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Addressing South Asian Anti-Blackness: The Attacks on Africans in India

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by BG Staff Instagram

This post is an installment of Brown Girl Magazine’s “Chai & Chat” series, where our writers has a round table discussion on current topics affecting the South Asian community. 

About two weeks ago, reports and videos emerged of Nigerian and Kenyan students being beaten and killed by mobs in Delhi. As one particular video circulated, an ongoing conversation about anti-blackness in South Asian communities re-emerged among BG’s staff. When we gathered to process this attack, we had an in-depth discussion about the incident, racism in America, and the intersectionality of other systemic oppressions (like the caste system and colorism) that are often not talked about in our communities.

In conversation are Priya Arora, BG’s humanities editor, and an LGBTQ activist; Natasha Sharma, one of the faces of the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, and an International Relations and Social Work graduate who has written about colorism and anti-blackness for BG; Sruveera Sathi, a  BG writer and SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together) fellow working with ASHA for Women to ensure justice for South Asian victims of domestic violence; and, Maryam Jameela, who holds a master’s degree in gender studies and has written about colorism and anti-blackness for BG as well.

Priya: This chat was born of a distress I felt at seeing the video of the Nigerian students being brutally beaten in Delhi. What was your reaction to this incident/video? What did it bring up for you?

Natasha: I was thoroughly disgusted but not surprised by this incident. India has such a deep-rooted history of anti-blackness, which is projected onto both individuals of African descent and dark-skinned Indians. Anytime an incident like this takes place, I am not only ashamed by the prevalence of bigotry in the Indian community, but I am also reminded of how far we have to go when it comes to achieving social equality.

Priya: Side note, speaking of video—this, for me, was as disturbing as the violence perpetrated by cops in America towards black men. What does the capturing (and circulating) of videos after the fact do in instances like this? Five men in India were arrested for this particular attack; is this justice done by publicization of the video?

Sruveera: Whenever I see graphic images or videos chosen for the purpose of sensationalization, my first reaction is one of scorn toward the media for circulating it and not having betterjudgment. Examples include the dead body of Aylan Kurdi, the little Syrian Boy escaping from war-torn Syria, as well as the graphic videos of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and many other black and brown bodies who are victims of police brutality. I think to myself—these individuals have families and people who care about them. Additionally, many viewers might have gone through similar traumatic circumstances. Is circulating these graphic images and videos the most responsible way to spread awareness? Can we treat these individuals with more dignity after their passing? In my opinion, we shouldn’t need violent images to spark outrage, our humanity should suffice. In an ideal world, we shouldn’t need public outrage to expedite the justice process, but I’d be naive if I denied its effectiveness. We have to acknowledge that these graphic images are powerful and can stir a visceral and emotional response but I think we need to do better and demand justice without needing the click bait.

Natasha: I find it disappointing that it takes people seeing violent images to recognize that a problem exists. It shouldn’t take videos/images of attacks on minorities, whether it is in the form of racialized police brutality or attacks like this one in India, for people to wake up. If people were to step outside their own bubbles, demonstrate genuine concern for the plight of others and take the time to listen to experiences outside of their own, perhaps we would be able to progress as a society.

Priya: We’ve talked among the staff about solidarity between South Asian (SA) communities and movements like Black Lives Matter. What is our role as SA advocates/activists? How do we show solidarity without minimizing the experiences of our communities and/or other marginalized communities?

Maryam: I think a fundamental part as advocates/activists is to listen. Often, SA communities get caught up in thinking about ourselves as people of color only, but when it comes to discussing anti-blackness, I think we need to consider ourselves ‘non-black people of color.’ We may understand how racism works for us, but we do not understand, in the slightest, what it is to be black. It’s difficult to be called out for being racist as a person of color, but we need to be better about this. Black students being beaten up in South Asia is far too common – and we see the ways in which colorism and anti-blackness cohere together to create a hostile environment for black people in our countries. We need to get better at being criticized by black people for not standing up, we need to get better at talking to our own families and friends about what anti-blackness looks like, and the ways in which we are complicit in it. We need to recognize our own position in anti-racism and use it to shut up when we need to, speak up in defense of black people when we need to, and question each other when we need to.

[Read Related: “Non-Black People of Color Owe Immeasurable Debts of Gratitude to Black Americans“]

Natasha: I believe that true solidarity comes from making an effort to genuinely connect with individuals from different backgrounds. It is about taking the time to get to know and understand others, find common ground, and foster a sense of kinship. I agree that listening and learning from others’ experiences is a big part of this. Like I said earlier, it is about stepping outside of one’s bubble and embracing individuals from diverse backgrounds. It is about speaking up against injustice affecting any and every group, even when it doesn’t affect you directly.

Sruveera: I think solidarity involves both looking outward and looking inward. We can look outward and educate ourselves by reading, listening, and speaking to other marginalized communities. We can learn how to be allies and show up for groups like BLM—not just once or twice but every time. Solidarity also warrants looking inward and critically examining how we are perpetuating anti-blackness in our own communities. It means small but important acts of allyship like addressing friends whenever they say the “n-word”–something that happens so often in the South Asian community. It was something I did recently to a few male friends of mine and even though both times these individuals apologized, I was left wondering if I could have done more. I also don’t know how effective it was in preventing future incidents because I didn’t get a chance to explain the issue and go into all the reasons why using the ‘n-word’ is problematic if you are not black. Experiences like these made me realize that allyship in the face of fleeting microaggressions is super tough to do. How do you delve into all the underlying problems with their behavior given the backdrop of a party, at a casual lunch date, or within the confines of a GroupMe? But I did know that if I let it slide, I’d be complicit in perpetuating a systemic problem of coopting blackness without actually living as a black person. You can’t stop with one instance of calling out/in someone, the dialogue needs to be sustained and your method of calling out/in can be improved and needs to be tailored to the situation.

Priya: According to this Huffington Post article, Local Magistrate Nagendra Prasad Singh spoke about the incident: ‘It is absolutely not a hate crime, nor is it some kind of anger against a race.’  The author then brings up the hypocrisy/double standard about racism when it happens to us versus when we perpetrate it: ‘When Adam Purinton shows up with a gun in that bar in Kansas City and says ‘Get out of my country’ to two Indian men who he thinks might be Iranian, he is racist. When a mob in Noida says the same to every dark skinned African it can find, it’s a culture clash?’ This kind of thinking is so rampant in South Asian communities and completely infuriates me. It’s like you said earlier, Natasha. We only seem to respond when the injustices are being faced by us. Why the double standard?

Natasha: Exactly, I was infuriated by this too. South Asians around the world were ‘up in arms’ after the attack on Mr. Kuchibhotla in Kansas (as they should have been), but have nothing to say when other minority groups are targeted. Whether it was Mr. Kuchibhotla or Black students in India, all these individuals were victims of racially-motivated hate crimes. Collective outrage needs to be just as much for one instance as it is for the other.  Frankly, South Asians have to do a much better job of speaking up and demonstrating concern for individuals from other marginalized groups.

[Read Related: “Addressing Anti-Blackness in South Asian Communities“]

Priya: Bollywood also plays a large role in anti-blackness. I recently rewatched ‘Kambhakt Ishq’ and saw multiple side roles by large black men (and women) being the butt of a joke, either as unattractive, hypersexual or threateningly violent. There are countless instances like this in Bollywood and South Asian television shows. Have you seen such instances? What role does media play in the perpetuation? How can we hold the media responsible?

Natasha: Oh, absolutely! I have definitely noticed these negative characterizations of Black people in South Asian media. I honestly believe this to be an extension of the White-dominated Western media’s stereotyping of Black men and women. Historically, the Western media has portrayed Black men as hypersexual, violent, dangerous, etc, while portraying Black women as undesirable, angry, aggressive, etc. These negative images of Black people are certainly present in South Asian films, tv shows, etc.  It is disgusting, frustrating, and reflective of the deep-rooted anti-blackness present throughout the South Asian community. I think we can (and should) hold the media responsible by speaking up and recognizing the areas in which the media falls short/reinforces harmful biases. We must advocate for positive media images of individuals across all groups.

Priya: You mentioned this earlier Maryam, and I want to circle back to it—Where does colorism within SA communities fit into this topic? How does it differ/ignite further discrimination against those who identify as black?

Maryam: I think it’s no accident that the caste system privileges lighter skinned people and keeps darker skinned people in lower castes. For South Asia in general, darker skinned people are more likely to be economically disadvantaged, receive fewer marriage proposals, and generally be viewed as ugly or undesirable. The caste system, in its most modern iteration, was most recently molded by British policy makers under the Raj, and I feel it’s important to remember when we’re considering how widespread anti-blackness is across South Asia. Also, I think it’s important to acknowledge the background of colorism and how the caste system has grown and changed. Lastly, it’s important to acknowledge the reality of what anti-blackness looks like in desi communities. Our parents and our peers uphold debilitating views on light skin as the right skin; we also uphold historically traditional stereotypes about black bodies and warn our children away for both these reasons.

Natasha: Colorism is yet another manifestation of anti-blackness in the South Asian community. Dark-skinned South Asians experience discrimination at institutional, social and interpersonal levels. There are certainly several parallels between experiences of dark-skinned, historically low caste individuals in India and Black people in the West, but it is also important to note differences in nuances as far as the impact of colonialism versus the impact of slavery. At the crux of the issue, however, is darker skin being viewed as something negative and darker-skinned individuals facing discrimination. It is also important to note that issues like colorism, hair-texture discrimination, etc, exist in nearly every community of color. The reality is that in communities of color, there is so much internalized oppression and subsequently internalized anti-blackness. I am currently a counselor in a predominantly Black middle school–earlier this week, I complimented a beautiful young girl on her hair (she was wearing it in its natural state), and she looked so surprised. She told me that she doesn’t usually receive compliments when she wears her hair natural and, in fact, her mother makes her get perms on a regular basis (and she is only 12 years old). It got me thinking, how is this any different from an Indian mother forcing her daughter to use Fair and Lovely? At a global level, we have such a long way to go as far as dismantling systemic oppression.

[Read Related: “#UnfairAndLovely Campaign Dares to Break Dark-Skin Stigma Around the World“]

Priya: This whole dynamic we’re talking about reeks of power and privilege and classism. How would you pick apart these issues, and how do they intersect with racism? Why is it important to talk about racism as a microcosm of larger systemic issues?

Natasha: Intersectionality is definitely important to bear in mind in situations like this one. We must remember that no form of oppression exists in a vacuum and that an individual’s different social identities intersect and impact his/her/their life experience. In this particular case, racism intersects with classism in that among South Asians, those of African descent are stereotyped as lower class, and therefore, ‘less than.’ This sense of internalized superiority among South Asians is definitely among the factors contributing to the attack on the African students. South Asians’ belief in themselves as more ‘prosperous,’ and ‘culturally superior’ definitely fuels their intersecting race/class based discrimination against Black people. To address this issue, it is imperative that South Asians examine the ways in which our community uses its relative privilege to oppress others, in addition to taking into account the ways in which individuals biases related to race, class, gender, etc, perpetuate systemic oppression.

Priya: Growing up, I know my parents unknowingly instilled in me a bias against black people. Subtle things like locking the car door if a black person walked by inherently taught me that they were all untrustworthy and of a perceived lower class—breaking through that as a young adult, and being open with our community about the fact that I was friends with black people was hard enough, let alone dating a black person. How does intergenerational bias play a role in this, especially among South Asians both in Asia and the diaspora? How do we fight this?

Maryam: After this particular incident, I’ve seen a few comments from Indian people claiming they’ve been taught to be wary of black people as dangerous. The people who were beaten were darker-skinned black people and that is a product of racial politics in India, and across South Asia. Alongside colorism, I think South Asian communities have worked to pass down stereotypes of black people that are very similar to views of blackness in America—that of ‘superhuman’ and perpetually dangerous bodies, people that are untrustworthy and nefarious. That said, as much as these views are passed down, I feel like it’s a case of younger people, in their 20s for example, taking responsibility for our own politics and our own outlooks. It is true that older generations have perpetuated these harmful stereotypes, but that’s not to erase culpability from younger generations. For South Asians living in the diaspora, it is our responsibility to stand up against anti-blackness, and that can involve questioning yourself and also tracing patterns of thought – it’s no accident that a lot of the response to these students being beaten has been largely defensive, minimizing the issue, disregarding the brutality of what happened, and continuing the pretense that this is not an event that is entirely a natural outcome of the vicious systems of anti-blackness in South Asia.

[Read Related: “Rising Above Anti-Blackness in the South Asian Community“]

Natasha: I believe that familial attitudes play a crucial role in shaping our attitudes towards different groups of people. One thing I have to give major props to my parents for is being way ahead of their times. From the time my brother and I were young, my parents spoke to us about diversity and appreciating individuals from different backgrounds. They spoke out against anti-blackness, colorism, anti-Latinx sentiments, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, etc, on a regular basis and encouraged us to reach out to people different from ourselves. Whether it was enrolling us in ethnically diverse magnet schools, taking us to participate in different cultural activities, finding us literature about the history/culture of different groups, or engaging us in dinner table discussions about racism, sexism, etc, they played such a crucial role in shaping who we are today.  Now that they have planted these seeds in me and my brother, we can now pass on a similar mindset to our children, they can pass it on to theirs. I believe that actively speaking out and working towards changing the fiber of our community is what it will take to combat issues like anti-blackness. Shifting societal attitudes, breaking down harmful stereotypes, and encouraging self-awareness/introspection are key. It is up to us to take an honest look at our community, challenge existing systems of oppression, and ultimately create a better world for future generations.

Editor’s note: While this discussion reflects the views of its authors, it is by no means all-encompassing; our hope is that this dialogue helps our readers start their own conversations in their respective communities. We invite you to share your thoughts and views on anti-blackness with us in the comments below.  And if there is another topic affecting South Asians you’d like to see discussed in the next chai and chat, be sure to let us know!

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