In April this year I took an Emirates flight from Mumbai to Dubai. My inflight entertainment system was not working. I asked the flight attendant to help me. He said he would. He didn’t.
After ten minutes I asked him again. He did nothing.
When I called him for the third time, the girl sitting next to me, who happened to be white, snapped at him. Within a minute I was put on another seat with a functional entertainment system.
It takes a white person for a brown person in an Emirati airline to get what she's paid for.
I’d lived in Dubai for three years and had flown in all their airlines to India. It was almost the same case each time: the pinched faces of the cabin crew, the brusque service, the exchanged glances when passengers clapped on landing, the almost audible sigh of relief when passengers scurried out.
The same crew would smile with their teeth showing, once the connecting flight to, say, JFK saw the influx of white people.
Worse still, this was not a UAE-only phenomenon. Everywhere I’ve lived there have been Indians and racism against them. In Switzerland a placard in my office toilet read, “You are not Indian, wash your hands after use.”
In Singapore I was told Indians are “dirty”.
In America I was called “Paki” and in Jamaica I was called “coolie”.
It keeps stinging me: why are Indians subject to racism?
Ten years ago, I was on a different flight to Dubai. After takeoff, an Indian woman in a sari lay down across on the floor, in the aisle, and went to sleep. An airhostess asked the woman to move. The woman sat up on her seat, but once the airhostess turned away, she sprawled back on the aisle.
The airhostess looked around in frustration and our eyes met. I found myself nodding at her sympathetically. She smiled back at me. We had a moment.
A moment of “us versus them”.
This moment quickly turned into guilt that racked me for the rest of the flight. How had I participated in the subliminal slurring of my fellow Indian, that too with a foreigner? Do I make a superlative effort to be gracious with the crew to signal that all Indians are not the same?
When a UAE-based ex-flight attendant called Indian passengers “fucking rats”, “untameable” and “stupid” after an Emirates plane from Kerala crash-landed in Dubai this week, I was livid.
Public, overtly racist name-calling is not a solution. Regressive, charged slurs like “fucking rats” and “untameable” are not a deserving reaction towards frightened passengers who were taking their belongings from an exploding plane.
I’m still livid.
But is that anger really justifiable, if it’s just my own disdain for my countrymen hurled back to me, but from a foreigner?
Is the racism that’s stung me around the world just a version of my own classism, shown back to me?
It’s difficult to tell if upper middle class India has earned the right to be outraged by racism, when we participate in it so deeply.
I’ve heard Indians call white people “promiscuous”, black people “habshis”, and East Asians “chinki”.
But even worse, we discriminate among ourselves as a national pastime, whether it’s the disdain of upper middle class Indians towards those of lesser income groups, or of the fair-skinned towards the dark-skinned, or of North Indians towards anyone East or South of them.
Popular conversation is speckled with words like manoos, mallu, pav, ghatis and bihari.
I know I’m not the only frequent-flying Indian who’s rolled her eyes at Indian co-passengers for standing up before the seatbelt sign goes off, talking loudly on the phone when their phone should be switched off, reclining before takeoff, or being less-than-polite to cabin crew.
I’m not the only one who’s been guilty of forgetting that many passengers travelling from India to the Middle East belong to the lower and middle class. Many of the passengers are labourers, on a plane for the first time in their lives. That the possessions with them then are all the possessions they have. That the Middle East does not attract exclusively crème-de-la-crème Indians, like the US or Europe.
I’ve rolled my eyes at people on flights who lack an awareness of in-flight etiquette, an awareness that we often forget comes with wealth or exposure.
Ultimately, this becomes an argument of their racism versus our racism, with no victor in sight. And maybe when we do it to ourselves, we normalise it.
Maybe when we, Indians, call other Indians “dirty” and “cheapo” and “verni” and “L.S.”, we’re reacting to the same biases that are at play when foreigners call us, all of us, untameable fucking rats.
I reserve the right to be angry at them for it because boorishness is not an Indian thing, or an Arab thing, or a white thing, or a poor thing. It’s a human thing. I’ve seen well-heeled flyers from around the world push each other after landing, fight over their dinners, throw themselves at white men, and stare at the breasts of airhostesses.
I’m livid at the names Indians were called online, based on how a few of them, in a moment of panic, afraid for their lives, reacted (naturally).
But, when our anger wanes, let’s remember to ask ourselves the uncomfortable questions.
Like: when we do it to ourselves, do we normalise it? Are we outraged by racism on Facebook and participants of it at home? And which of our own privileges do we take for granted when we roll our eyes at each other, in passing, every day?
Meghna Pant is an award-winning author, journalist and speaker whose new book The Trouble With Women will be published by Juggernaut in September. You can follow her on Twitter @MeghnaPant.