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The power of art in tackling anti-Black racism in South Asian Communities


Illustration by Manvir Dobb

Written by Manvir Dobb


The South Asian Diaspora is complicit in perpetuating racism. Cultural traditions mixed with colonial legacy have created a morphed version of anti-blackness within our own communities. This, when compared to white-supremacy requires a different and introspective approach if we are to tackle it.


If we look at anti-black racism in our South Asian communities, one obvious product is the skin whitening industry. Something which more broadly represents the desire for closer proximity to whiteness.


The hierarchy of skin complexion and its link to the caste system is overtly supported by Bollywood, a powerful industry which in 2014 was worth 138 billion Rupees (2.28 US Dollars). In Bollywood protagonists are more than often played by people with fair skin; while villains, comic, or low-socioeconomic characters are given darker complexions.

The continued abuse of skin-colour in Bollywood is demonstrated by the debate around the 2019 film ‘Bala’. Ironically the film’s protagonist, who is discriminated against on the basis of her darker skin, was played by Bhumi Pednekar whose skin was darkened in order for her to play the role. All of which could have been avoided had they chosen a darker complexioned actress, to begin with.


Bollywood makes a show of some of the subcontinent’s most closely held beliefs, and if the case study of ‘Bala’ has anything to say about this, it’s that Bollywood does not advocate or promote dark-skinned role models. However, if we look at some of its biggest personas, celebrities such as Priyanka Chopra, Disha Patani, and Deepika Padukone are all complicit in being cover stars for skin-whitening products such as the cream “Fair and Lovely”.


This internalised racism stems from colonial legacy, where the science of racism was used to justify white dominance. Due to colonial white-supremacy, it was perpetuated that lighter-skin was more ‘civilised’, and therefore more desirable.


The world view of anti-black racism has not only created dangerous and problematic views within South Asian communities through the caste system, but it has also benefited South Asians through relative privilege in the wider spectrum of skin colour.

This is quite ironic considering we owe so many of our basic rights to black activists.

The number of times I have heard Indian people proudly announce that India was the “jewel of the empire” in this supposed post-colonial world is telling of how much we still rely on colonial approval and use it to level ourselves above other ethnic minorities.


South Asian communities definitely suffer from “Model Minority” syndrome. This is only further developed when you see western leaders report black protesters as “thugs”, compared to calling white protesters as “very fine people”. This narrative provides a middle-ground where South Asians can comfortably position themselves as a ‘model minority’ in the hope that it gives us closer proximity to whiteness.


Likewise, if we look at what the western curriculum teaches about the subcontinent, the only leader really amplified is Gandhi. He is seen as the father of modern India: an egalitarian speaking to end the caste system when he walked side by side with Dalits during the infamous Salt March. History books, however, fail to also mention that he was a racist and extremely anti-black.


Do you ever wonder what a conversation between Gandhi and Harriet Tubman would look like? Would he thank her for all she had done to combat racism or would he throw her off of a train much as a white man did to him when he was in South Africa? Of course, he made great strides for the liberation of India from the British Empire, but when one single man is put on a pedestal like this, made to be the only representative of a nation in the postcolonial western world, it is a dangerous way of glorifying all their wrongdoings as well as what they did right.


If we take all of this and then put it in the microcosm of the family sphere on a day to day basis, we are bound to see some deeply internalised, and equally externalised, racism. White people go on holiday, and come back boasting about their tan, whereas South Asians walk out into the sun smothering themselves in sun cream and shading; and I fear this is done more in fear of a relative making a snide comment about dark skin than for skin protection. They needn’t say dark is ugly, because we all know that’s what it means. Goodbye potential rishta, I am not “Fair and Lovely” after all.


Non-racist, desperately trying to be anti-racist, South Asians almost don’t want to bring this issue up with their community in fear of both backlash and the revelation of just how deeply racist our nearest and dearest might be. But ignorance is not bliss, and it is killing the lives of thousands of black people across the globe.


The family sphere is so important in South Asian communities that we dare not speak against our elders. Bringing up a topic as big as racism is enough to incite the kind of heart palpitations you get after having too much jalebi in one sitting. Furthermore, finding a way of telling your South Asian relative about their racist behaviour all the while trying to keep the peace and maintain a healthy relationship can be a fine balancing act.


Personally, as a girl in a still heavily patriarchal society, dancing around a subject has become both a speciality and survival instinct. This is where I found art to be a wonderful refuge for approaching a topic while bringing it clearly into the peripheral vision of my South Asian family when conversations often feel like you are speaking to a brick wall.

In supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, I created a lino print image inspired by the activist, Angela Y. Davis. All the profits made from this will go to the charity Access UK which looks at providing support and careers services to marginalised and disadvantaged youth groups, in particular those of the BIPOC community. To find out more about what they do and hopefully make a donation yourself, please reference their website as follows: https://www.accessuk.org/

On an exterior level, the tote bags have helped incredibly in both raising awareness and raising money for the Black Lives Matter movement. Likewise, within the South Asian community, the response to my artwork has been positive. Whether or not the positivity comes from the art or the message, you cannot see one without recognising the other. Relatives who told me that I should probably quiet down with my activism are now telling me which colour tote bag they want, which I believe is a step in the right direction even if it is ultimately vanity which brought about the gentle nudge.


Another reference to the impact art has had in this dialogue is through the wonderful illustrations of “@papersamosa” on Instagram. An image portraying a conversation between two aunties, where one compares “All Lives Matter” to telling your husband at the dinner table who has biryani that you also want biryani, with him replying “we all need biryani” while continuing to not give you any, is a brilliant example of bringing a topic which may sadly seem hostile or alien to some into a more familiar setting.

Of course, the battle is not yet won but at least it has begun. Writing this article is possibly the next step, where if anti-black South Asians are angry about my words, at least these words are being read and not falling on deaf ears. The issue has been raised and conversation is rolling. Hopefully, this will offer some much-needed introspection for both our community and our individual day-to-day habits.


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