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“The Racism And Colourism I’ve Faced As An Indian-Australian”

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Disclaimer: This is purely an opinion piece, not meant to endorse, defend, or offend anyone. Also, it contains a few personal accounts of racism that I have faced as a person of colour — no bias against any country, just pure experience.

There’s no better way of describing this year than brutal, and the last couple of weeks have been a testament of that. Just when we were trying to recover from the many setbacks brought by 2020, the devastating death (read: murder) of George Floyd in Minneapolis in Minnesota shook us up again.

George Floyd was a Black man suspected of forging a $20 bill — he was taken into custody and later killed by a police officer who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes while Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe. Bystanders watched and recorded the incident in horror, asking the officer to step back.

This inhumane act sparked a wide range of protests in the US, including riots in which shops were broken and looted. President Trump has been criticised by many for his controversial statements and the way he handled the protests. These include Secretaries from his own Cabinet and Party who are so disappointed by his handling of the delicate situation that they’ve endorsed his rival, Democratic candidate and ex-Vice President Joe Biden in elections that are to happen later this year.

This cause is especially close to my heart. I grew up in India and Australia and identify as a second-generation Indian-Australian. I’ve faced racism for a large chunk of my life. I’ve written many posts on social media about being bullied for being ‘hairy’ and ‘brown’ in school in Australia, which led to me being nicknamed ‘Chewbacca’ in Grade VI and VI.

Things weren’t better in India — I’ve often been described as ‘savali’ (dark) and told to not stay in the sun for too long; my mother used to ask me to apply uttmal after school so that my tan doesn’t make me appear darker. These made me think about the form of racism that is prevalent in Indian homes — colourism.

Last week, Indian-American comedian Hasan Minhaj released two episodes of his Netflix show ‘Patriot Act,’ one of which talked about the impact and importance of the ongoing protests for the Asian-American community. In the episode titled ‘We Cannot Stay Silent About George Floyd,’ Minhaj aptly explained the extent of colourism in Indian homes stating, “We clown them. We call them Kallu.”

Thanking colonisation, he mentioned how half of Bollywood endorses fairness products. I remember watching fairness ads and applying them as directed so that I appear fairer; even today, when I buy makeup, I’m one of the darker shades of my preferred foundation — mind, there are people with a much deeper skin tone than me. So what is our obsession with colourism?

Colourism has been talked and written about for many years — there are articles on Youth Ki Awaaz addressing the issue, yet, we never seem to learn. We understand that celebrities endorse fairness production because of the crores of rupees they get paid, we understand that their pictures are photoshopped, yet, we buy into this act and call them out as hypocrites when they support Black Lives Matter.

Moreover, it’s the other way round too — going back to the earlier mentioned episode of Patriot Act, in which Minhaj said that we love it when Black people do well, and worship Beyonce and Michael Jordan, yet, we never want to be associated with anyone Black ourselves. Moreover, the media has taught us that we can’t be successful if we are dark.

Fairness creams bank on advertisements where jobs or prospective rishtas are lost because they are too dark. We all understand the thought behind racism and colourism in our society — yet, we turn a blind eye.

Not just in the media, but mythology too, the colour of many of the gods (with the exception of Krishna) was fair; meanwhile, the demons were often dark-skinned. Buzzfeed India uploaded a video a couple of years ago, explaining the same thing. Popular mythologist Devdutt Patnaik said “We were introduced to the politics of colour very early on in our lives, in the most surprising of places: in children’s comic books,” referring to Amar Chitra Katha’s portrayal of white gods. Not only that, this portrayal also gave way to casteism where the skin colour became lighter as one rose in the caste hierarchy.

Hence, one can see historically that those born in Adivasi, Dalit or Bahujan families were portrayed darker in colour than the royalty or priests. Now, we have a problem, we all defend the BLM Movement in America on one hand, yet, we are (indirectly) taught to see those with darker skin in a similar light with which the African-American community is seen in the U.S.

This is a topic that can be talked about for ages with various perspectives. However, the bottom line is — racism is still prevalent in every Indian household; but even though we know it, do we acknowledge it?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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