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While We Condemn The Racist Air China Advisory, Let's Look In The Mirror Ourselves

There have been way too many public incidents of ugly racism on display in India in recent years.

08/09/2016 1:04 PM IST | Updated 08/09/2016 1:06 PM IST
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The tail fin of an Air China Ltd. aircraft is seen at Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport in Shanghai, China, on Tuesday, March 15, 2016.

As a piece of copy it's so blatantly racist it's mind-boggling it passed through the eyes of any editor with an iota of common sense.

Air China's inflight magazine Wings of China's travel feature on visiting London contains this delightful advisory that's raising eyebrows and hackles all over the world with its "tip" to those visiting that city. In Mandarin and in English.

"London is generally a safe place to travel, however, precautions are needed when entering areas mainly populated by Indians, Pakistanis, and black people."

That might (or might not) include London's new mayor of Pakistani origin, Sadiq Khan. The magazine also advises tourists not to go out alone at night and women to always be accompanied by another person.

"London is generally a safe place to travel, however, precautions are needed when entering areas mainly populated by Indians, Pakistanis, and black people."

It's so ludicrous one would think Donald Trump, the master of sweeping stereotypes, moonlights as the editor of Air China's inflight magazine Wings of China when he's not running his presidential campaign.

Predictably the little snippet, first spotted by CNBC journalist Haze Fan is drawing cries of outrage, and not just from bristling politicians in London.

Columnist Tarek Fatah jumped on the opportunity to needle Pakistan tweeting "Pakistan considers China its best friend, but this is what China thinks of Paks!" Novelist Hari Kunzru writes "Air China a)racist idiots and b)Sorry we are all over the city." Bollywood star Farhan Akhtar exclaims "WTF..!!! Air China.. Really??"

The racist stereotyping is so naked, there's not much wiggle room there for Air China. And it's not the only instance. The Washington Post writes about a racist Chinese ad where a Chinese woman lures a paint-stained African man towards her, pops a detergent capsule in his mouth, bundles him into a washing machine. A freshly-laundered Chinese man emerges from the washing machine. The Post's Kanishk Tharoor calls the ad "shockingly racist" and "callous".

But while two wrongs can never make a right, this should also be a little wake-up moment for us desis. When it comes to racism towards either blacks or for that matter the Chinese, desis are not that far behind.

There have been way too many public incidents of ugly racism on display in India in recent years and they have resulted in physical violence on the ground not just stupid travel tips in in-flight magazines. Even worse there has been way too much official whitewashing of the racism all around.

When a mob shouting "Go back to Africa" attacked a village in Chhatarpur outside Delhi with cricket bats, rods and bricks, Delhi police chief Alok Verma refused to see any racist angle in the attack. VK Singh, the minister for external affairs blasted the media for "blowing up a minor scuffle as an attack of African nationals".

After a Sudanese man was involved in a traffic accident in Bengaluru, an angry crowd attacked a random Tanzanian woman who had nothing to do with the accident. MEA spokesperson Vikram Swarup tweeted "this should be seen as an isolated incident."

Chhatarpur. Bengaluru. Vasant Kunj. Khirki Extension. All "isolated incidents" that remain isolated incidents only because of our steadfast refusal to connect the dots.

READ: Former Goa Chief Minister Wants Nigerians To Be Banned From Entering India

The difference is the Chinese magazine just dubbed the black and brown as unsafe without giving any reason. We hide our racism behind a plethora of excuses – drugs, loud music, prostitution, women in skimpy clothes.

And it's not just about Africans either. Indians do not treat the Chinese much better. To date, the several thousand Chinese picked up for no reason during the 1962 Indo-China war and shoved into Deoli internment camp for years have received no explanation, no apology, no compensation. They languished in the camp for 3-4 years for a war that lasted a few weeks. No one was charged with spying for enemy either. Their only crime was being Chinese in India.

1962 might be ancient history but north-easterners still face the brunt of casual racism all over India, routinely treated as foreigners in their own country

Indians do not treat the Chinese much better. To date, the several thousand Chinese picked up for no reason during the 1962 Indo-China war and shoved into Deoli internment camp for years have received no explanation, no apology, no compensation.

Just recently a Manipuri woman shared an indignant Facebook post about how an immigration officer in Delhi asked her "Pakka Indian ho?" with a smirk.

Not that long ago a young woman from Manipur was allegedly slapped and dragged by her hair in a market in Mumbai because she confronted a man who spat on her. "It is shameful when communal incongruity is practiced in our state. Why are those who appear different and whose eyes appear slanted, called Chinese with sarcasm?" asks Ningreikhan Wungkhai in Youth ki Awaaz.

Even businesses trade in these stereotypes. Flipkart just acknowledged it might have "unintentionally hurt" sentiments by "innocent humour" in an ad that the Gorkha Youth and Students' Association said "stereotypes us as being chowkidars, with overly-exaggerated and highly offensive Hindi accent."

These are just the stories that make the news because of the violence involved. None of it includes the casual racist slurs, "chinky", "chow chow" and "hubshi", the difficulties of getting rentals, or even non-payment of salaries. Alana Golmei of the North Eastern Support Centre and Helpline tells Al Jazeera the helpline receives 20-30 calls a month, mostly related to salaries not being paid. She says "When we call the employers, most of them are in Haryana so they say, 'I am Haryanvi. I am a local man. You are an outsider, what can you do?'"

It's only when a Nido Tania is killed in a Delhi marketplace that a committee is set up to create awareness and understanding between people from the north-east and other parts of India.

While the Chinese magazine's travel advisory is cringeworthy, one of the reasons why it stings so much, is that it does not come from the usual quarters. In the hierarchy of racism we know the colour code.

We expect racism and racist stereotyping in the Great White bastions, whether it's a Donald Trump rally or the casting studios of Hollywood. It's convenient to pretend racism flows one way, from those historically at the top of the pecking order to those stacked below. That's why it catches us off guard when a Chinese magazine directs its racial stereotyping at us so blatantly.

Wings of China certainly deserves to have its wings clipped. But even as we puff up in righteous anger about racism, it would do us all good, if we looked in the mirror at ourselves as well.

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