India Needs Greater Sanction Against The Language Of Racist Prejudice

30/05/2016 9:46 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Members of the African Students Association hold placards during a protest in Hyderabad on February 6, 2016, in support of Tanzanian nationals assaulted by a local mob in Bangalore. Indian authorities suspended two policemen and made four more arrests over a mob attack on a Tanzanian student in Bangalore, police said February 5, in a case that has caused widespread outrage. AFP PHOTO / Noah SEELAM / AFP / NOAH SEELAM (Photo credit should read NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI -- On May 20, Masunda Kitada Oliver, a student from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was killed in a dispute over an auto-rickshaw in Delhi. Since then, nationals from Cameroon, Uganda and Nigeria have been attacked in the national capital.

Ten days on, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs V.K. Singh has kicked up a storm by describing the attacks on Nigerian nationals on Thursday as a "minor scuffle," which was being blown out of proportion by the media.

Even if Singh is right, and one of these dreadful episodes is a "minor scuffle," there is no denying that Indians are deeply prejudiced towards nationals of African countries who work and study here. And nothing exposes our racism more than words such as "kalu" (black) and "habshi", an Arabic word used to describe African and Abyssinian slaves, which we use to describe them. This really needs to stop.

In the United States, words such as "negro" and "nigger" were willed out of common parlance by the sheer force of it being frowned upon by society. The fact that terms such as "kalu" and "habshi" are used against Africans, and chinkis" and "momos" are used against persons from the Northeast of India, without any resistance or backlash, goes to show that casual racism is part of our daily life.

In the wake of attacks against persons from the Northeast, last year, the Modi government proposed making any words, signs and gestures, which insult the race of a person, punishable with five years in prison. But Centre is yet to fulfill its promise of outlawing "racial discrimination."

But more than any law, we really need to frown upon our own families and our friends who use derogatory language against nationals from countries in Africa, whether they use it with racial undertones or casually. Only then can we stop seeing them through a singular lense of black, black and black.

Those who dismiss this suggestion as naive, only have to look outside our borders to find examples of how public pressure has been the biggest factor in phasing out offensive language. There are countless examples of celebrities in the West apologizing for making insensitive remarks when they are shamed in public, and everyday people are rethinking and weeding out words and symbols which carry the stench of slavery, colonialism and racism.

To argue that Americans willed words such as "Negro" or "Nigger" because it reminds them of the darkest period of their history and we don't carry the weight of three hundred years of slavery, is to ignore the weight of the still prevalent caste system, and its worst manifestation of untouchability. Prejudice of one sort sanctions another.

Here are some examples of how the world is reacting to words and symbols which reinforce prejudice:

Apple has received grief over the definition of "Bitch" given by Siri, which included “black slang” for women? In December, the definition was prefaced with a tag that says "offensive," instead of "black slang."

British actor Benedict Cumberbatch called himself an “idiot” and a “fool,” and apologized for using the term “colored people.” The correct term to describe people who do not have white skin is “people of color.”

Harvard University decided to remove the term “master” in titles because students protested that its a thrown back to the era of slavery.

Harvard Law School has decided to drop its seal with a crest which belongs to a 18 century slaveholder, who played a key role in the school’s history, but also owned slaves in Massachusetts and treated them cruelly.

The term “uppity” has come under attack in the United States because it was a term that racist southerners used for black people who didn’t know their place. Conservative pundits in the U.S. have used it do describe President Barack Obama and First Lady Michele Obama.

The phrase "sold down the river" has a sinister origin. Slaves belonging to northern states of the United States, who caused trouble, were sold down the river to Mississippi in the South, where conditions were far worse.

The term gyp or gypped, used to describe the act of stealing or defrauding, stems from “Gypsy,” which is commonly used to describe the Romani people. Using it is deeply insulting to them.

Several nursery rhymes and songs have also been traced to back to their racist beginnings which were aimed at mocking African Americans or portraying them as inferior.

One such nursery rhyme, popular the world over used to go: Eenie, meenie, miney moe, Catch an [N-word] by the toe, If he hollers, let him go, Eenie, meenie, miney moe. Instead of the N-word, children now say spider or frog. But should children be singing it at all?

Lyrics of Baa Baa Black Sheep are also believed to have racist connotations. It has been banned in some schools in Australia. In some play schools in India, white sheep and brown sheep have been included to make it racially neutral.

The racist Golliwog dolls, named after a blackface minstrel-like character in Florence Kate Upton and Bertha Upton's 1895 book, have gradually disappeared from toy stores around the world. But these dolls do pop up from time to time. Over Christmas, shoppers in Australia forked up as much as $110 for the “Golliedolls."

Niggardly - is fine!

In 1999, the term "niggardly" set off a nationwide debate about racism in the U.S., when the D.C. Mayor fired his aide over its use. Turns out, the term doesn’t have a racist connotation, but simply means miserly. The D.C. mayor rehired the aide.

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