Food, Racism And The Coronavirus Outbreak: A Perspective From Northeast India

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

By Minakshi Bujarbaruah and Rituparna Kaushik Bhattacharya:

The last few years have seen the sudden rise of new-found professions like food blogging, food photography, food journaling and food documentation by travel and food enthusiasts. Social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube are flooded with accounts of food bloggers and viral food videos that extend beyond the cultural appropriation of food.

There is also a section that has been documenting the not-so-regular or common-est of food cultures and practices, those that are mostly from Asian and African cultures. However, the exoticisation of these food practices of other cultures have been hugely problematic on many fronts.

Bizarre Foods, once hosted by Andrew Zimmern on Travel Channel and Sonny Side, the American’s well known Best Ever Food Review Show channel on YouTube are not bereft of the Western gaze on oriental food cultures. While the discourse of looking at such food cultures has somewhat shifted from being “gross, bizarre and insane,” to being the “next thing in vogue,” there are other intersections of race, class, ethnicity, caste in case of India, that collide with food.

The ongoing frenzy and hullabaloo over the outbreak of the Coronavirus and its probable sources, the aftermath of the outbreak on people of Chinese origin, once again reiterate about food cultures, food taboos, racism and xenophobia.

The western narrative of food habits where viewing of food cultures from Asia and Africa as “filthy, dirty and uncivilised” just got full-scale legitimacy with the outbreak of Coronavirus. The controversy surrounding this virus outbreak and its immediate link to food cultures and practices of Chinese communities significantly point to the Western authority and influence on what is considered normal or acceptable.

Looking into this discourse with respect to food and eating habits, it is important to acknowledge that food and food choices are highly political.

In most cultures, the food one consumes relate to the class, caste or social background that one hails from. In this respect, Eater; the culinary branch of Vox media points to how the presentation of horse meat in one of the episodes of Top Chef Canada (2011) triggered a mass boycott and public outrage, terming it insensitive and uncivilised.

The irony here is that horse meat has been relished in the US, Canada and Europe too, in the past.

As Anthony Bourdain, one of the world’s top chefs and food critic aptly puts it, “Food is politics. Food, after all, is more than just a collection of ingredients; it can carry a story of a place’s cultures, it’s history, it’s economy.”

In the aftermath of the outbreak of the Coronavirus, the treatment meted out to people of Chinese origin not only signal towards racism, Sinophobia and the Western supremacy over food practices, but also tells us about deep-rooted notions on purity and pollution around food. Food continues to remain a political tool of identity, oppression and resistance.

Scenes from a #NotInMyName protest. The hashtag caught fire across social media after multiple reports emerged of mobs resorting to lynching individuals to death, reportedly over the consumption of beef. These incidents saw a sharp increase since 2014.

In the Indian context too, food has been historically used to incite communal tension since colonial times. In the larger agenda of right wing groups in the making of a Hindu Rashtra, food has been cleverly used to provoke angst amongst communities.

To talk of beef and pork consumption becomes an issue of political contention and discomfort, further raising questions on purity and impurity of food choices amongst communities. The experience of racism towards Chinese people post the outbreak of Coronavirus, is somewhat also a similar narrative and well relatable to most communities in the frontier states of northeast India.

Food from northeast India is often hot content for viral videos and is vilified by travellers from mainland India with extreme racists and xenophobic tones. Discriminatory and racist attitudes towards northeasterners based on food practices have been pre-dominant in India.

The extreme other-isation and strong perception that people from northeast India eat ‘filthy and impure food’ has always been prevalent. With the outbreak of Coronavirus, the imagery of northeasterners as barbaric dog, snake, frog, rat eaters have further got an added prominence.

Phrases like, “Chinki kuch bhi khate hain, dur raho unse” (Those who look Mongoloid eat anything and everything, best to stay away) once again reminds us of intrinsic racism within the country.

In most metros, food choices of migrant northeasterners have not only led to discrimination but also ghettoisation of the community where food practices determine the locality where one would be granted accommodation.

This everyday struggle of northeasterners and the subsequent racism based on food was very well captured by Nicholas Kharkongor’s movie Axone.

The movie grabbed the public eye because it was the first Hindi commercial movie made on the subject of struggles of northeasterners because of certain food preferences like those of the pungent axone/akhuni, iromba, fermented bamboo shoots, etc. In other words, food items that are culturally prohibited within mainland India.

However, the understanding of such prejudice and discrimination based on food choices would be just partial if we do not talk of prejudice that exists amongst communities within the northeast. Similar type of profiling is observed in caste-based Hindu society against those who are lower in the caste hierarchy or those from ethnic backgrounds who follow a certain type of food culture that is not necessarily the same as upper caste groups.

Food, by all means, is a political instrument to create or categorise a distinctive other. The callous use of the purity and impurity rhetoric to justify the extent of discrimination of certain communities based on their food choices without knowing the complex history and cultures of regions and communities is problematic.

Takeaways from the Coronavirus outbreak for people of Chinese origin poke at similar narratives of food taboos and racism towards northeasterners in India.  For the ‘mongoloid fringe’ (a term used by Nari Rustomji in the late 1960s) of the country, the struggle is real!

About the authors: Minakshi Bujarbaruah and Rituparna Kaushik Bhattacharya are researchers, who work on issues of marginalisation, identity and gender.

Note: this article was first published here.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.
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