The propaganda machine was set. Words and text will be prepared to be distributed for people to accept unconditionally. They would equate an ethnic group to poor hygiene, as people who were ignorant and would spread illnesses in their communities and more. This news would also work against the favour of this community, keeping their working rights precarious, injuring their ability to immigrate and creating a widespread sense that they were outsiders.
This is not the machine of a despotic nation. This is the story of how Anti-Asian racism never went away, despite the relative freedom from COVID-19 that Aotearoa has. Despite numerous new viral mutations from the UK or South Africa, the situation met with the most public disgust and policy response has been the developments in India.
It was a rainy afternoon on the bus to university where I would see this first-hand.
That day, I was experiencing heightened hay fever symptoms and also had forgotten to bring my mask from home, but had used a cloth shirt in my bag as a makeshift one.
I turned away to sneeze, attracting the attention of a woman with a megaphone in her throat equivalent to Shrek, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY COUNTRY?!”
Dumbfounded, sneezy and unable to respond, I sucked in my snot louder.
“ARE YOU FROM INDIA? YOU’RE INDIAN, AREN’T YOU?! GET A GOD-DAMN MASK!”
I didn’t even know where to start with this woman; the fact that she could not differentiate Asian countries and people, the fact that she equated being Indian to being infectious, or the fact that she had a bag with ‘wellness’ logos on it, indicating she was of the type to love yoga and Ayurveda, but didn’t give a damn about Indian people.
I walked off to leave this woman alone with her hot air, but by the time I came back to the bus, there was a scene which I had only ever seen on Supernanny. But only this time, it was not a toddler screaming their lungs out, it was a woman in her 50s refusing to sit next to any of the ‘brown’ people on this bus as they were ‘Indian’. She demanded that other people get up and give her a seat, to which they refused. The bus driver, who was likely Indian, stepped in to ask the woman to stop this behaviour. The woman told him to “sit down and shut up”, which took the fight out of him.
I felt paralysed and frightened by what happened. The whole bus ride, I realised that everything that the woman said to ‘justify’ her actions were all things that I had heard before, paving the way for people to act upon stereotypes with overt anger and violence.
When was the last time you heard anyone say ‘curry muncher’? Or mock an Indian accent? Perhaps your friends have joked about Indians and smells, a perceived lack of hygiene or frequent sexual assault? These are all things which I can remember happening and growing up hearing, even at university.
The easiest way to justify treating a group as outsiders and to deny them dignity in work or immigration is to employ politics of hygiene. This is a concept I previously raised in “New Zealand’s Problem with Anti-Asian Racism”, where sociologist Srirupa Prasad claims that assigning poor hygiene to a group can mobilise feelings to shun this group. Indeed, the image of modern India has become one of overrun slums and poor sanitation, and now, of crowded hospitals and masses of mourners. In framing India in only this way, the community efforts and determination to survive are largely omitted.
Geet*, a postgrad Arts student, reports that colleagues inferred that COVID-affected communities in India were unintelligent, as opposed to understanding that these communities do not have proper messaging around transmission. To others, this communicates the message that the people of India are somehow undeserving of our attention and help.
But Geet says that this happened much earlier, mentioning a long history of racist treatment through her education, including one teacher telling her that she would not make it to university because of her apparently ‘limited’ knowledge of English, and a tutor once asked if she “even [knew] how to read”.
Indian people are seen as a caricature of a heavily accented, naïve character of the working class and as a source of comedic relief, almost synonymous with ‘dairy owner’. Indian people have been part of Aotearoa since the 1840s. Apu from The Simpsons and Rakeesh from Bro Town are not modern characters; in the 1890s, Indian people were represented as ‘alien hawkers’, with attempts to prevent immigration occuring. Law student Tulsi’s experience gave me insight as to the environment of current anti-Indian racism, stating that Indian communities have experienced everything from light-hearted ‘jokes’ such as “you’re cool and hot…for an Indian”, to foreign qualifications meaning nothing, and accents and foreign names meaning everything, meaning that many migrants struggle in ascending from entry-level jobs and face workplace exploitation.
“One thing I noticed was the unfortunate importance of assimilation. My brother and I were bullied a bit when we were younger and a bit chubby, comments like ‘did you eat too much curry’…people think I won’t be offended because I have grown up here and don’t have an accent”.
Tāmaki may love shopping at The Third Eye, their mild butter chicken and naan combo, going to alternative festivals and reading up on the Kama Sutra, but the protest cry of ‘love our culture, love our people’, has never been so true. When we may see people with dangerously nationalistic views and open hostility, there has been a historic stereotype acted upon. But in order to dismantle this racism, we must be open to admitting it.
*Name has been changed.