Dining Table Talks: Casual Racism

Published On: June 6, 2021 04:14 PM NPT By: Shailaja Upadhyaya

Shailaja Upadhyaya

Shailaja Upadhyaya

The writer is Deputy Director of Studies at Nepal Administrative Staff College.

It is time we completely stopped assigning a “community” card to a person’s deed personally and professionally. We meet three people from a community, hear about the deeds of some other people from the same community and we think ourselves informed enough to establish judgment about what every other person belonging to that ethnic group/religion/geography/country is like.

Months ago, I was some minutes into Aadarsh Mishra’s stand up “Being a Madhesi in Kathmandu '' and I couldn’t continue watching. Though I understood all the punches, I could not laugh at his jokes. I had a lump in my throat instead. How much does it take for a person of his age to swallow every demeaning experience he might have been through and put himself out there sarcastically slapping in everyone's faces? He used humor for a cause but we the audience may not always be as discerning. Casual racism is real and Jokes on us.

While racism is depicting a discriminatory behavior toward a certain community (caste, race, ethnicity, culture and nationality), casual racism is doing it casually. When we dig deep into the instances of casual racism or hear from the receiving end of such a form of racism, it is anything but casual. Casual racism many a time camouflages itself as a light-hearted humor or a non-malicious remark about a person’s appearance, accent, intellect, preferences, lifestyle etc, hinting at the community he/she belongs to, either in one’s presence or absence.

The best way to understand casual racism is imagining being on the receiving end. Let us start from the most vulnerable: the minority. Imagine yourself belonging to any minority community. You belong to that community and have already experienced the unjust system, you know the stereotypes people hold about your community, you know the nicknames given to you, you have heard about the harassing gazes and the discriminatory behavior people from your ethnic groups have been a victim of. While you believe the people around you are considerate, one of your friends mimics the community accent. Your initial reaction might be denial, considering it a part of humor or a conversation. Deep down you know you did not want to listen to that. It shall affect you in some way. It might be difficult to interpret that emotion. As much as you are proud of your heritage and identity, you do not want your community to be dragged unnecessarily into some random conversations.

Now imagine living/hanging out/making small talks with a set of people who always have something surficial to say about the ethnic group/caste/race you belong to. It is a struggle. If you are on the giving end, stop it.

This write up is named dining table talks for a reason. We have to start the conversation from our home. Home is where we start shaping our unconscious biases and differentiating between right and wrong. Our family might not be as woke as we are. Thanks to the pandemic, we have ample time to champion some important causes.

Casual racism always boils down to how you have made a person feel; it is very personal in nature. You have to always be cautious about the sensitivity of people around you and be aware of things that offend them. It is better to be safe than sorry.

While we are on a good mission to eradicate casual racism from our homes, we should also be empathetic about how difficult it might be for our family to relate to such issues. We might be millennials or gen Z; we might have access to information from around the world; we use international goodies and have friends from different communities. That might not be the case with everyone in our homes. It was months ago while we were hash-tagging ‘black lives matter’, we had no issue with “fair and lovely” and Sandip Chhetri’s portrayal of the Tarai-based communities. It’s all about continuous realization. While we are on a mission to make a difference, we make sure we do not “woke-shame” anyone.

Here are some milestones that might help us fight casual racism from our end:

Milestone 1: No nicknames

Make a list of community-based nicknames your family members often throw during conversations. In Nepali households, we have nicknames assigned to each ethnic, geographical and religious community. Here, we search for any name that has to do with an indication of a community. You then explain to your family members why giving these nicknames is wrong. It might be a difficult conversation. First you start with helping them relate with how a person might feel about the mere existence of those names, and put forward the empathy card. It might still be tough to convince, be a little more assertive and give your opinion about how regressive it is to still utter such nicknames. Your family members might still be adamant and express their confusion about how to properly indicate that person during conversations. We have to do our homework in advance. In my case, I asked my family members to ask the regular fruit vendor his name and mention him with his name henceforth. It might be difficult to know the names of everyone; you make it as safe as possible. As you put your effort in searching for the right indicative names, you will come into a realization of how oblivious we have always been. It's 2021 already and we are having a hard time searching for appropriate ways to refer to a person without bringing up a person’s community. You might want to start with imagining everyone belonging to the same ethnic/caste community as yours, how would you refer? “Her daughter, her son, her niece, the tenant, the shopkeeper, the hawker, the nurse, the milkman, the classmate, the friend who lives nearby,” etc. It’s all about humanizing the people around you.

After we have done the explaining part to our families, we should make sure we correct them whenever we hear such nicknames. We should be consistent but considerate throughout.

Milestone 2: No prejudices and hasty generalization

It is time we completely stopped assigning a “community” card to a person’s deed personally and professionally. We meet three people from a community, hear about the deeds of some other people from the same community and we think ourselves informed enough to establish judgment about what every other person belonging to that ethnic group/religion/geography/country is like. Most of the preconceived notions are negative in their truest senses. We are totally derogating the person as “an individual human being”.

While we make dining table talks on casual racism, we should handle this milestone with utmost care. The stereotype and prejudice is rooted beyond the noticeable iceberg. It might take days. We need to start conversations on how our society is divided and how things are unjust for some people. We should share stories of how communal bullying affects people and how still holding on to our prejudices makes us ignorant. We should explain the theory “knowing people better with an open mind”.  We can talk about people’s lives and how they thrive toward progress and how even a slight hint of prejudices demoralizes them. We clarify the dire need of leaving these prejudices now and how we might be unknowingly shaping others’ perceptions and contributing to something bad.

Milestone 3: No stereotypical compliments

One common notion we hold about compliments is “everyone loves them”. No, one might not. Compliments may come out unprofessionally, unnecessarily and some compliments might even offend. We are used to receiving/giving compliments like: “people from your community are usually not this fair, not this clean, and not this intelligent, do not have an accent like this, do not have a nose like this, not friendly like this” etc. Our initial instinct might be to thank. But as we think of it, we are being complimented at the cost of our community being stereotyped and misrepresented. You do not want someone to establish the “your community is normally” standard based on some hasty generalization. Why does it always have to be “you are smart for a …” while it can clearly end in “you are smart”.

You might help your family members practice giving racially-neutral compliments.

Milestone 4: No offending jokes

It’s difficult to say no to light humor containing strong punch lines about the typicality of people. But a joke does not remain a joke if it is attempting to justify bigotry. If we are laughing at a joke which we know is offending, that makes us another level airhead.

Well, in our family we should say no to such jokes. Having achieved the afore-mentioned milestones, it would be easy to get attention from our family. But making them understand that jokes can be disheartening, needs a little craft. You are going to be their kill-joy here. You can play the “negative reinforcement” card here. Mark an offending joke you have heard about your own community and prove how offending it can get. For example: a Nepali can never laugh at “Bahadur” jokes in Hindi cinemas. If they can’t still relate, shed some knowledge on why Province 2 had communicated to the federal level against misrepresentation and offensive contents against the Madhesi community in television shows. We might still be coming across several such idiotic representations of different minority communities in different entertainment platforms.

Stopping to laugh at stereotypical jokes will lift the spirit of thousands, and we contribute to real happiness here.

 Milestone 5: No “we” vs “them”

For some weird reason, we still think our identity is based on our differences. Identities need not be relative. We compare our caste/religion/race/ethnicity and settle for any absurd explanation that suffices our narcissism. Our preferences of making friends, dating, and team mates are subconsciously shaped by the biases we hold. We base the compatibility factor entirely on what community that person belongs to. This might seem reasonable because the similarities in our upbringing, our likes and dislikes, our relatedness etc may be some contributing factors helping us start conversations. While two siblings grown up from the same house can grow up to be way apart, it is regressive of us to think people from the same community are only compatible. Here we are ignoring the evolution of human minds and behavior. Compatibility stems from how much this other person is willing to respect who you are, how much maturity you hold to acknowledge that life journeys are different and how much effort you are wanting to give in. 

We have to bring into the table how the whole idea of “we” Vs “them“ is wrong. How this notion is restricting us from choosing better friends, neighbors, acquaintances and life partners.

We being global citizens, the access to information we have is massive. Religion/ethnicity/caste/race is only one among the hundred things that define some people; for a majority, it is irrelevant.

All the best for making our homes a casual racism-free zone!

(The writer is Deputy Director of Studies at Nepal Administrative Staff College.)


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