My Country Normalized Racism So Much, I Stopped Thinking It Was Hurtful
People from the Northeast are as much Indians as the people from the rest of the country
I was born in Assam — a state in the northeastern part of India. Aside from Assam, there are six other states in this region — Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Tripura — that are collectively known as “the Seven Sisters.”
Ethnically, the people from the northeastern part of the country have different features from the people in the mainland. We have fairer skin, straight hair, more slender build, and epicanthic folds in our eyes. As the book North-East India: Land, People and Economy makes clear:
“While the original settlers were the Mongoloids, the Indo-Aryan and other groups arrived later. There is undoubtedly a dominance of Mongoloid element in the population of Northeast India.”
Our language, culture, and food habits are unique. Most people don’t grow up speaking Hindi, the most widely spoken language in the country.
More than ethnic and cultural influences, the differences could be attributed to the fact that while a large part of South Asia was ruled by the mighty Mughal dynasty for over 300 years, they were never able to extend their rule to this region. Until the British colonizers annexed Assam to mainland India in 1833, the region was cut off from the rest of the country. This is probably a major reason why the people of this region developed customs and rituals so different from the rest of the country.
Aside from that, when India gained independence in 1947, Assam and the rest of the northeastern states had no direct access to mainland India. There was no rail, road, or river transport to let one travel from this region to the rest of the country without crossing East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Journalist Mrinal Talukdar writes in the book Post Colonial Assam:
“As the entire surface transport was through East Pakistan, there was only air link and only a handful could afford that. The truth remains that for almost three years, 1947–1950, Assam and Northeast India was literally cut off.”
Because of these historical influences, the people from the region are treated as immigrants in their own country. Maybe it’s because we live geographically close to our immediate neighboring country, China, or because of our Mongoloid heritage, the people from the rest of India tend to think of us Northeasterners as “Chinese.”
Add to that a lack of sufficient knowledge about the rituals and culture of the place, and we are made to feel like aliens within our own country.
Why should my looks decide who I identify as?
My country has normalized this casual racism so much, I stopped thinking it was anything to take offense over. Until a few months ago when a conversation with a friend opened my eyes.
I was in New Delhi — the capital of India. This was in January 2020, a few weeks before the coronavirus hit India and shut down normal life as we know it. A female friend and I were walking around one of the poshest malls in the area, admiring the sparkling display clothes and makeup in the shops. A group of five men walked toward us, and from the distance, I could see the flirtatious looks in their eyes.
I ignored them, but when they walked past us, I heard one of them mutter “chinky maal.” Chinky is a racial slur for a Chinese person, named as one of TV’s most offensive words in a 2005 report by The Guardian. Maal translates to “item” in Hindi. It is a common derogatory term used for women in India, loosely referring to her as a sexual object.
I rolled my eyes and walked on, only to realize my friend had stopped in her tracks. She was staring in shock after the men, who had now moved ahead. I walked back to her, grabbed her arm, and led her on.
She asked me how I could tolerate such blatant racism.
For a moment, I’d thought she was offended by the way these men believed they had the right to comment on our bodies. Only later did I understand she was referring to the casual sexism thrown into their remark.
I calmed my friend down and we continued with our day, but her reaction stuck with me.
Why did it take a woman from the southern part of the country to make me realize the racism directed at me?
To be honest, I was so used to being called chinky or Chinese that I never really considered it could be something hurtful. But then again, I am not Chinese. I was born and raised in India. Why should my looks decide who I identify as?
This is not an isolated incident. Every person from the northeastern part of India who has moved to the mainland has dealt with racism in some form. Many Indians are ignorant of the kind of lives we lead — they somehow believe our food habits are exotic, as are our attire and religious beliefs.
Whether it be casual jokes like “When are you returning to your own country?” or jabs at our food habits like “Do you people eat whatever animal you encounter?” it is not easy to identify as a Northeasterner in a country so blinded by internal racism.
The bias got even worse when the pandemic hit the country the hardest. In March 2020, when the authorities declared a countrywide lockdown, the struggle became even harder for people from the Northeast living in other parts of India. Some were asked to vacate their rented houses immediately while others were called names and even spat on. Even though they showed no symptoms of the disease, several Northeasterners were denied entry into shopping malls, and even asked to leave restaurants as their presence was making others uncomfortable. As this April 2020 study by a reputed scholar from the region suggests:
“During the pandemic, the fight by Northeast Indians was with the mindset of the rest of Indians as much as the virus itself. It was a fight not only against the presumption of being ‘non-Indian’ with negative affiliation, or worse ‘unwanted Indians,’ but also to get due recognition and acceptance as equal Indians. The absence of stringent anti-racism laws may have resulted in the pervasiveness of overt acts of racism during the pandemic.”
It is not easy to identify as a Northeasterner in a country so blinded by internal racism.
For me, my achievements and actions are never just about me. Because of my unique identity, I have to constantly carry the weight of representing my community on my shoulders. If I make a mistake, it won’t reflect badly on me as a person but the entire community of people from Northeast India.
Such a mindset can be harmful to a little girl.
When I was younger, I had trouble speaking up in front of large groups of people, especially because my command over Hindi was never strong. Somehow, this ingrained the belief in me that I was inferior to the other mainland Indians. I was already an introvert and this led me to withdraw further into my shell. The words and actions of my country’s people made me feel as if all of this was because there was something inherently wrong with me.
That no matter what I do, I’d never be enough.
With time, I’ve outgrown the shyness and the inferiority complex, but I had also learned to make excuses for the racist attacks I faced.
It’s time I stopped doing that.
If people from the rest of the country are not considerate enough to educate themselves about me and be sensitive with what they say, why should I remain silent and tolerate all the hate they throw at me?
India is my country, and no matter how much I differ from whatever an “ideal” Indian woman should look like, I am still Indian at heart and soul. It is not easy being me, but a little compassion from my countrymen would help a great deal.
People from the Northeast are as much Indians as the people from the rest of the country. Please stop treating us like we are any different from you.