Face matters : The roots of racism

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Image Courtesy : Hindustan Times

The Times of India had once quoted a North-Eastern girl- “When I wear salwar kameez people stare. If I wear shorts they say ‘she is ill-mannered’. No matter what we wear people always comment”.

Another article went on to write ‘ …Whatever we wear, our face does not allow us to gel with the so-called average Indian look.’

These two statements certainly go on to bring forth the identity issues and our facial construct. One day while conversing with a good friend who had completed his studies in Pune and Uttaranchal, happened to say, “You know, I was pretty fortunate that way and did not ever face racial or facial discrimination. In Maharashtra, they thought I was a Marathi whereas, in Gharwal, they thought I was a pahadi thanks to my features”. This statement speaks volumes as racism on the reverse racism that has incoherently become a fixture in the Indian mindset. Many of our youth who have gone out to study or work, have faced the brunt of racism. Being called a Momo or Chinky or Chowmein, just due to facial features.

This doesn’t spare us from not being racist too! Many have termed this as reverse racism, but when ‘they’ are a minority, we have to mention this as racism. How easily we brand all South Indians as Madrasis or a person hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Rajasthan as Bhaiyas. These roots of racism are son instilled in our very DNA that even when we try our best to remove it, it inevitably finds its way out and creates an atmosphere of jeer, hate and suspicion. I hate to see our people in the hills categorize and call themselves by the community they belong to but refer to the ‘plainsman’ as Indians. Let us all not forget that we all are Indians and when we refer ‘them’ differently, we legitimize ‘their’ claim as the sole inheritor of the Indian citizenship.

Many theories regarding the concept of the face have been well established. Helen Spencer-Oatay in one of her papers has exhibited the dialectic balance on the theory of identity and face. She suggests that face has a multifaceted phenomenon, but could also have a unitary concept. It has cognitive foundations and yet it is socially constituted in interactions and lastly, a face may belong to an individual yet it could be construed as a collective and implies to interpersonal relationships. It’s the face that has become a matter of concern.

Recently, a trailer of a film Axone (probably pronounced Akhuni) was released. It went viral especially in the northeast. People were ecstatic. They felt happy that their existence was being represented in mainstream media. Reading the posts on social media, some also had a problem with Sayani Gupta (having slightly Mongoloid features) being cast as one of the main protagonists and not someone from the North East. Well, isn’t that racism? Whatever is said and done, the same discussion took place when Priyanka Chopra played the role of Mary Kom. Yes, it could have been done, but there were probably no takers of the role and the marketability of the film demanded it. Racism then takes a serious turn.

Nobody complained when a Maharashtrian Deepika Padukone played the role of Rani Padmavati (who was a Rajasthani) or Aishwarya Rai, a Manglorean, played the role of Jodha in Jodha Akbar. The question then stands as to why we become touchy and proclaim that the role of a North Eastern girl (having the attributes of typical facial features) has to be played by someone from our area?

Having said that, mainstream India (having the so-called Indian facial features) has somewhat negated the fact or looked down on the people of North East. The facial features not only give them a certain look that could be mistaken for Chinese or Korean but also attach to them to a certain list of values and practices. This has become even more dangerous in recent times.

The women are casually termed ‘loose’, ‘available’ and ‘easy’, and the men are termed as ‘hard headed’, ‘hostile’ and ‘hot headed’. They are known to eat certain foods which are generally smelly and consume all types of meat. In this atmosphere of lynching (for eating beef), this type of ‘general’ mindset could bring about a next level of lynching as our youth is now scattered all over India. There have often been outbursts and hostility among people in a certain locality against the North East people just because of their looks (i.e. facial appearance). Yet, we only call foul and there is actually nothing much that can be done in this regard till the mentality of the general mass changes, which I think would be difficult in this right wing resurgent India. I really fear that the next level of lynching would be religion based facial tagging, considering that many of our people in the North East states do not necessarily practice the institutionalized religion prevalent in the majority of Indians.

All said and done, we do feel that times are changing and changing fast. But, has the globalized corporate world changed? Many of the corporate giants recruit people of certain physical and facial feature for special types of jobs. In Delhi, I once heard some corporates telling me that- ‘You know the hotel and tourism industry prefer youths from NE for their servile nature’. Well, I was shocked as someone had just referred to North East youth as being hot-headed and hostile. Whatever it may be, the misreadings continue. Once upon a time, I had heard a similar thing for people from Kerala who made good nurses or teachers in the Middle East.

Face is what an individual inherits in his genes, over which there is no control and this, sometimes become a matter of concern. I close this piece with a simple quote by Heinrich Zimmer, a German Indologist- “…not only our actions but also our omissions have become our destiny”. The rest is for us to decipher and untie the threads of racism and reverse racism that prevails.

By Satyadeep S Chettri. The writer is a regular columnist and can be contacted at satyazworld@gmail.com )

NB: Views/Opinions expressed in the article or write up is purely of the author or writer. For any queries or contradictions, the author can be contacted in his/her email id.

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