Whether it’s the present-day alienation of Sidi community, who were first brought to the Indian subcontinent as slaves, or the colourism that darker-skinned desis have had to deal with since the invention of Eurocentric beauty, the anti-Blackness in the South Asian community has deep, toxic roots.
There’s an idea that, while South Asians may not be at the top of the racial hierarchy, we’re at least deemed higher than our Black counterparts. This is woven into our histories and passed down generation after generation. Socially structured below white people but above Black people, we have the experiences of being people of colour while also having proximity to whiteness that Black communities are excluded from. Undoubtedly, this has often meant that we don’t do enough to ensure the safety of the Black lives around us.
South Asian anti-Blackness is far from a new topic in the discourse. It’s an unfortunate conversation that arises again and again, most often when another innocent Black life is lost. “Okay, we say to ourselves, now is the time to speak to our families.” And we start posting on social media in the hopes of educating others in our social circles. While this is a vital part of speaking up today, there’s a fine line between performative allyship and facilitating real change.
But the discourse within the community this time around, first sparked by the brutal murder of George Floyd, feels more apparent. It’s perhaps why the organisation SouthAsians4BlackLives went from having 1,500 Instagram followers to nearly 50K in just three weeks.
“We created the account in March, just before lockdown, and the hashtag #southasiansforBlacklives only had four or five posts. Now it’s over 5,000,” Samia Abassi, co-founder of the initiative says. “SouthAsians4BlackLives was started by a group of South Asian womxn in California. The program is aimed at calling in our South Asian community to dismantle anti-Blackness and join the racial solidarity movement. Our program is focused on education and awareness within the South Asian community through our social media, monthly newsletter, online events/webinars, and in-person cohort-based program.”
So how exactly do we tackle anti-Blackness in the South Asian community?
Don’t derail the conversation
A common response from South Asians when addressing the anti-Blackness in our communities is: “What about us? What about our struggles?”.
“Stop centring South Asian stories and trauma,” advises Samia. “We are seeing a lot of responses from South Asians that centre their own experiences with oppression, and in some cases comparing it to the struggles of the Black community. We will say it now and always: this is not about us.“
“True allyship understands that while the pain and struggles of the South Asian diaspora is an important issue, it is not the one that we are centreing at this moment,“ Samia continues. “Furthermore, these conversations about South Asian struggles can and need to take place, however, we should be mindful of when and where they are happening and where it is taking up space. There is also hypocrisy within our community [in terms] of only showing up when it directly impacts us and it needs to stop.”
Take a step back and listen, then act
“As allies, we only have limited knowledge on the Black experience, so it’s important we don’t speak for our Black communities,” says Samia. “That we take a minute to sit in discomfort instead of being reactionary. That when we hear fake news around Black lives that gets shared in our mothers’ WhatsApp groups, we question and point it out. That we donate to Black-led organisations. That when we speak about these issues, that we don’t speak about our own traumas.”
Make use of your relative privilege
You may have heard this argument from within other non-Black POC communities too: we don’t have much power, to begin with, so if we put it at risk by speaking out, what will we have left if we lose it?
“Our parents came to countries like the US and the UK because they wanted us to live in a stable country, so there’s this sentiment to put your head down and be grateful. Don’t get involved. But we have to recognise that we benefit from these structures and that something that’s for another community doesn’t take anything away from us,” says Samia.
Indeed, the only reason why (select, highly educated) South Asians were initially allowed to migrate to America was because of the Immigration Act of 1965, that came as a direct result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Therefore without the protesting, the marching and the push for racial equality by African Americans in the US, as well as the countless Black lives lost for the ability to be seen the same, South Asians would not have been afforded the ability to immigrate to the US, in search of a better life.
Under the model minority myth, South Asians have always been used as a stick to beat the Black community. For those of us who have ‘made it’, we’re used as examples of the American dream that ‘Look, they can do it! Why can’t you?’. We have to understand that as a community, South Asians have the power to stop being pawns when it comes to being tools against Black lives. Instead, as ethnic minorities together, South Asians, with our stakes in healthcare, technology, engineering and everyday privileges, can be the bigger cog fighting against Black oppression. We have to remember, we get nowhere by trying to step on Black lives, in order to move up in the social ladder.
Don’t pretend all racisms are equal
As Sharan Dhaliwal, Editor-in-Chief of Burnt Roti Magazine, points out, “Black experiences are not the same as that of any other person of colour. We can’t and should not compare, especially since we ourselves have and can continue to be the cause of many of these issues. Let’s not forget the police officer who watched as George Floyd died was [East] Asian.”
It is true that in the 60s and 70s, British Asians were classed as “politically Black”, and different Black and brown ethnic minority groups in the West historically marched for each other’s struggles. But with the rise of the middle class in South Asian communities and growth of Islamophobia (even though over 30% of Muslims are Black globally), came the divide between our communities.
Yet anti-Black racism is undeniably more violent than anti-Asian racism, and has seen the deaths of many in the Black community. “The racial hierarchy works in the favour of South Asians, whether that’s in the US, in South Africa, in Uganda. We want to attain whiteness so bad,” says Samia. Being anti-Black is undeniably prevalent in all communities of colour, whereas that’s not the case for the racism encountered by South Asians.
Organise, organise, organise
Being a non-optical ally for the Black community begins with using what we have. For example,Burnt Roti’s next print issue will be around anti-Blackness in the South Asian community and will honour and pay Black artists. “We’ve also held an Instagram auction onBurnt Roti’spage, where 10 South Asian artists donate pieces of work, which our followers could bid on. So far we have raised over £1000 for various Black organisations,” says Sharan.”
Samia says tackling anti-Blackness in the South Asian community comes with the added “responsibility of building intention and asking: ‘What does it mean to train in this work?’”. This doesn’t mean corporate, surface-level diversity training in our workplaces, but investment into research around anti-Blackness, calling for changes to school curriculums, and continuing partnerships with Black community organisations.
This work cannot stop when the protests stop being new news. The unlearning of anti-Blackness shouldn’t have a pause button because frankly, until Black lives are properly valued and protected, none of us are free from complicity. “It’s time we recognise the weight, the knowledge and power that comes from the solidarity of our communities,” says Samia. “It’s time we be a key part of that bridge and play into the strengths we possess”.