As protests erupt in America, over the injustices inflicted on black lives after the institutional murder of George Floyd, we are finally forced to look closer home for similar patterns of racism. In the time of COVID-19, there have been several cases of rampant discrimination against the north-eastern community. They have been spat on, denied entry into shops, expelled from rented apartments and abused on grounds of internalised racist assumptions around the virus.
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, racism by the “mainland” continues. While these outbursts are blatant representations of skewed power relations, they are part of a larger, more permanent structure, which has existed for much longer. The disregard for the plight the northeastern community faces is reflected in the kinds of State policies, the lack of redressal mechanisms or even institutional acknowledgement of their particular struggles.
While there are finally conversations around the systemic and institutional racism that exists in our own country, it is important to introspect and check our privilege in the everyday. When we start looking for their stories, it comes barely as a surprise that their voices are muffled amongst the clamour of noises. As we look even closer and locate the north-eastern women in this matrix, we realise that their daily struggles in the “mainland” are barely recorded.
What kind of stereotypes do they have to deal with? What struggles do they face on a daily basis? How do they feel in public spaces?, are all questions we as feminists need to pay closer attention to.
In an attempt to amplify their experiences, I spoke to north-eastern women studying in Chennai about their struggles. Ila, a north-eastern woman from Nagaland, described how every member of her family was confronted with various racist comments,
“Recently, I booked an Ola and the guy asked if I was from China. When there was the COVID outbreak and I was sick, one of my friends asked me if I got “my country’s disease.” And I told him I’m not from China and he started telling me how I’m being very sensitive. When my mom was flying from Bangalore to Chennai, the passenger sitting next to her asked her if she was from Wuhan. The passenger also asked her why she was flying to Chennai and even when my mom explained it was for a meeting, the lady gave her a dumbfounded expression because she was shocked that anyone from the northeast could attain such a high position in a good company and work with them for so many years.”
Having done her schooling also in Chennai, Ila talked about the extensive racial discrimination she faced right from a young age, “People used to say I’m from Korea or call me chinky-chinky, moshi-moshi, ching chong. Even teachers used to say things like “call that Chinese/Japanese/chinky girl” or “don’t you have a Korean girl in your class.” When I was in class 7, people from class 3 or 4 used to call out and say, “look at that Chinese girl” and they would come out of their class and look at me like I’m a different creature.”
She further says that she did not consider it a struggle because it was very normalised. “Now it’s shameful and hurtful. But why I’d normalised it was because of my cousins and other people from my community who also kept telling me that they face the same things. I ended up believing that people from the northeast are supposed to go through this at least once in their lifetime because it’s a normal process.” It is particularly frustrating when Ila has to explain that she is from Nagaland, a state in India, and not a foreigner. The perception surrounding tribal people is even more problematic, “When I say I’m from Nagaland, people often ask if I eat this meat or do witchcraft or if we have cannibalistic rituals and practices even now. They fail to acknowledge that it’s a part of our culture and tradition and when we point that out, they tell us to take their jokes in a light-hearted manner.”
North-eastern women also have to deal with stereotypes and perception related to them. Muni* from Assam says that, “There is the perception that northeast women only know how to dress up. They only have the knowledge to put two and two together. They only know fashion, they don’t know anything else, they are dumb. That’s what I’ve grown up listening to.”
Apart from having to deal with “jokes” and casual racist comments, these kinds of internalisation of stereotypes takes a mental toll as well. Ila adds, “For me, studying in a prestigious institute is not just about me. Coming from the northeast and Nagaland, I have to carry the weight of representing my community. Some basic stereotypes that we have to deal with are that we are dumb, we only know how to dress, and we have very poor English. I do have an inferiority complex because ever since I was a kid, the belief that we are inferior to the other mainland Indian people has been reinforced. This is reflected in public participation. I often feel like I’ll never be good enough and people won’t listen to what I have to say because it’s not intellectual enough.”
These instances of “casual” racism are not isolated instances. It has led to systemic racism and institutionalised validation of such practices. It is firmly rooted in a larger structure which has been created by lopsided power relations. A structure which makes abuse a daily affair for several north-eastern women, one which results in the branding of north-eastern women as “easy,” and one which treats patterns of structural violence as isolated incidents.
The case of Reingamphi, a young woman from a family of rice cultivators in Manipur, who was suspected to have been raped and brutally murdered at her rented accommodation in Chirag Delhi in 2013 or Mary Ezung from Nagaland, who was found dead in Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave are merely two examples. These cases are dismissed as individual cases ignoring the overarching elements of racism and misogyny which perpetuates violence in ways that are targeted specifically against women from the North-East India.
Racism does exist in this country right from the individual level. It’s time we take a long, hard look at the way we treat the marginalised groups and pay attention to their unique struggles. Our feminism needs to provide a platform to all groups who have been historically denied a voice. The time has come for the privileged to pass on the mic to the marginalised.
*name has been changed for anonymity.
Featured Image Source: The Better India