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Anti-Blackness in the South Asian community

By:
Rumneek Johal (@rumandwoke)

An open letter to our community:

It’s long overdue for us to recognize and acknowledge how we have been complicit in anti-Black racism -- and how it is about time we break those patterns once and for all.

In order to make this the end of a cycle, a cycle that was built on the foundation of anti-Blackness and the subjugation of Black people, we must engage in difficult conversations, with ourselves, with our communities, and with our loved ones. 

I’m hoping to keep this conversation on anti-Black racism going, and we at 5X Festival are making a commitment to engage our community in these discussions, so that regardless of where someone is entering the conversation, we can work to continue to push it forward across the avenues of culture, fashion, art, music and more. 

Just because we are people of colour does not automatically make us allies -- and until we can deconstruct the ways we have benefitted off of the degradation of Black people in society in ways that have helped lift us up, and allowed us to benefit off of oppressive systems, we cannot make the claim that we are. 

In his latest episode of Patriot Act on Netflix, Hasan Minhaj put it frankly: the model minority myth, that has helped many first-generation immigrants come to North America, for their children to get educated and take up high-ranks in sought-after professions like medicine, law, engineering, technology, was built on the subjugation of Black people.


We had to be a “model minority,” that pleased the masses, particularly white people, by clutching tightly to whatever ounce of power and privilege we were afforded over Black people -- be it our skin colour or simply being more palatable in positions of power, and more importantly, to the white gaze.

While people of colour face a unique set of struggles, discrimination, and racism when navigating society in the Western world and beyond, these struggles can no longer be used as a veil to cover up our own complicity, or to assuage our guilt for the inherent racism we have shown towards the Black community in a variety of ways.

I think of my own parents, who had to endure racism, had to work hard at underpaying jobs in a country where their education from back home meant nothing, yet I know that even though they faced many challenges, they were still likely hired over Black people, even when they had just arrived here with broken English.

I think of how I was so lucky, to have them fund my education with their sweat and tears until I was able to climb the ladder of the Ivory towers and look around and see so few Black peers as I progressed from undergrad, to my Master’s, and as I looked around in the boardrooms and newsrooms I found myself in.

I’m sure you’ve witnessed anti-Black racism in some form or another coming from our own community, from anti-Black comments behind closed doors, to a hierarchy based on skin colour that has long been normalized in our communities.

It is time for us to be the generation with which it finally ends.

Current events have shifted the tide and created a collective movement like never before seen in our generation, but sadly, these events, and the phenomenon of police brutality and structural and systemic racism against Black people is not entirely new, and neither is our community’s response.

Our families can easily sympathize with George Floyd’s senseless murder, but they find it harder to sympathize or show respect to Black people they see or meet in person, leaning into their own fear and internalized racism, more than they lean into Black people’s inherent humanity.

They also find it hard to empathize with protestors on the front lines, casting a shadow over all of them begging for their futures as Black men and women in the US, Canada, and all across the world, all because of some people looting.

This is a form of “respectability politics” that our parents love; that successful Black people -- the athletes, the board members, the politicians, the doctors, the former Presidents, are the kind of people we should give our adoration and respect to, but others are not afforded that same kindness. 

This respectability politics is a form of anti-Blackness, because who is and isn’t worthy of respect in society is almost always decided by White people, and is then internalized by people of colour in order to police one another into categories of what, or who, is acceptable or unacceptable.


When we say Black Lives Matter, we mean all of them. 

And these lives matter not just for what you gain from them in terms of art, culture, music, movies, literature, and so much more. 

Like myself, many second-generation kids grew up loving Black culture, Black music, and Black people, yet the same love was not passed on to Black lives -- with many of our parents criticizing us for listening to “kala music,” or with many children of immigrants thinking to this day that it is appropriate or acceptable to say the N-word.  

We love Black culture, and so many of us grew up on it. At the same time, we also co-opted it, and claimed it as our own, without recognizing how that in and of itself is a form of erasure, and at times, internalized racism. 

For example, growing up, I’d co-opt parts of Black culture, including slang and mannerisms I’d see in Black music, movies and film.

That was not mine to take, nor is it for me to decide that just because I am doing it out of love -- that it makes it okay.

It’s uncomfortable to admit I was once wrong. But it is needed, in order to move forward into creating a better world, and dismantling the ways anti-Blackness pervades so many parts of our culture, even in subconscious ways.

For example, in South Asian cultures, Black people are referred to as kala, which is the colour Black, but this word in our culture almost always has negative connotations.

Colourism is internalized by South Asians dating back centuries, rooted in Eurocentric ideals of beauty, that then carried forward into economic inequality, through the caste system -- a stratification of society in which often those with the darkest skin are subjugated and outcast.

I distinctly remember being told by my grandmother as a young girl to stop playing in the sun all day long, to avoid letting the sun darken my skin.

I’ve heard people tell me that I’ve become “kali,” in the summertime -- never as a compliment.

As a result, lightening creams are pushed by the top names in Bollywood, and parents will tell their children to stay out of the sun from a young age, as if having dark skin carries shame in and of itself.

Our community is ashamed of dark skin, but will never understand being killed by police because of it.

Our community feels outrage when our Brown boys are profiled by police or killed in gang-related crime, without fully grasping that Black and Indigenous people in Canada are quite often killed directly by police, a fear we are unable to understand, and will likely never have to.

I’ve heard my brothers and cousins tell tales of being policed while Brown -- being harassed countless times by police for doing nothing wrong.

But I don’t lay awake at night thinking my brother will be murdered for wearing a hoodie like Trayvon Martin, for playing with a toy gun like Tamir Rice, for sleeping like Breonna Taylor, for having a broken tail light like Sandra Bland, for jogging like Ahmaud Arbery, for allegedly using a forged $20 like George Floyd -- and sadly, the list goes on and on.

This is why we must stand up. This is why we should have been standing up all this time. 

We cannot say we are allies until we check all of these inherent forms of anti-Blackness, until we drop the respectability politics so many of our parents ingrained into us, and until we meaningfully move from being “not racist,” to anti-racist.

I had this conversation with my dad last week, about being anti-racist, and it’s something you can and should be speaking to your parents about, too.

I told him that he must interrogate the things we as South Asians take for granted, like the very words we use to describe Black people, the ways we benefit even as people of colour off of racist systems, and the ways in which anti-Blackness is deeply rooted in many aspects of our culture, like the caste system.

It is not enough for us to say we support the movement. It must go deeper, to unpack the ways we all have been complicit, and to find ways we can actively support the movement, including by holding one another accountable.

We are all learning --  so let’s do it together.

5X Festival is committed to helping unpack anti-Blackness in the South Asian community, by continuing to use our platform to facilitate these conversations, and to hold our community accountable.

Just this week, we called on the City of Surrey for their lack of response in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

In addition, we have also started a petition with the African Heritage Festival of Music and Dance, asking that #SurreyStandUp and commit to dismantling anti-Black racism and standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

We will continue to engage in these dialogues, and meaningfully push this conversation forward.

As the 5Xpress editor, I commit to continuing to learn and unlearn, to share, to amplify, and to uplift. This isn’t just a moment -- it’s a movement, and as a community, we must collectively stand together in support and solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

Here are some actions we are committing to taking:

  • Implement an anti-racism organizational policy, with focus on anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism
  • Commit to continuing to provoke conversations in our community, to provide leadership, and to use our voice to hold our public officials accountable
  • Host a series of actions exploring anti-blackness in the South Asian community with specific actionable solutions as a desired outcome
  • Weave our continued learning and allyship into our regular programming and events throughout the year

Some of the things we are hoping to discuss over the following weeks include:

  • Why we shouldn’t use #alllivesmatter or #sikhlivesmatter
  • What is a model minority?
  • Do you hide from the sun? Why?
  • Do you think you can take from any culture because we live in North America?
  • Are you concerned that so many of our artists haven't said anything in solidarity with the BLM movement?
  • How do I talk to my parents about anti-blackness?

Here are some resources, readings, and funds to look into:

Articles:

Books:

  • The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power – Desmond Cole
  • Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • How to Be an Anti-Racist – Ibram X. Kendi
  • The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
  • Policing Black Lives – Robyn Mayynard
  • So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

To Donate:

Stay tuned to @5xfest to join the conversation.

Black Lives Matter. They always have, and they always will.


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