Actress-entrepreneur Shilpa Shetty Kundra on Sunday alleged that she faced an unpleasant experience for being “brown” at the Sydney airport over her cabin luggage. Upset by an official who was curt, she says people’s tone must not change with preference to colour.
Shilpa Shetty Kundra, who dealt with racism in 2007 when she was a contestant on the fifth season of the British reality show “Celebrity Big Brother” — which she went on to win — faced the latest experience while boarding a plane for Melbourne from Sydney.
The 43-year-old took to Instagram to share the ordeal with a Qantas Airways lady staff member over a cabin luggage, which was deemed as ‘oversized’ at the check-in counter.
A furious Shilpa wrote: “At the check-in counter, met a grumpy Mel (that’s her name) who decided it was ‘okay’ to speak curtly to ‘us’ (brown people!) travelling together. I was flying business and had 2 bags (my allowance) and she insisted and decided my half empty duffel bag was oversized (to check-in), so she sent us to check it in at the other counter dealing with ‘oversized luggage’.
“There a polite lady (yes this one was) said, ‘This is not an oversized bag, please check this in manually if you can at another counter’ (all this happening while the counter is going to shut in five minutes).
“As the manual check-in wasn’t going through for five minutes (we tried), I went upto Mel and requested her to put the bag through as her colleague said it wasn’t an oversized bag. She refused again… Just being adamant especially when I told her this is causing a lot of inconvenience.
“We had no time to waste so we ran to the oversized baggage counter and requested her to put the bag through which she did after I told her that rude Mel had issues! To which another colleague joined in and reiterated my duffle wasn’t oversized and could’ve easily been checked in.”
The “Dhadkan” actress said her intention to narrate her experience is to make Qantas Airways take cognisance of the matter.
Even academics like me who often view certain topics through the lens of race sometimes
receive negative attention and judgement. Some people feel that speaking or writing
rationally about race is counter-productive and even racist.
Indo-Caribbean people (Indians), in particular, tend to receive condemnation when they
examine topics on the basis of race. Indian victims are often criticised for reporting
On the other hand, Afro-Caribbeans (Africans) receive either indifference or praise when they discuss race. For example, the following comment by a black calypsonian, published in a Trinidad national newspaper, drew praises: “In the midst of black consciousness in the 1970s, Bro Superior told black people ‘No matter where yuh born, Yuh still African’” (Guardian Nov 12, 2017).
Discussing race objectively with empirical data and statistical evidence is not racist. Racism
is the belief that another race of people is inferior. This attitude results in discrimination,
antagonism and domination individually, politically, economically and otherwise.
Race, ethnicity, class, sex, religion, nationality, geography, etc. are valid, legitimate and
appropriate social categories of difference in examining historical and contemporary issues.
Why should someone who talks objectively about race be criticised as a racist? Should we
also condemn someone who uses sex as a mode of inquiry as being sexist? To do so would be ignorant, biased and unfair.
In a recent public broadcast, the Prime Minister of multi-racial Trinidad and Tobago (T&T)
advised some citizens “not to see race in everything we do” (Express Sept 22, 2017). This ill- informed statement was made in relation to the mixed responses he received when he
appealed to citizens to open their homes to displaced Dominican refugees who were devastated by Hurricane Maria.
On the contrary, people should be encouraged to “see race” as well as sex (gender), class, nationality, geography and types of social identity. Studying race can reveal differences in the form of disparities, disadvantages, inequalities, power and privilege which have structured human life in the past and present. To overlook race would be to ignore the elephant in the room.
Criminologist and social psychologist Dr Ramesh Deosaran wrote a book entitled Inequality,
Crime & Education in Trinidad and Tobago: Removing the Masks (2016). He found that there was a toxic relationship among race, class, gender, family and geography, resulting in African students performing the worst in the education system.
Deosaran wrote: “Wittingly or unwittingly, the education system, to a large extent, becomes a racially segregated system. And with academic achievement also stratified by race” (page 163). His data showed that while 47% of African students went to university three years after secondary school, as much as 72% of Indians did so, and 49% of the Mixed group also attended.
Prospective students of Whitman College in the USA are encouraged to enrol in its Race and Ethnic Studies programme. They are told that “ideas about race and ethnicity have been central at many points in world history and remain salient today, whether we talk about ethnic pride or ethnic cleansing, about multicultural diversity or racial discrimination.”
Race and ethnicity are often used interchangeably. However, race refers to biological features (bone structure, facial features, hair texture, skin colour, etc.) and ethnicity denotes cultural traits (history, customs, religion, family-type, values, music, food, etc.).
In the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) CSEC Social Studies syllabus, Section A
(Individual, Family and Society) comprises of a content section that explains characteristics
of the population. These characteristics include age, sex, occupation, religion and ethnicity. In the CXC CAPE Sociology syllabus under Unit 1, Module 3, Social Stratification is
conceptualised according to status mobility, gender, class, colour, caste, race and ethnicity.
The topic of race and ethnicity is studied not only in sociology but also in history,
anthropology, cultural studies, visual culture, media, literature, communication, law, health,
human rights, gender, political science, economics, geography, public policy, international
relations, social psychology, etc.
In a research paper entitled “Understanding race and crime in Trinidad and Tobago,”
criminologist Dr Randy Seepersad (2017) found that most of the murderers, victims, accused and prisoners are Africans. His disaggregated data demonstrated that most of the violent crimes are committed by blacks against blacks.
In 2011, former National Security Minister John Sandy said, “We must recognise that it is
people looking like me who are being murdered, mothers like my mother, God rest her soul, who are out there weeping more than any other race” (Express Sep 3, 2011).
Race has always been a major factor in voting in all general elections in T&T. This form of
ethnic polarisation has been well documented by pollsters such as SARA, NACTA, ANSA
McAl and H.H.B. & Associates Ltd. Most Africans and Mixed persons support the PNM
while most Indians vote for the PP/UNC.
Dr. Kumar Mahabir is an anthropologist who has published 11 books. He lives in Trinidad.