Unconscious Racism in India – Yes, I’m Looking at You

This is something that’s been bothering me for a while, but I’m only writing about now. (ETA: It’s especially relevant now, with the new law, in the wake of all the ‘Anti Chinkies’ incidents recently.)

I’ve been reading many essays/blog posts in the last few days about Racefail 2009, which is essentially (I’m massively oversimplifying here) a discussion on writing non-white cultures/characters in sci-fi/fantasy works.

It spawned (and continues to spawn) discussions on race and discrimination and how invisible and all pervasive it is, such as this post:


 Let me be clear about this: I’m Korean, my relatives are Korean, we all have black hair and brown eyes and are visibly not white.


They are too common; I remember another white man yelling, “Mr. Chong! Ching chong ching chong ching chong!” at my brother and me as we walked home from his graduation ceremony, and how the people in the car with the man didn’t chastise him, just hit the gas and sped away down the street when I looked like I was going to throw something at them rather than calmly taking his abuse.

Source: http://via-ostiense.dreamwidth.org/97666.html

I’m sure we all remember the racism incident with Jane Goody and Shilpa Shetty in Big Brother, and all the spilled ink that followed, mostly to the tune of ‘Indians abroad have always faced racism’.

How terrible, we think. Thank God we don’t have to face that kind of thing here in India.

And it’s just not true, because we conveniently ignore the very real racism and discrimination Indians face from other Indians.

You would think that with the shade of the British Raj, and the associated slur ‘darkie’ still lingering over us, there wouldn’t be discrimination based on skin colour amongst ourselves, but it is still alive and kicking.

I remember being very young – perhaps nine or ten – and being made fun of in school for being so dark skinned, being called ‘ugly’ and ‘kaali’ and ‘black’. It was something I’d never had to face before, one side of my family is dark skinned, so I’d never seen it as anything other than normal. I remember coming home in tears and telling my mother about it, who tried convincing me I wasn’t ugly, and that dark skinned women/girls were beautiful, and weren’t all the beauty pageant winners (of the time) dark skinned people from Africa?

The people saying these things don’t realise they’re being hurtful.

It’s astonishing to me that people who are dark skinned themselves use  the term ‘black’  (kaali, or its equivalent in regional languages) to describe people who are dark skinned. The person they’re describing is darker than themselves, so that makes it alright, of course. And it is always, always used in a negative sense. To wit, ‘he’s so ugly, such a blaaaack face he has!’ or ‘he’s so blaaaack, the only thing you can see in his face are his eyes and his teeth’, with increased stress on the ‘a’ syllable indicating just how dark skinned the person is.

On this scale of discrimination, the darker skinned you are, the more ugly/unappealing/unfriendly you are, so of course the African diaspora in India are regarded as such. (The automatic assumption that they’re all drug dealers is the subject for another post entirely.)

I remember a comedy track from a very successful Telugu film ‘Manmadhudu‘, which had the comedian Bramhanandam’s character (himself dark skinned) married to an African American. The two leads travel to a foreign country (I forget which) and are invited home by their expatriate host, Bramhanandam, who tells them he is married to a local lady.

The ‘comedy’ comes from the fact that we’re meant to expect a ‘beautiful’ white woman, but instead find a large, African American. What’s worse is that the character is portrayed as an ugly, masculine person, dominating her hen pecked husband by dint of her size!

Bramhanandam is even asked by the male lead – facetiously – whether his was a love or an arranged marriage – because, it is made quite implicit, no Indian man could ever love such a large, dark skinned woman.

Sitting in a movie theatre full of people laughing at the exchange, sitting with my own family who were laughing at the exchange, I wondered for a long time if there was something wrong with me, or everyone else.

In the same vein, another strain of racism/discrimination I find particularly prevalent in India is what I call the ‘chinkification’ of the North East. People from the Northeast are automatically called ‘chinkies’ (supposedly short for Chinese) regardless of their state of origin.

I cannot speak for all the people from NE, but I, myself have heard so, so many times this strand of discrimination, where people from seven different states are all grouped together as ‘chinkies’, and asked questions like, ‘is it true that you eat dog meat?’ (with the implied disgust at such a thought).

I remember the first time I fully realised the consequence of this casual name calling when I was in college, and my friend (who is Manipuri) told us about some other Manipuris who had just joined our college that year. She had taken on the role of a guide to these girls, and we happily ‘adopted’ them, as well. I remember showing one of those girls to her new classroom, walking in with another Telugu friend of mine. Once we had settled the girl in, we were leaving, when we heard one of the boys in the class call out to his friends quite loudly (in Telugu) ‘check out the chinki chick, yaar!’

Now, the Manipuri girl would have understood only the word ‘chinki’, making it clear to her that they were laughing about her. This was a young girl who had come to a strange new state, far from home, for her education, and this was the attitude she had to deal with.

If anyone would have told the boy he was being hurtful, he would have been shocked to hear it, because his comment ‘wasn’t serious’, and wasn’t sexist.

I remember we didn’t do much about it (which I regret now) except for glare nastily at the boy as we walked off in a huff, but really, that was the first time I realised just how much discrimination my NE friends would have faced – and continue to face – in their own country.

Being lumped into one large, homogeous group, underrepresented in national media of almost every kind (the only NE actor I’ve ever seen in Indian media is Danny Denzongpa – no wonder one of my NE friends preferred to watch Korean dramas), facing people amused by their accent, their appearance, their food…

This discrimination is captured quite perfectly in a scene from Shimit Amin’s movie ‘Chak De India!’  where two players from the NE are greeted by the hockey team selector with a ‘welcome!’, as in a ‘welcome to my country’, clearly thinking they were ‘chinkies’ from…China? (I’m not too clear on what the implication is supposed to be.)

The girls don’t respond, so the selector asks them, ‘Have I offended you?’ to which they reply, ‘Wouldn’t anyone be offended if they were welcomed in their own country?’

We have the Chinkies, of course. South India refers to all the states above the Vindhyas as the ‘North’, which are peopled entirely by rude, egoistical, aggressive ‘Northies’. Until recently, most North Indians lumped the whole of South India (all four states and two union territories of it) into a place called ‘Madras’ where everyone ate rice and rasam and had Yum-Bee-Yays, and the women all had coconut oil and jasmine flowers in their hair, every day, all day. And everyone knows that Bengalis are psuedo-intellectuals and all just activists in waiting. Or that Biharis are lawless and uncouth. Or that Sardarjis are brawny but brainless. And on and on.

Again, the worst thing about it is that it is all so casual. All these stereotypes are perpetuated in jokes (we’ve all heard the one about the South Indian being asked to spell moon – Yum, Yo, Yet another Yo, Yum) or the jokes about there being no stray dogs in North East India, because they’re all caught and killed by the ‘Chinkies’ for their meat; or the countless Sardarji jokes, all of which are shared by email and on social networks, except, of course, with the one Sardarji friend or NE friend you have .

Any time I would protest this casual discrimination, I ended up being told things like: oh, I don’t mean it seriously/I know dark skinned people are not ugly, it’s just a word/it’s a joke, don’t take it so seriously/ I have Sardarji/NE/SI/Tamilian/Bihari friends, I’m not discriminatory/my Bihari/Malyali/whatever friend wasn’t offended, so why are you?/I can’t be politically correct all the time, it’s easier and faster to use the smaller word (kaali/black)*

Mostly, I ended up being told that I’m seeking offense where there is none, and that I should stop being so thin skinned, neatly making my concerns and emotions feel invalid, and leaving me wondering if I was being hyper-reactionary. Because of this previous reaction I’ve generally said nothing to the people using those terms, only protesting to friends who I knew would give me a valid hearing.

But, you know what? I realise now that to be bothered by it and remain quiet is much worse than their ignorant hurtfulness.

ETA: While I am pleased by the new law that finally recognises ‘chinkie’ as a racist slur, I’m going to be quietly cynical about the whole thing until the first person is actually arrested.

[mood|chinkies contemplative]
[music| I need a dollar: Aloe Blacc]

*For the record, there is an equivalent to ‘dark skinned’ in Telugu, which can be used instead of ‘black’ to describe a skin tone. I cannot speak for other Indian languages, I don’t have the knowledge.

Image credit: africa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net, with thanks.

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  1. Jimmy D M

    There is no like button on the website… in other words I agree with you on a serious note… I myself use to make fun of my south indian friend (He was a tamilian who was from mumbai friend) but more of to make a joke but never implying that he was less intelligent or less beautiful

    • SSK

      There is now! (Actually, thanks for that. Didn’t realise I had forgotten to add it to the post pages.)

      About your friend, hmm. It’s difficult because it’s different from person to person, isn’t it? Maybe he didn’t feel hurt by your joke, or maybe he did. Very few people would actually come out and say it, because they don’t want to be seen as ‘too sensitive’.

      As someone said in one of those essays I was reading – if you really do want to avoid being racist or discriminatory – or to simplify further – not hurt anyone, even unintentionally – you need to be mindful of how even your casual words can affect people, and how you talk to everyone – friends, acquaintances, and strangers. It obviously differs from person to person, as does your relationship and corresponding comfort level with each of them.

  2. b

    Also also…. there is a solid proof to your theory. Ever heard that parents are searching for a “white girl”. Bingo. Hence proved.

    But while the problem is clear, I cant see any solution… I have a feeling that this is just a symptom rather than the actual problem… maybe you can find the real problem… I am not able to pin point it… Its one of those things you miss because its too damn obvious….

    • SSK

      Ever heard that parents are searching for a “white girl”.

      Exactly! And no one knows why this is so, what magical properties of beauty this ‘white’ girl is supposed to have! (Personally, I feel beauty is in the features, and not skin tone, but maybe that’s just me.)

      As for the solution, I think it’s along the lines of what I said to JDM up there – think of how your words and actions could cause hurt – even the most casual of them, and every once in a while, try to examine your own thoughts and attitudes to see why you feel or think the way you do about people who are different from you.

      Obviously, there is no magical solution where all these ugly things disappear overnight; it’s slow, and complicated, and difficult, and can be accomplished by changing people one at a time. I don’t think it will ever be a wave of change sweeping over wide swathes of society/groups at a time.

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