Explainer: Esha Gupta, Alexander Iwobi, and casual racism in India

Bollywood actress and Arsenal club ambassador Esha Gupta has written a letter of apology to Alexander Iwobi, Arsenal’s Nigerian midfielder. Reason: she participated in a racist chat, now deleted, against the player.

Gupta first received backlash from the public after posting a screenshot of a WhatsApp chat with her friend; in it, the latter had made a racist remark that Gupta had responded to in amusement. Her friend had said, “I can’t see that gorilla faced Iwobi running down the flank again”; in addition to that, there was also a remark that read: “evolution stopped for him”. The actress had posted a screenshot of this conversation on her Instagram story with the caption: “Hahaha.. Best”.

After people criticised her on Twitter, Gupta tweeted an apology on January 27: “Guys m [sic] sorry you thought it was racist. Was bad on my part, being a sports lover. Wallah never meant it. Sorry guys forgive the stupidity.”

Tired, racist trope all around

Blacks often face insults in the form of the terms ‘apes’ and ‘gorillas’. Pamela Taylor, director of Clay County Development Corp, made headlines for calling Michelle Obama “an ape in heels” on Facebook.

Referring to Melania Trump becoming First Lady, Taylor wrote: “It will be refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified first lady back in the White House. I’m tired of seeing an ape in heels.” The organisation subsequently fired Taylor.

Comedian Roseanna Barr made a similar mistake when she likened Valerie Jarrett, an African-American and senior advisor to Barack Obama, to an ape. Barr tweeted, “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby = vj”.

Barr later apologised. She claimed she was “Ambien tweeting”, implying she was under the influence of a medication used to treat insomnia, and made a faux pass. She added, “I am truly sorry for making a bad joke about her politics and her looks. I should have known better. Forgive me-my joke was in bad taste.”

Ambien manufacturer Sanofi responded: “People of all races, religions and nationalities work at Sanofi every day to improve the lives of people around the world. While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

Wanda Sykes, an African-American woman and consulting producer on Barr’s show, tweeted she would not return to the show. Sara Gilbert, an actor on the show, also said Barr’s comments had disappointed her.

ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey said, “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values”, and cancelled the comedian’s show on the network.

Where does racism stem from?

Gupta’s comments are one in a long line of racist attitudes. Brent Staples, a member of the New York Times’ editorial board, explains, “This depiction—promoted by slave traders, historians and practitioners of ‘scientific’ racism—was used to justify slavery, lynching, and the creation of the Jim Crow state.”

Staples discusses how phrasing like Gupta’s not only creates an “ape caricature of blackness”, but also dehumanises blacks and frames them as savage and beast-like. He mentions an analysis of police records that showed “officers who associated blacks with apes were more likely to have used force against a black child in custody”.

Whitney Alese said in an essay, “This view of Black people as animals, essentially, is more than just a mean name to call someone. It has had violent, history altering, culture destroying effects upon people of the Africa [sic] diaspora.”

Indian colourism towards blacks

Gupta’s response to the outrage is telling of the casual attitudes Indians have towards racism, especially when it involves the black community. In her letter to Iwobi, she wrote that she was unaware of the “racial undertone” of her friend’s text.

BBC says Gupta’s post “hints at a long-known, but little acknowledged, problem of racism towards people of African descent in Indian society”. The Association of African Students in India said African students in India face racism on a daily basis.

In 2016, a mob stripped and beat up a Tanzanian woman. In 2017, several African students in UP were targeted in racist attacks. Amnesty International says locals beat up a Kenyan woman in Greater Noida, as well as four Nigerian men; meanwhile, a mob in Delhi assaulted a Nigerian student, Endurance Amalawa, all in suspected racist attacks.


BBC discusses Indian colourism—“where people with darker skin are discriminated against by those within their own race”—and says it is institutional and flies under the radar.

When Gupta tweeted, “I din [sic] realise it directed towards racism.laughed over the spur of the moment… been a victim of racism myself before”, her words became testament to the fact that colourism exists in India as a mark of top-down movement: from white westerners to brown Indians, and from brown Indians to black Africans.

Fans have suggested that Arsenal remove Gupta as a club ambassador. People have also criticised her apology; they say she implied she was only sorry because others thought it was racist, not because she believed she had made a problematic comment or understood how she had contributed to India’s racist climate.

Gupta hasn’t faced any formal action yet.

Rhea Arora is a staff writer for Qrius

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