culture // society // race

Racism Isn't Just A Black And White Issue

Racism Isn't Just A Black And White Issue

In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer, there are protests all over the United States, calling for an end to police brutality and highlighting the injustice and racism experienced by Black people to this day. Amidst this, there have been a number of very good articles that have been targeted to White people 1 2, explaining their privilege and calling for people to not merely be aware, but to be actively anti-racist. There are some good articles aimed at South Asians as well - there are links at the bottom.

As a British Indian I have both experienced racism but also experienced privileges which wouldn’t be afforded to Black people. Here are some thoughts about all of this and why South Asians also have a responsibility to step up and check our privilege.

I’m not here writing to say “Hey, don’t forget about racism towards South Asians”, but rather that South Asians should be looking to help and fix what is happening to the most marginalised among us.

We should remove the term “model minority” from our lexicon

There is a tendency to call people of Asian descent model minorities. The name comes from a look at average education levels, income and crime rates and argues that Asians are setting an example for how minorities should be.

This creates a very divisive us-versus-them mentality between not only Asians and Black people but also between White people and Black people. In one fell swoop it creates different tiers of race and perpetuates this harmful notion that Black people are the opposite of being a model minority, a mistake to be learnt from.

South Asian culture unfortunately has also created different tiers within itself, which have been perpetuated over many generations. Even though the caste system is outlawed in India, its cultural roots have held on tightly. There is even racism between different states in India, which can be considered different ethnicities. For example between the Indo-Aryans and Dravidian people. This deep-seated racism carried over with Indians who then emigrated to the West.

South Asians from Africa

There is a significant diaspora of South Asians living in Africa. First settling in the 19th century, typically wealthy Indians gained considerable success in Western Africa and despite facing persecution there from White people, considered themselves to be a higher class than the native Black Africans.

Even the internationally celebrated activist Mahatama Gandhi subscribed to this belief system: “general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are a little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa”. He also expressed his disdain for race-mixing, using the pejorative kaffir: “About the mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.”

Although Gandhi did help oppose casteism in India by giving rights to the dalits later in his life, this is evidence that such racist views are held by even the most revered. In the mid 20th century there was a lot of migration from former British African colonies to the UK, a great deal of them Indian. They carried with them not only an ingrained view that White people are of a higher status but also the view that Black people are beneath.

British-born Desis

As a demographic, young South Asians like a lot of music that has Black origins 3 4 and the corresponding culture is very much in the zeitgeist. However, even with Black musical artists and actors being at the forefront of pop culture there is an undercurrent of racism still present.

Anecdotally speaking, many young South Asians would frown upon romantic relationships outside of not only race, but also religion and even the Indo-Aryan/Dravidian divide. Some might put this viewpoint down to family pressures, but the fact remains that these views are being passed down through generations.

When laid out, we can clearly see these views for what they are - racist. It is the responsibility of all us to call these views out and question these behaviours when we notice them. Given that this racism is present even within the South Asian culture, it directly follows that this spills out to people of other races as well.

Returning back to the popularity of Black pop culture amongst South Asians, it is the responsibility of all us to call this out and question these racist behaviours when we notice it. The culture we enjoy would not exist without Black people and we should remember that before holding onto bigoted views.

You aren’t anti-racist just because you’re posting on social media

I’m glad that so many people are contributing to #blackouttuesday and I hope that there’s lasting change as a result of it. I know people who would post this but have previously displayed contempt towards a Hindu/Muslim relationship. I know people have posted stories about the protesting in the US but have also expressed their own disdain towards dating someone Black or from a different culture.

I’m not trying to call anyone out, or expose hypocritical behaviours but instead I ask that we put our hands up and recognise our own shortcomings and work to better ourselves and stand up for what we know is right. If we recognise this in our own thinking then we will be able to actively stop those thoughts next time.

Ultimately, racism is an issue that unfortunately ties together both Black people and Asian people. Through the very circumstance of our birth we are treated with less dignity and respect than we otherwise deserve. We should be angry about it and we should fight against any system that would perpetuate this inequality.

I’d like to end on a personal note. I grew up in a predominantly black neighbourhood in North West London. Almost everyone I went to primary school with was Black and I didn’t experience any racism until I went to secondary school and was subject to jokes from White students and occasionally teachers. I remember the awful feeling of being extremely marginalised for something that I couldn’t even change. I feel a strong affinity towards the Black Lives Matter movement, since the experiences of the Black community would be like mine but amplified many times.

I urge you to check your own negative behaviour - I’m still nowhere near perfect, but I am always thinking about how to better myself, and I hope you do too.

Other things to read

Some better writers have written some things about this. Check them out and let me know if there’s anything I should add to this list:

  1. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack / Peggy McIntosh

  2. Understanding White Privilege / Francis E. Kendall

  3. Raghuram, Parvati, et al., eds. Tracing an Indian diaspora: contexts, memories, representations. SAGE Publishing India, 2008.

  4. Sharma, Sanjay, John Hutnyk, and Ash Sharma. “Dis-orienting rhythms: The politics of the new Asian dance music.” (1996).

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