Major: Communication Studies
Hometown: Raleigh, NC
Study Abroad Program: UNC Summer in India
Stepping outside of my own perspective….
During the time that I spent in several different cities in northern India, I was often challenged and excited by this complicated and dynamic country. In trying to
interpret, understand, and learn from my experiences, one of the things that I have learned is how easy it is to unfairly judge, whether consciously or unconsciously, cultural or social situations here that disturb or discomfort me. I found that I am constantly challenged to try and interpret my experiences from a contextual perspective, and not simply through the distant lens of a privileged American. On my first night in Jaipur, an interesting, although at first quite offensive, conversation with “The King of the Gypsies” particularly challenged me to try and step outside of my own perspective and learn from a situation.
When walking outside of our hotel for the first time in Jaipur, myself and a few members of my group were lured into conversation with a man wearing a tank top and a towel around his waist who introduced himself as The King of the Gypsies. While I am still not sure if he was the “king” of anything we did find out that he was a traveling Indian who spoke French, English, and Hindi. We discussed how he had visited “all over the world” ( which turned out to be only South Africa, France, and Switzerland), and he asked me if I was South African because I looked South African and not “American” like some of my other group members. I informed him that I was American, but with African ancestry, and asked him how he liked South Africa, because I am very interested in going myself one day.
He then answered that he didn’t like Africa very much because he didn’t “like Africans.” Someone else in my group spoke up before I got a chance and asked how he could generalize dislike for such a large group, and he responded: “Oh no, no, I don’t dislike all Africans, I liked the white Africans, just not the black people.” Here is when I became offended, and entered the conversation to give him a “talking to”(i.e. a piece of my mind) about his racial generalizations. He apologetically informed me that he wasn’t talking about me, just Africans, because “they” were very violent. We continued discussing and I argued with him that I was not offended so much because I was black but more because of his crass generalization of a whole race, which was based on his experience of only South Africa. The whole group discussed and argued for a few minutes, but we were left with distaste for the man after the conversation.
Later that evening, when I was discussing the conversation with some more members of our group, I wondered why my discussion with this man had struck me so, and even angered me, quite quickly. I had mentally judged this man as “wrong” and “racist” according to the standards of my own culture. In America as well, negative generalizations and stereotypes and extremely common, everybody experiences them, whether they are often or rare, intentional or not, spoken or subtly felt. I guess a main reason that I was more apt to judge “the King’s” rawly spoken sentiments is because, in America, our violently racist history has apparently taught us enough about the dangers of generalizations that we considered good manners to at least be ashamed of them. So why should I be offended by this Indian? Because he had not been taught that in America, it is customary to censor negative racial sentiments? Thus, I realized that it was a bit closed-minded of me to immediately judge this Indian as a tactless racist when had no true grasp on the crude denotation that his words translated to in American Culture.
Trying to open my mind and understand Indian culture according to its own context is something that I found myself constantly bending myself to do in India, and I’m sure that this is a common challenge for anyone trying to understand a country with so many overwhelming differences from one’s own. But I do recognize that the education I gained, through merely attempting a different perspective while in India, was immeasurably valuable.