When I feel like I need a real cleansing, I walk into the fitness center of Ranchi’s only five-star hotel and use the deluxe shower in the women’s locker room. The water pressure and heat are pure bliss, and I leave the place feeling cleaner than I’ve felt in weeks.
The staff doesn’t ask me if I’m a guest. Nobody stops me. It doesn’t matter if my clothes or sloppy and I look disheveled. I can waltz in like I belong, be greeted like someone important, and leave without any incident.
I can do this because I’m white.
There is a hierarchy here that determines the way people treat each other. I know plenty would argue that this social order is complex—that it’s developed from colonial history, the caste system, tribal traditions, gender roles, and modern politics. But on the surface, it seems pretty straightforward. If you’re small and dark, you’re used, abused, and walked over. If you’re tall and fair, you’re treated with deference.
This isn’t a hard-fast rule. But that said, I know what I see. People who do manual labor and menial jobs, cycle rickshaws, farm—essentially, the poorest of Jharkhand’s population—have darker skin and tend to be short and slight. Those in positions of authority (politicians, police officers, businessmen, government officials) are significantly bigger and whiter. This isn’t just an imagined phenomenon or a coincidence: those in the army and police are specifically chosen for their height.
To prove that I’m not exaggerating, check out this ad for the wildly popular skin-whitening cream, Fair and Lovely. The dad’s line that sends the girl into tears is “I wish I had a son.”
There aren’t 1950s-America-era signs around Ranchi designating “Whites Only”… but I’d like to see someone with dark skin try to walk into that five-star fitness center looking as disheveled as I usually do. It just wouldn’t happen. And I admit, I take advantage of the ridiculous privileges that my appearance grants me. It’s an uncomfortable reality in Jharkhand, and my time with the Yuwa girls has allowed me to witness what it means to be at the bottom of this hierarchy.
Fair and Lovely and Sick of It
While there are definitely more advantages to being a white, blonde female here than drawbacks, I’ve got to take a minute to illustrate how I’m treated daily. Mostly, I’m stared at like I’ve come from a different planet. These are not subtle glances. I’m talking about open-mouthed, unabashed gaping. People doing double takes in the street, stopping in the middle of traffic, halting conversation to point me out. It’s impossible for me to be anonymous, although I do my best by wearing a scarf over my face and hair and donning sunglasses when I’m in a crowd.
The number of foreigners that go through this place is minuscule, and most of them are businessmen who stay inside their hotels. So although I can understand why I’m such a spectacle, it’s exhausting to be gawked at whenever I step outside. I didn’t realize how freeing anonymity could be until I couldn’t have it anymore.
I’m usually treated with the utmost deference, often bordering on celebrity treatment. My appearance has gotten me into utterly absurd situations. I’m often asked if people can take photos with me—in restaurants, stores, zoos, concerts, malls, bathrooms, offices. Sometimes people don’t have the audacity to ask permission and attempt to take sly photos in which I’m carefully framed in the background. It’s expected that I’ll skip through long queues instead of waiting like everyone else. I’m exempt from most public rules, and am often waved through security with a smile and a head bobble.
During one especially bizarre afternoon, I ended up as one of three chief guests at a school award ceremony. I shook hundreds of hands, gave an impromptu speech about the importance of education (I’m pretty sure nobody understood what I was saying, so I wasn’t nervous), and handed out a bunch of certificates with cameras flashing throughout the entire event. Again, this happened because I’m white.
It’s gotten to the point that incidents like this no longer surprise me. I’m worried about what this is going to do to my ego in the long run.
The Other Side
Spending the majority of my time with the Yuwa girls, I get to see glimpses of the way they’re treated, and what’s it’s like for girls who don’t look like I do. While my white-blonde-foreigner status keeps me right near the top of the social ladder, the Yuwa girls rank near absolute bottom. As poor, dark-skinned, tribal, unmarried girls, they are rarely given basic respect when they’re out in public. I’ve seen them ignored, glared at, scolded for the pettiest of things, and disregarded. I’ve seen a feverish, exhausted girl be shooed out of a doctor’s office because the sandals on her feet were “too dirty”. Several girls told me that they’re made to pay a cleaning fee at their government-run school—and then they’re forced to clean the school.
On an impersonal level, the hierarchy of Jharkhand is uncomfortable. When it gets personal—when you see kids you care about being treated like shit—it becomes indescribably infuriating.
A few weeks ago, I found out that many of our girls had been slapped, verbally abused, made to pay bribes, and forced to sweep the floor by officials at a local government office. They had been going to this office repeatedly for weeks, attempting to obtain their birth certificates. They need these certificates to get passports to compete in the Spain tournament, and hadn’t told Franz about the ongoing incidents of abuse.
I felt sick to my stomach when I heard this. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to hurt someone more than I wanted to hurt the cowardly worm who would lay a hand on these kids. What disturbed me more than the fact that a grown man in a government position was hitting 12-year-old girls: the girls didn’t consider this behavior out-of-the-ordinary. They’ve experienced the same treatment from teachers, principals, postal workers, uncles, fathers and brothers. They were used to it.
While the girls seemed ready to disregard this whole episode as normal, Franz wasn’t. Within two days, the girls’ story was on the front page of the 2nd largest English newspaper in India. The story went semi-viral on Facebook. People were angry—Indians and non-Indians alike. Supporters Yuwa in positions of power in Jharkhand put pressure on the local office responsible for abusing the girls. Eventually the man who had caused the most trouble was removed from his position—although not before sending cronies to one of the girl’s houses in an attempt to ‘discourage’ her family from pressing charges.
The optimist in me wants to believe that this incident and the outcry against it will help the girls realize they’re worthy of respect and demand it as they get older. I want them to be angry about the injustices they encounter daily. I want to believe that these tough kids can start to change the system in which skin color, status, and gender determine the way people are treated.
 The other Chief Guests included Mr. ‘Frang Gostler (from the United States of American, U.S.A.)’ and a high ranking local police officer