The widespread protests against the state-sanctioned murders of black men and women by police in the U.S. have got a lot of people talking. The conversations we're having about race as a result of these killings and subsequent protests are both necessary and important, if not utterly infuriating to have at times. The deep roots of racism across North America have resurfaced in full force, with even the most liberal people struggling to confront their own prejudice and privilege in these conversations.
There's something about massive social and cultural movements that tends to encourage the invocation of good old Gandhi quotes. "Be the change you want to see in the world" seems to be a favourite. People (mostly white) have taken to using this quote and others by Gandhi with the intent to shame "angry and aggressive" (aka outspoken) PoC in the world's most passive aggressive way. In other words, if you want to be treated like a human being, you need to just smile and ignore the literal threats against your life and, you know, be chill like Gandhi and then maybe people will deem you worthy of humanity. I mean the dude freed India from British rule "without violence"! He's the perfect symbol of "respectable" social movements, except for the fact that he was incredibly racist.
But how could a chill dude like Gandhi be racist? He was a kindly, old Indian man! Blasphemy, right? Wrong. Gandhi was seriously a huge racist. And this is not a new revelation, either. If you do a quick Google search of "Gandhi racist", the top hits direct you to some incredibly disgusting, hateful, and yes, racist quotes from Gandhi regarding his time spent in South Africa. He routinely referred to black South Africans as "kaffirs" in his writings, which is equivalent to the n-word in South Africa. He was staunchly opposed to the advancement of black South African civil rights, and repeatedly compared them to animals. And that's only a quick overview of the things he's said. Is this really the individual that should be exemplified in a movement that is being led by and is largely about black people? I think that's an obvious no.
Gandhi was also pretty racist toward his fellow Indians. He was a firm believer of India's caste system; a system of institutionalized racism that ranks the worthiness of an Indian person based on his or her "caste" (or class, to simplify) and determines the opportunities that they can have and the people they can interact with. And that's not an exaggeration. A person is borne into their caste and there is no way to move "up" in the caste system; only down. Marrying outside of your caste is considered shameful and people have been murdered for doing so. It's not hard to imagine how an inherently prejudice system like this breeds hatefulness and despair. Officially, the caste system has been abolished in India, but it's still a major part of the Indian identity. I know what my caste is even though I was born in Canada decades after the caste system was abolished. My interactions with other Indians (especially older people) are influenced by their determination of my caste. Does that sound like freedom to you? Apparently it was by Gandhi's standards.
There is no denying that Gandhi did some great things for India in terms of freeing it from British oppression. His ideas regarding civil disobedience weren't wrong and they were certainly effective for what he set out to accomplish, but the racism that we're trying to overcome had strong roots in the person that Gandhi was. I understand why he was so revolutionary in his day and I would be a fool to deny his impact on India, but he is not the person we should be looking up to today. He is not the bar for this movement. I doubt he would've even supported this movement. We can do better than Gandhi, and we should.