Why Is India Ignoring The Fact That There Is Actual Racism Here That Goes Beyond Fifty Shades Of Brown Skin?

By Rita Banerji:

I was pleasantly surprised by the loud protests from Indian-Americans when Nina Davuluri was attacked with racist slurs for winning the Miss America title. This is because while living in the US, I found that first and even second-generation Indian-Americans, generally take a submissive approach to racist abuse, and choose to live with it silently. I was often advised by well-meaning “aunties” and “uncles” against resisting or protesting too loudly.

miss america

Still, after the Davuluri incident, some have pointed out that Indians cannot complain about white racism since we ourselves bear such extreme prejudices against darker shades of brown among our own communities! Personally I believe we need to confront both! But what we are not talking about yet, is that there is actual racism in the Indian mindset that goes beyond fifty shades of brown skin!

For example I can’t help wondering, “What if Nina Davuluri was mistakenly identified as African instead of Arab?” In the barrage of protest tweets from Indians would we then have seen some blatantly racist ones too? I put this question to some Indians, and I was told vehemently that Nina could pass for Arab because there are Arab women with darker skin, but there is no way Nina looks African! So I ask, “What if an African woman was mistakenly identified as Indian?” I was smugly told that would still be “American ignorance!”

But the fact is that there are people of mixed African descent who many Indians would assume to be Indian. For example, one of my closest American friends whose family descends from Eritrea (in North Eastern Africa) was baffled when while travelling in India, she was constantly assumed to be Indian, and ‘Eritrea’ was assumed to be a non-descript village in southern India!

But our ignorance and racist assumptions get more amplified when I point out that there are indeed communities in India, that Indians would not only assume to be ‘African’ or ‘Chinese,’ just based on instant appearance, but also treat with extreme prejudice. There are many indigenous Indian communities like the Kondh and Bonda, who have African facial features, and whose faces are conveniently used to eroticize the Indian tourist industry, but who are never accepted as representative of the Indian face, the way Nina Davuluri wants to be representative of the American look. There are also millions of Indians with oriental facial features, yet if you scan the faces in the Indian film, advertisement and television industries, their representation is literally nil! No actors or actresses, no models, and there is only one major Indian television channel with one newscaster from the NE. This is shocking, because this is not a miniscule population in India! There are eight states where majority of the people have oriental features. These include 7 states in the North-east and Sikkim. And there are at least four other states– Bengal, U.P., Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh, where there are substantially large populations of Indians with oriental facial features.Yet, there is no indication that this is also an average ‘Indian look.’ Even more ironically, unlike Nina Davuluri who is from an immigrant family in the U.S., these communities with African and Oriental racial features in India are native to India! Their history and roots trace back 5000 years to the Indus times, as DNA evidence from archaeological sites indicate.

If native Indians with oriental and African facial features are so blatantly excluded, what hope do immigrants have of being embraced as Indian? Oddly, this perhaps is one of the finest examples of India’s inherent racism! The Parsi community, that is far smaller than the other racial communities mentioned, has been whole-heartedly embraced as ‘Indian.’ They are represented in films, advertising, T.V. and indeed Parsi women have been celebrated as the ‘Face of India’ in various beauty pageants. Undoubtedly this is because the Parsis of Iranian origin with their fair, almost white skins, and Caucasian features are much more desirable of being seen as ‘Indian’ than the other races are! There also are immigrants from China in India, who’ve been here 250 years, but even now they are referred to as ‘Chinese,’ and relegated to small corners of newspaper articles hunting for ‘good Chinese restaurants,’ in India.

There are also African immigrants of long in India, who many Indians don’t even know about. A few years ago, I attended a Sidi Goma concert. The Sidis are a community in India whose ancestors it is believed were brought to India from Africa as slaves more than 700 years ago. However, over the centuries the Sidis have lost all touch with Africa and their roots there. Their clothes, food, language, and customs are all local; in the case of this Sidi community I met — Gujarati! The younger musicians talked about the extreme prejudices and isolation they faced growing up, both in their neighbourhood and in the schools, and the constant humiliation they had to tolerate being bombarded with racist slurs like “Habshi” (Nigger!)

How long does it take for an immigrant community to have its face counted as representative of the nation they call home? Isn’t that the question we have asked of Nina Davuluri’s representation as Miss America? Is 700 years enough for the Sidis? Get this: the Sidi Goma group was detained for hours by Indian airport authorities when they tried to leave for a concert tour once. The airport authorities, despite their Indian passports, believed they were illegal Africans in India!

Sometime ago, there were a series of rapes that targeted women from the North-eastern states studying or working in Delhi. Where violence on women is an escalating factor in India, there are factors like caste and race that compounds the threats with prejudices that go beyond gender, and make some women in India even more vulnerable. But even when faced with organized protests from North-eastern communities in Delhi, there was reluctance in the media and in the public in general to acknowledge racism behind these attacks.

It was during this time that I was sitting with some friends and family at a Café that is frequented by college students. There was a group of students at the table next to us, loudly discussing the rapes of the North-Eastern women, in language that was unabashedly racist. One of the men after referring to the oriental facial features of the women in unflattering terms went on to ask why any man would want to rape these women! No one from the group seemed to find this objectionable. People at my table shifted uncomfortably, and pretended like they didn’t hear!

Finally I stood up, and pulled my chair up to the next table, informing the young crowd that since they were speaking loud enough to include me in their conversation, I was joining them too. I then told them, “Listen carefully. I’m going to tell you something that I believe your parents have never discussed with you. And your teachers have never discussed with you. But it is something you need to know. And I promise you, you are not going to forget this for the rest of your life. What you just said about these women, your fellow citizens, was not just sexist, it was racist. If you deny it, that will make you racist too. If you can accept it and change the way you speak and think, it will make you a healthier human being.” There was a stunned silence, some feeble protests and the group quickly paid their bills and left immediately after. But what I know is that they will never forget that little chat.

What I hope from the Davuluri incident is that Indians will find in this the motivation to turn the mirror inward and examine our own national conscience for the deeply entrenched racism that mars us. And as a little step in that direction I’ll advise this little exercise to all Indians (and non-Indians) reading this. Click on the photo montage below to see the beautiful slide show of Indian women. And as you see each face say it aloud, “She is the Face of India!



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  1. tulika 3 years ago

    As we know vast number of skin-whitening products promoted by Indian celebrities, and it quickly becomes clear that india is fairness obssessed country.
    And higher no. of population in India want fair life partner as well as fair people get more attention as compare to darker . It is a real shame and true reflection of our hypocrisy when it comes to embracing our true identities and flaunting our nationalist fervour.untry is obsessed with fair skin.

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  2. Prashant Kaushik 3 years ago

    Your article is indeed good. Wonder why it didn’t receive any comment so far. Every sentence ignited thoughts and snapshots from my own memoirs.
    But I would like to add few thought here.

    1) Not every act of classification should be called Racism.

    eg. A lot of people complain that calling someone is Chinki is racism. That is wrong. In common laymen language. Chinki could be someone who has those oriental nature. We may call someone as Chinki but that is not an act of racism. Racism would be undermining his ability because of belonging to a particular region. We may call north easterners as Chinki, but we never have a superiority complex over them. Similarly a north Indian may call a dark skinnned person ‘Madrasi’ but that is not equivalent to undermining them. ( Remember Prashant Tamang who become a celebrity in Indian Idol )
    We have no objection, not even remotely, if a ‘Chinki’ or ‘Madrasi’ works or eats or sits with us. Infact we go along well and make good friends in Train, offices etc. This is different than the Racism which existed in European countries where they believed themselves to be far superior than Blacks. ( heared about White Man’s burden ? )

    2) Stereotyping is not limited to Actresses alone.

    Most of Bollywood heroes have very light facial hairs and hairless chests. Compare this with the northern plains like Haryana, Delhi, UP etc where mostly men have thin beard and lot of Body hairs. Infact you will never find, a hairy, bearded, bald man as hero. Rather they are often depicted as Goons. So would you say racism exist here also. Well there is thin line. I think its more of stereotyping, preferences, lack of imagination and less of racism. Times are slowly changing. ( see Vinay Pathak now getting some lead roles )

    We need to get out of stereotyping.
    We need to think that beauty exist beyond “Fair and Western”.

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  3. Truth Seeker 3 years ago

    it is boorish, self-righteous and shockingly ignorant iidiots like prashant kaushik who are stuck in the dinosaur age that bring ill-repute to india’s multicultural identity. calling an east-asian featured person ‘chinkey’ is racist because the word has negative connotations. any north-easterner will feel extremely uncomfortable hearing that word used on him or her. ill give you an comparable example to elucidate this point. does kaushik know that for example in the upper regions of nepal, migrants from bihar and UP are often sometimes called ‘dhotis’? what’s so bad about that term? one might ask. hill people in nepal don’t wear dhotis. plainspeople do. the hill people are simply using a sartorial marker to distinguish two populations. if you ask any bihari migrant to kathmandu and even nepalis of plains’ origin, you will find that they consider term ‘dhoti’ to be highly offensive. if you as an indian went to kathmandu and are called a dhoti, you’ll squirm and curse under your teeth. you’ll even pick up a fight.

    the lesson i am trying to convey here is it is not from the perspective of the user that the racist or non-racist connotation of a term is determined. ask a north-eastern how he or she feels about your using that term ‘chinkey’ before you decide whether or not it is racially offensive.

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  4. Rita Banerji 3 years ago

    Prashant, The racism in India is worse than in the west, because we are smug and self-righteous about it. It doesn’t embarrass it and yet if Indians were to be called “blackie” or “brownie” (like you think “Chinki” is ok) in a western country, or if Davuluri is called racist names because she won a title we feel entitled to get angry! That’s either hypocrisy or it is a complete absence of any kind of conscience. I hope it’s just unawareness and that enough conversations like this will make us grow a conscience.

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  5. Noone 3 years ago

    Casteism, communal violence perpetrated by the State actors, abysmal sex ratio, gender apathy towards women, domestic violence, etc., have all been ignored by India since ages. Why do you act so surprised and appalled?

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  6. mclondon1 3 years ago

    People who watch Miss. America competition are not the most learned people in the U.S. – those are they types who read People magazine and watch American Idol, but most often cannot even recognize the Vice President. So I am not surprised by the response. But there are not that many of them. The very fact that an American-Indian won the competition shows that such attitudes did not influence this decision.

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  7. mclondon1 3 years ago

    But, on the other hand, beauty in the eye of the observer, this is one of those subjective things; something that cannot be described in quantitative terms. Of course, from what I know, Indians have an obsession with fair skin. To them, I think fair skin is a sign of beauty.

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  8. Racism can be called “racism” only when when there are verbal insults and physical harm in public. If I as a man want to marry an indian woman only with fair skin that doesn’t qualify as racism.

    Racism is racism only when its offensive and not defensive. Americans on twitter abused nina on twitter in public which qualifies as racism. If they had said those things in private with friends, relatives and parents then it cannot be called as racism.

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  9. Piltoo 3 years ago

    Not finding certain facial features attractive isn’t racist, it’s just a preference. Some people like far apart eyes, some people do not, there’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone has to find Nina Davuluri’s face to be the epitome of pretty either.

    On the topic of indian immigrants to the US being submissive – of course, no one wants to stir up trouble when you’re a foreigner.

    This post has some really odd comparisons and badly needs to be cleaned up, what you’re trying to say is all over the place and it sounds like a tumblr feminist social justice warrior rant.

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  10. raj 3 years ago

    ‘For example I can’t help wondering, “What if Nina Davuluri was mistakenly identified as African instead of Arab?”’

    Every indian is of african origin. The same goes for the rest of the world. Africa is the cradle of civilization.

    India has a much closer connection to africa, as proven by anthropologists who have found entire communities preserving their genes through strict inter-marriage for generations upon generation. A Scientific examination of their genetic makeup concluded that they were 100% of direct southern african heritage. There is also direct proof of north africans drifting across to asia over the centuries, along riverbeds giving birth to civilizations such as the arabian and the indus valley civilizations.

    I agree with the larger point you were making, however, that racism is silently ignored by the media and the public. The media, since they have a policy of only putting fair-skinned people in front of the camera, and the public since they have associated light skin tones, for centuries, with conquerors, and people with power.
    The same stereotypes are being played out across the length and breadth of india.

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  11. somegal 3 years ago

    um, she’s not the face of India. she’s the face of the USA.

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  12. Soraya Nulliah 3 years ago

    Abishek: This is sheer ignorance and makes no sense at all!! Racism starts in your heart and mind (perceptions/biases/stereotypes) and can then play out in both the public or private spheres. What exactly does that mean “racism is racism only when it is offensive and not defensive”?? Wanting to marry anyone because of the color of their skin does qualify as harboring racist beliefs but I guess you can call it a “preference” . racism is disguised under all sorts of things but the heart of it is fear, hate, ignorance, denial, stupidity etc.

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  13. Rita Banerji 3 years ago

    Tulika, That we know already. However, there are actresses and models with dark skin — like Bipasha Basu, Kajol and others who become popular on screen, even though they end up lathering them up with tons of make up to make them look fair. But what I’m asking is if you click on the photo slide show above, these are RACIAL FEATURES (read what I’m saying carefully) we never see on T.V., in films, in media, and most certainly not in beauty contests in India. There are 8 states with majority of people who have oriental features. It is important we start asking why they are not represented in our public sphere as Indian.

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  14. Rita Banerji 3 years ago

    “ask a north-eastern how he or she feels about your using that term ‘chinkey’” Thank for that! That’s exactly what we need to start openly talking about. There is no discussion on actual racism in our schools, colleges or even in the media. I’ve known many Indians who’ve lived in the UK and they say the common slurs used for them there are “Paki” and “Blackie.” The second one also hits them hardest because it picks out a racial feature — the darker skin tones of Indians and belittles it. This is what our friend up there using “Chinki” needs to think about.

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  15. Rita Banerji 3 years ago

    Abhishek — Racism does not have to be in what you say, it is also silent discrimination on the basis of race in public arenas, as far as public rights go. The same as caste based discrimination. Most racism is hidden prejudice. How many Indians do you know of who made it big in Hollywood? They are relegated to small roles with Indian accents, playing doctor, waiter, cab driver and they go with it. Some complain like Dev Patel, saying they don’t want an Indian face. Black actors like Denzel Washington and Halle Berry have made it to the top because the black and Latino communities have fought against racism in the media. The Indian communities in the U.S. have not done that, and I know that from having lived there. However, the same logic applies here. Helen who is from Burma with her oriental features was type-caste as a cabaret dancer and that famous song which was so racist “Mera nam chin-chin choo.” But till the NE community pushes for larger visibility, and the majority like you and me recognize and accept this racism in us, things will not change.

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  16. Rita Banerji 3 years ago

    There are plenty of dark actresses like Bipasha Basu, Kajol and others who are “lightened up” with tons of make up! But Helen for e.g. is relegated to a racist, stereotypical song like “mera nam chin chin choo.” There are 8 states where the majority have oriental features. There roots in India go back 5000 years. In Delhi, Bangalore, Calcutta, you see students from the NE studying in universities, working. But why is no one in Bollywood, or on T.V., in advertisements from these states. This is a silent racist policy.

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  17. Raj 3 years ago

    Well put!

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  18. Raj 3 years ago

    Come on seriously? Chin chin choo is racist? Is Rihanna’s role in Princess of China also racist ?

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  19. Rita Banerji 3 years ago

    Really Raj? Come on now. You can’t possibly be that thick! So for e.g. if someone was to mimic and Indian in his song, and sing “kala kala koota koota.” (black dog) You’d think it is art? Well there is a song like that by a white man, set in India, Calcutta, and then he goes on to rhyme Kala kala koota with it. Listen to it and tell me if as an Indian man you think it is racist. If you think it is artistic and funny then I’d say our problem with racism is deeply internalized. Maybe that’s why there is hardly any organized protests by Indians against racism in the U.S. Here’s your song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcRJcv_IEeo‎

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  20. Rita Banerji 3 years ago

    You obviously commented without reading the article Somegal. The women in that slide show are Indian from India. But they never show up as the ‘Face of India’ in a pageant show, or advertisements, or TV or movies. This is a serious issue. Please don’t be glib about it.

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  21. Rita Banerji 3 years ago

    I am surprised that when a group of educated college students sit in a well-known cafe and loudly so the whole cafe can hear, have a racist and sexist conversation, they are confident that everyone in there is in agreement with them. It doesn’t surprise and anger you? If it doesn’t then you need to ask yourself why.

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  22. Rita Banerji 3 years ago

    And you don’t need to tell me about violence on women in India. I’ve been dealing with it every day for the last 7 years with campaign I run — The 50 Million Missing. http://www.50millionmissing.info Do check it out. But it still angers me every day. And horrifies me every day. Is it normal in your head? Does it not anger you and shock you every day. Is it this kind of accepted normalcy that allows this violence to continue. Please ask yourself that!!

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  23. Pingback: There’s Racism in India That Most Indians Think is Completely Acceptable! | REVOLUTIONS IN MY SPACE: A BLOG BY RITA BANERJI

  24. Jared Purdy 3 years ago

    Great article Rita. Very well said, and good on you for confronting those men at the table in the café. I recognized the name of a man who took (at least) one of those photos above. Hos name is Arif Siddiqui, and has spent considerable time in Arunachal Pradesh documenting the incredibly beautiful people who live. He has a web site titled Amazing Arunachal. Regretfully, as you point out, those people, and clearly others on the subcontinent, as numerous as they are, are totally minoritized by the dominant, mainstream Indian culture. I teach at a community college in Canada and we have a large international student population, with many (thousands) from India. One of the courses that I teach deals specifically with racism, marginalization, media literacy and equity. As part of one of the class discussions during one of the units I bring up the Arunachal web site and we discuss the marginalization of those people from mainstream Indian culture and the effects that it has not just on Indians, but on the international community with respect to our sense of representation in India.

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  25. yuhzimi 3 years ago

    As someone who’s not from India, I have to say that those photos were enlightening. Many are not faces that I would ever have linked to India beforehand. This is great article, and the comments that I’ve read are also quite hard hitting and thoughtful. I particularly like Truth Seeker’s closing thought. It’s not the giver of a name who determines whether it’s offensive or not, only the recipient of the name can do that. Blessings.

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  26. Beheaded 3 years ago

    “……..The Parsi community………has been whole-heartedly embraced as ‘Indian………..’”

    Just like the ‘white’ skinned immigrants like Irish,Spanish etc are easily assimilated into the American society.The Parsi people too have been assimilated into Indian society.Not difficult to understand.

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  27. Rita Banerji 3 years ago

    hi Jared — Thanks for the observation here! Yes, I know Arif Siddiqui. He is one of the supporting photographers of The 50 Million Missing Campaign on flickr. We have more than 2500 photographers supporting our flickr pool, and we make thematic online photo exhibitions with these photos, and this one here is also a from the The 50 Million Missing photographers. There are others here http://genderbytes.wordpress.com/photoshows/ Arif is an incredible photographer. It is not just Arunachal, but he has documented all the 7 states in the NE where people have oriental features and the whole purpose of his documentation is that these are not a homogenous people who “look the same” to Indians from the mainland! But this is as diverse as the rest of India! The course you teach is fantastic. I wish we could have that in colleges and universities in India. But I think we are too far from that. Bigotry is almost a natural form of expression in how communities identify with each other. In fact I wish the U.S. where I lived and studied had that too. I do believe that even in the U.S. they haven’t learnt that racism will not go away on its own. It will have to be discussed in school, in communities and dealt with. I think Canada as a nation has done much better in dealing with it. And I get that from Canadian Indian friends living in the U.S.

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  28. jaredpurdy 3 years ago

    Well, Canada is a big country, and as such racial issues play out differently from one end to the other, and with different communities. Aboriginal people continue to have to deal with racial discrimination and neo-colonialism in the way they are dealt with by the police and the federal government, as well as the general population in certain parts of the country. Young black men living in large urban centres continue to be racially profied by the police at an alarming rate. If you aren’t black or Aboriginal you could exist without knowing that these issues seriously affect those communities

    I remind my students that Toronto, with a population of 2.5 million, and if the surrounding areas are included, it balloons to 4.5 million, but it is not representative of Canada. A quick drive north of the city to a small town will affirm that very quickly. Places like Toronto, and other large cities do have an affect on the “cosmopolitan” nature of Canada though. The Canadian government, though not always as erudite in the implementation as in the design of policy, did pass the Multicultural Act as well as enshrined the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into our Constitution, as far back as 1982. The Charter in particular has done a lot to protect both individual and collective (group) rights, such as in religion, same sex issues and racial discrimination. While we recognize the “multicultural” character of Canada, and on a certain level embrace that difference, the canons in our academic institutions and the paradigms within those hallowed halls, including the justice system, and the government in general are Anglo and Eurocentric.

    Still, on different fronts there are challenges to that narrative, and the course that I teach is one place that we can contest those paradigms, and there are courses like that taught at post secondary institutions across the country. There was a very interesting piece in the Washington Post the other day, it showed a map, and the author of the piece had taken some research from some another source and pieced together this map which showed which countries in the world were the most racially tolerant and which ones where the least. The conclusion for that characterisation was drawn from a single question (which I have a problem with). The question was something to the effect of “Would you feel comfortable having a neighbour who was of a different racial background than you?” There are a lot of problems with that question, one being many people don’t understand what the construct of race even means, they often confuse it with nationality or culture, or both. But there you have it. I was surprised to see three things: 1.India was labelled the MOST racially intolerant country on the planet, 2) Pakistan faired better than India in that regard, and 3) the USA and Canada were the same!! A question that I have is who does the average Indian believe would be “racially” different them? Pakistanis? White people? Black people????? The Pakistani results are also interesting because “racially” they are the same as many Indians, but there is a history of conflict and religion can often be thrown into the murky mix of racial identity. And then of course there is the Canada and US issue. Having lived next to the USA for 53 years, having traveled there extensively, having been inundated with their culture and news, I can most definitely say that on the issue of racial tolerance and acceptance, we are worlds apart.

    I’ll check out that link, thanks for that. And Yes Ari is indeed a great photographer and what I like about his shooting is that people are very comfortable around him and it shows in the portraits that he captures. Have a look at the link here, it will give you a sense as to the racial and colonialistic issues that Canada’s Aboriginal people have to deal with. It’s one of many examples (the setting was in eastern Canada, in one of our Maritime provinces) of Aboriginal – colonial conflict. The comments that follow at the end of the piece, for the most part, give me hope. http://cultivatingalternatives.com/2013/10/20/dear-rex-colonialism-exists-and-youre-it/

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  29. Rajeesh Nair 3 years ago

    You are simply saying that robbing without someone knowing that they’re robbed is fine.. but it shouldn’t be done in public or to offend someone.. We still don’t understand what a true life is! Its about respecting everyone equally.. Don’t love them its fine but don’t respect anyone neither in public nor in private.. You don’t have a right to disrespect anybody whether its based on gender, caste, language, country or race..

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  30. Rajeesh Nair 3 years ago

    Sorry!! That was typo there.. I meant “Don’t love them its fine but don;t disrespect anyone neither in public nor in private”…

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  31. Rumbemo Kithan 3 years ago

    Thank you Rita for elucidating beautifully the concerns of the North eastern people of India. I, myself being from Nagaland, one of the North eastern states, can fully vouch for the fact that we are on the receiving end of racist comments and behaviors from our fellow Indians(especially from North India). Most people in India think the word “Chinki” is not racist, but many fail to point out the fact that they use the term derogatorily and against the wishes of the recipients of such racist comments. There are many more racist behaviors directed towards Indians of mongoloid origins and many Indians of mongoloid features have sadly taken such racist behaviors as a way of life when the come to “mainland Indians”, partly because of the apathy of the state and partly because Indians generally never accept the fact that they are being racist when they behave in such manner. I can only imagine the racist comments which will be rift in Indian social media in the “impossible” event that an Indian with mongoloid features win Miss India.

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