What should we feel, and I ask my fellow South Asians this, having heard Daren Sammy
raise the issue of being called kalu
by his IPL team-mates? Horror and shame?
It is easy to imagine the befuddlement among some of his former team-mates. That was racist? Weren't - and aren't - we all buddies? Wasn't someone called a motu and someone else a lambu? What about all the camaraderie, and where was the offence when we were all having a jolly time?
How horrified and ashamed are we, really? Have we not thought, even in passing, that this could be a case of dressing-room banter being conflated with racism? And can we, hand on heart, say that we are completely surprised the things Sammy says happened did happen?
Once we have played all these questions in our minds, only one remains: how do we not know that this is so horribly wrong? It's not about whether Sammy knew the meaning of the word; it's about what his team-mates didn't know.
To address this, we must first widen the scope beyond Sammy and Sunrisers Hyderabad. We are at an extraordinary moment in history where a black man being publicly choked to death by a figure of authority has not only sparked worldwide mass outrage, but has also created a heightened sense of awareness about discrimination on the basis of colour, and led to the re-examination of a wide range of social behaviours.
To find the explanation for how it became okay for a group of international cricketers to address - in terms of endearment, they may add - a black West Indian player as kalu, we must face one of the most insidious practices in South Asian culture: colourism.
The elevation of whiteness is not a subcontinental phenomenon. The idea has been seeded over centuries, through religion, cultural imagery, and most profoundly, language, that "white" connotes everything pristine, pure and fair (consider the word "fair" itself) and that "dark" represents everything sinister. Watch Muhammad Ali take this on with cutting simplicity here
But to understand how this idea originated and grew in the subcontinent, which suffered over 200 years of colonial subjugation and still suffers caste-based discrimination, one must sift through complex layers of sociocultural conditioning based on the regressive dynamics of class, caste, sect and gender. The hierarchy of skin colour is all pervasive in the region, and it doesn't strike most as odd, much less repugnant, that lightness of complexion should be so deeply linked to ideas of beauty.
Even without the scars of slavery and subjugation, colourism carries some of the worst features of racism; it is discriminatory, derogatory and dehumanising
This idea has been reinforced over decades through popular culture. You need to look no further than mainstream cinema in India: how many of our successful actors, especially women, are representative of the median South Asian skin tone? In the matrimonial pages, fair skin is peddled as a clinching eligibility factor, and consequently, ads for fairness creams position them as agents of salvation and success. So organically is this drilled into the mass subconscious that the obsession has ceased to be offensive: it is merely aspirational.
Add to this another subcontinental abomination - the practice of addressing people by their physical attributes - and you have a recipe for something utterly toxic. These terms of address are demeaning but normalised by a coating of endearment: jaadya or motu for the heavy-set, chhotu or batka for the short, kana for those who squint, and quite seamlessly, kalu or kaliya for those with skin tones darker than that of the majority.
This would perhaps explain Sarfaraz Ahmed's mild bemusement at the outrage over his "Abey kaale" remark
to Andile Phehlukwayo in Durban last year. Ahmed, then Pakistan's captain, was speaking in Urdu, so it was apparent that he didn't expect Phehlukwayo, the South Africa allrounder, to understand the sledge, and that anyone familiar with the culture in Pakistan would have understood that he did not intend it as a racial slur.
But it can't be emphasised more that racist utterances are no longer about intent, because intent is so organically and inextricably loaded into the words themselves that it is no longer acceptable to explain them away with "It was not intended to be racist, or to cause hurt or offence." It's for all of us to internalise, more so for public figures: offence not meant is not equal to offence not given or received.
The silence of victims mustn't be misread. It does not mean willing acceptance. In most cases, they have no choice. They often find themselves outnumbered in social groups - or in dressing rooms - and choose to belong, rather than to confront. Former India opening batsman Abhinav Mukund brought this to light a few years ago with a poignant post on Twitter
about how he had to "toughen up" against "people's constant obsession" with his skin colour. In a dressing-room scenario, where the eagerness to conform is far more acute, and where a culture of bullying isn't alien, the compulsion to grin and bear these "friendly" jibes is even more severe.
It doesn't have to be. It might take years, perhaps generations, to reform societies, but sports can do it much more easily through sensitisation and education. In Ahmed's case, it was staggering that a captain of an international team did not understand the enormity of using those words against a black South African cricketer. Cricket boards and franchises now have elaborate programmes to educate players about match-fixing and drug abuse, and in some cases, media management. Adding cultural sensitisation to the list would be a small task but a big step.
Calling somebody kalu in the subcontinent might not feel racist in the way the world understands it. But even without the scars of slavery and subjugation, colourism carries some of the worst features of racism; it is discriminatory, derogatory and dehumanising. And like all other forms of casual racism, this is, in so many ways, more pernicious than naked racism. Because it is often disguised in humour, it is easily normalised; it spreads more effortlessly; and because it is coded into the subconscious as something harmless, it much harder to erase.
The right response to Sammy is not to question why he didn't raise the matter at the time. He has already explained that he didn't understand what the word meant. It is not even about establishing guilt and punishment. The whole episode must lead to an enquiry into our own prejudices. Cricketers are not only role models and flag bearers of the spirit of their sport. They are also, more than ever before, global citizens, and ignorance shouldn't count as an excuse or serve as a shield.
Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal