Trigger Warning: Discussions of Asian hate and racism, mentions of shootings in America.
Following the recent Atlanta shooting that costed the lives of eight Asians, I felt incredibly disoriented and troubled. It reminded me of the 2017 shooting on Telugu men and the more recent attacks in 2019. Try Guys released a video addressing the hate and spoke for the entire community of Asians.
I broke down. I couldn’t believe this is 2021, and racism still exists in its brutal and blatant ways.
Usually, everyone is quick to dismiss it as just another violent crime and then defend themselves as ‘not so racist’. But it really got me thinking about whether we all carry some level of racial bias. Were we, subconsciously, perpetuating racism? Was I, and my community, any different from others? And if so, how can we learn to combat it?
Implicit Biases and What That Means
We all carry implicit biases, i.e., unconscious judgements that we may not express but definitely imply.
As an Indian, I have seen these biases play out subtly and sometimes explicitly. The most evident one is seen through our marital system. We, shamelessly, look for fair, tall, slim, and rich people belonging to the same caste and religion.
But of course, not everyone is so regressive in their thoughts. There are some great ways I have seen people respond to these issues.
A woman in our family friends circle was telling me about her friend’s daughter. The daughter dated her African-American classmate during an exchange semester in the US. The two broke up, but the news of their relationship reached everyone. Dating wasn’t necessarily a new term, especially for Indians in Australia.
She continued, “Her mother was not okay with it. She threatened suicide if her daughter didn’t break up. I stopped her and said that these mistakes happen. It was just an affair.”
Anyone who heard this would assume she rightfully explained to her friend. That it was only a ‘mistake’, not infatuation like the other kids in our circle had. That it was only ‘an affair’, not a relationship like they were in.
But of course, ‘we’re very forward-minded.’
When Meghan Markle revealed that there were conversations in the royal family regarding Archie’s skin tone during the Oprah interview, many Indians called out the anti-racism on their socials.
How hypocritical, though. That skin tone is still a major factor in deciding our life partners. Before we jump in to say that it doesn’t happen in our families, let’s try and introspect.
Think of the last marriage in your family. Of the alliances that were finalised, how many of them were people who were a complexion darker than the groom or bride? Especially when it comes to the bride’s skin tone.
“But it’s just a preference in marriage. It does not mean we’re racist.”
“A slight preference or bias is like a few milliseconds where you can decide if you’re going to shoot someone or not. If you’re going to call someone for a job interview or not. If a doctor or a nurse spends extra few minutes with a patient.”
— Dr Nilanjana Dasgupta, Prof. of Social Psychology.
Loving to Hate India: The NRI Story
It’s been 73 years since our independence, but the British ruled India for 200 years. Whether we like to admit it or not, the inferiority complex is deep-rooted in our society to this day.
Growing up in the Gulf, I never understood why relatives back in India had an intense dislike for NRIs. Middle-Eastern culture, though distinct in its ways, is quite similar to Indian culture. So, I still retained most of the traditions that people followed back home. It was only after coming to Australia I understood why.
Everything is whitewashed.
The comments by my cousin on the Indian accent. The constant comparison by uncles and aunties between Australia and India in every damn conversation. Parents encouraging their kids to speak English at home. All of this while conveniently flaunting Indian culture in front of their white friends.
I recall many incidents; when I was forced to remove my earrings and anklets, change into ‘normal’ clothes after visiting the temple, because we had to go to a public park after. Or when family friends were ridiculing their Indian colleague, calling him ‘disgusting’, for eating idli with his hand at work.
NRIs left the country and moved abroad to find a better life for their family. And I realise the struggle in having to adapt quickly to better assimilate into the Australian society. It wasn’t only about the chance of settling in this country but also about being accepted by it. In that process, many of them aided the racist stereotypes, and slowly, became a part of it and passed that on to their kids.
‘You Shut Up. You Don’t Stay Here.’
There is a sense of extreme patriotism for some Indians back home, and rightfully so. But it’s when they despise the ones moving abroad, going to the extent of blaming them for the economic state in India. The hypocrisy shows when the same people glorify English over regional languages and prefer light-skinned individuals over others. Or when they use racially derogatory terms against Northeast Indians, and don’t consider them as Indians simply because they look like Southeast Asians.
Priyanka Chopra was lauded for representing India in the international space. But when she announced her marriage to Nick Jonas, her achievements and her nationality did not matter anymore. The hate poured in from Indians with comments such as:
“She couldn’t find anyone in India or what?”
“What’s wrong with us (brown people)?”
“Because of people like you, we lose our culture.”
“Gold Digger. Social Climber.”
Recognising White Privilege
How could I not address 30% of my audience?
From what I’ve seen, I feel the current generation is less prejudiced against different races. At least, I’d like to believe so. I hope you all really understand the effort expatriates and international students put in to learn the language and the culture.
So, if you ever got annoyed by their accent, or worse, mocked them for their English skills, I would like to just leave this here;
“If you’ve ever mocked someone’s accent or been angered by what they’re saying, just know that a person who is trying their best to communicate with their second, third, or even fourth language, is far more impressive than your ignorance to anything outside of basic English.”
— Eugene Lee Yang
However, it’s the slight undertones of racial stereotypes. The number of times I have been called ‘exotic’, ‘law-abiding’, ‘traditional’, ‘reserved’, ‘smart’, ‘good at computers.’ The worst part of it is that it’s meant to be a compliment.
When you attribute a quality or personality trait to a race, it is still stereotyping. When you attribute a specific skill to a race, it is still disregarding their knowledge and years of accomplishments.
And no, it is not just ‘harmless’ language.
Recently, the Federal Treasurer of Australia, Josh Frydenberg, made demeaning references to Indian culture in an attempt to criticise the opposition leader’s idea of a wellbeing-budget.
“I was thinking yesterday, as the member for Rankin, [came] into the chamber fresh from his Ashram deep in the mountains of the Himalayas … barefoot into the chamber, robes flowing, incense burning, beads in one hand, wellbeing budget in the other, I thought to myself: ‘[what] yoga position the member for Rankin would assume … to deliver the first wellbeing budget?’”
It is frustrating to hear people justify it as ‘only a counter remark to the opposition’. If so, why is Indian culture the butt of the joke? This aspect of our culture has already been appropriated, re-branded as ‘hippie culture’, yet mocked for being pretentious and unscientific.
Language f*cking matters.
Overcoming Implicit Bias & Subtle Racism
“It’s hard for me to think otherwise because I’ve been brought up like this.”
Yes, upbringing can shape your implicit biases. But you cannot excuse yourself by saying that you cannot challenge these biases in a time where resources and information are readily available. You still have the freedom to make the choice of who you hang out with, what kind of shows or movies you watch, what you read, who your friends are, and so on.
So, don’t tell me you cannot do so.
The first step is to acknowledge that everyone, yes everyone, has subconscious racial biases. We may not be racist, but we may be complicit in it. How do we challenge these?
Have these difficult conversations with your community.
The next time someone says something with a slight racist undertone, point it out to them.
Don’t outright judge them, but have that talk. Where is that coming from? Why does that stereotype exist in their mind? Do you also feel the same? You don’t have to wait until the opportunity presents itself. Bring up the topic of Asian hate in your conversations with your friends and family. It has to start from within. Before we engage other communities in these talks, we need to first have these discussions with ours.
Expand Your Content or Social Circle
This is something I personally believe in. Make conscious decisions to engage with people from outside your community. i.e., your race, class, and caste circles. I understand it can be difficult, but I found volunteering is probably the best way to do so. If that is not accessible to you, you could diversify your content. Pick a genre or theme you enjoy, and find shows or movies from different countries and languages. You could apply the same for finding new YouTubers and influencers.
Anthony Thompson, Author of a Perilous Path, posed three questions to address and challenge our thinking. Today, I urge everyone who is reading this to really try and reflect on these.
From what you read today,
- What are you going to do differently?
- What are you going to continue doing?
- And what are you going to stop doing?
As the world grows smaller, it is more important than ever to familiarise ourselves with different cultures, learn to speak respectfully, and practice empathy. Because somewhere, I still believe and hope that the cycle of racism and prejudice, at least in our families, can end with us.