Unpacking Racism: the Dehumanization of East Asians and Ethnic Minorities in Bangladesh
The first time I heard the word “chinki” was when I was a child. I was born with small eyes, a flat nose and sported blunt-cut bangs for at least one-third of my life; the term ‘chinki” would often be used to describe me with earnest endearment. So naturally, I was growing up believing it to be some kind harmless expression, that is, until I met an actual East-Asian: one of my closest friends is Filipino, and our history dates all the way back to when we were in fifth grade. Many a times, people would refer to him and our other Filipino friends as “chinki” or “ching-chong” or other equally offensive variations of the word; some “jokingly” to their faces, others casually behind their backs. As a child, I honestly and regrettably did not know how to react to these slurs that my East-Asian friends often endured alone. You see, I was part of the privileged majority and had never experienced racism, neither had I suffered racial slurs. I am talking about a time two decades ago, when many of us were ignorant about such matters; but shockingly the racial slurs mentioned above are still in use today. Sometimes we use them menacingly, other times jokingly; but every single time without consequence.
One of the driving forces behind our casual bias towards East-Asians and other ethnic minorities is the long prevalent subcontinental culture of identifying each other by our prominent physical features. We tend to use bodily characteristics such as height, weight, complexion, hair type, even color/ type of outfit to refer to each other in everyday conversation. I’m sure everyone of you have used the terms “motu”, “kallu”, “lombu”, “kana”, “boira”, “choshma” etc to refer to someone, or have been referred as such at some point in your lives. Many consider this practice to be a kind of harmless social interaction, but when we start to toss derogatory racial slurs in the mix without any nuance and context, it can result in mistranslation and normalization of a behavior that should otherwise be condemned.
Most Bangladeshis associate the word “chinki” to the shape of one’s eye only, therefore the acceptability. However, in truth this term is rooted to a long history of racial derision and power dynamics of oppression. The origin of the word “chink” is understood to date all the way back to the British Invasion of China in the 1800s which later came to be known as “The Opium Wars”. Some claim the word originated during the North American “Chinese Exclusion Act” of the 1900s. The slur was initially used to describe people from China but has since expanded to include other groups from East-Asia. Regardless of its origin, this word is a vulgar term, derived entirely from the vocabulary of discrimination and oppression of an entire populace.
Our implicit bias
Human beings have an ingrained tendency to demonize groups of other human beings based on what they do not understand about each other. As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc around the world, hate crimes against East Asians have been on the rise. The hashtag #StopAsianHate has been trending on social media and it isn’t just a problem for the West anymore. It has relevance right here in Asia as well. We, Bangladeshis praise Japanese technological brilliance, Korean entertainment industry and Chinese hard-work and tenacity, but at the same time knowingly and unknowingly justify discrimination against such groups simply based on our implicit bias towards people from that region. For instance, “they eat dogs and bats” is a very common sentence that is thrown around when discriminating against all East Asians groups. This bias is completely unfounded because first, East Asia comprises of numerous countries with a myriad of different food cultures and second, food culture cannot be the determining factor of whether people are deserving of respect or not. Blatant discrimination based on implicit bias does nothing but to empower racists. The biggest example is our hypocritical treatment of our own indigenous people. We often treat our Adivasi community as outsiders, who ironically are the earliest known inhabitants of the country. There are numerous accounts of their personal experiences that are documented on social media or reported on the news. However, contemporary Bangladeshi social and political sciences do not explore the racialization of our Adivasis, at least I have not found any. It is as though we refuse to acknowledge it even though racism remains an everyday reality for many of them.
It is important to understand that social norms have a big impact on general behavior than individually held beliefs. As a culture we have developed a great tolerance for racial slurs and if we continue to leave our casual racism unchecked, there can be devastating cumulative effects: We have seen the rise of police violence against African Americans in the United States, the silent and cruel confinement of Uyghur Muslims in China and the plight of the Palestinian people for years, all of which are results of institutionalized racism against groups and individuals.
Racism cannot be left unchecked
A quote from Trevor Noah’s book, “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” stands out to me, he says, “The real world doesn't go away. Racism exists. People are getting hurt. And just because it's not happening to you, doesn't mean it's not happening.” And he is right. My observation is that human beings process thoughts and ideas by categorizing and generalizing, which means we are always very susceptible to bias. You could be a person who tries to consciously reject your own racist thoughts against groups or individuals, but some involuntary stereotypical feelings of discrimination will always surface at the back of your mind. For instance, for some people seeing a hijabi woman will automatically invoke ideas of oppression regardless of how baseless that idea; or for many others seeing a stranger with a tattoo, the first thought that comes to mind is that this person leads a life of extreme debauchery. Holding this type of implicit bias does not make you inherently racist, it makes you human, impressionable and infallible. What is important in such situations is to accept that we can make erroneous judgements, understand that racism is real and that people are hurting because of it. We need to acknowledge that normalized discrimination does in fact directly influence our opinions of each other. And to curb that, we need to educate ourselves and make conscious efforts to reject our bias whether out of genuine desire to rise above racism or a practical requisite of living in civil society. You choose.
Sameirah Nasrin Ahsan is a Mechanical Engineer based in Dhaka. She aspires to be an author someday. For rants and book recommendations, you can follow her on Instagram: @booksnher