is a hard pill for white people to swallow when they have done such a good job of remaining insulated from their actions so far. They have made a mistake by allowing us to be educated since it has only pushed us to learn that we are worthy and equal (if not more), and unshackle ourselves from the master’s tools. There is a history of people of colour not being believed by their white and privileged peers. This is despite the fact white people will never be able to understand the experience of a coloured person unless they listen to their darker peers. It is quite convenient, then, that they silence those whose voices will force them to acknowledge the stark inequalities and unfairness that exists at the cost of their privilege. Every day I have been focused on educating those around me about these realities knowing that many of my black brothers and sisters, as well as other Americans of colour, have no other home they could return to away from white people like I can. Never mind that white supremacy is still a dominating factor in Indian society. My privilege of having a distinct identity and of travelling across the world and be educated on a full scholarship has always been apparent to me. With privilege, regardless of how minute, comes power. I have worked to use that to the best of my ability, especially after watching my white peers squander their power and allow their peers to be attacked and killed endlessly with indifference.
So, when the opportunity to have the STEP (Second Year Transformational Program) scholarship was offered, I took it. I jumped through all the hoops with my apathetic white peers, many of whom dropped out because initiative and drive is a rarity when you have been spoon fed your entire life. I was only able to go back home to India twice during the three years I have been in the United States. Therefore, I wanted to use this $2000 to enhance my summer back home this year. So, I chose to spend it on a study abroad program suggested by STEP that is run by an American volunteering organisation in Dharamshala, India. To give this organisation the courtesy of plausible deniability, I will refer to them as Program X. It has always been a desire of mine to go to Dharamshala as it is one of the most sacred places in the country, with His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself inhabiting the land. I also was sure that in today’s world such a organisation as Program X would have transcended the problematic white supremacist complexes that often guided white people to go into developing countries. I was sadly mistaken and think it so foolish that I assumed anything except a painful exposure to more white supremacy from white peers would happen, and in my own home this time. How can white people be trusted to help those in need in other countries when a violent war with a high death toll persists in their own countries? How can they be trusted to do more good than harm when their own black brothers and sisters drop like flies everyday because of an inherently racist system? The answer is simple: they cannot. In accordance with Ivan Illich’s ‘To Hell With Good Intentions’, a speech he addressed to American volunteers going into Mexico, white people are hypocrites of the worst kind. They are supremacist and paternalistic people who use their “do-gooding” ways to feel better trying to fix (but only further eroding) a world they have ruined. I only wish they could be banned from the countries they once colonised so we can stand on our feet without them being cut off from under us. Nevertheless, that will never happen in India as it is a nation built on the antonym of whiteness – acceptance and love.
Here is an excerpt from Ivan Illich’s speech that is most fitting in the Indian context as well:
“By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class “American Way of Life,” since that is really the only life you know. A group like this could not have developed unless a mood in the United States had supported it – the belief that any true American must share God’s blessings with his poorer fellow men. The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican peasants “develop” by spending a few months in their villages…
If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as “good,” a “sacrifice” and “help.”
I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to challenge you to recognise your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the “good” which you intended to do.”
It was rather idealistic of me to expect anything except a display of white supremacy through this program. It reminded me of the summer before when I had brought two of my white-cultured friends to India. I did not realise I would deeply regret this decision due to the overwhelming emotional and social toll it took on my family and I. Being in my comfort zone, I was blunt with them about the situation and their behaviour. Unlike white people, passive-aggression is not our way. Indians are assertive and direct. We do not beat around the bush, politely smile at strangers and hold doors open for people. We stand up for the things we believe in regardless of the repercussions. White people’s false way of interacting with others is extremely uncomfortable for me. But, I have learnt over time and through such experiences that it allows them to preserve that which they value most – their image or ego. Even family, let alone friendship, is not an exception to this rule. The complete exocitisation and appropriation of my country and culture by these two boys who had never left the midwestern America before this is something that I think I will forever blame myself for enabling. Make no mistake, they were and still are very dear friends of mine. Yet, what was an exhilarating, unforgettable and life-changing trip for them was traumatic for my family and I. It is in the fabric of India to extend our arms out to the world regardless of the pain caused by the consequences. In the same way, despite having an idea that Program X was very much guided towards educating and gathering white people to work to improve conditions for people of colour (writing this sentence makes me cringe and have colonial flashbacks), I was very keen to go to Dharamshala and see the Dalai Lama. I was so keen that upon my realisation that $2000 dollars barely covered 2 weeks, the minimum duration I could volunteer for, I still made ends meet. It didn’t necessarily seem as economical as I thought, but my parents respected my decision to go ahead with it anyway. This is just as they accepted I was bringing two boys back home last year despite the strong patriarchy that surrounds us in India. Overlooking the evident capitalism that Program X is inextricably tied to was another big mistake I made. I was completely guided by my own spiritual desire to go to a place known for having good energy and intense meditative capacity. This is something that white people can never understand since they have only occupied other people’s homes and beliefs, and never had convictions of their own outside of capitalism itself. When all the Program X members who spoke to me realised I was Indian, they were quick to be as respectful as possible and walk on eggshells. When I was sent a presentation that was clearly geared for white people, I laughed when it stated India’s “National Food” was curry. India has no national food. It has hundreds of cuisines from every household in the country. I even felt second-hand embarrassment because curry is a generic term like sandwich. The only national food that exists in relation to India is that of our former coloniser, the British. Their national food is a dish they modified from the north Indian cuisine to suit their taste buds – chicken tikka masala. I wish I could rest my case here, but I know that many of my readers may be white. Therefore, as usual, I am tasked with providing an explanation that has to be laboriously broken down in a detailed manner for them to actually (hopefully) understand. I informed my program coordinator who I spoke to on Skype when she was in Morocco that the presentation reflected ignorance and would only perpetuate this amongst its majority white readers. She apologised profusely and deferred blame to the previous coordinator of the program who I had spoken with at an earlier stage. I was trying not be uncomfortable having this conversation while watching the brown woman on the screen behind her cleaning her room. I just wish I had backed out then, but I valued the time and money I had put into having this opportunity. I wish I could say the same about the other volunteers who were staying much longer than me and probably paying thousands of dollars to live in a country where one spends barely hundreds otherwise.
I didn’t even get the chance to interact with the children in the schools that Program X was working with in Dharamshala. No, I could never do it side by side with white supremacists. I would not be able to bear the anguish that it would cause within me. I could not be powerlessly a part of their colonial white-saviour experience. I could not watch my country be exoticised and accept it ever again. It made matters worse that many locals stopped and asked these woman to take pictures with them since they had never seen anyone with such white skin or green eyes. This internalised white supremacy amongst my people made me feel the knife twist in my stomach. I was not safe in that situation anymore. I was in my own motherland and I was not safe. Their white skin overpowered me. For the second year in a row, I had put myself in a situation with whiteness in my home turf knowingly. Except, this time, I could run away from it rather than wait patiently for it to end. As soon as I arrived, I saw the program was being run by an Indian man who seemed answerable to a white woman, I will refer to her as K. She had just been given the run of the mill after arriving from Costa Rica. I had been told that this program was run by locals, but it couldn’t have been farther from the truth. If anything, the white people were being served by the locals. K was very understanding of my discomfort and was educated on the issues that such volunteering brought up. Yet, K was just a soldier in an army whose captains probably think they are fighting the good fight. Instead, they are killing off any hope of my country being able to rise on its own merits, rather than sink further due to the white people and their tendency to believe their imposition (or should I say invasion or imperialism?) is somehow saving us. There were three white volunteers [who] had been a part of the program for weeks and would stay for weeks after me. I would like to focus on only one of them from my own institution in the United States. Let us call her C for the sake of convenience. How desperately she wanted to bond with me at first, until I brought up race and she became focused on defending herself. She had no reason to because she had all the power. She acted unaware of this and just asserted it till I felt the need to be silent. But, I still could not help myself and tried to stand up for my people and educate her.
I had many heated debates in the one day I was with this girl from mid-western America about race, with her throwing every colour-blind microaggression in the book at me. As a social work major, this was almost laughable because we so often study such conversations and their repercussions. It was clear that when C listened to me explain the way things really were for people of colour she did not like what she was hearing. So, every time she disagreed with what I said, she would lift up her hand and indicate that I should stop talking . She would proceed to talk over me and state her own beliefs on topics she could never understand due to the colour of her skin. I would stop talking when she interrupted me knowing my efforts were of no avail. I had walked into this situation assuming that the white people I met on this trip would understand their privilege because hasn’t the world changed enough for that? I now know it hasn’t. C was clear that racism is not real anymore, black people inflict their problems on themselves, and white people are the victims in this whole situation. All the while, young children passed by begging for photos with this woman who looked like an angel to them with her blonde hair and piercing green eyes. She seemed excited about being worshipped but would try to shrug it off in front of me. She was proud of herself for “coming to help kids out India” and clearly expected me to commend her for this. I felt suffocated by her sense of entitlement. I could barely swallow the crepes and Nutella that the staff had prepared that day for lunch to accommodate their white guests. So, I found myself constantly meditating instead and escaping her ugliness by concentrating on the beauty of the Himalayas. No doubt, as soon as I landed in Dharamshala earlier that day I was sure that heaven was on earth and that this was it. I found myself reaching mental states that I did not know would be possible this soon, all in the 48 hours I was there. On the second day, which was the Sunday right before my volunteer work at the school started, I spent a whole day with K, the program coordinator who had arrived from Costa Rica. She was educated on the power dynamics that existed but pursued this line of work anyway, and I found myself somehow respecting her despite this. Perhaps it is because she was the only person on this trip who listened to me and validated me. I can only hope that after I left she expressed some of these sentiments to C instead of continuing to enable her through silence. After all, silence is racism. I also hope she uses my feedback to rectify the dire mistake the program makes. The biggest blunder being that they do not ensure participants are educated about the distinct history of colonialism in countries like India that only continues due to their involvement. As Ivan Illich elucidates, this knowledge has not really stopped white people from doing what they do, but it has forced them to think twice about how messed up the situation is and their placement in all of it.
While this was all happening at Dharamsala, one of the northernmost points in the country, a close family member was ailing in my native state of Tamil Nadu. My father was with him in this southernmost state, so it was a long way off. I made the decision on Sunday night to leave. I knew that once I met the children everything could change as it has on past volunteer trips. This time was different though. This time there was no hope whatsoever because the element of white supremacy was all-pervasive as it tends to be. I found myself in tears so often in the first 24 hours of my trip, and would have been miserable and scarred had I stayed. So, I made the decision to be with my family during this difficult time and left for the south on a morning flight the day after. My father and mother did not think twice about the weight that all these costs bore on us, because that is not our culture. And that is what always makes all the difference – we value happiness over money, regardless of whether we have the latter or not. Life is too short to be unhappy during the times that it can be avoided. I had finally come home to India and could not let anyone or anything ruin the safety of being surrounded by my ancient vibrant collectivistic culture. I am aware that no one else can make me feel something. Only I have power over my own feelings, and sometimes we give that power to other people without realising it. The nature of white supremacy is to try (and usually succeed) in annexing that power from people of colour. This whole experience was supposed to be about volunteers teaching as well as learning. When other white people in power are informed about the problematic nature of people like C, they usually claim her ignorance will be abated through this “learning experience”. American universities partner with groups like Program X without thinking twice about the effect that such trips could have on students of colour. This program allows literally anyone with money to participate even if they lack a basic understanding of the power dynamics defining such work. Perhaps this is because volunteering abroad programs of the like were set up originally for white students to be saviours. The only outcomes of this situation, if any, will be against me. If so, STEP can persist in inherently not supporting and protecting students of colour in order to safeguard the whiteness that America and all its institutions work so hard to preserve instead. If you were previously not aware of how problematic such organisations can be, now you are. If you were, you are directly responsible for the pain students of colour, like myself, face on such ventures. Overall, it is my sincere desire that Program X and other organisations like it are shut down. To hell with their good intentions. The truth is on my side. The motto of my country, after all, is satyameva jayate. The truth alone will triumph.
In conclusion, there are some key questions that come to mind. Buddha preached compassion without limits, but where is the compassion of white people? For how long will their “learning experiences” come at the cost of oppressing and silencing people of colour? When will white people start standing up for people of colour and educating their brothers and sisters on the consequences of their continued invasion into coloured spaces? And, how can people of colour empower themselves in a world that continues to be suffocated by whiteness? Also, I could feed ten villages with the money that was wasted on this trip. So, where can I get my refund?