A note to South Asians - Black Lives Matter is not about us
Written by Sheetal Mistry
The international reemergence of the Black Lives Matter movement a couple of months ago has prompted huge conversation within the South Asian community. On the whole, it has been incredibly progressive and positive - I’ve seen a lot of learning, sharing and open dialogue being had about the systemic injustices that Black people face, and the role of South Asians in addressing this. However, as the weeks have gone by, I’ve also seen pockets of the conversation shifted - and to an extent, manipulated - to focus on South Asians and the challenges we face. As a British-Indian Hindu I have specifically seen this in my own community. Black Lives Matter is about addressing the entrenched and institutionalised racism that is killing and traumatising Black communities specifically - so what is going on here?
Why are some of us struggling to centre Black voices and struggles?
As an example, as a result of Black Lives Matter, colourism and skin lightening has been brought back up the agenda amongst South Asians, particularly Indians - I’ve seen petitions to get rid of skin lightening creams, many Insta Live convos on the topic, and attacks on Bollywood actors for the ways in which they perpetuate colourism in the film industry. Colourism has been a problem in South Asian communities for centuries. It hails from a colonial mindset that fairer skin is ‘superior’ and symbolises wealth and privilege, and dark/black skin is ‘inferior’, and is upheld by long-existing caste structures. In this way, it is entwined with racism - in the words of actress Lupita Nyong’o: ‘colourism is the daughter of racism’. Renewed conversation and urgency on colourism is welcome - famous brand ‘Fair & Lovely’ were even forced to address this head-on recently, and although their response was tokenistic and unhelpful, it shows that the voices calling for change in this way are starting to be heard.
Colourism is indeed rife within South Asian communities - I have seen it manifest in my own family, being told not to get ‘too dark’ from staying out in the sun too long, that no one will marry me if I do. But I’ve also seen some South Asians recently claim that they ‘understand racism’ because of these comments that are made by others in their families or communities. It is important to remember that experiences of colourism within South Asian communities are not the same as the experiences of racism that Black people face. They are connected, sure - it would be ignorant to say they are completely separate issues - but they are not the same. To conflate the two and imply we therefore understand what Black people face would be equally ignorant.
Additionally, from observing the conversations being had by the many South Asian groups and people that I know (both in-person and online), I wonder whether focusing on colourism in our community in the spirit of BLM is just easier than actually acknowledging anti-Blackness and anti-Black racism as a whole. Many of us have grown up knowing the name of ‘Fair & Lovely’, hearing colourist comments passed around quite casually around us, and campaigns against colourism have existed for years, and I wonder if part of the reason the discourse around colourism is so rife right now amongst South Asians is because we can all relate to it; it is something we can more tangibly address and talk about because we know of it, we’ve experienced it. Whereas, not being Black ourselves, and also considering the amount of anti-blackness rooted in our community, can make it difficult for us to acknowledge and address Black experiences, or recognise our privilege in doing so. This is in a similar vein to many white people who are also being confronted with their roles in upholding anti-black racism. However, it’s not enough to scratch the surface of change by only focusing on what is more relatable to us.
Another way in which our community has derailed this important conversation around Black Lives Matter is by using it as a way to spotlight issues that solely affect us. ‘Whataboutism’ is a way in which to dismiss or deflect from a certain argument by changing the focus of attention. This can be done in a number of ways, both implicit and explicit. I’ve seen it happen so much on Twitter especially - where really important and informative threads have been derailed by South Asians going ‘yes okay but what about all the XXX going on back in our own countries? Don’t you care about that?’. You can see an example of where this happened to me after I shared something about Black Lives Matter a few weeks ago.
It has also manifested in other more hateful ways, such as in the case of the Indian restaurant in North London that was broken into a few weeks ago. The news of this broke via Twitter, with the tweeters blaming ‘BLM mobs’ for turning on ‘peaceful’ Indians - although there was absolutely no evidence to indicate it was anything to do with BLM, and the owner even spoke out against these rumours. I live in this area, we had no protests or protestors near us - looking at the comments, it seems like people were manipulating the incident to victimise Indian Hindus, in a ‘we face discrimination too’ kind of way. Of course, what happened to the restaurant is awful and shouldn’t have occurred at all. But the ease with which people made assumptions and interpreted what had happened with little to no evidence is an example of not only ‘whataboutism’ in direct relation to issues faced by Black people, but also an attempt to separate and cause division between communities. People jumped so easily on this divisive narrative and ran with it - it is scary how easy it was to bring out people’s internalised victimhood and discriminatory views.
I’ve seen a similar phenomenon play out in conversations with family and friends. I’ve had people roll their eyes when the protests were brought up, saying things like ‘well we faced racism when we came to this country but you didn’t see us complaining, did you?’. The model minority myth characterises South Asians - and particularly Indians - as the ‘ideal’ minority because of the way in which they’ve come to this country, ‘assimilated’ without much complaint, and are now doing fairly well for themselves. This feeling of superiority, that we’ve ‘done a good job’ and apparently not caused a fuss (which has supposedly led to our success and relative respect), is heavily internalised, particularly amongst the generations who first came to this country. But in reiterating this view in this manner - i.e. ‘we’ve struggled too but we would never complain in this way’ - again attempts to not only equate our struggles with Black communities, but also to separate us as being ‘better’ (more polite, more obedient, less complaining) than Black communities, because we haven’t protested about it or called it out. To be clear, South Asians have historically taken part in anti-racist activism in the UK, so the idea that we have peacefully just ‘grinned and bore’ racism is untrue. But the constant reaffirming of this myth assumes we’ve had the same experiences and just reacted in a different way, and reinforces this feeling of racial superiority.
The final point - the one that assumes that South Asians have had the same experiences as Black people - is the last one I want to raise. The existence of terms like ‘BAME’ serve to eradicate the differences and unique experiences of people of colour, by lumping us all under one umbrella term. While this has made it easier for the government and institutions to ignore our diversity, it has also been internalised by many who come under that category. I’ve heard many instances of non-black people of colour claiming they understand the racism faced by Black communities, when in reality, we really don’t. What sounds like an attempt at solidarity in reality comes off as ignorance and obtuseness as to the specific discrimination Black communities face. A recent example of this was shared on Twitter, where Tobi Kyeremateng, founder of the Black Ticket Project, received an email from a South Asian woman who claimed that her project was discriminatory. The Black Ticket Project was founded to provide access to cultural spaces for Black young people, who are notoriously underrepresented in the arts. The email from the SA woman claimed that because she was unable to access the tickets via BTP, that she was being ‘marginalised’ and excluded, and suggested Tobi ‘do better to fully understand discrimination and how to promote less heard voices’. By attempting to homogenise her own experiences with that of the Black community (the assumption that she was a ‘less heard voice’ in the same way as Tobi), the author of this email showed not solidarity but downright ignorance, encroaching on the violation of a safe space. This is not a new phenomenon by any means - we need to stop assuming our struggles are the same. While many years ago South Asians and other people of colour were also referred to as politically ‘Black’ in the UK, which at the time built solidarity in the wider fight against racism and discrimination, we no longer have the excuse or the need for this, given there is enough knowledge and wider dialogue about the variations in our experiences. The fight has changed - we are not one and the same, and as South Asians we need to acknowledge our privilege and our role in fighting racial injustice that specifically affects Black communities as well as our own.
This is not to invalidate the racism experienced by South Asians when we came to this country, or the racism that still exists towards our community today. Our issues are still important, colourism is still important, as are our histories and the prejudices we’ve faced, and continue to face. But I’ve actually been quite shocked out how quickly the online conversation in the South Asian community has turned inward - whether to reflect on our own issues or to despair about them. We can fight for all - by calling out colourist beauty standards, recognising the challenges our community faces AND amplifying Black voices and issues at the same time. It is not as simple as having a discussion about colourism and sticking a BLM hashtag on the end of it. Equally, we cannot be ignorant and utilise the way in which Black communities and their allies are raising their voices to make it about us. We have to pass the mic to Black communities, listen to what they’re saying, and speak up and act in solidarity, not just in sympathy or annoyance or misplaced jealousy at not having our struggles placed at the centre of attention. Equally, we have to continue doing this, we have to persist for the long haul. Black Lives Matter may have only been headline news for a few weeks, but the deep-seated racism and prejudice that Black communities face has not gone anywhere. Let’s not let our energies be solely focused on ourselves - let’s think about what we can do, how we can help. Because while Black Lives Matter may not be ‘about us’, at the same time, it very much is.
If you’re unsure of how or where to start with this, have a read of Tahmina Begum’s piece which outlines how to tackle anti-blackness as a South Asian. Also check out SouthAsians4BlackLives on Instagram.