A passenger waits at Kolkata airport in India on July 23, 2020 (Photo: Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The India travel halt reminds me I’ll always be second-class in your eyes

News of the travel suspension on flights from India resurrects uncomfortable memories for Melanie Sharma-Barrow – and other women of Indian descent like her, she writes.

Twenty-two years ago, at university, I studied “citizenship and ideology”, a course exploring how ideology feeds the principles underpinning citizenship. When I learned about the temporary suspension of arrivals from India, including New Zealand citizens and residents, I feared what it said about the ideology of New Zealand. It also made me consider how I am seen by this country, more than five years after I first made it my home.

In 2015 my European NZ husband and I arrived from the UK with our children. We set up in a wealthy suburb where my husband had lived decades before; according to official statistics, the area is 90% white. We sent our kids to the local decile 10 school where fundraisers could raise $80,000 in a single night. There was a large out-of-zone roll thanks to families fleeing something or other, including a girl who was moved from the nearby not-white school because it had so many transient foreign-born kids that her parents believed their daughter could not adjust.

I soon became used to the kids staring at me in silence during after-school pick-up. One day my eldest child came home and said a fellow pupil had told her that her father had been to India and apparently people there “eat and wipe their bum with their hands”.

There was confusion when I mentioned to other mums that I’d been privately educated and my parents were professionals. A discussion about breast vs bottle feeding prompted another mum to scoff that I was probably bottle-fed myself because poor Indian mums in the UK were encouraged to bottle feed in the ’70s. Hmm. My family wasn’t poor.

Once, while waiting in my car at the school before pick-up, I watched as parents arrived at the school gates. One mother was a New Zealand woman of Indo-Fijian descent. I counted two people verbally acknowledge her; eight either grimaced at her or gave an apologetic smile. One looked at her in disgust.

So 20% were welcoming and 80% were not.

I wonder if that’s representative of New Zealanders’ opinions as a whole – that only 20% of Kiwis really don’t mind Indians and 80% would rather we didn’t share your space?

You see, it feels like 80% of you flinch when you see us. That you won’t give way to us when we use a pedestrian crossing. That you think our kids look dirty. That you think we are lesser than you. It is an uncomfortable thought to admit. But it is also deeply uncomfortable for me. This is the racism I experience before I even open my mouth. It is only when I start talking in a plummy accent that many people reveal a different kind of racism: one of surprise that an Indian is highly educated and eloquent.

I remember seeing a white woman walk away from a confused and upset Indian child who was looking for his mother. She looked around to check no one was watching before she left him alone and scared. But I saw.

We know you want us to accept this travel suspension and submit to Jacinda Ardern’s politics of kindness. And I understand the numbers which led to the decision.

But I wonder what percentage of you who care about diversity know how many do not care at all. Isn’t this how we should be using numbers for everyone’s safety?

Travel suspensions will come and go and eventually so will Covid, but racism is here to stay.

I’ve struggled to find Indians who will publicly comment on the decision to ban arrivals from India, but kindly do not misinterpret silence from the community with blanket acceptance of it. It’s just that by now we’re far too accustomed to being singled out.




The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.