Black in India - Ore Afon

My Experience in an Ethnically Homogenous Country Other Than My Own

This past summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Karnataka, India for an eight-week Global Service Learning field experience. It was something wildly out of my comfort zone—8,067 miles out of my comfort zone, to be exact—and something I’d been preparing for since December of last year when I received my acceptance letter. It took a few weeks of back-and-forth phone calls with my parents to convince them that their baby girl was going to be okay halfway across the world for two months, several visits to Cornell Health to get all my immunizations up-to-date, and hours (and hours and hours) on the Weather Channel app mentally preparing myself for south India’s monsoon season. But the day finally, finally, came, and I was landing in the Bangalore Airport with seventeen other sleep-deprived, nervously excited Cornellians, our program director, and our teaching assistant.

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The first two weeks was a lot of exploring as we traveled across Mysore District and visited places like Chamundi Hill (home of the world’s largest monolithic statue), Mysore Palace, Dubare Elephant Camp, and Belur Temple. I tried my hardest to take in the rich culture and historical significance of every place that we had the chance to see, but through it all, there seemed to be a constant state of unease surrounding my “culturally immersive”—albeit grossly tourist—experiences, and that unease came from one glaring realization: I was Black in India.

Though the pigmentation of my skin was just the same as—if not lighter than—some of the people I encountered in the city of Mysore, it didn’t change the fact that I was ethnically unlike them. I had different physical features: a wider nose, plumper lips, deeper-set eyes, a taller stature, and braided hair. It was clear to those around me that, despite my coloring, I was strikingly different from them.

And this difference became only more pronounced as I moved from the bustling city of Mysore to the quieter, more rural town of Kenchanahalli to begin working on my global health project for the next six weeks. I worked in a tribal hospital where the nurses and patient care advocacy team members would stare at me from across the waiting room, then work up the courage to come over and ask me in half-broken English how my hair grew the way it did. I helped perform physical exams for the children in the school adjacent to the hospital, where some of the younger students would blink up at me with an innocent curiosity. I took walks to the nearby markets and food stands to buy snacks and newly-ripened mangoes, where passers-by would reach out and stroke or poke my skin, as if I wouldn’t notice. I browsed the grocery store shelves in search of soap or toothpaste, where I’d come across skin-bleaching beauty products that made my stomach sink and my heart hurt. I’d take rickshaw rides to the neighborhood bookstore or souvenir shop with some of the members of my cohort, when I’d notice the brightly colored advertisement billboards for cell phone plans and movies that only displayed lighter-skinned models and actors and even some White ones with green eyes and blonde hair.

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Even in a country made entirely of people of color, I was experiencing a form of discrimination that I thought only existed in Western or Global North cultures. I’d been in ethnically homogenous nations before—I was born in Nigeria, after all, and I spent the first five years of my life in South Africa—yet being in a nation in which my ethnicity wasn’t the dominant ethnicity (or not even a heavily-represented ethnicity, for that matter) rocked me to the core, to say the least.

In other words, for some of the people that I was meeting and interacting with, I may very well have been the first Black person that they’d ever seen or met. Though some of them went about expressing their inquisitiveness in different ways, it was a very real part of my time in India. And, as much as I wanted to be a resource for them to learn more about Black skin and Black hair and Blackness in general, it was hard for me to separate my desire to do so from my disappointment at the fact that I couldn’t seem to escape instances of racial prejudice from all the way across the globe. In other words, even on the other side of the planet, I was being viewed in a different light than my White classmates. And, because this was a difference that I was only used to experiencing in the United States, a strange new form of indifference—or resentment or what have you—stopped me from educating my peers on why reaching out and stroking my hair was offensive or why I wasn’t their go-to point person for all things cultural appropriation.

To put substance to this sentiment, while pedestrians ogled at my yellow-haired peers, I was asked by my in-country mentor if I could keep my natural hair up in a bun (instead of leaving it out in a curly Afro) when I came to work. While a few of my White peers expressed that they weren’t being nearly as challenged as they’d hoped to be during the program, I was struggling with my identity as a Black woman in a place that I never thought I would have to. I was struggling with the fact that not all people of color think the way that I do. And I was struggling with the fact that horizontal oppression, a concept that I never wanted to accept as a reality, is very much alive and well across racial and ethnic lines.

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Let me be clear: I do not regret the two months that I spent in India. In fact, my experience there was absolutely a transformative one. It was one in which I was able to learn more about myself as a student, a peer, a professional, and a future physician, in which I began to understand more about what I want to do with my life after Cornell and where I want to do it. Because of my months in India, I had the opportunity to make incredible friendships and understand what it means to work for an NGO. But more than anything, the experience taught me significantly more about my identity as a Black woman in a non-Black environment. It forced me to feel truly uncomfortable in my skin, but as a result, it also forced me to reflect on what exactly makes my Blackness so unique. So what, my skin absorbs the sun’s rays? So what, my hair defies gravity? Because of my time in a strikingly different country than any that I’d ever been in before, I began to realize—and actually accept—the fact that my Blackness is my beauty.

And any time that I pronounce a word differently than my peers born and raised in the U.S.  and I’m thus reminded of my Nigerian heritage and ethnicity, or any time that I walk past 306 Eddy Street, and I’m reminded of the color of my skin, I cling firmly onto that idea: Black is beautiful. It’s magical and majestic and something to be infinitely and irrevocably proud of. 

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Ore Afon 

Cornell University '18