Being ‘Dougla’ in America

Indian and Caribbean
Indians and Caribbeans have a shared history

The boys at school used to pull my hair so much that the root of the plait that used to run down my back to my waist was sore. Sometimes they would push my head where they imagined my bindi to be and scream in my face, “your mum’s a Paki!” Paki is a racial slur for people of perceived South Asian descent in the United Kingdom. Both my parents emigrated to London from Jamaica. My father is of African descent and my mother is of Indian descent.

Just because my mum was Indian, I didn’t count as black to the other Caribbean kids. I was called a “Black Paki” and a “Black Bengali.” On occasion, my elder brother would come to school to ward off the bullies which afforded me some protection, but only temporarily. Not from the Indian kids, though. That lot strategically ignored me. I wasn’t even worthy of their abuse in public. But when we’d be alone I would hear them whisper – “Nigger Indian.” Even though they were racist, they couldn’t afford for the ‘real’ black kids to hear them.

As racist epithets go, I was indeed both, Black and Indian, but there is a designated caste for people like me among the English-speaking Caribbean – Dougla. The word has been traced form ‘Doogla’ that goes back to the north Indian regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and denotes impure inter-caste relationships.

The majority of more than half a million labourers were transported from eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar to 13 British island and mainland colonies in what is now known as the Caribbean. They came to replace enslaved Africans on sugar plantations in 1845, after the abolition of chattel slavery.

Dougla took on an extended meaning in the vibrant blue Caribbean islands. It was used derogatorily to denote those with mixed African and Indian identity, and has been in the Caribbean for over 180 years – as long as there have been Indians on the islands. Thankfully, the term was reclaimed by a generation of Indo African mixes before me and is no longer considered a racial slur but a distinct ethnic identity. It’s similar to the way ‘Dalit’ was reclaimed as a political identity in India and used as a neutral or positive community denomination. Likewise, the term Dougla is celebrated among younger generations of Indo-Caribbean people.

However, even though it has been reclaimed on the islands, it is easy to be reminded of the derogatory usage of that term during my umpteen encounters with the South Asian diaspora. Most still behave as if my African genealogy makes me deficient somehow, and definitely not purely Indian, like they themselves are.

I often wonder if the two most famous Douglas – U.S. Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris and Indian designer Masaba Gupta – are made to feel the same way?

Yes, their Indian ancestry, unlike mine, is high caste and, unlike me, they have much lighter skin. The premium put on light skin in the desi diaspora as well as among Indians is best illustrated through the skin bleaching industry in India, which was estimated to be worth $450 million to 535 million in 2019. Surely, Harris and Gupta’s light skin cannot protect them from the endemic biases or overt bigotry of inter-caste or interracial mixing in the subcontinent. Or from anti-black racism.

I find it rather peculiar that so many among the vast Indian diaspora in the U.S. have been rallying behind Harris, the daughter of an Indian cancer researcher and a Black Jamaican economist, especially since there was very little acknowledgment of her Indian heritage before she became Joe Biden’s running mate.

I also wonder if Harris was darker skinned and looked more like me, would Indians claim her with the same fervor?

In any case, I find Harris’ recent acceptance by the Indian diaspora to be Pyrrhic. There needs to be an active reassessment of rampant anti-Black racism before I can see it as anything else. Part of this anti-racist review needs to include a thorough understanding of how being black affects someone’s life and how complicit Indians have been in perpetuating anti-Black ideas and racist stereotypes. 

On the other hand, celebrating Harris’s Indian heritage and ignoring her African ancestry is an erasure that feeds anti-Blackness

The erasure of Harris’s black identity also fuels the model minority myth that suggests Asians got ahead only by dint of hard work. This ignores the reality that no other community has had to survive centuries of white supremacist oppression like Black people. Most Indians migrated to the U.S. on elite blue-collar visa programs like the H-1B. Black history in the U.S. started on a very different note.

African Americans were enslaved for around 246 years, then had to survive the Reconstruction and Segregation eras, which were characterised by unthinkable white violence. This included more than 3,446 lynchings of black men and women and the destruction of economic centers, like Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. The consistent battles for civil rights afforded Indian immigrants the platform to come to the United States and build better futures, while enduring far fewer structural limitations.

It could be argued that Gupta, the daughter of Indian actress Neena Gupta and Antiguan cricketer Viv Richards, is the exception. She was raised in India and has been accepted as Indian. Nonetheless, to dismiss claims of cultural appropriation and in defence of tennis star Serena Williams, Gupta too acknowledged that she is half Black.

In a recent interview, she explained that she had a tough time in school and grew up thinking of herself as being inferior to white-skinned people. Gupta asserted that Bollywood and the fashion and beauty industries promote racism in India, which in turn underscores the treatment of dark-skinned people on the subcontinent.

It’s no surprise that this ingrained colour prejudice plays out in the Desi diaspora against black people. And even though desis have gone all out in embracing Kamala Harris, it is vital that they use this moment to check their own biases.