The obsession with skin-lightening in the South Asian community is not a different problem than the attacks against Africans. Both are rooted in antiblackness.
by Sanjana Lakshmi
Two summers ago, I attended the Young Leaders Institute program through SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together), and the theme that year was antiblackness in the South Asian community. There, I met like-minded South Asians around my age who cared about confronting dangerous attitudes within our community, and we spent three days immersing ourselves in academics and activism, brainstorming the best ways to unlearn the antiblackness that we saw in all of our families and friends.
Last week, my Facebook newsfeed was filled with denunciations of the brutal attacks by Indians against Nigerian students in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh. But there weren’t enough denunciations — just as there aren’t enough South Asians confronting the anti-blackness that is inherent within our community.
Four Nigerian students were beaten with sticks after being accused of cannibalism and funneling drugs to a 17-year-old Indian boy who died the weekend before the attacks. Accusing these students of cannibalism is racist — it plays into the harmful stereotype of Africans as uncivilized. The Association of African Students in India (AASI) told Africans in the country to stay indoors last week, as they feared for their lives.
The attacks last week were not an isolated incident. Africans in India have been beaten and harassed by Indians multiple times. On May 20, 2016, Masunda Kitada Oliver, a Congolese national, was brutally killed in south Delhi. In March 2015, four Africans were allegedly attacked by a mob in Bangalore. African students report that they have been told to “get out of the country,” to “go back home,” and called by various racist names.
When similar xenophobic remarks are made to Indians in the United States, as in the recent shooting in Kansas against Srinivas Kuchibotla, India is quick to come out with statements about the harmful nature of these racist attacks. However, when attacks against Africans occur in India, the External Affairs Minister states that “it is unfortunate that a criminal act triggered following the untimely death of a young Indian student under suspicious circumstances has been termed as xenophobic and racial.”
It is not “unfortunate” that this attack was called xenophobic and racial — it is the truth. If we fail to even acknowledge our racism, how will we even begin to confront and unlearn it?
Antiblackness shows up in the South Asian community in more ways than physical attacks against Africans in the subcontinent. Parents tell their children to stay inside — lest they spend too much time in the sun and grow darker. India alone has a multi-billion dollar skin-whitening industry. When we value lighter-skinned people more than darker-skinned people, that is antiblackness manifesting itself within our communities. I know South Asians who were afraid for me when I told them I was moving to Chicago for college, because there is a high population of Black folks here. This is racism; this is antiblackness.
South Asians, especially in the United States, also play into the “model minority” myth in an attempt to reach whiteness. The myth is built on a foundation of antiblackness: it points to minorities like South Asians in the United States and claims that because this minority is doing well academically and economically, they must be better off than Black folks, who have higher rates of poverty and less academic success. This myth ignores the large population of undocumented South Asians; it ignores working-class South Asians; it ignores all of those South Asians who do not fit into the stereotype of the academically and economically successful Asian. And it allows South Asians to internalize the belief that we are better than Black folks.
The model minority myth and the obsession with skin-lightening in the South Asian community are not a different problem than the attacks against Africans in the subcontinent. All of these things are rooted in the antiblackness that is so prevalent within South Asian communities. South Asians need to start taking this seriously. We need to confront our family members and friends when they make antiblack comments. We need to tell them it’s not right to make derogatory comments about darker members of the family and community. We need to tell them that they have no reason to fear Black folks just for being Black.
And we need to make sure that our community calls out racism for what it is, both in the U.S. and in the subcontinent. The attacks last week were racist and xenophobic. The students were attacked because Indians believed that they were cannibals and drug-peddlers. This is racist. We need to acknowledge that — and we need to change it.