Thoughts on economics and liberty

The story of the white barbarians – and racist India

This is an extract from a current draft revision of DOF.

Btw, I'm inclined, in order to explain the existence of the racist caste system in India, to give credence to the theory that the Vedas were brought to India from outside India (e.g. Michael Wood's BBC documentary on India). Linguistic theories support that. Either way, I'd welcome input from any reader who can explain to me why Indians DESPERATELY seek to get married to fair people. How is it possible that this behaviour is practiced widely in society and yet India insists that caste is not racist?

Since DOF is still a draft, I'll be happy to revise it based on appropriate information.


Racism is a relatively modern phenomenon and concept. As Hirschman notes, ‘race and racism are not ancient or tribal beliefs but have developed apace with modernity over the last 400 years and reached their apogee in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century.’[1] Indeed, Robert Draper believes that ‘‘[t]he ancient world was devoid of racism’[2], not only were darker-skinned people like the Indians far more advanced than ancient Nordics or Caucasians, the extremely dark-skinned Nubian civilization was relatively advanced. (The Nubian civilisation preceded, or was coterminous, with the Egyptian civilisation. The modern world doesn’t know much about it yet because archaeologists have only recently started discovering its glories.[3])

That different people had had different skin colour was (very sensibly) attributed by the people to climatic variation. No implication was drawn about differences in ability merely on the grounds of skin colour. Instead, the Greeks (who are more tanned than ‘white’) were prejudiced against the northern whites who were thought to be ‘barbarians’, fit only to be used as slaves. The Greek historian Herodutus wrote: ‘Barbarians can neither think nor act rationally [and] … are incapable of living according to written laws’.[4] The Greeks and Romans benchmarked and competed with the darker cultures of the Middle East and Egypt, not with the primitive North Europeans. Julius Caeser said of the British tribals derogatively that they painted their bodies blue with woad[5]. Nevertheless, manumitted (released) slaves were allowed to mix with the rest of the community. Enslavement of white ‘barbarians’ in the Roman empire did not lead to racism as it came to be in the recent centuries. James Dee points out that ‘the most remarkable aspect of all [in Greek and Latin literature] … is the absence of the kind of obsessive and corrosive concern with ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ that so disfigures our modern world.’[6]
Further, the Jews were tanned by the sun as well, not ‘white’. Jesus Christ, one of them, was tanned. None attributed weaker ability to Jews merely because of skin colour. Early Christianity readily elevated three North Africans to the rank of the Bishop of Rome (Pope): Victor (183-203), Gelasius (492-496), and Mechiades or Militiades (311-314). With dark skinned religious leaders, racism could not have been even remotely imagined.
The earliest signs of racism in the world seem to have appeared in India where the caste (varna) system, based originally on individual merit, degenerated into a hereditary system based to a large extent on skin colour. When darker skinned Indian aborigines were absorbed into Hinduism, they were usually allocated a lower caste. Later, after Manusmriti prohibited inter-caste marriage, India became a firmly racist society. Today, skin colour and caste are strongly correlated in India, and because a lighter skin (generally) indicates a higher caste, with marriage to a person of higher caste being preferred, lighter skin shades are blatantly advertised as a special feature in the marriage market. The blatant racism found in marriage advertisements in India is not found anywhere else in the world. [See links to a few advertisements below.] 
Consciousness about caste seems to have spread beyond the Hindus even into the Christians and Muslims of India. Not many Indians will marry (or allow their children to marry) pitch-black Africans from Somalia. In that sense, possibly 99 per cent of Indians are racist. India recently imported 1000 British ‘actresses’ for petty roles in Hindi movies – but none from dark Africa. Why? The fact that Indians place a disproportionate value on ‘white’ skin colour at least partly explains why Sonia Gandhi is readily acceptable. Had she been from black Somalia, her inclusion into India’s culture would have been much harder.

[1]Ibid. pp.385-86.

[2] Draper, Robert, ‘Black Pharaohs’, National Geographic, February 2008, p.41.

[3] See ‘Black Pharaohs’, National Geographic, February 2008.

[4] Cited in William C. Bradford, ‘Barbarians at The Gates: A Post-September 11th Proposal to Rationalize the Laws of War’ (September 6, 2003). bepress Legal Series. Working Paper 54, p.109. []

[5] Dee, James H., ‘Black Odysseus, White Caesar: When Did ‘White People’ Become ‘White’?’The Classical Journal, Vol. 99, No. 2, (Dec., 2003 – Jan., 2004), p. 164.

[6] Dee, James H., ‘Black Odysseus, White Caesar: When Did ‘White People’ Become ‘White’?’The Classical Journal, Vol. 99, No. 2, (Dec., 2003 – Jan., 2004), p. 162.

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6 thoughts on “The story of the white barbarians – and racist India
  1. Charu

    I believe the origins of skin color based prejudice are both natural and cultural.
    The natural component is most likely a remnant of an instinct to fear any person that appears different from our primary tribal group. I speculate that in the context of neighboring tribes constantly at war with each other there may have been an evolutionary advantage to be cautious of someone from a different tribe.
    The cultural component is usually a reflection of skin color signifying wealth or social status. In India, people forced to make their living working outdoors and exposed to the sun develop darker skins and thus dark skin becomes a mental shortcut to classifying a person coming from a background of poverty [and therefore a less attractive mate because of a greater likelihood of disease]. Note that in many western countries the perception is inverted. People with tans are [were] considered healthy and attractive- presumably because a tan carries the subtext "I have enough money and leisure to travel to a place with a lot of sun" and greater sun exposure implies the absence of a vitamin D deficiency. D deficiency has been associated with numerous health problems including mood disorders.
    I disagree with the thesis that dark skin was associated with low caste in light of fact that Krishna & Shiva are depicted as dark [blue] skinned. But yes, the fact that artists are squeamish about accurately depicting dark skin, using blue rather than dark brown or black does show an ambivalence around the issue.
    The enslavement of black Africans in the Americas has reasons not broadly known. The original settlers found that indentured servants brought to work in agriculture did not survive longer than a few years, primarily because the Europeans had brought malaria with them and it thrived in the new environment. Black slavery took off because Africans were genetically superior in that they could survive malaria better than anyone else.
    Let me add that simply because the origins of prejudice have reasons, they are not necessarily reasonable [or ethical or moral] in the current context.

  2. Sandeep

    Dear Sanjeev,
      Just because some one has certain preferences say for marriage..does that mean he/she thinks other people are inferior and there by racist.
    So  what about a vegetarian prefering to marry an another vegetarian and vice versa. Don't you think it is like assuming that one must be having a diabetes because he/she doesn't prefer having sweets.
    There was a similar argument by a Dalit activist writer Kanchan Illia in his book "Buffalo Nationalism" that Hindus worship cows and not a buffalo because cows are fairer and buffalos are dark in colour. 
    On similar lines so if a hindu marries a muslim or vice versa..does that mean that person immediately becomes a secular?
    //Today, skin colour and caste are strongly correlated in India, and because a lighter skin (generally) indicates a higher caste, with marriage to a person of higher //caste being preferred, 
    If colour of the skin is a first criteria for marraige.. why people mention their caste also then..because you say people prefer to marry a person of higher caste. Ask any marriage bureau…they will say for most people one's own caste is a first criteria and then colour and other things.If most of the people wanted to marry a person of higher caste because of the colour as you said..why then even lower castes wants to marry a person of their own caste ? Any one will tell you in India…inter-caste marriages are resisted among almost all the castes.
    One more thing if you come down to Southern India ,you will see many of the higher castes have darker skins.Here hierarchy of the castes were never fixed …as you see with Jains,Lingayats and other prominent castes in Karnataka.
    //Later, after Manusmriti prohibited inter-caste marriage, India became a firmly racist society. 
    Its mentioned in Manusmriti.. but who implemeted it or more importantly how it survived over thousands of years as Hindu society never had any central authority?
    As you said even it exists among Indian muslims and Christians.So that means it exists outside hindu society also.Why ? So only reason it could have survived was because people saw some incentives.I will give you few examples,
    Say for a fisherman only makes sense to bring a girl from another fisherman as she only knows how to cook fishes,may be to make fishing nets or even how to fish etc.So it increases the productivity of whole family and there by its prosperity.So it perfectly makes sense why family does not prefer… say a Brahmin girl/or any other even non-vegetarian girl…as its more of a burden on the family. Thats why a Kshatriya prefered Kshtriya,Brahmin preferd Brahmin or any other caste doing a specific job.
    In current society these things doesnt hold good any more and there by we are seeing the changes.
    My point here is when we are talking about history especially Indian history…one has to remember western construction of it.They had some biases and made some assumptions based on their culture while constructing theories about not only Indian culture but other colonised cultures as well.
    Also problem is many Indian thinkers who wrote later merely reproduced the same.So its time we scientifically analyses all these again with out prejudices of our past masters.
    There are many people who are talking about these (including westerners)…and there are enough research material available.

  3. Sanjeev Sabhlok


    I agree that occupational reproduction was a crucial driver in the continuance of the caste system – something I’ve indicated in earlier in my slides on why India was so successful during the agricultural epoch, which required a reproduction of occupations in each remote village in order to be successful.

    I also agree that skin colour is strongly but not wholly related to caste (correlation of about 0.7, perhaps). Colour has at much to do with exposure to the sun, as well, and “true” colour correlations (underlying colour) are likely to be even lower.

    However, the mere fact that as you suggest, colour becomes a factor (even after assuming caste is the first factor) indicates a stereotyping based on characteristics not related to merit but to assumed group characteristics. That, btw, is the meaning of racism. I would understand if skin colour predicted health, but it doesn’t, and can’t. Then we would say that skin colour is related to evolutionary fitness. But that’s not the case.

    In addition to this, the fact that Bollywood “imports” British models for its films, not Somalian ones (although Somalian will be cheaper to import), is also strongly indicative of group stereotyping based on colour. That is pure racism. Whether caste is a crucial factor or not, India is definitely a super-racist nation.

    I’m happy to read articles or references on this subject if you can indicate a few, to disprove that India is racist.


  4. Sandeep

    A bit late reply…but still want to make a few points…and may be  you are still interested :)
    //However, the mere fact that as you suggest, colour becomes a factor (even after assuming caste is //the first factor) indicates a stereotyping based on characteristics not related to merit but to assumed //group characteristics
    I think you are mixing both.I have no doubt about current society being colour conscious and if there by racist …I have no problems.But question is whether caste system which is more than thousands of years old has its origins in color ?
    // I’m happy to read articles or references on this subject if you can indicate a few, to disprove that //India is racist..
    On the contrary, I think there should be enough materials to prove that caste system is racist.Being interested only in truth one should not accept any thing until proved substantially as you said in case of Macaulay. 
    So if you look at evidences they prove quite the opposite,
    Firstly as we agreed, inter caste marriages were purely based on incentives and not on colour which is even more substantiated, as even lower castes are not ready to get married to higher castes who are probably more fairer.
    Secondly as you said if you look at current society, its highly color conscious.But every society in the world is and one can easily say that it has to do with the blind following of dominant culture which is western culture.If Indians want fair skin and blonde hair…look at countries like China,Korea.They have fairer skins but want blonde hair and interestingly go under knife to get bigger eyes ! So culture which is dominant and want to be imiated by people is pretty much evident.
    Currently its not just colour, people who are fatter, uneducated are looked down during marriage or any other social event and its getting worser.As you might be aware of health problems teens are facing because of extreme dieting in order to get slimmer and size zero.

  5. Sandeep

    But to top it all, in our society one can easily say that English has become most descriminating factor.Knowing english will automatically make one thinker and intellect in any of the field with out any other qualifications other wise one is been humiliated and thats the reality.Now because upper castes are more educated ..can we attribute this to a caste system?
    More over we have been ruled by Europeans for 200 yrs and no wonder why we still feel having their attributes as supreme.I would say because we are ruled by british queen for so long, there's no wonder why we elect Sonia Gandhi and import slim,fair British models for films:)
    Its true for any society, say in 200 years Africa becomes dominant..I have no doubt that people then will go under knife to get bigger nose,bigger lips and curly hair. Also don't be surpised if companies then will start selling cosmetics to make one's skin darker !!!
    Thirdly let us look at the stories originated in both Indian and western cultures as stories give immense insight in to the thinking of people lived.
    If you look at Indian stories say Ramayana where hero Rama is black who kills villain Ravan who is a Brahmin (fairer and most handsome).Look at Mahabharat..both hero and heroine.. Krishna and Draupadhi are darker in colour [But in recent serials made out of these stories …all were showed as fairer which again underlines impact of dominant culture on current society].
    But look at the stories of western culture..almost every story is a triumph of handsome prince and beautiful princess over ugly deamon.Even now Hollywood movies show good people riding on white horses and bad people on dark (for eg Lord of the Rings).I can't think of any old Indian story where fairer skin triumphs over darker skin.So it again underlines impact of dominant western culture on our culture and minds of the people.
    So again my point is we cant make sweeping generalizations.Indian history / culture has not been studied scientifically ..yes noscientifically which is what natural sciences have done in other parts.Most of stories about India we have today are observations made by western travellers and missionaries in 15th-17th century.These were later picked up by renaissance thinkers and then Indian thinkers.
    Thats why still people like Kanchan Illia are coming up with theories like Hindus worship cows and not buffalos because of their color.Also I think along with his taste for socialism, Nehru's policies failed because of poor understanding of India unlike Gandhi.Along with his economic polcies, one must say his version of secularism also failed as communal voilences only increased after Independence.
    But in last 25 years there seems to be some effort in that direction mainly by Ghent university,Belgium led by Balagangadhara who wrote a book "Heathens in his blindness" which sent ripples among western thinkers.These are few links of his talks which you may find interesting and useful,

  6. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Thanks, Sandeep

    That’s all very useful – counterpoints some of which I can see a few weakenesses in, but some quite sturdy. Time permitting I’ll check out this issue further through serious journal articles – and others.

    Factually, there IS an issue in India today. The question is whether it is related to caste. My preliminary view would be that since both these are a different form of stereotyping, let’s get rid of both.



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