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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Colour coding

Speaking of people of other races - I'm sure every Indian gang in the USA has their own little code word - in whatever language they are most comfortable with - to describe people of other races.

Our gang of grads here at Northwestern is no different. Sadly, the terms we use are not very interesting. They go something like this -

Blacks - 'Kallu' (very standard - a bit offensive, I suppose, but only if they knew what was being said). Alternatively, among Bongs, we occasionally use the term 'Shyamborno'. Other interesting words I've heard are - 'Danav' (very offensive), and 'hupsi' (pronounced hup-see, hup rhyming with pup). The last word I heard used by my friend Gaurab, who is Nepali. Apparently hupsi is Nepali for black. Again, not much imagination, but its so bizarre-sounding, I don't think anybody will figure out what it means.

Chinese - 'Chinkie' has outlived its usefulness, since by now all Orientals know what it means, and are offended by it. So alternatives have to be thought of. The one we use is 'Chapta/Chapti'. It refers to the noses of the race in question, which tend to be a little on the flatter side. Also, its broader in scope because it covers all nationalities from Japanese to Thai to Mongolian. I don't think its terribly offensive either. One person I know uses the term 'ding-dong', which doesn't make much sense really, so I don't use it.

Latins - The only expression used for these people is 'Makku', which derives from the English 'Mexican' - i.e. residents of the nation of Mexico. Its used for all people South of Texas, and I'm quite sure that the Colombians would be outraged if they knew that they were (essentially) being called Mexicans, but what they don't know can't hurt them now, can it?

Whites - The obvious one is 'gora'. If you want to be a little rude, you can say 'chikne/chikni' (as in - "Yaar, ye chikni bachhiyan itni maal kyon hoti hain?" - very few real Hindi words used but I think everyone follows). Also for White Americans, there is 'Amroo'. If you're Bengali, you just use the correct word, which is 'Markin'. Like many Bengali words for people of other nationalities, there is no obvious link between it and the English word. I could also think of 'Farashi' (French), 'Tashkar' (Turkish) and so on, but I digress.

So the final question is - is it racist to use these expressions? Personally, I think it is. After all, we are typecasting people on the basis of their (different from us) skin tones. And its easy to fall into the trap of making insulting remarks about a community just because they can't understand what you're saying. That said, I will say that in a list of activities spreading hatred, this one lists right at the bottom. And I can live guiltlessly with something this minor against my name.

And then again, I'm sure the Chinese have their own word to describe us brown-skinned folk. And I'm betting its not half as polite as 'desi'.