What It’s Actually Like Being a White Woman Living in India

What It’s Actually Like Being a White Woman Living in India

I read an article this morning… It was an article about white privilege, and chronicles the life of a woman who had lived in India. I found it to be misleading, at least. To be fair, everyone’s experiences are different, and maybe the author’s experiences are genuine – it’s just obvious that she hasn’t lived in India for very long. I saw myself in her post, a very new-to-India and naïve me.

In her article, she tries to make a point about white privilege, but she brags about her privileges almost the entire time (a lot of which don’t actually have anything to do with being white, as much as they have to do with other privileges). She goes as far as to say that she feels safe in Delhi, safer than Indian woman must be, and yet describes an instance where she was mistaken for a prostitute and followed home. She simply told the man “Go, okay? Go.” and her description of the experience gives the readers the impression that she didn’t feel as mortified as it actually feels to be stalked – especially as a helpless foreigner in a foreign country.

She claims that her privilege grants her a lifestyle she wouldn’t otherwise have. I don’t know what kind of lifestyle she could have been awarded on the basis of her skin color – and I don’t know anyone who does. We expats figure she is confusing her privileges, such as the privilege of money, nationality, etc.

The entire article is rather cringe-worthy. But I can’t complain – some of my early articles were the same! I can’t even read my old articles for the same reason. I just didn’t know enough about India.

After talking with a group of girls, all of whom have spent significant amounts of time, live, or have lived, in India, we have come to the conclusion that her post shows her inexperience. I don’t want to say the author isn’t being genuine, but I would be lying if I said I am not a little disturbed and frustrated that such an unrealistic point of view could make it to major news websites. Maybe her privilege carried over.

Here’s a real look at what it is like to live (and actually live) as a white woman in India

Jhansi, living alone, 2014
Because all of my friends (male) were overly-concerned about my safety, all of them urged me to never go out alone. I listened, and when I needed something, they were happy to go out and bring it to me. Not because I am white, because I am a woman, and they do the same for their family. Although it was suffocating to not have any independence, and I started to break away from that. Despite uncomfortable stares from men and dirty looks from women, I walked to a nearby hotel restaurant for food every day. I dressed in long skirts or black loose-fitting pants and long tunics, and ultimately tried to be culturally sensitive.

Once, I took a friend with me to the hotel restaurant, when a man sitting next to us looked at me with disgust, and told my companion that if I planned to eat non-veg, I needed to find a different seat. He had no idea I was vegetarian.

Delhi, living alone, 2014:
I stayed alone in a girl’s PG in Delhi, I was catered to for the same reasons I was in Jhansi, but I found that my fellow PG mates, spirited young Indian women, would freely come and go (so long as they returned by curfew). I loved the freedom of going out with the boy I was madly in love with, who would later become my husband. My biggest complaints were being ambushed by the beggars. I also felt more pressure to assimilate and dress in Indian suits. Meanwhile, my Indian lady-friends were wearing jumpsuits, jeans,  and crop tops – looking back, I wish I had their courage!

Delhi, living with my husband, 2015-2016:
When we lived together before marriage, we would go out together and bring groceries. We both cooked and cleaned. We went out often, especially when his friends were able to join us. Despite often not understanding the conversation, it was fun to spend time with a happy group of friends.

In our next apartment (2016), we took turns going out and bringing milk and juice or bread from the nearby shop – but it was still hard for me because I felt “othered”, and didn’t want to constantly be a circus attraction. We went grocery shopping together, and met my friends together from time to time. I also wandered out into the metro and crossed the city alone from time to time, meeting other ladies who were married to an Indian. Always cautious, but still free.

Sure I saw the sights from time to time, but I wasn’t living as a tourist – I was living like an Indian.

Safety

I never had any problems feeling safe in New Delhi – until I did. I felt lucky to have had such loving family and friends around me most of the time. See that’s the thing… I was groped when I was out with my husband, bundled up like a rug, in winter of 2014, in a quiet non-touristy Delhi market near our apartment. I was stared at with a look that could kill, by a man so obviously enraged and disgusted by my existence. When he saw me looking at my husband, he also looked at him with disgust. I was followed, starting in a metro station, when I was travelling with my husband and his sister’s family (post marriage). All these things happened when I was with a loved one, and respecting culture. I couldn’t imagine what life would have been like, were I alone and throwing caution to the wind.

Attention

People often took pictures of me without permission, and some of the bolder ones didn’t even try to hide it. Some asked, and sometimes I obliged, if they were kids or whole families. I was the topic of conversation no matter where I went, much to my utter embarrassment. Shop owners were eager to help me before anyone else, but I was eventually able to prevent this by sending my husband in first.

Prejudice

While some people thought it was pretty neat to see a foreigner, others were annoyed, crooked, or even unkind. Like the two Indian women dressed in sarees, on the metro train, snickering at me and making the classic stereotypical “pizza” and “cheeseburger” jokes reserved for white foreigners.

Or the aunties that stare in disbelief and disapproval, once they’ve put the pieces together that I’m married to an Indian. Or the young Indian girls who snicker and give me dirty looks for wearing Indian clothes. The rickshaw walas and shop owners that try to over-charge me because obviously foreigners are rich. Or the hotel that wouldn’t accept foreigners. While these are just a few of my experiences, this list would be too long to read if I added similar experiences of my peers.

Expectations

According to stereotypes, people here expect “foreigners” are wild, drink, dress “indecently” and flirt with lots of men. (This is what my in-laws feared before they got to know me.) However, it’s also expected that foreigners respect culture. Women, while we are eager to live in a world where we don’t have to fear being attacked, we don’t live in that world yet; we have to express caution in the way we dress and behave in India.
(The good fight is being fought by India’s youth – let’s not get into this discussion.)

On another level, when you are married to an Indian, you might be expected to be more Indian, wear marriage symbols, and who cares about your culture? I have lots of expectations I’ve been rebelling against lately. But let’s not stray off topic.

Conclusion

No country is a playground for other nationalities, and India is no different. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Likewise, “When in India, do as the Indians do.”
Ask the expats! We have lived here long enough to know the ins and the outs, and we won’t leave you with delusions…

How does it really feel to be a white woman living in India? It’s a struggle! It’s unwanted attention, creepy advances, mortifying gropes, being afraid to be as carefree as some of the passing tourists, it’s becoming aggressive, learning to haggle and negotiate. It’s letting go of any sense of order and time. It’s hard, it’s isolating, but then again it’s rewarding, because India is beautiful, spiritual, and awfully welcoming. There are plenty of great things about India, don’t get me wrong.

And on the topic of white privilege, no one knows the painful realities better than those of us married to Indians who don’t have that privilege. None of us exploit our white privilege or passport privilege. I find that I couldn’t relate with that article at all, for these reasons.

Well anyway, that’s what it’s really like to be a foreign woman living in India.

So, what are your experiences in India? What can you add to this list?

 

 

 

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13 thoughts on “What It’s Actually Like Being a White Woman Living in India

  1. I’ve been following your blog for the last few years, and can’t help but to agree with you on the article that you mentioned. My mouth dropped. I’ve had a different experience from the woman who wrote the article and I’ve only been to India for a little over 5 weeks with two different trips to India in both the North and South. I never felt I had any white privilege, just that people thought I had more money due to being white or being assumed as a prostitute.

    My white privilege got me pulled into a room when I landed in Bangalore because the address I wrote on the immigration card was a residential address. I had questions asked of me and then the immigration officer contacted the person that was picking me up to ask the same questions of them in Hindi (this was after they had me verify the person did speak Hindi since their name was Bengali). After this terrifying incident, I was invited to their house for Diwali along with my friend, which I still feel is the strangest part of the story.

    White privilege is when you are traveling out of a city to head to another city and stopping at Dhaba to stretch your legs with your friends. A female Indian wearing long shorts and a t-shirt and your white skin (or the fact that you’re wearing long pants and a hoodie sweatshirt) manage to attract the attention of a group of over 30 men. Both of you end up getting locked in the car for your safety while the men in your group get to enjoy their chai outside and a quick smoke break. It also helped for you to get followed to the toilet at another rest stop by an Indian male because they see you’re alone. From then on, you realize that whenever traveling internally inside India, you need the buddy system to just pee.

    My white skin attracted the attention of a group of drunken men at Baga Beach in Goa, a security guard pulled me into a shop for my protection. The same can be said of the heavily discounted meal that my friends and I got in Vagator because the owners called a few of their friends to come over and take pictures with me or stare at me for over an hour, even when I requested them to stop.

    This same privilege caused me to have to urinate in a cup in desperation because there are no toilets anywhere nearby and the bus driver won’t let me go into the woods with my friend out of fear that I’ll get raped as I traveled from Kodaikanal to Bangalore. It was on this occurrence that I realized it was better to just fast from drinking liquids to avoid having to use toilets when traveling by busy overnight.

    I think the article writer should try to book a hotel room with an Indian male. She’ll be shocked to find that it isn’t that easy. I had 2 separate incidents where we were refused a room and I was called a prostitute, one happened in Delhi while the other happened in Bangalore. I was wearing a kurti and jeans on both incidents. At one hotel in a really shady area of Delhi near the train station, my friend bribed them and they took us in. We had just gotten off of a 15 hour bus ride and had 8 hours until we had to take a 44 hour train ride down to Bangalore. We just wanted to nap and shower there. Leaving the hotel, one of the owners jumped onto the Rickshaw with us at the front with the driver, who tried to get him off. He kept asking the Indian male I was traveling with questions in Hindi. I later found out that the man wanted to know which escort agency I was from. I was wearing a long sleeve sweater and a long skirt at that time too for the train ride.

    On my flight out of Bangalore from the second trip, I once again had issues at immigration when I mentioned that the last hotel I stayed at was in Manali. They had no tracking of me from Manali to Bangalore, and it seemed to unsettle him that I stayed at Indian residences in Bangalore. It was at this point that I realized that the Indian government keeps tabs on tourists with our hotel check ins.

    I do love India and look forward to going back within the year for my wedding in Meerut to my husband. I look forward to meeting my in laws and celebrating the festivals. If I had the chance, I would live in India. I love the rawness of it and the feeling of togetherness I get whenever I go there. It’s always an adventure and I rarely felt alone. My good experiences outweigh the bad one’s that I experienced above. Yes, India is and can be a dangerous place when you step outside of the tourist areas. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin, if you are female, you need to be cognizant of what is around you while traveling outside of the non tourist areas. If you are traveling with an Indian male, please be extra careful. I noticed while speaking to female backpackers that my experience was different from there’s because I traveled around with an Indian male. I can’t help but to feel that the reason I was assumed a prostitute increased because of that.

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  2. That article really rubbed me the wrong way, and as you said, she hasn’t lived in India long enough. Most of the privilege things she talks about are class privilege, and if she had hanged around other Indian ladies of her social level long enough she would have known that.

    The part about the safety made me cringe, because that bit is racist at best. Because yeah she seems to hint at the fact she could deal with her creepy stalker the way she did only because she was white! It seems that she is under the idea things would have gone worse for an Indian lady. UGH!!!!!!!!! Give the local ladies some credit girl!

    As a white lady, I have been stared at, ripped off in markets, harassed to by crap every 5 seconds at the beach or in touristy spots. People take my picture without my permission shoving their phone in my face. I got a few cat calls (eve teasing). I dealt with more aunties and their obnoxious “West is bad only India is best” type of comment than I can recall. Had people question the truth in my reply when I replied by YES to the question of my daughter actually being mine.

    And the only time in close to 14 years that we got seated at a restaurant before all the other people waiting was not because I was white, but because we were the only “Party of 2” waiting and all they had was a table for 2. So much for the white privilege she claims to benefit from huh?

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  3. I think there are many experiences, phases and stages one goes through. In my case, I’ve seen shifts and changes by location and over time – from when I 1st arrived in 1990, to living in Delhi 1995-96 then back in 2000/01, 2003-05 then moving to Mumbai where I’ve been based ever since. Being in your 20s is also very different than late 40s.

    Context also is a huge factor. Professionally, it may be easier to initially open a door sparked by curiosity but one certainly will NOT be invited back if unable to bring value – irrespective of skin colour!

    I’ve not read the original article you refer to but suspect it is indeed ‘cringe worthy’. 🙂

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  4. From the privileged white woman’s article-
    “I didn’t feel in danger, because I was aware that my appearance carried a cachet of power and intimidation. My skin tone afforded me a freedom, and lifestyle, that were literally far above my paycheck.”

    That is just naivete. I agree with Cyn that she’s mistaking class privilege for white privilege. Yes, most Idians do think that white skin = wealthy, educated, possibly powerful.
    Delhi’s not quite as bad as it used to be like 10 yrs ago though. I still would’t go out at night in Delhi because of the drunk driving. I’ve seen too many pedestrians & motorcyclists plowed over by drunk drivers in Delhi.

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  5. After going to Jhansi for a wedding my In-laws demanded for my partner and I, I realized that Indian life is not for me. Much like you, I was made to walk with a male chaperone as if I was a child. I was stared at and very clearly disrespected by comments though I couldn’t understand what was being said. Every older woman in a mile radius was spying on me and reporting back to the others, what fun gossip the foreigner brings. People told me how lucky I was to have a nice Indian wedding instead of a boring western one. Everyone acts like because I picked my partner that I have agreed to slave away in the in-laws house, even though we are both working in America. They tell me that I am lucky his parents allowed him to marry a white woman. My MiL and her sisters thinks that American’s don’t have culture, we just have “bad habits”. I feel like a lot of this wouldn’t be an issue if I was Indian instead of white. I guess what I am saying is that maybe the lady who wrote the original post has her version of India where she uses her racial difference to separate herself from local women, whereas Crystal decided to assimilate as much as possible which brings its own challenges. Personally I couldn’t wait to leave and don’t plan on returning, not solely due to but certainly including the racism I encountered. There are always going to be some differences in the way different people experience a place, none more right or true than the others, but the woman’s experience in the original article is definitely not the norm in my understanding.

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      1. Haha, yeah a white girl trying to blend in in India works about as well as a zebra trying to blend in to a horse pack. My partner, not husband (the Indian wedding was not our choice and therefore we do not recognize it as valid nor have we filed any paperwork to make it official) has ancestral roots in Jhansi on his paternal side. That side of his family still maintain a property within the cantonement and own a hotel in Jhansi but live elsewhere in India. In a city as small as Jhansi I am really surprised no one mentioned the other firangi bahu in the area, they all acted like I was the first white person in the village. They had the ceremony at the Orchha resort, it’s not far from Jhansi, maybe you have been there.

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  6. After over a year living in the most rural parts of Northern India where many have never even met a foreigner, I’d have to agree and disagree with her points of view. Assuming I read the same article! India is still very much driven by caste and I believe it really depends on what caste you live in. So as you say yourself her privilege has carried over and it is predominately associated with social standing. As a white woman in middle class India myself, it means at times I am seen as more important than my Indian husband and I’m addressed as if he isn’t present.

    Albeit there are some aspects of privilege to being white, especially over being dark, considering pale skin is associated with beauty. Because of this I received many, many invitations to attend weddings even if I didn’t know the bride or groom. Even attending a school play for my friends daughter, they acted out a scene where an Indian son told his mother he was marrying a beautiful foreigner. The mother automatically assumed she was white and was so excited. Then he finally brought her home to India to marry and the mother was so disappointed she was black. The audience was in stitches over that. On a few occasions my paleness also managed to save us money. Being beautiful is contrary to being powerful of course. Most still consider white women to be promiscuous and lewd although they may consider your paleness beautiful. It may avail a few privileges, but that is about the extent of it.

    The negative connotations of being a white woman far outweigh the minute amount of white privilege. Most men view white women to be porn stars thanks to Hollywood films and pornography. Many Indian men will grope, leer, make lewd remarks, stare, take photographs and in extreme cases possibly raped. And being middle class won’t stop a low class resident from any of the aforementioned. I’m lucky that the worst I have experienced is being groped and that was in front of my husband. Even going out in public with my husband I am typically charged more for being white. White women are also considered to have lack of culture, disrespect for elders, drink excessively, smoke, all in addition to being promiscuous. Even the supposed harmless slang word ‘gori’, meaning white woman, has negative connotations. You usually have to earn respect outside of middle class India. And at most times to no avail or with much struggle.

    Thanks for sharing your article as it has prompted more people to share their experiences.

    Tanya – The White Punjabi Bride
    http://tanyavmoore.wixsite.com/thewhitepunjabibride

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  7. I think the genesis of this attitude is in what we make of a foreigner. We tend to think of them as “tourists” or “spiritual seekers”. There are always on the move, walking on the roads, in the metro, clicking pictures at tourist spots. People who come to India for a specific purpose. It does not matter to us that foreigners have been coming to India and living there for a very long time as diplomats, research scholars, aid workers etc.
    If we see an India with a foreigner, we think of him as a tourist guide. Since much of India does not understand “love”, there are only two conclusions arrived at. Coupled with the fact that inter cultural relationships are a very new thing to India.

    Thus, it comes as a surprise to us that some of them may want to live India and be part of the chaotic Indian life. We believe that except Indians, nobody is tough enough to survive India. Why would anybody want to leave their comfortable life to live in a country plagued with so many problems?

    Now, if they have decided to live in India, how much of an Indian they have become. Thus, our quest continues.

    I have been reading these blogs for quiet sometime and I am thankful to these wonderful females blog writers for dispelling many myths about the foreigners and offering a fresh point of view in this regard.

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  8. This is a really interesting discussion, thank you. I’ve been living in Mumbai for almost 4 years now and am also married to an Indian man. I am also an academic (sociologist) and study class in India – my privilege is something I think about constantly. I too found the original article a little naive, perhaps, but I also think that there are some key observations that are missing from this discussion that affect how ‘white privilege’ is experienced.

    As others have also pointed out, I think that it important to note upfront that experiences are diverse and we should not be aiming to agree on a homogenous experience of whiteness. The author of the original article is equally entitled to talk about her experiences and how she perceived them/the underpinnings of them. Perhaps we can conceptualise this conversation along a trajectory – some of us have more and less experience than others, but no experience is invalid.

    I also think that we must acknowledge the stark differences between different areas of India, both in terms of East/West/North/South as well as urban, peri-urban and rural. I have been fortunate (or privileged, ha) enough to travel extensively throughout India, both for work and leisure, and have noticed striking differences in how I experience my whiteness. In Kolkata, for instance, I felt incredibly unsafe, on one occasion in particular in which we were ominously followed by two men, and I went to the police but was not taken seriously until I started speaking hindi. It struck me that Kolkata is a place that carries a much greater post-colonial trauma than many other cities in India. This prompts me to ponder what difference (colonial) history makes to how whiteness is perceived and (de)valued by observers?

    I think that issues around class status also deserve to be teased out a little more here, which also relates to history. White people are assumed to have more money, because we often do. Very few of us, for instance, would not be able to source enough money for a plane ticket in the event of an emergency. Colonialists (British, French and Portuguese) also had more money and used this to exploit the local population (this is reductive, but you get the gist). For most Indian people, for generations(!), their experience of white people has involved an observation of very real economic privilege, which then converts to other forms of socio-cultural privilege. Further, the fact that we all carry passports that allow us to ‘escape’ if we wanted to also reinforces this privilege.

    Being white is a visible marker of (historical) privilege that we all carry – whether we like it or not. Our racial difference is palpable and in my experience it can be both an advantage and a disadvantage; I find that I have experiences similar to the Italian woman, as well as the women commenting here. I think a more fruitful discussion — rather than debating whose experience is most ‘true’ — would be to talk about the different ways in which we can exist as white women as India, the niches we can create for ourselves, how we manage hybrid cultural identities and households, etc.

    Also, for anyone that wants some additional reading, Melissa Tandiwe Myambo has done some interesting research on this topic: https://thewire.in/122436/how-living-in-india-enhances-white-male-privilege/

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