There’s no excuse for racism: What India must learn from Daren Sammy’s words

The cricketer recently revealed that he had often been called ‘kaalu’ during his tenure with the Hyderabad Sunrisers, a discriminatory term used for dark-skinned people.
There’s no excuse for racism: What India must learn from Daren Sammy’s words
There’s no excuse for racism: What India must learn from Daren Sammy’s words

West Indies cricketer Daren Sammy’s revelation this week, alleging that he faced racism while playing in the Indian Premier League (IPL) with Sunrisers Hyderabad, has brought to focus the rampant casual racism and colourism in Indian cricket, and across the country. 

In a video uploaded on social media, Sammy said that he was racially abused in 2013 and 2014 when he was part of the Hyderabad team. He realised that he faced racist insults when he watched an episode of the Patriot Act by Indian-American comedian Hasan Minhaj in which the latter discussed the casual racism in Indian households. The episode highlighted the practice of calling dark members of the family ‘kaalu’.

“I instantly remember that when I was with Sunrisers Hyderabad in 2013-14, I was being called the exact same word (‘kaalu’) that he described that was degrading to black people. I got angry about it. I will be messaging those ppl. You guys know who you are,” Sammy said in a video posted on Instagram.

What Daren Sammy faced is not restricted to the locker rooms of IPL teams. India’s fixation with race and colour hints at a long known but seldom acknowledged attitude towards dark skinned people, especially those of African descent. To be clear, colourism is the “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group” while racism is “prejudice or discrimination directed against someone of a different race.”

You don't have to look far to find examples of how people are discriminated against due to their skin tone and race. Many bitter accounts of African students studying in India highlight the Afrophobia among the people in this country. “What Sammy highlighted is no different from what many people from Africa experience on a daily basis in India. Here, the racism happens quite openly,” says Emma, a student from Uganda in Bengaluru.   

Sammy had played for Sunrisers 2013 and 2014 and even captained the team in his second year. Since his statement, an old Instagram photo posted by Indian cricketer Ishant Sharma has surfaced which appeared to corroborate Sammy's claims. The franchise Sunrisers Hyderabad and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) are yet to release a statement on this issue. The International Cricket Council's (ICC) anti-racism code will apply in this case since the IPL adopted it in March 2019.

The Indian dislike for dark skin shows itself within the subcontinent as colourism and casteism. As Sammy had mentioned in his Instagram post, Sri Lankan cricketer Thisara Perera was also called ‘kaalu’ by the team. Following the controversy, Indian players themselves have opened up about the prejudice that they have faced. Earlier this week, former Indian cricketers Abhinav Mukund and Dodda Ganesh shared their experiences of facing jibes because of their skin colour.

There may be many more who have not opened up about their experiences over fears of losing out on opportunities. Indian crowds are known for hurling chants and abuses at players on the basis of their colour. Former Indian cricketer Irfan Pathan, reacting to the controversy over Sammy's claims, said that cricketers from southern India sometimes face taunts during domestic matches in the north. 

Neither ‘fun’ nor ‘normal’ 

Soon after Sammy’s video, a few Twitter and Instagram users from India leapt to defend the slur, ‘explaining’ that it was a friendly ‘nickname’ and not racist. “We Indians prefer calling people by nicks (sic). Even white people are called ‘Angrez’ so it is just normal,’ typed one user.

Celebrities such as Priyanka Chopra have spoken out against racism in the wake of widespread protests after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer. Yet she and other famous personalities, such as Virat Kohli (until 2017), have endorsed ‘skin lightening’ products and ‘anti-pigmentation’ creams for Indian men and women. Dark skinned people do not find as much representation in Bollywood and regional film industries where ‘white skin’ is valourised and ‘black skin’ is a damning problem. Though racism and colourism are not the same, it is true that dark skinned people, in general, are met with a kind of derision that this country has failed to reckon with. 

In an opinion piece for Al Jazeera, an Indian writer with a dark skin tone wrote, “My reality was simple: In India, I as a person had less value because of the colour of my skin.”  This makes it impossible to ignore the racial and colour based prejudice in the ‘nickname’ given to Daren Sammy. Slurs such as chamaar, bhangi and kaminey are also common in ‘friendly’ conversations among Indians. But these words don’t stop being casteist just because people don’t take offence at being addressed that way. Instead, the slurs are normalised, as is the racism associated with it. 

Casual racism camouflaged as appreciation 

Sammy himself stated he was initially misled into thinking that the word meant ‘strong horse’, and that it was ‘meant to be uplifting’. In a 2014 tweet, the cricketer referred to himself as 'Kalu' while wishing VVS Laxman, a Sunrisers Hyderabad mentor at that time, for his birthday. 

Another user also ‘comforted’ Sammy with a comment -- ‘Don’t be sad man, people here love black players for their strength.”  But seemingly appreciative words, highlighting the physical traits of a race such as ‘strength’ is also casual racism. Black people are often praised for their ‘exotic’ skin tone, and black sports personalities identified by their strength and physique, all of which have racist connotations. They are just not as overt. 

Unlike other sports like football and basketball where conversations surrounding racism have been around for a long time, the subject is less discussed in cricket. Sammy’s teammate and popular West Indies cricketer Chris Gayle stated last week, "Racism is not only in football, it's in cricket too!! Even within teams as a Black man I get the end of the stick!" 

Gayle is right in his assessment. While incidents of racist behaviour have occurred in cricket, they have been sporadic and not led to a sustained movement against the practice like 'Kick it out', an organisation funded and formed by football's governing bodies in 1997 to fight racism.

In cricket, former Australian cricketer Darren Lehmann's racially charged outburst in 2003 should have led to a longer ban than just five ODI games. In 2006, commentator Dean Jones was sacked by his broadcaster for referring to South Africa's Hashim Amla as a 'terrorist'. In 2008, an on-field altercation led to a race row when Australia's Andrew Symonds accused Indian spinner Harbhajan Singh of racially abusing him by calling him 'monkey'. Harbhajan was handed a three-match ban, which was later overturned on appeal. Sachin Tendulkar, who was batting at the crease at the other end when the incident took place, brushed off the incident. Former Pakistan captain Sarfaraz Khan's racist jibes against South Africa's Andile Phehlukwayo were caught by the stump microphone and he was suspended for four matches in 2019. England pacer Joffra Archer was racially abused by a fan in 2019.

But while these incidents have routinely sparked conversation about casual racist culture, they have failed so far in taking the conversation forward from ‘this is just for fun’ to actually addressing the issue. Sammy has now asked his former teammates to reach out to him and apologise if they meant to make fun of him. And as more stories of racism emerge, the ICC, the BCCI and the people connected with the game have a responsibility to their players to eradicate the culture of prejudice that pervades the sport.

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