Color Connection: Studying Abroad in India

By Austin Thompson
As told to Robin Rose Parker
Sunday, November 2, 2008

Growing up, I had an interest in different cultures and societies. I had a great interest in seeing this place called India that has such rich history and culture but also seems to have this emerging future that everybody's talking about. Once I got to college, I decided to see it for myself rather than just read about it.

I studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. I stayed in a home-stay, where you live with a host family as an adopted member. The first interaction I had with my host mother and father: I walked into the apartment, and, when I was waving hello, she looked at me and said, "What part of Africa are you from? Nigeria?" I said, "No, no, I'm American." And she scrunched her face oddly and walked out of the room. I was taken aback. I couldn't understand initially what that was all about until I learned there is a deep, embedded color-grading in India that's probably been there for centuries. Obviously, as an African American, that was a point of contention for me. Sometimes when I would walk around in the markets, there was a sense of awe, which I appreciated. I guess, in the United States, many times I'll walk around, and I can sometimes feel invisible. But there it was the opposite: There was a sense of intrigue that I noticed in other people's eyes. For many of the people, I was probably the first African American they had ever seen. Sometimes I also sensed disgust. I had people spit on me as I was walking around the streets. Once when I was walking, some guy came on his bike and ran directly into me, kind of trying to play chicken with me, and he wound up hitting me. We kind of got into an altercation; he knocked me back, but I wouldn't move. I walked away strong, 'cause a lot of people were giggling and laughing around me. But once I got back in my room, just that sense of humiliation was really difficult for me to handle.

I remember when I went to down to the state of Kerala. A group of students in my study-abroad program would often go on excursions to visit other parts of India. There was a darker guy there; he was a hotel employee, and he would serve us food at lunch and dinnertime. He would also help carry bags from the rooms. He was a Tamil. The Tamils are a minority ethnic group in India. You find the Tamil people basically doing a lot of migrant labor and some of the menial jobs in different parts of India. They have a history of being socially excluded and are darker in complexion than the dominant group in Indian society. I have a tendency to always smile and carry myself in such a way that I'm friendly to everyone, even the people who are serving me food. So, I think as I was going through the food line, I made a point to really make eye contact and smile and ask him how he was doing. He would see me and just smile and serve me a little extra of the chickpeas when I would come through with my plate. By the third day, he looked at me and said, "I like you."

Me, being the American I am, I was like: Hey, what's he trying to say? Is he hitting on me? The amount of affection that men show men in America is quite different than they show in India and other parts of the world. But I said, "You know, I like you, too, man," just being a nice guy.

The day before we left, I was leaving my hotel room, and he stopped me. I saw that he had tears in his eyes. And he said, "Same face, same face," pointing to the fact that we were both dark. He started crying, and I started crying, too. The tour guide, who was what you would consider part of the dominant Indian group, told me afterward that people who are my complexion don't dress the way that I dress; they don't exude much confidence. He said, "Austin, you have to realize that here the darker your skin is, the less opportunities, the less access [that you have] and the less confidence that many of them display as a result of it." I never saw the guy again; I just hugged him and left. But that image stuck with me, in that my experience wasn't only my own personal experience -- that there was someone else who was experiencing what I had experienced, and I think it was vice versa for him.

Austin Thompson studied abroad last spring. He is a senior majoring in political science at Howard University. He can be reached at

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