Whenever I read the poem Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka, I remember what that helplessness feels like. Mind you, it is not the helplessness as a result of someone’s incapacity to accomplish a task. No. It is the helplessness of knowing that matters are not in your hands and that the solution to your problem hinges on this person’s ability to look beyond their own prejudice.

This was Mumbai in 2012 for me; I was a student in need of an apartment. I had found a perfect one with a friend of mine. All that was left to do was to renegotiate the terms of the lease. The landlady, however, refused. With no clear explanation save ‘differences in culture’ which she muttered vaguely at me, I was at a loss. I tried to explain that I would be no trouble, that I’d lived in the country for 11 years. She saw my complexion and passed her judgment. She even mentioned to this friend that her son was afraid of me. Having no memory of interacting with this boy, I have no idea where the impression came from. But we’ll touch upon this again later.

In examining a lot of conversations I have had on the occasion that I have met with and spoken to African people living in India, this is a problem that would inevitably come up; their inability to find a house in a neighbourhood of their choice. They are simply told ‘No’ with no concrete reason as to why. My Indian apologist compatriots often try to explain away this behaviour, but how do we explain a lack of reason for the refusal of a house to a person who may need it desperately? And if this was not enough, they have to face bullying by rickshaw drivers who quote whatever prices they want, shop owners who cheat them constantly, people who pass comments and racist slurs on a daily basis and a very indifferent police force who only see Africans as ‘perps’.

The assumption that African women are prostitutes is something that I can attest to, having had to face it on two different occasions. The daily instances of micro-aggression are real. I know. I live through it every day.

Chinua Achebe, in his critique of Heart of Darkness by Conrad raises an important point. He describes how Conrad has essentially made Africa this antithesis of Europe and by extension, of civilization. That image has continued to flourish, through no small part played by our British masters. This colonial hang-up of racism and colour, while it has been a part of our heritage as Indians, seen in our obsession with caste, was reinforced and invigorated by our British master’s downright racist tendency. The great Mahatma of this nation Gandhi himself was racist towards the people of South Africa. His struggle against the Empire only began after he was treated in the same derogatory fashion as the South Africans whom he referred to as Khaffirs and savages. And when he started his fight for equality, it was exclusively for Indians. If any person represents India accurately even today, it would be Gandhi.

Our media whether it is in newspaper reports, books or even movies, has always portrayed Africans in a set of narratives. As war torn, as a people who are constantly sick and hungry, as barbarians who lack any culture, as villains in movies. I remember the huge hue and cry of FGM in certain African countries. I was amused by the hypocrisy of Indians, outraged that these Africans were committing such heinous crimes against women. Meanwhile this same practice occurs here in our very own Bharat Mata. Yet no one seems to bat an eyelid. Maybe people are not aware. But like I said before, if you have instagram, you don’t have an excuse to be ignorant. In India, that narrative has been fixed along one major point.

Constant clashes with the police whether it is for drug peddling or violent clashes that require police intervention. I don’t deny that so many Africans and particularly, Nigerians are involved in drug peddling and other illegal activities. But to peg all Africans under that umbrella is inherently racist and to constantly portray them in that narrative is also racist. As if African people come to India for this sole purpose.

It may seem insignificant but this constant representation of India’s drug pusher as only Africans is untrue and damaging in that it misrepresents an entire continent of diverse people. This narrative of Africans in constant clash with the law gives the impression that we as an entire continent of people are inherent trouble makers and criminals.

To the millions of ignorant Indian minds, Africans are the worst villains. We discipline our children by threatening them with Africans who will take them away. It makes me wonder how Indians, like the lady who refused me the flat in Bombay, perceive me and all Africans in general. Recently, I attended a talk in Goethe Institute, Max Mueller Bhavan. A Bangalore based photographer interested in the dynamics of racism experienced by Africans in India, did a series of portraits and held a talk to expand on the issue. I decided to attend it in the hopes of understanding the different ways people experienced racism and the conversation that no one is having around it. At the talk was Joshua Muyiwa, a Bangalore based journalist. During the conversation, Joshua mentioned a lack of visibility of African people in public spaces.

To this, I have two points to bring up. One, once people are rendered as ‘other’ they move inwards towards their own communities, and in this context, race. It’s a classic safety mechanism. Two, we are able; Joshua and I, to reclaim our spaces in this country because we have lived here long enough to know this country. More importantly, we have a support structure of family and friends who will support us should the need arise. How many African people, here, can claim to have a support system such as this?

The dialogue on racism in India needs to happen. More than personal testimonials and stories, the narrative has to widen and broaden to look at issues within the structure of our society and how we as an inherently racist community can arrive at solutions.

It could be acting as liaisons to Africans in India and easing us into Indian culture and the rules of Indian society. It could be as simple as seeing rickshaw drivers cheat Africans and speaking up for us.

It could be standing behind Africans in support and solidarity every time we face discrimination. Of making sure that cases of violence against Africans are taken seriously enough by the police.

It could be as simple as saying hello to the lone African student in class. No prejudice, no prior assumptions, just sensitivity and curiosity.

I wonder, am I asking for too much from a people that have historically had relations with Africa?

(Jennifer Fatogun is a person of both Indian and Nigerian origin, living in India and has a M.A. in Social Work in Criminology and Criminal Justice.)