20 March 2012In late 2009, I went to Delhi, India with my eyes wide open. It was an experience I'm still having a hard time expressing in words. So many amazing things, so many tragic things ...the sacred and the profane, as one friend says often.
At one point, I sat down and wrote pages and pages about the horrors I experienced while living in Delhi. I'm grateful to my friend, Claudia Stahl, for taking the time to condense & edit those pages in to the article below. If you know a woman traveling to India, please forward this article to her.
I consider myself pretty savvy when it comes to travel and the enlightenment that it brings, for better or worse. I’ve been traveling the world since I could tie my own shoes and have been in South America, Europe, Greece, all over the U.S., and even a few random spots in Africa.
At 41, I decided it was time for another change in my life, and I left Los Angeles for Delhi, India, to begin a new job at a human services agency. I boarded the plane with excitement and optimism, fully unprepared for the reality that awaits an African American woman traveling alone in India.
The shoe thrown at me in a store while the merchant yelled, "nigger out" ...
The men who, seeing my skin color, followed me into restaurant bathrooms assuming that I’d be happy to oblige them in some sexual activity.
As a woman of color raised in Hollywood, CA, I was no newcomer to the pain of racism. I also spent a few years living in Bahia, Brazil, where I was once told to “use the servants’ entrance” at a fancy restaurant, and informed by a Black Brazilian shopkeeper that “Black Brazilians steal”—since I was a Black American, he decided not to follow me around his store.
But Delhi showed me racism taken to new lows that brought back stories of the Southern U.S. in the 1940’s like the ocean brings back trash. Within three weeks of being there, I was feeling the stinging pain of stones hitting my head and body, thrown at me by men as I walked through a crowded marketplace or down the street in broad daylight.
Another day, on a main street at two in the afternoon, with plenty of people and police officers around me, I was grabbed by a man thrusting his erect penis at me, smiling and saying, ‘Black American bitch wants to fuck.’
That was the last time I went out alone in Delhi, and I am writing this article so that women, especially women of color, who are planning to travel to India, are fully informed about what they can expect.
Waiting for the Embassy
I had hoped the U.S. Embassy in India would take up my cause, but to my knowledge, they haven’t. Before I left Delhi, a friend and I met with two very compassionate Americans at the Embassy, one of whom was an African American man. When I finished telling them my uncomfortable story, they told me about another woman of color who was granted an emergency loan to return to the U.S. after having similar experiences.
“Similar experiences? How many others have gone through this?” I wondered.
They assured me they would help, and my friend and I were confident that the Embassy would take measures to inform female travelers of color about what they might encounter. For days, we watched for notices from the Embassy with these warnings.
Yet months later, as I departed Delhi, I had seen no warnings from the Embassy.
Women in Delhi
During the year that I lived in India, I spent a lot of time talking to Indian women, taking every opportunity I could to get their thoughts on what had happened to me. Their stories left me more horrified.
So many of the women I spoke with had been sexually assaulted on the streets of the cities and towns throughout India. The stories were told in an almost identical fashion, “I was assaulted when I was a girl. When I got home and told my mother, she told me to get used to it and said it had also happened to her.”
I no longer traveled the country unescorted, and still enjoyed many journeys to beautiful sites, collecting positive experience with the bad ones. I even met the love of my life. When I discovered that I was pregnant with his child, the meaning behind a sign in the obstetrician’s office delivered the final blow: “We do not use ultrasound to determine the sex of children…”
I could be carrying a girl. It was time to book a ticket back to the U.S.
As I sit now in the comfort of my suburban home in New Jersey, I find myself deep in the process of searching my heart for a way to love even the person who was cruelest to me in Delhi, to be grateful for the lessons they have taught me. That is my way.
I’m also finding the courage to speak out against racism, against sexism, and against maltreatment of people in general. I have taken my research further by sending e-mail blasts to a my friends all over the world for their perspectives, and I have gotten many emails in return saying, “Reminds me of Italy,” and “sounds like my sister-friend’s experience of Delhi,” and “Yup, it’s like when I was in Turkey.”
My questions are, “What, if anything, are we going to do about it?” Will we do what we’ve done since the days of Dr. King, Malcolm X– talk quietly amongst ourselves about it and continue to turn a blind eye as our own people perpetuate an image of us that only paints a very small part of the picture of what it is to be African American? Will we be part of a solution that includes making streets all over the world safe for everyone?
And what steps will we take here to end the perpetuation of racism and sexism that leaks out to influence the perceptions of cultures globally?
If my story serves to keep women safe from harm when they travel, I will consider it a success. If my writing serves to start dialogue about change, I will consider that a success.
The only failure would be to remain silent.