African-Indian bonhomie was all the rage in India's media last week, amid celebratory coverage of homegrown telecom company Airtel's $10.7 billion acquisition of Kuwaiti company Zain's African operations and TV images of Indian visitors blowing vuvuzelas at soccer's World Cup in South Africa. Amid all the backslapping, however, an African student in India who runs a news and current-affairs website from the city of Bhopal accused companies like Coca-Cola of airing racist commercials on Indian TV that portrayed Africans as primitive savages.
"Indian marketers have a field day in putting 'blacks' where they've always 'belonged,' at least in the average Indian mind-sets," wrote S.K.Y. Banji, a Ugandan who has lived in India for more than four years and runs the Reign Times. His comments were endorsed by fellow Africans who posted on the site, sharing their own experiences of racism in India, and soon Banji's concerns were being aired in segments of the mainstream media. Yet there was hardly any public outcry, and none of the companies have issued apologies.
One of the commercials in question, for Coca-Cola's Sprite which a Coca-Cola spokesperson says was received "very positively" by a test audience in India shows two young Indian men captured by savages in an African jungle. While one of them tries to win over the captors by doing a silly jig, the other simply offers them Sprite. "There is nothing offensive in this ad," says Martha Wariithi, a Kenyan by birth who is the director of knowledge and insights for Coca-Cola's India and South West Asia unit. "It's lighthearted ... It fits very well for the positioning for Sprite in the market."
The Indian lemon drink LMN, produced by the Parle Agro corporation, has a blatantly racist subtext in its TV spot that shows two Africans digging in the sand for water. When they spot a tap nearby, they wrench it off and start using it as a shovel. Parle Agro would not comment to TIME on the commercial.
Another spot, for BP's Castrol engine oil, shows two young Indian men being magically transported from place to place: a beach, a lion-infested jungle and a cauldron being carried by smiling African cannibals. BP has not responded to TIME's queries despite indicating it would do so.
The Castrol ad is for contests that can take winners to South Africa for the World Cup, and Coca-Cola is an official sponsor of the event, which aims to showcase Africa in a new light. It speaks to Indian society, long the subject of British Empire stereotyping, as it struggles to adapt to the cultural challenges of its status as an emerging power in a globalized world economy.
"It's amazing how two global companies, in an age of YouTube and Twitter, can think they can get away with such blatantly racist advertising," says Hari Krishnan, vice president at the Delhi office of ad agency JWT. "Perhaps it's just a matter of time before they hear from their global headquarters." But there hasn't been much of an outcry against the commercials in a country whose people have themselves been victims of racism. Indeed, many Indians do not see the advertisements as racist or offensive. Despite their experience with prejudice abroad even today, most Indians seem prone to accept easy generalizations about other peoples and cultures.
"These ads could never be aired in the U.S.," says Diepiriye Kuku, a Delhi-based Nigerian-American conflict-resolution consultant who blogs on his exposure to prejudice in India, a country he says is decades behind the U.S. in addressing racial issues.
Kuku wrote an article titled "India Is Racist and Happy About It" in a leading Indian newsmagazine last year. In a post on his blog, he recounts a visit to a zoo: while he was watching a giraffe, some 50-odd families stopped in their tracks to stare at him. "But," he points out, "Indians don't only stereotype foreigners. They stereotype other Indians too." Indeed, racism against northeastern Indians whose features often have more in common with those of people in countries farther east and who are the subject of various myths about their sexuality is widely documented. And the fact that skin-lightening creams are one of the fastest-growing product lines in India's cosmetics sector reflects an obsession with fair skin.
But globalization has opened the doors of the world to many Indians, allowing them to experience other cultures not simply through movies and TV portrayals but by traveling abroad and interacting with foreigners in work and academic environments. "I believe the next decade is going to belong to Africa," Sunil Bharti Mittal, founder and chairman of Airtel, said in an interview after sealing the Zain deal that made Airtel the world's fifth biggest telecom operator. In India, that may take some getting used to.