Letters to the South Asian Community
ON BLACK LIVES MATTER | BY ANOUSHKA KHANDWALA
I’ve been thinking about how to add something meaningful to the conversation surrounding George Floyd, Tony Mcdade and Christian Cooper, and more widely the systemic abuse, incarceration and murder of Black people at the hands of the state.
In search of a valuable addition to the discourse that’s already been happening, I’m going to write about what I know.
My experience as an South Asian person of colour, is not the same as a Black person of colour. The terms BAME or POC are often used to paint with an extremely broad brush over the experiences of a large group of communities that come with their own network of privileges and oppressions. The term POC centres non-white people against a backdrop of whiteness, and in focusing us only in relation to whiteness, often robs us of any identity that we try to claim beyond this term.
While this term can be useful in many ways—for political organising, or diversifying homogenous institutions—I fear its over-use is in danger of perpetuating the same systems we’re trying to fight against. It acts as a banner for non-black people to shroud ourselves in, invisible from those holding us accountable.
When an Asian man stood by and watched as a Black man was murdered by a police officer, it evoked in the world’s memory a great history of Asian complicity in upholding the status quo.
Asians, for centuries, have scrambled over Black bodies in search of proximity to whiteness. When Gandhi was evicted from a whites-only train carriage in South Africa in 1893, the event catalysed his campaign for a ‘special status’ for Indians. It was not just that he wanted to be closer to the status of white people, but that he wanted to escape being grouped with Black people.
Today, under the guise of ‘diversity and inclusion’, Asians like Sajid Javid are fast forwarded into cabinet, only to implement policies that don’t just illegally deport Black people from their homes, but pass bills that ensure their own parents would never have been able to emigrate to the UK.
Casteism is embedded in Asian culture, to which colourism is inherently attached. Historically, richer South Asians from ‘higher’ castes spent their time indoors, and aligned themselves to the British while under colonial rule, if it meant they could retain their riches. Those from ‘lower’ castes worked outdoors, their skin darkened by the sun, and thus, the idea of lightness equating to desirability was borne. From a lust for skin bleaching, to a renouncing of black partners when white spouses are often seen as climbing the societal ladder, colourism has remained wedded to Asian culture.
What is it that results in this hatred of darkness, and worship of the light? We can claim that colonisation played a role in holding us hostage to our own biases, but those biases existed before the East India Company reached the continent’s shores, and have pervaded our culture for many years after independence was declared. It’s now up to us to decide how we extract these dangerous ideas from our mindset.
Somehow, donating money, arguing with family members and educating myself doesn’t feel enough anymore. I’m still weighed down by the complicity of non-black people in white supremacy. And when I feel jaded or numb, I turn to history.
The British Black Panther party, formed in 1968 as an island echo of their African American friends, operated under the ethos of ‘political blackness’, which brought the Caribbean, African and South Asian communities together. This time chronicled an immense crescendo in ‘multiculturalism’—the publication Wasafiri was founded by Susheila Nasta, platforming writers like Ben Okri and Vikram Seth, while New Beacon Books made space for political organisations like the George Padmore Institute, which archived the struggle of the African, Caribbean and South Asian communities in Britain. These were times where Black and Brown communities worked hand in hand together to battle a common oppression.
What happens when the oppression is not so common any more? When those who once stood beside you are in fact alongside those pushing you down?
I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but what I am sure of is that this work begins in a deep seated place in each of us. Acknowledgment that we are in fact different from the Black community, that we’re not entitled to appropriate their culture and get away with it by labelling ourselves as a fellow person of colour. To understand that in fact, Asian privilege is more insidious and fleeting than white privilege, and because it is less explicit, we have a lot of work to do in unravelling the anti-blackness rooted in our traditions. In fact, it’s not just about anti-blackness any more—we don’t get a pass from the word racism just because we’re people of colour. Going forward, it’s integral to acknowledge Asian privilege by unearthing the racism that festers in our communities.
What can we do? Read. Listen. Speak. Act.
There have been an immense amount of resources floating around social media which serve as educational anti-racist resources—engage with them (@mireillecharper’s ‘10 Steps to Non-Optical Allyship’ is a great place to start). Listen to your Black friends, but also listen to your family members—due to the pandemic, a lot of South Asians are spending lockdown with their families. Use this time to educate them, in the same way you’d want your non-queer allies to use their time to educate those around them. When a parent makes a passing racist comment, speak. Help them understand the interconnectedness between anti-black attitudes and police brutality. These conversations with family are difficult, and come with a whole host of intersectional struggles, but in some ways this is the most critical offering we have. This work starts in the home. Act, and think critically about your actions. If protests are being organised, is it wise to attend a mass gathering during a pandemic which is killing Black people at four times the rate of white people? If you are going to attend in solidarity, what precautions can you take to do so safely?
There is little accountability for acts of racism, which is why we need to wield our privileged status to hold people accountable for their racist actions. Read. Listen. Speak. Act. And remember, in the words of Audre Lorde, ‘your silence will not protect you’.
We’re currently working in partnership with Black Lives Matter to bring you content around anti-black racism in South Asian communities. Meanwhile, the official channels for the UK chapter of Black Lives Matter are listed below. Please follow and support them, whilst being mindful of the importance of promoting official information.
UK Black Lives Matter Twitter
UK Black Lives Matter Instagram
Uk Black Lives Matter Facebook