South Asians have a complex history with anti-Blackness and we need to confront and dismantle it for collective liberation.
South Asia has a rampant anti-Black racism problem. I know both from experience and by being a witness to it. Everyone knows about the skin bleaching creams that are so popular in Asia, but the racism problem — particularly anti-Black racism — is so clandestine and sinister that many can’t refuse to admit or accept that it exists.
Pretty much every South Asian person has an elderly relative — usually a grandma — who proudly announces that their grandkids can marry anyone who makes them happy, so long as they’re not Black. The statement is also meant to include non-Black dark-skinned people.
My grandmother always tells me to put sunscreen on before I go outside. This may seem like a considerate thing to say, but her motives are sinister: she doesn’t want me to get a tan. i.e., she doesn’t want me to get darker; she wants me to remain as light-skinned as possible. Internalized anti-Blackness, white supremacy, and colourism is so deeply entrenched in our psyches (including my own) that proximity to whiteness is seen as inherently superior.
Hearing shit like this — seemingly harmless shit, which is actually incredibly violent — has unsurprisingly left me with ingrained anti-Blackness and white supremacist beliefs which I consistently work extremely hard to unlearn. But I’m an exception, in that most South Asian people won’t even admit that they are — or even can be — racist by virtue of their own marginalization. I’m an exception in that I’m willing to stand up to my elders, even if it means “disrespecting” them, a feat in a culture that so heavily emphasizes respect for elders. But there are more important things than respect for elders, especially when those elders are helping to further an oppressive cycle.
Colourism is a significant problem in South Asia and it is directly related to anti-Blackness. A lot of it stems from classism, which predates the arrival of the British (like the Indian caste system), which is far more apparent in South Asia than it is in the West, but a lot of it is the deeply ingrained idea that Black people are somehow less than. South Asian folks love to point out the harms they suffered during British colonialism, and they are definitely justified. But when South Asian people start claiming that the oppression they face(d) is anything like what Black people face(d), they are not only belittling the centuries of torture and abuse Black people have experienced but they also very conveniently ignore the fact that South Asians were once also slaveowners and their properties were (among other races) kidnapped Black people.
Slavery in South Asia is something that isn’t discussed as much as it should be. The region has a slew of current problems that need to be tackled, but it’s a disservice to remain ignorant of the ugly history of their ancestors and how they continue to benefit from them. And yes, like white slaveowners, the descendants of slaveowners in South Asia do benefit from their ancestors as well, some without even realizing it. Similarly, the descendants of enslaved Black people in South Asia are looked down upon and often live in poverty and shunned by the majority of citizens. The Siddi, who are descendants of the Bantu peoples of East Africa, are a great example of this. The difficulty faced by dark-skinned people in South Asia and its diaspora is another. There’s still this idea that darker skin is inherently ugly and undesirable and compliments based on the fairness of one’s skin and insults on the darkness of one’s skin are not uncommon. It’s, therefore, no surprise that skin bleaching is such a norm in Asia — we’re so scared of being associated with Black people that will are willing to literally burn our skin off.
Ironically, South Asian people — like white people — absolutely “adore” (read: fetishize) Black culture while finding being Black to be undesirable. Similar to white people, South Asians consider much of Black culture to be cool and impressive — from hip-hop being sampled in Bollywood songs to the unashamed use of the N-word to blatant plagiarism. South Asians love to conveniently ignore the fact that we are guilty of oppression because we think we’re safe from being oppressors since we were once oppressed ourselves. We really believe that we’re just as entitled to use of the N-word because we were also oppressed and continue to face racism today, but we fail to acknowledge that oppression is multifaceted and that, while we ourselves have faced hardships and will continue to face them for the foreseeable future, it is not comparable to the hardships faced by Black people nor is it a free pass to practice anti-Blackness ourselves.
Hell, just look at the recent brown-/Blackface scandal with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is also a candidate in the country’s upcoming federal election. There are too many (usually older) people of colour — South Asians as well as West Indian and Arab — who genuinely believe that there’s nothing harmful in what Trudeau did, with some even saying he needn’t apologize. They have written it off as a harmless costume, and some even justified the use of brown-/Blackface because Aladdin is not white (fun fact: Aladdin isn’t Arab either; in the original One Thousand and One Nights tale, he’s Chinese). They go on about how there are more important issues to worry about and still support the hell out of Trudeau, almost as if the country didn’t also have an equally qualified and unproblematic (so far!) candidate running who happens to be an actually-brown-skinned Sikh man, New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh.
South Asia has a rampant anti-Black racism problem, and it’s not going to go away on its own. While more young activists are speaking out about this abhorrent and shameful part of our culture, it’s clearly not enough. I’m not sure what advice I can offer to help curb it aside from working — in any way we’re able — to unlearn the harmful behaviour and ensure we safely call out others when they indulge in it, but one thing that I know for sure is that no solution will happen unless we first acknowledge that there is a problem to be solved. South Asia has a rampant anti-Black racism problem, it’s embarrassing and disheartening to accept, but we need to put our egos aside and start walking over to the right side of history.
Sarah Khan is a Toronto-based editor and writer, a Marxist of the Groucho tendency, and raging intersectional feminist killjoy. You can follow her on Twitter @sarathofkhan.