What is Racism?

Some years ago, when I was still working in the advertising industry, for one of India’s and the world’s largest agencies, a huge gang of us were sent to Goa for a training program. There were some 140-plus men and women there.

I remember how people congregated in types. The ‘Delhi’ types, the ‘South-Indian’ or ‘Madrasi’ types, even though some of us were from Bangalore, the ‘Bengali’ types and, of course, the ‘white boys,’ which rarely included girls, because the agency I was in was an institution that was an Old White Men’s Club at the top.

Of course, there were sub-categories like the ‘women’s’ gang, the ‘film guys’ and on this particular occasion, the ‘finance’ guys.

And the thing is how we spoke of each other.

According to the ‘South Indian’ gang, of which I was a part, the ‘Delhi’ types were always politicking, bitching and trying to suck up to the boss. In fact, one of our fellow South Indians was labelled a ‘Desperately Seeking to look North Indian’ or ‘Despo’ by his fellows because of the way he behaved like the ‘Delhi’ types up to and including sucking up to the boss.

The ‘Madrasis’ were labelled as intellectual and unambitious. Not aggressive enough to grow the business. So normally, a North Indian was put in charge of the branches down South. Of course our boss was a North Indian.

The ‘Bengali’ types were labelled as lazy, unambitious, but garrulous. They could talk a terrific game, but they needed a strong (North Indian) hand at the helm to make sure their branch would amount to anything at all.

The ‘girls,’ always girls, by the way, never women or ladies, no matter how old, were thought of as bitching about somebody. Their work was inconsequential for the most part, except when it was useful to the ‘North Indian’ gang.

The ‘film’ guys were vague, out there, not really part of the agency except to use it as a via media to get to their real ambition, which was either to make feature films or TV commercials. They were basically the envy of all and sundry because everybody knew that once they became film-makers instead of film executive in an agency, they would be far richer (in other words, more successful) than any of us.

The ‘Finance’ guys were boring and not worthy of interest, unless you wanted to find out how the agency was really doing. This was not a truth often told.

Of course we all looked at the ‘white boys’ with great suspicion. Sitting at our tables, we would watch the ‘white boys’ talking to each other and the unanimous question was, “What s**t are those white f**kers planning now?”

And the problem was that the ‘white boys’ were generally planning something that was calculated to make us uncomfortable. Oddly enough, it was not all the white men. It was generally the men from the UK or the US.

As you can see, it was more akin to one of Dante’s levels of hell than a congenial place to work. I often wondered what it was like in one of the truly large offices like New York, London or the largest in those days . . . Detroit.

Worse, I assume, with all those white boys.

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