»The Honest Truth by Ajit Dayal

Racism: Judging a book by its cover

As children we were told: Never judge a book by its cover.
What this meant was that the external should never be seen as reflection of the underlying.
What you see on the outside may be very different from what is actually inside.

Well, times have changed and, sadly we tend to judge books by their cover - and people from the colour of their skin, their religion, or their caste.

In a world that has globalised, where capital flows seamlessly, where information powered by Google can be accessed with a few commands or products sold by Amazon can be touched by a few quick finger strokes, our perceptions of others is dominated by a few glances.
This look at the external leads to processing of a quick - and possibly incorrect - conclusion.
The external is taken to be a reflection of the underlying internal.
The book is judged by the cover.

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Try this when you next travel.
I travel a lot and, along the way, I have learnt many rules for a safe and comfortable travel.
When travelling to the United States from Europe or within the United States, I always shave the day of my flight.
And try to dress in what could be described as "casual smart".
No messy look; no sloppiness...Because, on the days I have not shaved or look messy, I will invariably be looked at differently and there is a very high probability that I will have a different experience at: (i) check-in, (ii) at security, and (iii) inside the aircraft.

If not dressed well, the person at the check-in will look at me a little more carefully.
Like many others, I use the online system to check in but - given my frequent flying - I will ask the person at the counter if I can change my seat to another row "where the seat next to me is empty". The poor man's business class! 😊

Maybe 95% of the flights I take are in economy - I don't buy business class tickets. So having that one seat empty next to me makes the flight a lot more comfortable (and allows me to write this edition of The Honest Truth"! 😊).
And, yes, the day I am dressed smartly, chances are that I will get the wonderful extra seat during the check-in process!
Otherwise - assuming I am dressed sloppily, as I am today - I need to sort of "wing it" on the flight itself by eyeing the extra, unoccupied seats (as I did today!) and then quickly moving rows before take-off.

At security, my unshaven look coupled with the dark skin (outside India) gets me attention for sure. I can feel the psychological chess game...I look directly at the security officer and I know what they are thinking: unshaven, dark skinned, possibly the only dark-skinned person on this flight which is otherwise mostly occupied by white skin Europeans....hmmm...should I or shouldn't I?

I look at the security officer with confidence - and humility.
Confident because I know I am not what they think I may be.
Humility because they are doing their job: they are doing their screening, their profiling.
I am a guest in their country: I must never forget that!
They can decide my fate....unlike money which can zip around the world or the information from Google which can cross most borders, this brown body of mine has limitations of movement.
Bacch gaya saalaa...let him go....then the hand-over of the passport and the "have a good flight" or a grunt.

I am through to the next stage of the process....the physical and hand-bag check in....the removal of the laptop, the mobile, the hand creams and liquids, the shoes, the belt....I call this the "BLD" (can someone guess what that stands for?).

On the plane, the crew have their unique reaction patterns upon boarding. My frequent flyer status allows me to board earlier than the other passengers in economy class. So, if some crew members have observed that, they know that I am "okay". Smartly dressed, they would think I am a Wall Street guy or a techie. Dressed poorly, I could be anyone....yes, I may have gotten through the airport security but....there is an unknown. And we are always scared of the unknown: a human trait.

On some flights - like the one I am on now - I have kept my boarding pass on the empty seat next to me so that (hopefully) the crew can see the stamp which indicates I am a frequent flyer. Maybe they will give me better service, despite my messy appearance?
Airlines do that: they differentiate between customers and reward the more "loyal" customers.

On a flight from Mumbai to Europe recently, one of the European crew members went by to meet everyone in economy who had premium frequent flyer status. She spoke to 3 people across the aisle from me (the row ahead, the same row as me, the row behind me) and asked them for their preference. Something special she could do for them - despite the fact that they were travelling in economy. She bypassed me. She had a list in her hand: I am sure my name was on it. She did not stop to greet me.
That evening, I was not dressed smartly - and, possibly, the colour of my skin was not white?
Luckily, another member of the crew recognised me and gave me the little "extras" to make my flight more comfortable: a bottle of water, eye shades to sleep better....
The same passenger list, read by different people, can result in very different reactions!
(If anyone at Quantum Mutual Fund or Equitymaster does that - please let me know!)

The Racist Indian.
Before we start the rallying cry of accusing the "foreigners" of racism, recognise that Indians are also guilty of racism.
We are racist towards the "Oriental looking" people - even if they are Indian (ask the individuals in the North East who live and work in cities like New Delhi and Bangalore!). The blacks from Africa may be studying in our universities, but do they get fair treatment - or are they judged by the colour of their skin?
And didn't our grandparents - the same ones who told us never to judge a book by its cover - tell us to marry a fair girl? Hence the surging sales of "Fair & Lovely"!

Many years ago, we booked some 40 rooms with a large hotel chain in India. After check-in, one of the white-skinned guests commented: "Did you notice that all the English and Americans were given rooms in the new wing and the Chinese and Indians were given rooms in the old wing?"
I was shocked to hear that and asked for a list of the members of our group and their room numbers.
On checking the list, I saw that he was correct.
Then I noticed a flaw in his argument, "But you white-skinned and you are not in the new wing. You are in the old wing with us."
To which he said, "Note how they spelt my name. They spelt it like an Indian surname so they thought I was Indian and moved me to the old wing."
I confronted the hotel manager and, though he tried to assure me that there was no discrimination, the "evidence" was overwhelming and made me believe that someone in the hotel was clearly guilty of a fairly blatant act of "selective treatment"!

Indians also have a fear factor of the white-skinned, imperialist foreigner. Their misuse of power is etched in our memory - and it is a fact: the East India Company came to do business with India and, eventually, stayed on and plundered the nation and ruled the nation as a part of the British Empire. Hence, all policy makers in New Delhi have been frightened of the multinational company which is why - for decades - we had a restrictive policy towards the multinationals a senior bureaucrat told me this some 25 years ago.

In addition to our "colour-of-skin" factor, we continue to focus on caste and religion.
The recent election in Bihar was the failed outcome of Modi trying to outsmart Kumar/Yadav in the arithmetic game. Economic development was mentioned in the campaigns, but the focus and strategy was really about Muslims, Biharis, and Yadavs....

And as we close the book and figure out what cover or title it should have, we should realise that what Bin Laden did on September 11, 2001 was not just destroy the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center but, rather, he set civilisation back a few decades by forcing us all to judge every person we see by the colour of their skin or by the way we look.

The idealist would plead for an impartial treatment to all.
Every act of terrorism; every random killing linked to any religion sets that idealism back further.
The stereotype will prevail.
The service industry (hotels, airlines, financials services, shop keepers) needs to set the pace and ensure that they treat their customers in a fair manner. Of course, loyalty must be rewarded and larger customers will get more attention and benefits - that is not racism, it is economic sense. But, when the services industry begins to profile you based on the colour of your skin or the sound of your last name, you realise what a different world it is.

Imagine this experiment:
In every train, bus, or tram in India, UK, France or the USA (to name just a few countries), a white man gets up and says very loudly: Hail Jesus Christ!
How will people react?

Now imagine that same train, bus, or tram in India, UK, France or the USA (to name just a few countries), a man with darkish skin and a beard gets up and says very loudly: Allah o Akbar!
How will people react?

We have a long way to go....and I pray we get to a better place.