did we ever enjoy ‘white privilege’?

A reader name Gayatri recently emailed us this pointed question:

Had a question for you guys. Have you ever been out clubbing in Delhi or to a pub in the evening. Would they let you guys cut the queue and let you enter even if to the rest of the people waiting they’d say the club is full?? 🙂 It kind of co-incides with the privileges to white-folk in India. If you guys have a story regarding – think it could be funny, especially with the humor you two have. 🙂 Hope to see both of you in September!

We’d be lying if we didn’t admit skin-based advantages are bestowed on foreigners in India. Auto drivers, for instance, would hone in on us at the expense of everyone else waving their arms at them. (And they’d give us choice grumbles when we’d refuse to cut ahead of those who’d been bypassed their rightful ride.) The sidewalk chaiwallah near my office would always boil a fresh batch for me, even as he poured from a premade kettle for the factory workers who arrived the same time as I did. And while the guards at Saket Citywalk would grope us for poorly-hidden bombs just like every Indian shopper — as if Al Qaeda’s training manuals advised keeping their explosives in their front pockets — their hands always seemed to linger more tenderly with us.

Wait, that’s not a good thing.

Also, Al Qaeda always obeys signs. Image by Flickr user 3_second_memory.

So we don’t deny that white people are given deference in India. But Jenny and I will insist that we never actively took advantage of it. Especially when it came to queues.

In fact, there were many times when our foreign-ness made us easy beacons for queue abuse. Our American standards of personal space always meant three or four fellows could slip into queue in front of us between the moment our eyes began to blink and the moment the blink was completed. If we weren’t constantly crotch-checking the people ahead of us, we learned, we might as well be moving backwards.

Image by Flickr user Loulou H.

And there was certainly no advantage for us at tourist sites — we’d have to elbow our way up to the ticket counter just like everyone else, jamming our fistful of bills under the metal grating along with all the others, waving the sweet scent of sweaty rupees under the ticket taker’s nose until his eyes met ours and our transaction was complete.

We certainly could have bulldozed queues and hopped unrightful autos like the worst of the tourists. Such modern expressions of the Imperialist mindset are impassively tolerated by the citizens of our host country; Indians are far more polite to Western rudeness than we Westerners would be to such behavior back home. But Jenny and I saw ourselves as ambassadors, and we fashioned our queuing behavior accordingly.

In fact, we recall a time when our fellow back-of-the-queuers tried to invoke our “white privilege” for us. This was at the conclusion of our birdwatching trip to Bhatarpur, when we decided to catch the late afternoon train back to Delhi rather stay another night and leave as scheduled in the morning. Arriving at the train station, we dutifully joined the 20-person queue; but, being off the tourist track as we were (Bharatpur gets its share of Westerners, but most have arranged their tickets in advance), we were quickly noticed.

“Ticket Queue – Bharatpur Junction Railway Station – India” by Flickr user string_bass_dave. (Who isn’t me.)

“You please go,” said the man directly in front of us, gesturing to the head of the line. Other nearby members of the queue signaled their agreement. But Jenny and I shook our heads and smiled in polite refusal. They insisted again. We refused again. They gestured more adamantly, insisting that our ticketing needs outweighed theirs; we refused more theatrically, insisting that progressive values can be no better illustrated than via a multiracial ticket queue.

Our egalitarian insistence won the day. Although twenty minutes later, when we reached the window and discovered we’d been in the wrong line the whole time, we kinda wished it hadn’t.


Incidentally, when Gayatri said, “Hope to see both of you in September!”, she was talking about our book release party. She knows about it because she’s on our mailing list (and following us on Twitter).

We’re expecting the big event about a month before the Commonwealth Games. We already know the official title, which we’ll reveal, along with the cover design, soon. (The title of our book is NOT “Our Delhi Struggle” — as we’ve mentioned before, we regret that name, and we’re not going to make the same mistake.)

Beyond Delhi, we’re hoping for release events in Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai, and so on. You, dear reader, have direct influence in the matter: email us to join our mailing list, and then pledge in the comments below that you’ll attend an event in your city. Our publisher will surely take note.

43 responses to “did we ever enjoy ‘white privilege’?

  1. Regarding the queue for a train ticket, the people might have been insisting Jenny in particular to skip the queue – because she is a woman. If there is no seperate queue for ladies, which often is there, then Indian women also usually take their privilege of being allowed to buy their train ticket before the others. So next time, don’t be ashamed to do exactly that, as its not only a white priviledge, but what most Indian women would do!

  2. Haven’t commented before (I don’t think, anyway) but would love to attend your Delhi release …. congrats in advance!

  3. I found your Ambassadorial duties in India fascinating, and I commend you for not cutting in the queue. No one of any nationality likes a queue cutter. The next time I’m at my local shopping mall, I’m going to check, but I’m betting that they don’t have a sign like the one you showed here!

    The Codger


  4. I give you a lot of credit for not taking advantage of this special treatment. Not many people would have done what you do…I commend you!

  5. Just wanted to say that while I’ve been in other countries around the world (though I’ve never been to India), cabbies etc. would try to get us not necessarily because we’re white, but because they perceive us to be the ones with the most money to spend.

  6. Crotch-checking has actually been outlawed in certain areas so make sure and be aware of your actions. It has been replaced with polite hip-checks and booty bumps 🙂


  7. steventothemax

    Sounds like a fun adventure

  8. One has to look rich.

    Even an Indian or for that matter a anyone (Black, Chinese etc) will get respect as long as you are flaunting money. It is not just in India, but anywhere in the world. In India, a lot of people assume that white people are rich, so they get more importance.

    When we were in Nigeria, we would get a lot of respect as the locals knew that Indians in Nigeria are rich. This simple phenomena works everywhere.

    Much like a qualified South India gets more respect in North India as South Indians are considered more intelligent than North Indians. A South Indian will not get that respect in South India.

  9. It is, most of the time, about getting as good as they can in the white people’s books so as to keep serving them with high charges. Their mouths water at the first sight of a customer with the ‘dollar potential.’

  10. I hope you know the auto drivers are rushing to you guys because they know that they can easily get whites (being strangers in a strange land) to pay over-the-odds.

    The other all are privileges you enjoy though 🙂

    The book seems interesting! 😀

  11. This is hilarious. I double what trequartisti said. The drivers know they can overcharge you. In fact, a friend told me cab drivers in India have “special” prices depending on the nationality. Americans and Saudis get charged the most bc they’re ALL supposedly rich, right? ((sarcasm)) :p

  12. This is some really good stuff! Wish you guys were launching your book in North America… Delhi is too far away!

  13. I’m writing a travel blog about my 3 months in India and definitely experienced things like this. My husband and I were amazed at the ease and lack of bureaucracy we faced in renting an apartment and a motorcycle in Goa. We were told it wasn’t the same for locals. On the one hand, we ended up paying higher prices for most things, but on the other hand things were facilitated for us in ways they weren’t for locals.

  14. It’s probably the whole curiosity factor that leads locals to defer to foreigners.

  15. “Other nearby members of the queue signaled their agreement. But Jenny and I shook our heads and smiled in polite refusal. They insisted again. We refused again. They gestured more adamantly, insisting that our ticketing needs outweighed theirs; we refused more theatrically, insisting that progressive values can be no better illustrated than via a multiracial ticket queue.”

    And, if needs be, I would’ve been willing to throw elbows, fists, or even a sack of fermented tiger urine to prove how progressive I am.

  16. great post! what kind of camera/film combo are you using for that ‘toy-camera’-esque shot?

  17. Haha I got a kick out of this article, especially because I was really involved in my race and ethnicity class in college. There are a lot of interesting topics of debate and discussion.

  18. So interesting to read about your experiences in India. Also, maybe as the people see you as foreigners, they want to extend their hospitality and kindness to you, in letting you cut in a cue etc. (Good for you guys for not doing so!)

  19. Pingback: did we ever enjoy ‘white privilege’? (via Our Delhi Struggle) « Dipakdadlani's Blog

  20. Man, you summed it up perfectly when talking about the queues. I had to stop my friend from going on a rampage after the tenth kid cut in front of us while we were waiting for something or other. Good luck with your publication! I’ll subscribe to your mailing list. If you feel like helping another writer out feel free to subscribe to mine as well 🙂

  21. This style of queue cutting reminds me of China. Only the foreign visitors stand back politely while everyone else pushes in ahead. Great post and blog~

  22. Pingback: Posts/Blogs of Note – July 2010 (Ongoing) « Ecosonance

  23. LOL!

    Glad to read you’re such Great Egalitarian Ambassadors 😉

  24. Yeah, happened to me recently. Was refused permission to one of the shacks because ‘the cook was on leave’ when I could see some westerners having a hearty meal. This was in Hampi. And this can happen in any of the tourist destinations in India. Racist us!!!

  25. You can’t be serious. I mean, have you been to India? I can assure you that India is perhaps the most beautiful country in the world. The sheer diversity and warmth (my experience in Hampi was an aberration) is something that you will not find anywhere. White Gods, eh????

  26. India, I heard, it’s a beautiful place to work. Nowdays is better than some states in the US. Economics are as its best. Great choice. It must be unconfortable to be privileged when we want to play the inner rules. I’m glad that you are doing such a call to use the same rights. Looks cool!
    ~Great Love to you,
    Mirian from peelingtheorange. “)
    God Bless!!!

  27. I never knew it was like that in india!!!

  28. Good Post! Quite true, it’s sad but its a fact that some countries still practice this.

  29. It is good to know that GOI’s campaign “Athithi devo bhavo” (Guest is our God) is working.

  30. Pingback: Did we ever enjoy ‘white privilege’? (via Our Delhi Struggle) « The Passport

  31. Pingback: Global Voices in English » India: The White Privilege

  32. smallsquirrel

    I lived in Bangalore for 2 years and I experienced the same thing. It used to drive me bananas. I was (and still am) married to a local and people would assume he was my tour guide, ignore him and defer to me. Ridiculous.

    The best was when I was unemployed and out with all my desi friends, all of whom are highly-paid IT professionals. The waiter would inevitably come and ask me if I was enjoying my meal. Giant mistake, especially since I was the least well off in the whole group!

    The worst was the fight at the Taj Majal, though. Because of my residency permit, I should have only been charged the “local” fee, but they insisted on charging the firangi fee regardless. No matter that I was earning in rupees and paying my taxes. I was so hacked off, and I could have stayed all day fighting, regulations in hand… that dude was not going to budge.

    I loved that all the crap would fall by the wayside when I busted out the remedial kannada and wore my mangalsutra and toe rings. I suddenly became just another desi housewife, arguing about the price of onions or palak.

    All of that being said, I loved every minute of my time in India, and would move back tomorrow.

  33. LOL @ crotch-checking 😀

    Glad to see Pune figuring in the city list. I promise that I will definitely be there for the event.
    *ouch* I was holding my hand over a candle for the pledge.

  34. I am really sad after reading this post of yours…. I myself love to help people… Specially abroad people… its just an day before incident i am sharing with you… I was with my family @ KFC CP
    two tourist girls was willing to buy a coffee maker… as you know in CP is closed on Sunday’s…. so they were asking each auto driver to take them market which is open on sunday… i saw them from KFC and i went to them… asked there problem and told them we can drop them to lajpat nagar and they can easily buy same there…. but they agreed to go through auto… and i myself checked auto meter… 🙂

    Once an Australian family was siting in Central Park in CP i was with my friends… they forget there stuff…. we any my friends ran behind them till Alka hotel to return it…

    Dear, i am sure you have meet with many people who helped you for something or another… i guess my country any my state… respect tourist 🙂 i hope you feel same

  35. Hey, just wanted to say that I’ll attend the book launch in Mumbai for sure if you have one here…. which you must!! 8)

  36. smallsquirell, the tourist places have started charging the foreigners more, only in 90s. In fact after visiting London I went back to India and was pained to see that the foreigners were charged a pittance. Iam happy they are charged similar prices that are paid by tourists in west. I see the discrepancy wherein Indians paying less as a subsidiary or coupon rate for locals and IMHO foreigners are paying the ‘right’ ticket price. I can see my spin here…oh well..what can I say..Surya, chicago

  37. smallsquirrel

    surya, I have no issue with tourists being charged an appropriate rate, which would obviously be higher than the rate charged to locals. my point was that I was a local, making local wages and paying local taxes. I was not working for a foreign company and making some insanely high salary!

  38. While it’s no fault of Western White tourists who do take advantage of their White privilege in India, it does breed resentment among many Indians esp. those who have lived and travelled in Western countries. We may not speak to you directly about it but we have a valid reason to feel annoyed at the way White privilege works around the world. We may not tolerate it as well in the future, say 30 years from now. Your unfair privileges remind us of British rule in India when there used to be White only clubs/restaurants in Bombay and Calcutta with signboards like “Dogs and Indians not allowed”. It seems those days are far from over.

    The idea of egalitarianism exists only in theory. In the real world it is “one set of rules for them, and one for us.”

    I often travel to Scandinavian countries for business and its shocking to note the way I’m perceived there because of my Indian passport. Everyone from the immigration authorities to local police perceives me as an illegal immigrant. My aged father was rejected a Schengen visa to Finland when I wanted him to accompany me in a recent trip.

    In contrast, getting an Indian visa is a ball in the park for most Western passport-holders.

    I have experienced this first hand in European countries as long as the tourist comes from a White country say Australia, all he needs is a blank passport and a one-way flight ticket. As soon as it’s a “third-world” Indian, we are suddenly perceived as illegal immigrants. That’s a real fucked-up attitude which should be conscientiously objected by all self-respecting Indians. We are the ones that keep this White privilege machinery at work through our own inactions and lack of protest.

  39. Pingback: how to enjoy Delhi during the Commonwealth Games (despite what the media says) | Our Delhi Struggle

  40. hey this kind of attitude towards foreigners is not prevalent all throughout india.Most of the original inhabitants of NORTHERN India are fair skinned people .Specially the people of punjab. But for the last 200 years other people from different parts of india have been migrating to northern india. The actual north indian white people do not behave like this.(as mentioned by the new yorkers)

  41. White privilege exists in India for two reasons: (1) the general obsession with white skin color; and (2) money. They think white people have money. Why? Most rich people contributing to India’s well being happen to be white and not Indian. Bill and Melinda Gates are the prime example. They have created a large foundation and Melinda Gates personally visits the slums. Will Mrs. Ambani ever do that? I dont thinks so when her husband spends the wealth on building multi-story palaces. It is a national disgrace! When people like Ambani contribute to India’s development like the Gates family does, perhaps Indians will treat other Indians equally with the whites. Until then dont hold your breath!

  42. “I have experienced this first hand in European countries as long as the tourist comes from a White country say Australia, all he needs is a blank passport and a one-way flight ticket.”

    Not exactly! I hold a US passport and I have been to Australia five times. Whenever I go to a white immigration official, especially a white female, I am detained at the airport and usually takes about two to three hours. The only time it did not happen was in Sydney where I went to an Indo-Aussie immigration official. Passport or not, skin color does matter! And white Americans are treated much better than the Asian Americans when trying to enter Australia or Canada.

    “As soon as it’s a “third-world” Indian, we are suddenly perceived as illegal immigrants. That’s a real fucked-up attitude which should be conscientiously objected by all self-respecting Indians. We are the ones that keep this White privilege machinery at work through our own inactions and lack of protest.”

    Instead Indians pile on more white privilege and even the God of Indian movies, Amitabh Bacchan sings about the virtues of white skin….


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