A few days ago, I came across a viral clip of a popular reality TV show which left me quite unsettled. In the clip, the anchor introduces a six-year-old girl from Assam with racial slurs like ‘Ching Chong’ and ‘Momo’; words frequently used to belittle and mock North-Eastern people. As someone who has experienced racism since childhood, seeing that little child go through racism on national television triggered me. Following the huge social media outrage demanding an apology both from the TV channel and the host, the latter issued an apology that wasn’t actually one. He went on to justify that they’ve been talking to the girl in this manner throughout the series, gaslighted that she likes it, and used the classic equivalent of the ‘I’m not racist because I have a black friend’ defense — he has friends and family in the Northeast.
In its aftermath, one question was on many people’s minds: Was it racist if the girl had no issues? Social media has been divided; many including the Chief Minister of Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma called it out as “shameful and totally unacceptable,” whereas a few famous voices declared it to be non-racist.
Personally, it took me back to a time when I had newly moved to Delhi almost two decades ago. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was twelve. It was a hot summer afternoon — the scorching heat, the sweat trickling off my face as the warm loo blew into me. I was carrying this heavy school bag and walking from the bus stop. Suddenly, a young man came out of nowhere. He extended his hand and groped my barely-existent breast. He gave me a creepy smile and uttered, “Chinki.” And then walked away as if he did nothing wrong. I just stood there. Numb. Frozen.
Delhi is notorious for crimes against women, and one could dismiss what I experienced as a gender crime instead of acknowledging the intersectionality of race in that equation. As a young girl, I couldn’t contextualize my experience until years later — when I discovered black feminist writers. Even after learning about the simultaneous discriminations I face due to my overlapping identities of marginalized gender and race, there were moments when I found it difficult to call out racism. There were times when my colleagues or friends would call me ‘Chini/Chinky’ and mock my tiny eyes or accent. Whenever I objected, they’d say it’s just a joke/they love me/lighten up, etc. Sometimes, I would nod along to whatever racist thing they say about me because I didn’t want to cause a scene, even though I felt horrible inside. Just because one is silent about the racism they face, whether she’s six or thirty, doesn’t mean racism should be given a free pass.
Another important factor that we need to remember is that millions of people across the country watched this reality show. The host mentioned that they have been airing such content throughout the season, which means the television channel has been platforming racist content, episode after episode, and normalizing it. Imagine the number of people across the country consuming the racist content and considering it normal and acceptable to mock North-Eastern people around them. We have already seen the huge rise in racial crimes against North-Eastern people during the COVID-19 pandemic, with slurs like ‘Corona’, ‘Chinese virus’ repeatedly used to mock and attack us. Before that, we have also lost many lives, including Nido Tania, Loitam Richard, and Reingamphi Awungshi. Racial slurs and mockery led to some of these murders. Despite these tragedies, are we now going to accept the platforming of racist content on national television in the grab of humor?
We need to remember here that there are no legal remedies in the Indian Penal Code for racism. India still doesn’t have an anti-racial discrimination law, despite being a signatory of the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination adopted in 1965. The plea of civil society organizations and activists to enact such a law has gone unanswered for decades. In the absence of laws, the only way we can fight racism is by standing together and raising awareness; and that involves becoming better allies.
Whenever I’ve shared instances of racism on social media, I have been lucky to receive solidarity from various quarters. It uplifts my spirit to know that so many allies are with us in this fight. But there are also times when some of this allyship does more harm than good.
Let me expand on this with two examples. Instead of listening to our lived experiences, the allies hijack the conversation, leaving us out from our very own narratives. Any discussion about racism would always have some allies commenting how amazing/good-hearted northeastern people are. While their intentions are pure, such comments, in my opinion, are a disservice to the movement. It irks me fundamentally because the fight is for us to be seen and recognized as regular people; not to be put on a pedestal or demonized. It is very similar to how women want to be treated as full human beings instead of being deified as goddesses or objectified. Like all humans, the north-eastern people are also complex human beings with elements of good and bad. The hyperbole whitewashes it entirely and robs us of a chance to be seen as normal. So treat us as you would treat anyone in your circle – as regular human beings deserving of dignity.
It is true that racism won’t be weeded out in a day. But if we are to ever see a non-racist society, each of us has a huge role to play. Let’s ensure we do it the right way.
Angellica Aribam is a political activist working on issues of race, gender, and democratisation of politics. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.