As I lugged my bag through the flight corridor, the man sitting on the aisle seat looks up and asks, “Are you from Singapore?”
Not knowing whether I should respond, I resigned myself to a simple “no” and moved on to find my seat.
Why didn’t I say anything to him? Was I scared that he might get offended with the sarcastic remark I held myself back from saying? Maybe he just didn’t know better. But why was that my problem?
All of this was just too normalised for me. Later on, I realised that even if I had said something, I would have got the same old response: “We don’t mean any harm. Just take it casually.”
So, I took it casually.
I didn’t know there was something wrong with the way I pronounced words in Hindi until I shifted to Jaipur, Rajasthan, in 2009. At school, I could hear those hushed giggles and soft murmurs about me, the new girl who had an accent. I was told “It’s ladki, not larki.”
Questions during group projects were mostly like “What is the capital of Agartala?”, “Why are your names so weird?”, “Is everyone poor there?” and “What do you eat back at home?”
I would get so anxious during lunch hour because of what I carried in my tiffin box. I was ostracised for bringing steamed rice dumplings because they didn’t look anything like the food in other boxes. One day, I came home and asked my mother to just give me the usual roti and sabzi.
At the age of 13, racism doesn’t just function overtly through violence – it manifests in other insidious ways. When you have to stop bringing your favourite food to school, you start questioning yourself – was I really an outsider? What if the things they are talking about are true? Are people from the Northeast poor because there is no representation? Am I inferior just by the virtue of hailing from a particular region of our country that others don’t care to educate themselves about?
When I moved to Delhi for college and found familiar faces in my class, I thought to myself, “Finally, I can fit in a little bit”, only to be rejected by the same group.
Since I had grown up in Jaipur, I had come to terms with the racist comments and made some friends, I somehow didn’t belong to the Northeastern group. I supposedly didn’t understand their troubles anymore because I wasn’t experiencing them for the first time. I was friends with the “rest of the mainland”.
While I recognised the students from that group as my own, they didn’t recognise me.
Interestingly, I learnt that discrimination is not a threat that can only be posed by the people outside your ethnic group, it also manifests through micro-aggressions that you can face from within.
“Ey, chinki (a racist slur)!”
“Haha, but you’re not really from the Northeast.”
“Go back to where you came from.”
“You don’t get us. You’re friends with them.”
“You must be a Chinese spy.”
“You don’t know enough about the Northeast to be called one.”
“Can you please ask your relatives to get our plate of momos (steamed dumplings) faster?”
While oscillating between two different sides, neither of which considered me a part, I found myself asking, “Who am I if I don’t belong to any group?”
But whenever I would tell them how hurtful their statements were, they would ask me to learn how to take jokes.
It took me a long time to negotiate with my identity. I understood that I didn’t need any validation from anyone – I didn’t need to fit a mould. I am a member of the Tipra community who grew up outside the Northeast after primary school. Therefore, I don’t completely fit into a single culture – the Northeast in itself is a mosaic of different cultures. I am a hybrid of different practices, routines, rituals, and cultures. And that should not be the reason to dismiss my experiences.
It is unfortunate that a lot of people think that these remarks should be taken casually. Moreover, it is upsetting how so many of us have it inculcated in us to not talk about it lest we want them to tell us that we do not know how to take jokes well. Apparently, I am supposed to take a comment like “for a chinki, you’re really pretty” as a joke and not think much about it. There is a direct correlation between the remarks that people pass and the atmosphere of inclusion/exclusion that they create.
Fortunately or unfortunately, at 23, I am now in a position where I can look back at the flight incident and the ones that happened before that – and negotiate with them. But it may not be the same for others – and it shouldn’t. The onus of integration shouldn’t entirely lie on the shoulders of bright-eyed individuals who venture outside the Northeast to seek more opportunities. Asking people to take it easy and that they are being too sensitive is ignorant as everyone’s lived realities are not the same. We cannot tell people who they are and who they are not.
A lot of people do not realise that language is extremely political and has the power to perpetuate narratives that can make or break experiences of people. In my opinion, being aware of your language around your friends from minority communities can be a good start to make them feel welcome. Still, if you have questions, it is always good to ask politely without making it seem like a condescending comment.
Discrimination is not a simple structure that can be tackled through easy steps – it’s a matrix of intersecting power structures. As long as we are respectful towards others’ experiences, we will keep inching closer towards an empathetic and inclusive society.
Featured image credit: @eutahm/Unsplash
Shayari Devbarman is an alumni of IIM Ahmedabad (batch of 2019). She is currently a manager at AB InBev.