Becoming racialised, becoming coronavirus: experiences of racialised subjects during a pandemic

Becoming racialised, becoming coronavirus: experiences of racialised subjects during a pandemic
Copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2020

By Shivangi Kaushik

All articles in In Depth have been subject to double-blind academic peer-reviews.

The word ‘subject’ has been intentionally used in the title of this article to frame “racialisation” as an essentialising act of power. Racialisation1 here is not only seen as an exercise in othering or exclusion, but also as a means of imagining people in a particular way. An imagining which is so daunting that it becomes difficult, almost impossible, to break out of or challenge: it is an act of power because only a few people can imagine while the rest are imagined, apropos without their choice. 

Pandemics have the potential to unleash a series of concomitant events/occurrences which challenge the existing status quo and threaten to topple the existing power relations in a country. As in other countries, India’s urban centres have borne the major brunt of the pandemic. As the number of COVID-19 positive cases increased with every passing second, cities such as Delhi and Mumbai became the epicentres or “hotspots”, which again amplified the cry for self-isolation and physical distancing, thereby strictly and legally prohibiting all forms of gathering, including religious ones. In these cities, this pandemic has exposed the fact that some sections of Indian society who have always been at the periphery of the socio-historical discourse of the country, are once again at the receiving end of the worst forms of exclusion and racialisation. Even though Arundhati Roy remarked that the pandemic actually provides a means or a “portal” to overhaul the existing hierarchies and rebuild a more egalitarian order, in a hypothetical post-pandemic lifeworld, the hierarchy, inequality and exclusion which is a structural feature of Indian society will seemingly continue to penetrate every aspect of life, especially for those in the periphery. 

As the elite and the middle class snuggled inside their homes with expensive wine and comfortable work-from-home schedules for the lockdown period of twenty-one days, the major urban centres of India (for instance the National Capital Region of Delhi) began the process of gradually extruding several million informal migrant workers. As the pandemic strengthened its tentacle in the country, the rich and the privileged sought to oust these informal labourers by pushing them back to the villages from where they had initially started their journey to the city in order to earn their livelihoods. The sudden exposure of the extreme vulnerabilities that haunt the precarious existence of informal labour gives us a unique opportunity to explore how the Anthropocene leads to the creation of a pathological society impacted by moral breakdown at the societal level. In Durkheimian terms, anomie would be the right word to denote the present circumstances where the pandemic has evidently challenged social conventions and norms as well as the social institutions (the state for instance) which govern these conventions. 

The social milieu feels more like an anomie because of the fact that even though every aspect continued to unfold and become documented right in front of our eyes through social media and news channels, people could only appal their helplessness in the entire situation and do nothing apart from discerning their privilege. Even as medical and scientific endeavours break down due to their impotency in the face of COVID 19, not only the economic proletariat, but also those who do not possess an ‘Indian face’, experience the darkest sides of this pandemic. 

The importance of an Indian face

The people that I am talking about are the countless migrant students, workers and residents from the distinct ethnolinguistic communities and different states of what is known as Northeast2 India, the easternmost peripheral geographical territory of India, which share their borders with China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. People from this region who identify as belonging to ethnic communities like that of Zou, Rongmei, Angamis, Hmars or Dimasas have physical features that resemble the people of the aforementioned neighbouring countries of India. The overwhelming focus on caste-based social discrimination both outside India and within India has always overshadowed the potential to even start a discourse of racial discrimination in the Indian context. 

Throughout the world, there has been a conspicuous trend to racially discriminate against citizens of countries such as China, South Korea, Thailand, and other South-Eastern countries. People who have a certain set of physical features have been homogenised as carrying the ‘China virus’ (even by the President of one of the most powerful nations) and are targeted in their daily lives.

It is important to note and read closely the aforementioned sentence. A close analysis of the phrase will tell us how an entire country has been equated to a life threatening pandemic. This affects people irrespective of their distinct ethnic identity or where they hail from: whether they are immigrants or second generation American citizens is not taken into account. Equating people with a pandemic is particularly worrying owing to the fact that these migrants are taken to be criminals where each of them is seen as  responsible for “spreading” the virus. They can be ‘tried’ for just sneezing in a public space, for something beyond their control. If racialisation had an anatomy, then this criminalisation and homogenisation could be called the building ‘bones’. Stereotypes and prejudices could be seen as the fluid or blood in this case, which could supply the fuel to keep racism alive. Exclusion would be the oxygen to keep this anatomy alive. 

If ‘race’ is taken to be the founding basis or the criterion through which racism and racialisation are articulated, then the very existence of racism as a systematic apparatus has to be questioned. Anthropologists like Claude Levi Strauss (1985: 6) have refuted the idea of race, pointing out that “if we attempt to trace racial differences back to their origins, we condemn ourselves to ignorance; and the subject of our debate becomes the diversity of not races but cultures”. Levi Strauss points towards the fact that tracing an individual’s race is a futile exercise, as there has been so much intermixing between the different races that it is difficult to pinpoint who belongs to which race.  It was individuals like Gobineau who advocated the use of scientific racism to hierarchise the different races to establish the superiority of the white race in terms of both physical and intellectual terms. Moreover, it is important to take note that this was during the pinnacle of the colonial era, where scientific racism was used to justify the dominance of the white race or colonizers. The Sara Baartman (Ahmed 2002: 57-58) episode where a black woman was exhibited to the white onlookers is a reminder of the power that racialisation exerts over a group of people not only owing to the way they look but also owing to the fact that they being dominated becomes essential to establishing the domination or superiority of another more powerful group. 

Who are chinkies or the coronavirus in India?

At the outset of this article, I talked about the migrants from Northeast India facing racial discrimination in India. Owing to the lack of better schools, colleges and employment opportunities in the different states of Northeast India, a lot of students and workers migrate to cities such as Delhi and Bengaluru in search of higher education and employment opportunities, especially in the retail sector. Here it is important to note that the migrants that I am talking about are not only distinct via their physical features but also have a  set of linguistic and cultural features which distinguish their rituals, cultural features and language and diverse dialects from the rest of the country. In a way, it can also be said that when India attained independence, the eight states of Northeast India (namely: Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya) had a problematic annexation with the state. This also meant that there have been innumerable struggles going on in the different states of the region which throughout history has been met with brutal state repression. 

I work with migrant students from different ethnolinguistic communities, and for my research I have been racially abused as “coronavirus”. During Holi (the Indian festival of colour), some of the female students were targeted and water balloons were thrown at their private parts. After being attacked with water balloons, one of the students heard the remark, “Are randy tera chut dikh raha hain” (You whore, I can see your vagina). Sometime back in the month of March, a journalist from a reputed Indian national daily had come to North campus, University of Delhi, to interview some of the students who were the “victims” of these racist attacks. I was also present in this meeting. The reporter kept asking them to narrate in detail what happened to them in each of these attacks. Moreover, she also urged them to give a full face interview which they declined owing to security/anonymity reasons before, after a long deliberation, they settled to giving interviews where their faces were blurred and their voices doctored. 

It was then I realised that for the reporter (despite being one of the rare journalists who at least took an interest in covering these incidents), the evident racialisation and the accompanying essence of being called a chinky or a momo in Delhi made these students’ experiences appealing. It made me question why their daily life experiences of going to a church, temple or mosque or of the numerous festivals organised by the various students’ associations, were never highlighted in mainstream newspapers or news journals. It is clear that they are not imagined as having anything beyond a racial identity. Why and how does the denigration of migrants from the region by people from other parts of the country appeal to journalists, writers and academics from outside NER? This was highlighted by Sara Ahmed (2007: 51) that racial projection (e.g. labelling someone a chinky) is not only a visual response triggered in us when we look at someone who has a different set of physical features. Racial projection also happens when a person is racialised to an extent that they are unable to be recognised in any way other than being a ‘chinky’ and this imagining becomes difficult to be challenged or changed. 

Spitting as an act of racialisation

Apart from being racially abused as momos or chinkies, the latest gun in the arsenal for racial discrimination is being called coronavirus

India has been under a lockdown period for the past three months since it was first declared on the 24th of March, 2020 owing to the spread of COVID-19 in the country. One of the residents from Manipur in a locality called Vijar Nagar near Delhi University was spat on by a resident who was passing by on his two wheeler vehicle and who is from a different ethnic and racial background than the woman from Manipur herself. After a lot of condemnation from the students, the police finally filed an FIR3 and arrested the perpetrator. A couple of weeks after the incident, on the 6th of April, 2020, there was an incident in Mumbai where another student from Northeast India was spat on by a passer-by. It is important to note that the migrants from the Northeast have always been homogenised and called  ‘chinky’ or ‘momo’ on the streets of Indian cities. However, being spat on and then being compared to a life-threatening virus is as new as the coronavirus itself. If one sociologically analyses the act of spitting per se, unravelling its various layers and its different context-specific usages, then it can also be interpreted as an act where the one who spits intentionally wants to infect the migrant worker or student from Northeast India who is being spat on, not only to show his disgust at her belonging to a particular racial or ethnic background but also to transfer the virus and the disease to her. Then the whole act of spitting as an act of denigrating someone fulfils its function thereby marking out a racialised body in the process. Thus spitting in itself is an act of power because only the residents and not the migrants can engage in this act of constituting a racialised subject. So how does one become a racialised subject to be spat on? 

To understand the above, there is a need to deconstruct the term ‘Northeasterner’ (since this term denotes more than just a geographical and territorial exonym) and to understand how one is constituted as a racialised subject in urban India. From what I can understand, racist attacks like calling people ‘coronavirus’ are the manifestations of a lack of intention or the absence of a genuine attempt to understand which ethnic community, religion and state they hail from. They are likened to the people of China (where COVID-19 originated) because there is a conspicuous overlooking of the different identities with which to identify themselves. For the people outside of NER, it is only their physical features which become the reference point to identify them. This ability to overlook or to collapse all forms of identities and the choice to imagine them only in a straitjacket fashion is an exercise in power which people from Delhi as well as migrants from other parts of India can have. Thus it can be said that racial projection works in one way and that is where the power to imagine them lies. 

Peripheral spaces of difference

When someone is racialised to a certain extent and is viewed only as a ‘chinky’ or as a Chinese, indirectly they strip that person of their agency (for a lack of a better word) and politics and always view them as mere “victims” of racial abuse. However, from my fieldwork, there are certain institutions which can be called positive “deviations”, as Durkheim would say. For instance, some of the colleges in Delhi University have Northeast cells (NE cell) or Northeast societies which were made compulsory by the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) after the death of Nido Taniam in the year 2014. These NE cells have played a very important role in organising panel discussions and Northeast festivals which create a lot of awareness about the various socio-political issues, cultures, attires and food habits of the different ethnic groups in Delhi. I went to a lot of these festivals and I could see that many students who were not from the region attended, and expressed an interest in knowing more about the different states, the different ethnic groups, and the different languages of the region. Moreover, when the first racist attacks of abusing students as coronavirus occurred in the college canteen of Kirorimal college, it was the KMC NE Cell which encouraged the student to come forward and file an official complaint with the principal of the college. This kicked off a huge online storm with the NE cells of many colleges across DU who came out in support of the college. It also encouraged a lot of students across DU to come out and talk about their experiences of racism in their respective colleges. 

These small spaces I have termed as peripheral differences because they seek to challenge the racial stereotyping and the peripheral position that the students from the region are pushed to within academic spaces. These spaces also help the students to question this peripheral position and provide them with the required support to do so. Moreover, the ethnic students’ associations and the community church with the help of intricate networks do help them to ‘cope’ with racial discrimination in the city, always reminding them to stick/return to their “ethnic roots”. 

These spaces of peripheral difference are not taken into account while talking about racism in India, not even by the respected and the much followed M.P. Bezbaruah committee report. I am afraid that these well intentioned documents may end up reinforcing the racist stereotypes and assumptions by addressing all of the students from the region simply as Northeasterners and not taking into account the ethnic specificities.  Duncan Mc Duie-Ra4 talked about how their inability to “mingle” in a city like Delhi owing to their physical features, aggravates racial discrimination in the country. However, the question here is whether they even wish to mingle, or instead seek to continue being a Christian Khasi or a Thadou speaking Kuki in Delhi. 

Owing to COVID-19, there has been a mass migration of the migrant students and workers from the NER back to the region. The ones remaining not only have to physically distance themselves to protect themselves from COVID-19, but they also have to fight racist attacks. This brings me to an observation that within urban spaces like Delhi, it is not always about othering or being excluded, but of imagining people in a particular way, and during the times of COVID-19, this is how they are imagined. The task to break out of this form of imagination henceforth becomes extremely daunting. Unfortunately, this power to imagine them lies with the ones who possess an ‘Indian face’: a uni-directional exercise of power.  The problem I feel is that these peoples are never imagined as unique individuals who have a distinct ethnic, religious, sexual and gender identity. As Ahmed (2002:47) says, the one who is racialised is never asked how they would want themselves to be imagined or ‘known’. Delhi in times of COVID-19 becomes the city where they are imagined as victims of racial abuse and nothing more than that. This facilitates them to be compared to and scapegoated as the citizens of a country which was the epicentre of a pandemic that brought the entire world to its knees. 

Thus, racialisation and the comparison of an entire people having a unique set of physical features to a pandemic has been an exercise in power, a phenomenon that has its entrenched roots in India’s colonial history as well, especially in the way racialised bodies were ordered and exploited. The problem is that it continues to be a reality even today, and now these migrant students, workers and residents are at the receiving end. As a lot of migrant students and workers prepare to make their way back home from Delhi to the different states of Northeast India to grapple with COVID-19, they are also haunted by and faced with the tragedies of an uncertain future. Leaving the greener pastures is never easy, especially where migrants have made ‘home’ and most importantly attained their livelihood. However, it seems that the greener pastures have been uprooted and burnt ablaze with the embers of racialisation. 

Shivangi Kaushik is a 2nd year DPhil student at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford. 

Endnotes

1.  Racialisation and racial discrimination as shown by Ahmed (2002) and Banton (1969) are different concepts. The former refers to assigning someone with a particular set of attributes and characteristics on the basis of a person’s physical features, which the person may have not identified with before. Racial discrimination is the actual practice of excluding a person from an educational institution, institute of employment or denying her accommodation because of her appearance. Thus racialisation is responsible for the formation of racial subjectivities. Ahmed, S. (2002). Racialized Bodies. In M. Evans, & E. Lee (Eds.), Real Bodies: A Sociological Introduction (pp. 46-64). New York: Palgrave.
2. Northeast India is the easternmost region of India. The region comprises of eight states: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura.
3.  “First Information Report (FIR) is a written document prepared by the police when they receive information about the commission of a cognizable offence. It is a report of information that reaches the police first in point of time and that is why it is called the First Information Report. It is generally a complaint lodged with the police by the victim of a cognizable offence or by someone on his/her behalf”. Source: Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. (n.d.). First Information Report and You. Retrieved from https://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/publications/police/fir.pd4.  McDuie-Ra, D. (2012). Northeast Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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