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A History Of Racial Tension

By Pius Kamau

04 May, 2004
Denver Post

Some new Indian doctors have been arriving in Colorado, the "whitest"
medical community in America. A small nest of East Indian physicians has
steadily grown around me. It's significant since, for more than two
decades, I was one of just three black surgeons and one of about 20 black
physicians in a huge community of white doctors. They say misery loves
company; perhaps the new arrivals will help dilute the vitriol that chokes
so many hearts.

Dark foreigners have distinct pedigrees. Some Indians are Brahmins, others
Warriors; to Hindus, blacks are a rung below Untouchables. Medically,
we're poles apart. We say little to each other to unthaw a natural chill.
Every time we cross paths, the past bubbles up. Like the world's many
competing tribes, we suspiciously eye each other from positions defined by

Ours is a relationship that mirrors my colonial past. In East Africa, we
lived side by side. Africans were always Indians' servants. Indians were
second-class citizens. (Europeans were first and Africans third.) Mahatma
Gandhi may have led his nation's fight against British rule, but Kenya's
Indians never joined Africans in their struggle for independence;
colonialism was just fine.

Sometimes a gesture or a look can trigger a flood of memories. Like their
kin in Africa, these new arrivals walk and talk together, alone. They look
past us, meaning "Expect nothing from us."

Certain religions govern their followers' behavior, controlling every
motion, emotion and thought. Hindus can't help themselves. Humanity exists
in a rigid chamber in Hinduism; one's caste never changes. Brahmins are
empowered; lower castes enslaved. Blacks fit nicely within this group.

After living with Hindu culture for decades, I've found only two Indian
luminaries worthy of admiration: Rabindranath Tagore, the poet of love and
patience; and Gandhi, who was assassinated for his reconciliatory
teachings. Any religion whose gods consign a large number of its children
to slavery and bondage is suspect and odious. With due respect to
mythologist Joseph Campbell, I find Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, Krishna and
other Hindu gods unconvincing.

Sometimes we're our father's sons, slavish practitioners of the tribe's
customs and our history's reflection pond. Aurora's Hindus resemble others
in my Africa.

While attending the first multiracial college in Kenya, many of my Indian
classmates came from wealthy families. Our Patels, Sharmas, Shahs and
Mistris had little time for Africans. To them we'd always be inferior,
even though Kenya was "free."

For decades, they had lived privileged lives. Even though blacks had seats
in Parliament, Indians owned banks and commerce. My classmates knew that true power lay with those who pay. They shared little with the rest of us;
they held on to their commercial spoils until blacks pried them from their

There were exceptions, though; an Indian Christian friend became my
roommate all through medical school. Christianity, it seems, releases the
Hindu mind from its rigid shackles, unraveling the tight coils of dogma.
Like the monotheist Muslims, Christians are more accessible because
charity and love of neighbor are the central tenets of their creeds.

In 1972, Uganda's Idi Amin expelled 52,000 Indians from his country. It
wasn't a smart move, but it expressed the frustration, anger and envy that
many Ugandans felt.

In Aurora, we run into each other in corridors and the past is unfurled
before us. But there's no bitterness in me, only a wish they would open
their minds to a world that's fluid and not always divided into rigid
castes. I wish they could be convinced that we're not Untouchables. We're
only trying to make our way through life the best we can.

I'm glad these dark people are among us. I know they'll help relieve some
of our misery.

(Pius Kamau of Aurora is a thoracic and general surgeon and a commentator
on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." He was born and raised in
Kenya and immigrated to the U.S. in 1971. His column appears on alternate
Wednesdays in the Denver Post. Comments on this article may be emailed to
openforum @ To be considered, letters must include full
name, home town and daytime phone number.)