Have you ever had someone jokingly say something racially insensitive to you but you were too scared to call them out on it? I have, and I held on to that anger for a really long time.
Let me set the scene for you – I was one of four science under-grads sitting in the university library trying to write up my assignment one evening In an attempt to avoid our work we started talking; two of them were my friends and one was an acquaintance.
“Is that your cousin?” the acquaintance asked as some random brown student walked past our table. “Oh yeah sure, that’s Rahul” I casually responded, trying to brush off the racism. It was a small comment so I chose to let it slide but then he called me ‘butter chicken’ and all rationale went out the window. His retort was followed by a communal laugh that I reluctantly joined in with. I didn’t want to be seen as the brown girl who couldn’t take a joke. The downside was that one I had laughed they all took it as a signed that I was okay with these jokes.
I tried staying and smiling through gritted teeth but eventually I just left the library and went home. Because what’s worse than three white people calling you butter chicken? Three white people trying to explain to you why their racist joke isn’t racist.
“No I get it, butter chicken is curry and I’m Indian – it’s hilarious. You’re a comedic genius.”
The entire trip home I was furious. He had essentially reduced my culture down to the one Indian dish that he could name and used it against me. Unfortunately, I was forced to see him multiple times over the next few weeks. It was our exam period and we were doing the same degree so we had a lot of classes together. Every time I saw him I was greeted with an immediate, “hey, butter chicken” and I always responded with icy glares.
Some of you may not understand why I was upset by his comments, and of course there are far worse things to be called. As one of my fellow students had said during a class discussion earlier in the year, “racism isn’t as bad as it used to be” (if you’re wondering, no – she wasn’t a woman of colour), but that doesn’t just automatically excuse modern-day racism.
As an Indian girl born and raised in Australia I’ve always struggled with my cultural identity. For years I tried to push my heritage aside because I saw it as a burden rather than a gift. I would see other Indian girls at my school being made fun of for their braids and school lunches and I was so scared that I would be next. When you’re a child you’ll do anything you can to feel accepted and in my case it meant rejecting an integral part of my identity.
When people have questions about my culture I am more than happy to answer their questions, as are most people – but if you’re just here to make cheap jokes about it then I’m not interested. If your ancestors are the ones who hurt my ancestors then I really think you should just take a seat when it comes to the curry nicknames. It’s not what you’re saying but the context behind it.
Indian culture is so much more than he understood it to be. Brown girls have always been raised in households that held high expectations for them. We live off the sacrifices of our parents, trying to prove the world wrong about who we are.
We follow in the footsteps of our mothers and fathers who have broken backs and blistered feet from paving the way for us. We’re all trying to reach forward and grab onto the opportunities that were dangled just out of their reach. Living each day hoping we’re not just seen as a stereotype. Doing our best to stay in touch with our heritage and our culture. Seeking to find a balance between the two.
He didn’t know our struggle because he hasn’t live it – and that’s why he can’t call me butter chicken.