And so Charlie Hebdo has waded right into the racism controversy with its characteristic outré aesthetics and dubious sense of humour. Its cover features Queen Elizabeth with her knee on a prone, screaming Duchess Meghan—if anyone missed the visual reference to George Floyd, there was textual help too, by way of the ‘I can’t breathe’ meme. One could ask who looks more fiendish in the portrayal, but we may not have the moral high ground to register our righteous indignation at White racism. India has managed to get its own name into the centre of race debates. Rashmi Samant, an Udipi girl who had become the first-ever Indian woman to be elected president of the Oxford student union, had to resign and go incommunicado amidst a social media storm in which her words on Instagram were seen as a classic example of casual racism. Now the matter has escalated, and been inverted. A BJP MP implicitly accused the British of victimising an Indian girl, eliciting a statement in Parliament from Foreign Minister S Jaishankar that India “can never turn its eyes away from racism”.
Racist attitudes in Western society are no secret at all—India has two centuries of colonial disparagement to know this from, and is in need of no reminders. But the episode has given us a cracked mirror in which to look at ourselves. And ask ourselves squarely: Are we not guilty too? With the Black civil rights movement, the West has at least arrived at a point of self-consciousness. In India, we still blithely transact with words and images that would, elsewhere, be called out for racism from a mile away. The targets are not just non-Indians. Regional stereotypes generate everything from laughter to fear—remember only the mass exodus of Northeasterners from Bengaluru a few years ago. The truth may be that our racism is still unselfconscious—unexamined.