Friday, March 13, 2015

A few words on racism

Dr. Annette Beck-Sickinger, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Leipzig, Germany, recently refused an internship to a male student from my country, India, citing the ‘rape problem’ in India as a reason and implied she would be endangering herself and other female members of her lab if she allowed him in. Although I am aware that the German Ambassador already wrote to her and expressed his views in unambiguous terms, I still write this blog post to say a few things that I wanted to say.

In her now-public e-mail to the Indian student above (a mail written in English so appalling that I was almost convinced for a moment that it was fake), Dr. Beck-Sickinger says that India has a rape problem. I wonder how she arrived at that conclusion. If she meant it in terms of numbers, then I have to admit that she does not understand numbers very well. Sheldon Cooper, a fictitious character in the popular American TV series The Big Bang Theory said recently, “The only math biologists know is, if you have three frogs and one hops away, you have two frogs.” While I have a lot of respect for biologists in general, it seems Dr. Beck-Sickinger is one of the biologists that Sheldon was basing his observation on. I do not know how she does her research, but the way I do it is by starting with Googling some information. Googling rape rates per 100,000 people in countries across the world, one finds that the number in India is just 2 in 100,000. Wikipedia says, 
“Adjusted for population growth over time, the annual rape rate in India has increased from 1.9 to 2.0 per 100,000 people over 2008-2012 period. This compares to a reported rape rate of 1.2 per 100,000 in Japan, 3.6 per 100,000 in Morocco, 4.6 rapes per 100,000 in Bahrain, 12.3 per 100,000 in Mexico, 24.1 per 100,000 in United Kingdom, 28.6 per 100,000 in United States, 66.5 per 100,000 in Sweden, and world's highest rate of 114.9 rapes per 100,000 in South Africa.”
So if these 2 rapes out of 100,000 make India a country with a rape problem, what do the 28.6 rapes per 100,000 make the USA? What about UK with 24.1 rapes per 100,000? Does she deny internships to students from these countries too? How about Sweden with 66.5 rapes per 100,000? When she says female professors across Europe are planning to deny entry to Indian students (something she mentions in her email), does she consider Sweden and UK part of Europe? Or are rules different for dark-skinned people from third-world countries?

(It may be worth mentioning here that another biologist who confirms Sheldon's observation is none other than the famous Richard Dawkins. He tweeted about India having a culture of rape without bothering to check the numbers, and then hastily deleted it when the numbers were pointed out to him.)

Does this mean I am trivializing those two cases out of 100,000? Not at all. In a country of over 1.2 billion people, 2 out of 100,000 means a lot of rapes – about 25,000 rapes per year. But that number, while still about 25,000 more than what it ideally should be, is a mere 0.4% of the six million Jewish people Dr. Beck-Sickinger's countrymen killed during the Holocaust. Does that then make Germany a country with a genocide problem? I would like to know if Dr. Beck-Sickinger was ever denied entry into any country saying there are a lot of Jewish people in that country, and it would be dangerous for them if she was allowed into the country.

Actually I already know the answer - she wasn't. Because while she is a racist, most educated and civilized people aren't so. In the modern world, an act of judging a person based on his or her country, religion, gender or race is punishable by law, or at least severely frowned upon. This basic point somehow seems to have been totally lost on Annette while she was receiving big degrees and diplomas from reputed universities.

India has a diverse population of people from all countries, races and religions, and we do not have a culture of judging people based on their race and country of origin. Today, as the whole world is trying to progress towards attaining equality for all human beings, Annette sits like a frog in her well and denies entry to a prospective scientist on the basis of his race. Not because he is bad at science, or because that he himself is a rapist, but because he comes from a country which she feels has a rape problem. As a result, she has brought shame to all Germans, and to researchers and professors all over the world. She claims to speak for other professors across Germany and Europe, but I doubt that they would like to have her as their spokesperson. For instance, Jakob de Roover, a professor from Belgium, opposed Annette's views publicly.

Of course, some of my own countrymen have endorsed Annette's opinion. Ever since BBC released an illegally made documentary interviewing the convicts of the 2012 Delhi rape case on YouTube, some left-liberal pseudo-secular creatures on my Facebook friendlist have started denouncing all Indian men as rapists. One of them took this opportunity to get some free publicity and Facebook likes for her profile and argued that the racist actions of Dr. Annette Beck-Sickinger were justified. She went so far as to say all Indian men currently abroad should be sent back to India immediately since all of them were responsible for the rape culture of India. When I confronted her on this and started an argument on her Facebook wall, I was obviously called insensitive. Her so-called educated friends even came and tried saying that it was "natural" to think India has a rape problem and the German professor cannot be blamed for thinking that way.

I do not want to go into the details of the documentary here, although I strongly object to the manner in which it depicted Indian men. Whether it should have been made is a debate that can go on, but this post is not about the documentary. When I see a documentary about 9/11, I do not automatically go and judge all Muslim men. When I see a documentary about 26/11, I do not say all Pakistani men are terrorists. I got mugged on the street, not once but thrice, by black men, and yet I don't think all black men are criminals. And this woman has the audacity to question all Indian men (probably based on the interview of a convicted criminal) while she hails from the country that started two world wars and wiped out two out of every three Jewish people in Europe. She did issue a half-hearted apology after her emails became public and she was criticized all over the world. The standard stuff - it was taken out of context... I'm sorry if I hurt someone... blah blah blah. One would have thought she would have been a little better at apologizing, given her education and all, but evidently, education isn't enough.

Annette Beck-Sickinger's actions somehow remind me of Hitler's denouncement of Jewish scientists including Albert Einstein. I could have written pages about it, but what is the point? I could go on to say that Germans haven't learnt their lesson from history and are making the same mistakes again, but then I would be no better than her. As the German ambassador's mail clearly shows, all Germans do not share her views. In fact, I am sure most Germans do not share her views. So I will end this post with the hope that she mends her racist ways and stops judging people by their nationality or race. What good is a biologist who does not believe in the equality of all human beings? 


  1. Well said - and you reflect the sentiments of millions of young Indian men, who felt belittled by her comment.

    While I was deeply hurt to learn what a learned scholar in Germany think about Indian men, don't you think that we are judging her a little too soon as racist? Is it because we feel hurt and want to somehow feel vindicated that we judge her as such? It's just like we are acting like Dr. Beck-Sickinger herself, who was too hasty to judge the Indian male population?
    As a matter of fact, her comments has made me to think - Could it be that she was genuinely misguided in her perception? Is this what the rest of the world think about us as well? Perhaps everybody don't say so because they don't want to sound as insensitive as Dr. Beck-sickinger did. But that doesn't prevent them from forming an opinion about us.

    We sometime generalize a particular theory for everyone. I don't know what she heard about rapes in India, but she seemed to have very hastily come to a conclusion about Indian men.

    She is definitely wrong and her views are very insensitive towards Indian men. But if they were borne out of her racist nature or her paranoia or a misconception based on selective viewing of certain documentaries or TV channels, we don't know that.

    As for her apology, we know that a lot of academicians are not very diplomatic. She sounded no different in her half-hearted and casual apology.

  2. @Shashank: I think you didn't get my point. Firstly, my opinion is not racist, because I judged Annette based on her own actions, and did not judge all Germans based on that. As you said, Annette's actions are indeed because of her paranoia - and that comes under the definition of racism. I also do not believe the rest of the world thinks like Annette - I myself work with a female professor here in the US who regularly works with Indian male students. Those who do think like Annette are racists - it's as simple as that. Just because a lot of people do it does not make it right or justified. Seen that way slavery and segregation for blacks would have existed to this day because most people agreed with them.

  3. Hey,

    I read your article with great enthusiasm as I always do, and genuinely appreciate your thoughts on the matter. I wanted to share my thoughts with you as well. We may differ slightly, though not in the entirety.

    I might not want to be carried away to brand her with the term racist too soon, but I certainly dont stand to justify either Dr. Beck-sickinger's comment or her attitude. She was definitely wrong, it doesn't matter if she was mistaken or a genuinely racist person.

    I read another post you shared on facebook previously. I do enjoy reading most of the stuff you share.

  4. I came to this post from abantor. I agree completely with you that this lady is a racist. At the same time, I trust, we both will agree that the number 2 is actually quite low because a large fraction of rapes in India are unreported. That is a culture that is slowly changing for the positive, I hope. By the way, you may enjoy the first article in this link:

  5. @Ghonada: I'm sure you understand that it does not matter whether there are 2 rapes in India or 20, nobody can simply paint all Indian men with the same brush. At the same time, if you really want to analyze the numbers, then it is not so simple. Most rapes are not reported, not only in India but anywhere in the world. On the other hand, a large number of reported "rapes" in India are not really rapes. Many are simply mutual consent sex reported as rape after the boy breaks up the relationship, many others are cases of eloping couples reported as rape by the girls' family. So we agree that the statistics are wrong, but it is not a simple task to correct it. But as I said, my intent was not analyzing the statistic, it was just criticizing the racist attitude of the professor. Let us hope we move in a positive direction as a society.

  6. joy forever as an Indian woman tell me why I am constantly harassed and sexuallly assaulted in public places - now if Indian men are not responsible who is ?? Wake up you are not living in India

  7. @Anonymous: I doubt if your English and mathematics comprehension skills are very strong, but still, try to understand what I'm going to ask now. "Have you been sexually assaulted by EVERY SINGLE Indian man you have ever come across in your life, since the day you were born? Are you saying that your father, your other male relatives, friends... each and every male person who ever passed you on the street always assaulted you?" If you cannot answer "yes" to that question, then your comment is irrelevant on this post, because we are talking about racial stereotyping of Indian men here, and you better go somewhere else to whine.

    Let me make this a little simpler for you. See, a few years ago a woman ran a red light and bumped into my car. So should I now say, "Women should not be allowed to drive cars. As a male driver, why are we bumped and rear-ended by woman drivers everyday on public roads? If women aren't responsible who is? Please wake up and ban female drivers now!" would you support me in that campaign?

    And yes, my living outside India has nothing to do with this... you of all people should be ashamed to adopt the moral high ground for living in India when you don't even have the guts to expose your name.