Painting India red: Why the global racism map is wrong

The map of the world’s most and least racially tolerant countries. Image courtesy: Washington Post

The map of the world’s most and least racially tolerant countries. Image courtesy: Washington Post

By Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy

Washington Post has put together "a fascinating map of the world’s most and least racially tolerant countries," a nifty infographic that paints the world in hues ranging from deep blue tolerant to a dark red racist. India is swathed in crimson.

The underlying data was culled by WaPo writer Max Fisher from the World Values survey which measures public attitudes around the world across a staggeringly broad range of issues, ranging from family values to political beliefs, from thoughts on women as single parents to taking soft drugs. The polls were conducted at different times between 1981 and 2008, and a number of questions were tested across many countries, while others were only polled in a couple of nations.   In this case, Fisher drew his map on the basis of responses to a single query (inspired by Swedish researchers who published a study doing the same):

The survey asked respondents in more than 80 different countries to identify kinds of people they would not want as neighbors. Some respondents, picking from a list, that also included “drug addicts”, “homosexuals” , “unmarried couples living together” chose “people of a different race.” The more frequently that people in a given country say they don’t want neighbors from other races… the less racially tolerant you could call that society.

Fisher finds that more than 40 percent of respondents said they would not want a neighbour of a different race in only four of the 81 nations. These are India (43.5 percent), Jordan (51.4 percent), Hong Kong (71.8 percent) and Bangladesh (71.7 percent). And also this: Only 6.5 percent of Pakistanis objected to a neighbour of a different race, making them more racially tolerant than even the Germans or the Dutch.

Influenced by the expression of white racism in the West, they assume that preferring a neighbour of your own race — i.e. not black, Latino, Asian et al — is an accurate barometer of prejudice. AFP

Influenced by the expression of white racism in the West, they assume that preferring a neighbour of your own race — i.e. not black, Latino, Asian et al — is an accurate barometer of prejudice. AFP

The last is likely to prompt squawks of incredulity — Fisher dismisses it as an "outlier" — but it also points to the hazards of measuring a complex phenomenon such as racism in a cross-cultural context. Here are five reasons why we think Washington Post's global map of racism doesn't hold up to scrutiny — and why it is a fallacy to treat "racism" as a universal term.

One, what is 'race' anyway? In a nation where the chances of living next to someone of a different race is fairly remote, it is odd that we should hold such a strong opinion on the matter. This isn't to say we are not bigoted, but the language employed by the survey question fails to capture the nature of our biases. For example, it is far more likely that Indians would prefer living next door to, say, a white expat than a person of a different religion. In fact, the presence of foreign tenants usually indicates a desirable neighbourhood. Unlike the West, 'race' is not a culturally charged term in India where differences of caste, ethnicity and religion are far more important. Indian respondents may have interpreted the term more broadly to include other categories of difference — but that still requires a leap of interpretation glossed over by the colourful map.

Moreover, both Fisher and the Swedes picked this particular measure of intolerance because of their own cultural bias. Influenced by the expression of white racism in the West, they assume that preferring a neighbour of your own race — i.e. not black, Latino, Asian et al — is an accurate barometer of prejudice.

Two, one size doesn’t fit all.  A question that merely looks at the kind of neighbours one might prefer is a rather clumsy and ill-fitting indicator of racism. India, for example, is full of housing societies of various persuasions. People who live in a Parsi housing society might prefer to have a Parsi as neighbour. Does that necessarily imply that everyone who lives in a Parsi housing society is ipso facto racist? Is a vegetarian housing society justified because it’s about a deeply-felt religious belief that cooking meat is polluting while an all-Brahmin housing society is not?  Is the Polish landlady in an old-style London house with poor ventilation being racist because she doesn’t want Indian tenants frying fish? But this matter of convenience could easily acquire a tinge of racism in a survey that just polled people's preferences in tenants or housing association rules.

Three, to Chinatown or not to Chinatown? One man’s Chinatown might be another man’s ghetto, but the fact is people congregate with their own because it’s more comforting and just plain convenient thanks to little neighbourhood stores selling, say, little Mexican candies or Chinese flu medicines. Created by racist housing policies in many American cities, ethnic neighbourhoods, their Chinatowns and Koreatowns, are now flaunted with pride as bustling proof of their multicultural credentials, and touted as tourist stops, the  go-to places for an “authentic” taco or a bowl of ramen noodles.  And it's a matter of regret when these neighbourhoods, whether its Brooklyn, New York or Japantown in San Francisco, become more integrated and therefore less "ethnic." A city of many separate ethnic neighbourhoods could pride itself on its diversity but could well be viewed as a patchwork quilt of racism if its residents are polled in a survey like this.

Four, there’s race and there’s race. A catch-all option like “People of a different race” does not begin to capture the complexity of race relations and racism. It divides all races into two giant buckets – mine versus other. It has no way to measure what Indians think of a white neighbour as opposed to a black or Chinese neighbour. The real racism is revealed in our very different attitude towards different racial groups and the stereotypes we assign to them. As newly landed graduated students in the US, many desis are warned by perfectly well-meaning seniors in the Indian Students Association not to rent houses in the "black" parts of town — but no one ever warns them off predominantly white neighbourhoods. The survey does include immigrants/foreign workers as possibly undesirable neighbours, but fails to recognise that a “foreign worker” can be a diplomat or NGO worker in Afghanistan; Filipino maid or Indian labourer in the Middle East; a Latino farmhand in the United States.

Five, whatever happened to the Shias? If the 'race' option is problematic, so are the other options that were omitted. As we noted earlier, the choices offered to respondents often varied from one nation to another. The Indian version, for example, does not include caste as a criteria for exclusion. The survey does include specific groups as potentially undesirable neighbours but only in certain countries. For example, South Africans can pick blacks, Iranians can opt for Zoroastrians. Oddly, Slovaks, Spaniards, Czechs and Argentines along with Indians have the choice of nixing Hindu neighbours but Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans do not. More astonishingly, the options offered to Pakistanis do not include Shia neighbours — who only appear on the Iraq survey. Given the level of anti-Shia violence in Pakistan, and a historic Shia-Sunni divide, we can reasonably guess that the results would be less than heartening. Again, this does not mean that Pakistan is more racist than India. But its "outlier" status points to the need for culturally specific categories required to measure the level of tolerance in any given society.

A genuine cross-cultural survey of racism — or more precisely, intolerance — requires far more elaboration and care. Such a barometer would go beyond mere neighbour-preference and tap into active forms of bias. For example: questions linking violence to certain communities, be it in the form of riots or crime. The survey would take into account a nation's specific racial, ethnic, or religious divisions, and the ways in which they find expression.

Until such a survey comes along, we can only assume what we already know about ourselves: India is a deeply biased society. We are notoriously racist toward black foreigners and our own fellow citizens from the North East. For instance, 43.9 percent of Indians are uncomfortable with neighbours of a different religion. But neither the World Survey nor Fisher's map tells us whether we are more or less racist than the rest of the world. The so-called racism map is more egregious because it offers an alluring and misleading distillation of context-less data, painting entire nations as racist or liberal in one fell swoop. If we want to hand out scarlet letters for racism, we will need more than a paint-by-numbers palette.

Updated Date: May 16, 2013 20:42 PM

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