New Delhi: On 21 March 1960, thousands gathered outside the local police station in Sharpeville, South Africa, challenging the police to arrest them for being without the pass books, or dompas, they were meant to produce on demand. The police opened fire on the unarmed crowd, killing 69 and injuring 180. The extreme human rights violation led to the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination being observed annually on this day.
White minority rule finally collapsed in South Africa in 1994. Two years later, the country’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, signed a new constitution in the very same place. But while the world reels under the impact of coronavirus, one thing that the pandemic has made clear is that the world still has a long way to go before overcoming racism.
From an advertisement for “Corona pizza” to US President Donald Trump calling COVID-19 a “horrible Chinese virus“, the virus and the panic it has caused has led to racist comments the world over. In India, where very often people from the Northeastern states are anyway mistaken for or lazily lumped as Chinese, the pandemic has only made things worse. The Centre had to recently issue an advisory to all states to not engage in racially discriminatory behaviour towards people from the Northeast.
But coronavirus is just the trigger for something that is not new. And the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is a good time to examine how our attitudes haven’t changed.
India’s obsession with skin colour
A couple of months ago, when Hardik Pandya announced his engagement to Serbian model Natasha Stankovic, Indians showed their true colours. The couple’s social media feeds were flooded with racially tainted comments on Pandya’s skin tone.
In February 2019, Bollywood actor Esha Gupta, who claims to be an Arsenal fan, shared a screenshot of a WhatsApp conversation with a friend in which the latter mocked the team’s Nigerian star Alexander Iwobi, as a “gorilla” and “Neanderthal” who “evolution had stopped for”. The actress captioned it with “Hahaha” when she shared the screengrab with her three million-plus Instagram followers. Gupta later apologised, but the damage was done.
It isn’t limited to celebrities making jokes. From attacking Nigerian students to casual jokes about habshis to the massive market for fairness creams and the language and imagery used in their advertisements, racism runs deep in India. Many still see Northeastern Indians as outsiders with questionable eating habits, while everyone south of the Vindhyas is a ‘Madrasi’, and a fair-skinned ‘Madrasi’ is still seen as a surprise.
The Global ‘Parasite’
When Parasite became the first foreign language movie to win Best Picture and Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, Donald Trump echoed what many felt — how could an Asian director win at an American awards show? He went on to say he preferred the 1939 classic Gone With The Wind, a movie set during the American Civil War.
Prejudices against Asians and black people have existed globally for years, and from employment to representation in popular culture, the graphs are terribly skewed. One look at the history of the Oscars reveals that in 90 years and 3,000 awards, only 36 African-Americans have won there.
It took a Black Panther for blacks to finally feel represented in their entirety, in a highly commercial movie, without any whitewashing, after decades of being the sidekick to the superhero. Marvel, the company who was responsible for the epic superhero movie, also had Tilda Swinton play an originally Asian character in Doctor Strange in 2016. And her sidekick, you guessed it right, was again a black guy, played by the critically-acclaimed actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor who played Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave (2013).
Closer home, Bollywood is no better. From the iconic song Hawa Hawai in 1987’s Mr India where blacks are used comic props, to Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion (2008) in which Priyanka Chopra’s downfall hits home when she wakes up after having spent the night with a black man, racism blatantly rules representation. The critically-acclaimed 2016 film Raman Raghav 2.0 had Vicky Kaushal visit a Mumbai chawl to get his drugs from black-skinned Africans. Earlier, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey, Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan and Rohan Sippy’s Dum Maaro Dum also portrayed blacks as drug dealers.
The Sharpeville shooting took place almost 50 years ago, but racism hasn’t disappeared. While we accept the #SafeHands challenge with enthusiasm, it’s time to sanitise our attitude towards race, too.
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