Unhurt Stereotypes and a Convenient Revolution

Rathan Anitha Sudersan January 18, 2015

Images can be representatives of existing society and drivers of change at the same time. Therefore, when images are used as protester's tool, conveyed meanings need to be clearly understood. A few months ago a photography series titled 'Breaking stereotypes' went viral in social media. In each of the 49 images in the series, a random Indian holds a placard with a slogan. On casual glancing, the series appears progressive and modern as they disintegrate many of the existing notions and stereotypes of job/gender/region which are either rigid, conservative, cliched or retrogressive, the reason why these images have gone viral among Facebook users, mostly middle class Indians. A Brahmin who eats non-veg, an artist who is employed, a man who loves to cook, a woman who can parallel park, a poet who is not an alcoholic, a man who wears pink are all deviations from what is seen as conventional or normal in the present Indian social scenario. All these images/slogans are deviances that challenge some of the social norms/hegemony which is in place in India, yet these new propositions are founded on misguided convictions of what modernity is.

Although the creator of this series raises political slogans that dissects conventional stereotypes [often cutting across language and state boundaries in India], the author dupes the viewer by planting in other stereotypes secretevely in the images, stereotypes that have been passed down by historical circumstances and reinvigorated by the capitalist values which came into prominence in the recent past. The images apparently progressive and political is in fact retrogressive and problematic with whole purpose of the series being only to carefully and conveniently [without touching the issues where their interests are at stake] vent out middle-class insecurities. Not only are the working class and oppressed classes like Muslims/Dalits left out, the series subtly introduces and reinforces other middle class notions associated with fair skin, bourgeoisie fetishes and the superiority of elites. This dangerous and problematic undercurrent that is symptomatic of middle-class political views, are concealed in the imagery that are being presented as revolutionary demolition of stereotypes. Facebook is also a place where such retrogressive videos and memes are available in plenty and well received by its users, the ramifications of which are the intentional exclusion and emasculation of the lower classes.

The first thing one notices on careful perusal of these images is that though individual photos carry unique slogans, almost all photos across the series depict only exceptionally fair skinned persons posing with placards. People of darker complexion have been intentionally avoided and hence their numbers count to null. In fact in the series totaling 49 images, there is not a single dark skinned person, with only 4 people of slightly brown complexion. The fashion writer, the manglick, the doctor, the globe trotter, the NGO, the shopping girl, the jaat, the UP guy, the two Punjabi guys, the artist, the pajama lover, the homemaker who loves to cook, the model, the DU student, the parallel parking girl, the south Indians, the Bengali etc. are all exceptionally fair skinned. This is subtly done and anneals the middle class notion of the supposed superiority of fair skin. A homemaker, a musician, an NGO, a DU student, a Bengali resident, a freelancer, a Mumbai resident, parking a car or shopping are jobs/regions that are not even remotely related to fairness of skin but the author has tacitly introduced fairness to these. These photos hence reflect and bolster the elitist middle class notion that fair skin means superior and being dark skinned means inferior. This racial machination based on white skin superiority is driving the cosmetic industry in India as skin whitening creams sell in the millions although many of them do not work.


Image Credits: trulymadly

The selective screening of dark complexioned people implies that communities like dalits/tribals and other backward castes who are darker are left out, creating a perjured image of fair Indians. Historically darker people have been branded by the upper classes as incapable, unproductive, secondary and inferior and these images are nothing but the same attitude being rejuvenated in a modern context. Market forces and capitalist values fail to see such unethical divisions and work by exploiting stereotypes to their interest for profit making. This is the evident from the cases of exploitation of Black slaves1 by Americans and the Spaniards, Apartheid2, and the case of untouchables3 and lower castes4 in India where the profit of the upper classes were foremost and the ethics in the process of accumulating profit being irrelevant. Similarly in a contemporary market economy with profit as its pivot, market forces will sideline ethics and this is visible in the case of fairness creams manufacturers who have branded fair skin as superior for the sake of profit, sidelining and stereotyping the vast majority who are darker as secondary, inferior and as a bunch that is supposed to improve by applying skin creams and make themselves worthier. To brand a person as inferior based on his skin colour, a biological outcome, is as stupid as judging on the basis of hair colour or eye colour, which might be yellow, brown, jet black or grey. Progressive societies which are integrating and modern, will not bifurcate people on such basis and in the future, prejudices based on biological factors like skin color, height, facial type, race will be non existent.

Another stratagem are the jobs that are presented. The images show a bunch of extremely fair and well off Indians like doctors and musicians who can afford studios which has expensive 'Genelec' studio monitors and mixing consoles, fashion designers who enjoy kafka, globetrotters who can afford to travel, actresses, NGOs who find comfort in wearing expensive H&M blazers, freelancers who can afford to tell a client that he won't work for free, and models for whom eating is a choice. This is a distorted image of India as 94% of Indians work in the informal sector5 with occupations in agriculture and other fields comprising agricultural labourers, bonded labourers, migrant workers, contract and casual labourers, weavers, artisans, salt workers, workers in brick kilns and stone quarries, workers in saw mills and oil mills, toddy tappers, scavengers, carriers of head loads, drivers of animal driven vehicles, loaders and unloaders, midwives, domestic workers, barbers, vegetable and fruit vendors, newspaper vendors, pavement vendors, hand cart operators, and unorganized retail. If any one among these Indians is size-zero it is not by choice but probably due to poverty and starvation. These are not people who can afford to go globe trotting or buy an H&M blazer or Genelec studio monitors and mixing consoles that cost millions of rupees. The careful deletion of the majority of voiceless Indians by replacing them with fair skinned plumb ones shows that that these images are an orchestration of the middle class bourgeoisie notions of superiority which are based on race, caste and white collar jobs.

So these images of fair skinned, upper middle class Indians who are probably from upper castes that are employed in the formal sector are supposed to represent the whole of India . The author has not only missed the bullseye when trying to destroy stereotypes in India but fired in the wrong direction and probably shot his/her own foot as he/she fails to see that the vast majority of Indians are dark coloured, are probably working in the unorganized sector, of which a majority are Muslim/Dalits and other backward castes. The danger with such imagery is that the viewer is hoodwinked cunningly by planting of stereotypes beneath stylized images of fair skin and elitism, a good life of fashion, food, H&M blazers, Kafka and shopping, thus giving the impression of being politically sound and morally just. What is happening here is in fact pushing of the voiceless backward classes [who are there in the first place due to grave historical injustices] into further darkness as their voices are being replaced by new plastic stereotypes that the middle class finds worthy of pursuing.

The only odd person in the series is an auto-driver, who belongs to working class - the only one in the series from the lower classes. This guy has darker skin, is not manicured and is dressed up plainly, but what is disturbing is the placard he is holding in his hands which reads ”I only charge what the meter says”. This is another stereotype that the author enforces on the viewer, that the lower classes are supposed to be the ones that should remain in their positions and not ask for more. When a freelancer can ask for more money as his business progresses and a musician can make more money as his clientele increases, the author has ordained it inappropriate for the auto-driver to ask for higher wages. The work of an auto-driver is not different from other jobs and he/she has every right to ask for higher wages like any other employee.

Second stereotype that is obvious in the images is the middle class fetish towards polished spaces.On looking at the photos of people holding placards taken in the interiors, one can notice that the interiors are polished and well designed. To a casual observer these don't seem a problem but they are in fact sinewing middle class stereotypes. The series emphasizes only on designed spaces when in reality a majority of Indians live in humble dwellings and another 78 million are homeless6. The images of Indian homes or offices that have exposed CFLs and tube-lights, rusty and dusty fans hanging about or homes and offices with unfinished walls lacking in decor items have been eschewed. Even in metros, homes and offices are scantily furnished except those in posh residential and commercial areas. Most Indian homes are built by masons, civil engineers or diploma holders and hence interiors are left unfinished with the owner doing furnishing on his own. Only the upper class can afford an architect to design the exterior and an interior designer to design the interior of a home. Even in cases where an architect is employed, the interiors are skipped to save on the money. This relinquishment of images of unfurnished interiors tantamount to hate for such environs and the lower strata people who live in them. The middle class fetish towards polished spaces is not because of architectural requirements but money is often splurged on interiors so that space appears good in the eyes of others. The others here are neighbours, relatives, coworkers and being an architect, I have often been forced to design such spaces for clients to show off to others, instead of creating spaces that are architectural solutions for personal usage based on functional requirements. I see this as a tendency of the middle class to mimic spaces of the bourgeoisie so that they can rise up the social ladder. Capitalism have inculcated the wrongful notion that individual achievement and materialism are the sole values that a person should strive for. Architecture is often seen as a means to project to the rest of the society, through material means, the social and economic positions acquired by the owner in an extravagant manner and this is strikingly similar to how extravagant marriages are conducted in contemporary India. The fact that the author is obsessed by the notion of superiority that accompanies constructing a polished space is evident by the fact that the series has consciously skipped all mediocre spaces. This is reflective of an elitist bourgeoisie attitude and the images are plagued with it. (This is one of the reasons why I don't enjoy my profession. I often lose interest in projects when the need of the client to impress others overwhelms the functional requirements of the space.)

Lastly the images are signifiers of the middle class proclivities regarding wages of informal sector workers. According to the images a freelancer won't work for free, an artist is always employed and another makes money by making music. All these look merry and wonderful until you see, the only odd person in the series, the auto-driver, who belongs to working class - the only one in the series from the lower classes. This guy has darker skin, is not manicured and is dressed up plainly, but what is disturbing is the placard he is holding in his hands which reads ”I only charge what the meter says”. This is another stereotype that the author enforces on the viewer, that the lower classes are supposed to be the ones that should remain in their positions and not ask for more. Such attitudes towards the lower classes are ubiquitous historically and blatant when brahmins asked the sudras and untouchables to maintain their positions, when slaves were deprived of their rights, or when imperialist or dictatorial forces subdued and tamed people - a homeostasis which can be aptly termed as a feudal trait. Couched as harmless slogans among beautified images, the author implies that working classes are meant to be subservient and be apolitical by not asking for more. When a freelancer can ask for more money as his business progresses and a musician can make more money as his clientele increases, the author has ordained it inappropriate for the auto-driver to ask for higher wages. The work of an auto-driver is not different from other jobs and he/she has every right to ask for higher wages like any other employee.

What is evident here is the double standards of the middle class who are ready to spend thousands to purchase the next version of an Apple I-phone or lavishly splurge on marriage parties or fashion accessories or spend a few thousand at a local salon to get a makeover so that one’s hair looks neat. In such cases the middle class never sticks to any meter but when an auto-driver asks for more, it irks them as middle class dreams of getting profusely rich and splurging on bourgeoisie fetishes will only be possible if they can amass wealth by exploiting cheap labour. 94% of Indians work in the informal sector and labourers who work under the scorching sun in unsanitary environments without safety gear are paid from 150 to 500 Rs in India.

Modern society is not a social construct in which a select group of people exploit the voiceless and being a modern citizen certainly is not about being fashionable or having the latest gadgets or being fair. Rather a modern society is one which is equitable, a construct where all the people involved are able to access the collective resources of the society without prejudice and a modern citizen is someone who realizes that each voice is important without regards to colour, caste, creed, region or occupation.

Working in the informal sector is the toughest job in India. The work is grueling and the pay so low that it is hard to make ends meet besides being deprived of health care and retirement benefits coupled with no job guarantee. To those who say that wages of a labourer or auto rickshaw driver are ample, I only have a single question to ask them. Is anyone, who make such claims that the wages are ample, ready to swap jobs with that of an auto-driver or daily labourer? No one will dare. Neither will they dare to continue with their current service sector job if the pay is similar to that of a labourer or an auto-driver. Hence these middle class claims that wages of auto rickshaw drivers and labourers are ample are bogus and the slogan is another false dictum proclaimed by the middle class.

Another bogey among the images is the billionaire who rides the metro. Painting a millionaire as an ascetic just because he uses the metro is deceiving. Millionaires are created by the toil of the working class who are often underpaid. We are living in a world where exploitation of labor is still not considered a crime, but the bourgeoisie system which is in place also allows the labor exploiters to get rid of their guilt by harmless sacrifices and society sponsored image build-up programs like these. A large organization needs cheap labour to sustain itself and billionaires and millionaires are parasites that feed on cheap labour. This is the case especially in developing countries like India where the conditions of the working class are pathetic. The difference in wages of the top executives and the lowest workers in a company are humungous, inherent raison d'etre for existence of billionaires and inequality. Here the author has used the ploy of beautifying a millionaire instead of bringing forth the real issues faced by the lower classes. The images are cheap representations of middle class aspirations to earn more [at the expense of the working class] while deliberately sinking the toil of lower classes into darkness.

The images inspite of being successful at breaking certain stereotypes when looked upon individually, fails miserably when looked at together as a pattern of middle class predilections about skin color, elitism and indifference towards the subaltern classes emerges and these patterns or stereotypes although conveniently hidden, are reinforced into the mind of the casual observer. The imagery to be Indian and truthful should have represented more colored Indians, represented more of the working classes and ideally represented more of Muslims and Dalit communities. Modern society is not a social construct in which a select group of people exploit the voiceless and being a modern citizen certainly is not about being fashionable or having the latest gadgets or being fair. Rather a modern society is one which is equitable, a construct where all the people involved are able to access the collective resources of the society without prejudice and a modern citizen is someone who realizes that each voice is important regardless of colour, caste, creed, region or occupation. The series of photos presumably progressive and political in tenor is in fact parochial as it promotes the former notion of an unjust society instead of the latter equitable one. What's axiomatic is the need for a radical revolution that incorporates the lower classes instead of a convenient revolution which is a charade for middle class insecurities.

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