Dear Brown People: Explaining South Asian Racism

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Ushah Kazi

Married to books, in a relationship with food, playing dress up since 1993. An unabashed pop-culture junkie. Come talk movies and lifestyle with me!

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So, I’ve been attempting to write this article for almost a month. And every time I sit down to start, I feel completely inept. South Asian racism is the region’s best kept secret. It is that thing that goes bump in the night, and that thing that we pretend doesn’t exist. However, it is also something that impacts most if not all South Asian communities. And many of us, unwittingly or otherwise, also benefit from it. 

As much became clear to me, when some time ago, I decided to publish a video about Pakistan’s Black community. 

There was never any agenda on my end, save for the intent to encourage a conversation. Post the horrific murder of George Floyd, many a Pakistani celebrity had hopped onto the bandwagon. “Black Lives Matter” they tweeted, in droves. 

“Absolutely,” I thought, “but what about the Black Lives back home?” 

The responses to the video left me perplexed, if not petrified. There were the expected ones; well-intentioned Pakistanis and South Asians who genuinely weren’t aware. And then there were the anticipated ones. In particular, there was a dismissive sentiment. That racism didn’t exist in Pakistan. And instead, if anyone was indeed being discriminated against, it was because of their ethnicity. 

Yes, because bigots wear T-shirts saying ‘I’m a xenophobe, not a racist’. (That was sarcasm by the way.) 

The issue of what kind of bigotry exists in South Asia is a complex one. Particularly since bigotry, as it so often does, overlaps in the region. Often class, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality and religion all shake hands. And even more often, the word ‘racism’ means many things for South Asians. 

A Thorn By Any Other Name 

Some years ago, Anwar Maqsood uploaded a clip that made fun of Pakistan’s Sindhi community, demeaning stereotypes in tow. This, according to prominent Pakistani entertainers (who happened to be Sindhi) exemplified racism. 

More recently, after the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in India, popular cricketer Irfan Pathan weighed in. Likening his inability to purchase property because of his Muslim faith, to racism. 

There is something to be said about how ethnicity, and faith have impacted modern day racism. The first set of racially prejudiced laws, were a product of religious and ethnic bigotry during the Spanish inquisition. And modern acts of violence targeting certain religious and ethnic groups, are painfully reminiscent of profiling. Reports of lynchings, mob violence, and pervasive policing techniques are commonplace. 

Aspirational Bigotry 

But, there is also a need to address a specific kind of bias, which is often swept under the rug. Anti-Blackness, is a specific kind of bigotry. And, it has a place in South Asian society, and amongst South Asian communities everywhere. The bias is not uniformly distributed amongst any and all ‘others’; Blackness is met with particular disdain. 

In the wake of the recent protests, conversations around South Asian racism have made headlines. Celebrities are facing backlash because of fairness product endorsements. Inter-racial couples, once forced to hide their relationship, are able to share their experiences. And perhaps most importantly, we’re finally discussing the South Asian community’s compliance. 

In an article published by The Paris Review, Neel Patel simply declares; “we picked the wrong side.” Detailing his own experiences with anti-Blackness, he notes that South Asians would often perpetuate these biases. The Black American experience made South Asian immigration into the US easier, he argues. And yet in spite of this, South Asian Americans are either oblivious to their plight, or actively endorse racist sentiments. Predominantly, he seems to argue, this is because of what White Americans represent for the South Asian community. 

South Asian Americans swing between Homi Bhabha’s ‘mimic men’, and the, ‘we will become Canadian’ sentiment of Russel Peters’ comedy. 

The Perpetuation Of Caste 

Except, I don’t think that this explains the extent of our biases. The colonial hangover, and wanting to exude White-ness is common among South Asians. But, so is anti-Black racism. 

South Asia has a diverse landscape. Our lineage is multi-source, and steeped in various ancestries. It is also steeped in multiple layers of bigotry. To understand this, let’s watch this video of Tony Joseph using the analogy of a pizza to explain ancestry. (No, seriously.) 

Endogamy, and the perpetuation of a society divided, manifested in perceived biological differences. In the 1950s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made a highly publicised trip to India. Throughout his travels, while he praised the land of a man who obviously inspired him, he also had grievances. Particularly, he noted the similarity between racism in the US, and the caste divide in India. 

More recently, Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan broke down how the persistence of caste related bigotry in India, perpetuated anti-Black racism. Where a darker skin-tone is seen as an indication of caste, which itself is tied to a perceived subhuman status. 

And lest you misunderstand, this delineation is not limited to India. In Pakistan, the language of ‘schedule castes’ is still present in our legal doctrine. Muslims and upper-caste Hindus alike either turn a blind eye to their plight, or actively endorse discrimination. Across restaurants and hotels, lower-caste Hindus cannot share utensils with other communities. In rural communities, lower-caste Hindu women face the threat of forced conversions.

Most tragically, every religion seems to have its own version of the caste system. Building on a belief system that assigns castes at birth, and exposes individuals to a cycle of subjugation. The idea that status, position and even employment depend on caste, is longstanding. 

Anti-Blackness In South Asian Communities

These biases were amplified by a colonial hangover, which strengthened the idea that a fairer complexion is akin to higher status. So much so, that casteism continues to wreak havoc across South Asia. There are the active threats of violence, of course. But, there is also the more insidious systemic violence, which prevents individuals from breaking the cycle. That ascension is not possible within caste doctrine, is maintained by social taboos and discrimination. 

anti black racism in south asia

Into this unfair mix, is added the plight of the Black South Asian community. A short while after I was lectured about how my video misunderstood race in Pakistan, Tanzeela Qambrani affirmed my worst fears. She is Pakistan’s first Black lawmaker, and has openly detailed the discrimination faced by her community. 

In June, she filed a protest resolution in the Sindh provincial assembly. Condemning the racist sentiments which she maintains are not limited to any particular country. When I spoke to her, some days later, she further detailed how the country’s Black community is treated. In particular, stereotypes that demonise Black men and sexualise Black women are a throwback to both colonial and communal discrimination. 

That these attitudes have yet to be fully addressed is also a worry. This is why African students in India have to fear for their safety. It is why South Asian Americans openly support anti-Black racism, and racist institutions. Recently, there were signs of the South Asian community finally engaging in sweeping conversations about race. But, I fear that we may have already moved on, when we haven’t actually changed anything. 

Baby Steps Versus Marching Forward 

Predominantly, South Asia’s conversations about race centred on colourism, and products that profited from the prejudice. That Unilever promised a name change for India’s most popular fairness cream marks a step in the right direction. 

But make no mistake, this is a step. And a tiny one at that. Industry is one piece of that puzzle. The other pieces are much more tightly lodged in our collective conscience. A policy change is not enough to end caste based discrimination. A single resolution will not protect Black South Asians. And, we cannot hope to stand in solidarity in the global fight against racism, if we do not face the demons at home.

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Emma Hayes

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