The word brought back painful and uncomfortable memories.
While watching a show on Netflix released shortly after the killing of George Floyd – a 46-year-old Black man who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes – West Indian cricketer Daren Sammy heard comedian Hasan Minhaj describe the term “kalu,” a word that is used as a racial slur in the Indian subcontinent.
Sammy says his mind immediately went back to when he played in the Indian Premier League with the Sunrisers Hyderabad in 2013 and 2014 – and in particular, when the nickname “kalu” was used to describe him and the Sri Lankan player Thisara Perera.
Perera declined to comment when offered the opportunity.
The nickname became so commonplace that Sammy says he even used it to describe himself.
In those years with the Sunrisers, Sammy and his teammates reached the IPL playoffs. He says one of the main reasons for their success was the “unity and the camaraderie and the way we fought for each other.”
Fast forward to 2020 and all-rounder Sammy – a former captain of the West Indian team – experienced a range of emotions, as he began to realize how “kalu” is actually used.
In a video he posted on Instagram, Sammy called on former teammates who used the nickname to reach out for a conversation about the word.
He says he’s since had one former teammate say he was “operating from a position of brotherly love.” However, Sammy believes the term is not appropriate and should no longer be used.
‘Right is right’
Sammy’s realization came just a few days after Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, US on May 25 and during the protests that followed shortly after.
“It came at a point in time where racism and social injustice and systemic racism was at the forefront of everybody’s mind,” Sammy said.
But Sammy’s social media accounts show a number of people defending the nickname – and even calling him it. Their argument is that the word isn’t racist and is just a nickname.
However, Sammy says the ongoing usage shows there is still a huge “part of the (South Asian) culture that really needs educating.”
“As someone who leads, you have to have the difficult conversations and I’m not afraid to have it. It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Right is right. There’s no wrong time to do the right thing.
“That’s part of the educating and talking about those subjects that will help bring awareness out there into that culture.”
Parvez Rasool, one of Sammy’s Sunrisers teammates in 2014, said that it is “unfortunate” if the term was used against Sammy.
“If someone has used such words against Sammy, it’s unfortunate,” he told CNN. “I was a part of the team, I thoroughly enjoyed playing under his captaincy. He is a very jolly man.
“This conversation never happened in front of me. But, if someone has used derogatory words against Sammy it is extremely unfortunate.”
The Board of Control for Cricket in India, which regulates the IPL, didn’t immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
‘I believe I’m beautiful’
Although officially abolished in 1950, Indian society is still largely categorized by caste.
The caste system categorizes Hindus at birth – defining their place in society, what jobs they can do and who they can marry. Those at the bottom of the system are called “untouchables.”
And in Indian popular culture, people from lower castes are often depicted as having darker skin. Sammy believes this crossover between caste and colorism explains some of the prejudice he sees in India, “where the powerful really suffocate the less fortunate,” he said.
“To me, that symbol of the cop kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that’s what it showed to me. It was like a man in power suffocating somebody who can’t help themselves.”
The police killing of Floyd led Sammy to re-examine the time he spent in India and that period of reflection also made him ponder India’s long history with skin-lightening products.
Some Bollywood stars have been criticized for promoting “fairness” creams.
Last month, Hindustan Unilever announced it would “stop using the word ‘Fair’ in the brand name” of its “Fair & Lovely” skincare brand. The company also acknowledged it had previously played up “the benefits of fairness, whitening and skin lightening” while marketing its products.
“Any place that keeps promoting the fairer you are, the more beautiful you look, then you have to understand something is wrong with that system,” Sammy said.
“What about the people that look like me? Aren’t they beautiful? Because I believe I’m beautiful. But why should I bleach or lighten the color of my skin to be deemed beautiful? It’s wrong. And it’s a difficult subject but it’s one that must be taught.”
Sammy, who has played 38 Test matches for the West Indies, said cricket’s international governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), must also take responsibility for educating players and fans about racism.
“The ICC tries to protect the game, well they do. Every cricketer coming into international cricket or playing the league, the first thing they do (is) have an anti-doping and anti-corruption seminar,” he said.
“You are educated. They have campaigns going all across the cricket world educating you about those things. I think the same emphasis should be placed towards anti-racism, learning about other cultures.
“If you understand my story, if you know where I come from, what drives me to play cricket, then you’d understand how to describe me, you will understand why I do the things I do. So when you feel like telling me something about the color of my skin, you would know, you would be educated as you know what, I’ve come a long way.”
The ICC didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Like other sports, representation is another problem the game faces.
Very few teams across the world have Black, Asian, and minority ethnic head coaches, which is something that needs to be rectified if the sport is going to move on, according to Sammy.
“How many coaches of color do you see going around in cricket? Do you think you will ever see a coach of color being the head coach of England or also Australia or New Zealand?” Sammy said.
“How do you give equal opportunities to the people here in the Caribbean, when you don’t actually give them the chance to see how good they are. Give us more opportunities to show you that we are good too.”
“But you see, we embrace quote unquote, a white coach, in the West Indies, in South Africa, in Pakistan. Why is it so easy for us to embrace the entire world and it is so difficult for the world to embrace a few of us?”