Prejudice towards black people persists both in South Asian countries and their diasporas abroad. It stems from both colonialism and caste-based hierarchies.
Three years ago, Nigerian students were attacked in two separate incidents near the Indian capital Delhi after rumours circulated that a Nigerian man had sold drugs to a teenager who had died from an overdose.
The violence, which saw groups attack students on the street and one man in a mall, led African diplomats to label the attacks ‘xenophobic and racial’. Calls were made for international human rights bodies to carry out an independent inquiry.
It was the latest example in a long history of anti-Black lynchings and beatings in India, and was reflective of the anti-Black racism that is deeply embedded in a society where discrimination based on caste and skin colour is also prevelant.
Anti-Blackness is an issue that plays out in the diaspora too.
Growing up in New York, South Asians helped characterise writer and journalist Shamira Ibrahim’s upbringing. With Black culture intrinsically linked with the fabric of the city, other communities often adopted it as their own.
Despite this, there was still refusal by some South Asian Muslims to accept Black Muslims as “real Muslims”.
As Ibrahim, 34, told TRT World: “It could be that they are seen as converts, or that they don’t have a real understanding of the Quran because they may not have memorised as much of it as others, or because they follow Nation of Islam instead of Sunni or Shia schools of thought. These are associations to Islam and Black radical Islam that tend to be linked in a very racist and inherent way within South Asian communities.”
While discussions around anti-Black racism within South Asian communities are nothing novel, the issue has been pushed into the mainstream following the death of George Floyd at the hands of white police officer, Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis on May 25.
South Asians, both within the region and the diaspora, have been among those expressing their solidarity with Floyd’s family and the Black Lives Matter protests that have since followed. Even Bollywood stars have added their weight to the discussion on social media. Commentators, however, have been quick to criticise this, labelling it performative and hypocritical, ignoring the rampant anti-Black racism, plus caste-based discrimination that exists within their own culture.
Gabriel Dattatreyan is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths University in London. He told TRT World: “What we see is hashtag solidarity, for example, a young person who's grown up in an upper caste community showing solidarity by using the #BlackLivesMatter. I worry, though, that there's not really a good understanding of the historical context, and that they haven’t interrogated their position in all of this.”
Anti-Black racism, caste-based discrimination and colourism manifest themselves today through every day violence and discrimination.
The attack on Nigerian students was one of many against African students in the last few years. Another attack on Congolese national Masonda Ketada Olivier, who was beaten to death in Delhi in 2016, remains in the mind of many.
The country’s ‘fairness cream and bleach market’, meanwhile, has been predicted to grow by more than 9 percent between 2018 and 2023.
In the diaspora, a recent survey of 100 Black British Muslims showed that more than 50 percent of respondents had experienced anti-Black discrimination or colourism within a UK mosque or religious setting, while around 60 percent said “that overall they did not belong to the UK Muslim community”.
Anti-Black racism also seeps through culturally. Blackface, derogatory slurs and representations are commonplace within the Bollywood film industry, as well as cultural appropriation in which artists continue to benefit financially. There is a contradiction, also, that historical figures like Mohandas Gandhi continue to be revered, amid continued attempts to erase his racist legacy.
Indian-Canadian journalist Dhruva Balram has written a series of essays in which he has explored anti-Blackness in South Asian communities. He says: “South Asians use the N-word to exploit black culture for their own gain while slipping into these clothes of whiteness to further themselves in education or financially. Gandhi's anti-Blackness and extremely racist remarks get buried so much, but how he treated his own citizens came from a very patriarchal Hindu supremacist upper caste mentality. I would love to see Gandhi’s statue toppled just as much as the slave traders in the UK.”
Historically, though, Balram says anti-Blackness racism predates Gandhi and colonialism: “This comes before any kind of invasion of India because it's rooted within religion. Caste has always been such an integral part of that and it's developed over time. Anti-blackness manifests itself through an oppressive structure that society has built itself around. Historically, this has been a terrible part of our society,” he added. Both India's Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Modi and US President Donald Trump enjoy significant support from upper-caste Hindus both in India and the diaspora.
While it is difficult to contextualise anti-Blackness in the South Asian communities without looking at it in relation to caste-based oppression and colourism, commentators say it is important to consider the differences that exist between them.
Saunvedan Aparanti is a lawyer and human rights activist based in London who has been involved in campaigning for anti caste-based legislation in the UK. He told TRT World: “Despite their differences in origin, their manifestations and the subsequent consequence of being oppressed because of caste or for being Black are basically the same, for example with lynchings and beatings, and the person who has been racially abused and abused on the basis of caste is extreme. But what we have to distinguish between these two in order not to diminish or water down the Black Movement is that the sources of anti-Black racism and the sources of casteism are very different. So when it comes to anti-Black racism in South Asian communities, it is rampant and South Asians look down upon black people. And the reason why is because they see Black people as Dalits.” Dalit is the term applied to those considered by Hindu society to belong to the lowest caste, a term which also has a history of "symbolic reassertion of identity and struggle against an oppressive, caste-ridden society".
As communities across the globe continue to rally in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, commentators say they want to see South Asian support continue even once the story has dropped off the 24-hour news cycle. Crucially, they say, they want South Asians to reflect on their own complicity within white supremist racial power structures.
As Balram says: “We've been having the same conversations for the better part of a decade without actually putting the work in on a daily basis required to dismantle oppressive structures. This is a moment where the South Asian community should truly look at why we only fan the flames of discussing anti-Blackness when American Black bodies lay dead at the hands of white police officers. Why are we not discussing this when a pogrom hits New Delhi, or when Dalits are murdered? We stand in solidarity with people like George Floyd and I believe we should, but if we want any kind of pathway forward, we need to be carrying this energy forward in the months ahead, and not just when it’s newsworthy.”
Ibrahim adds: “In places like New York, where Black culture is mixed with the culture of the city it becomes very easy for people to dismissively absorb themselves as a chameleon for this culture, for example, by saying the N-word without realising the harm, even though they intrinsically know that their family would not be OK if they dated a Black person or that a Black person would be welcome at the masjid.
“We are in a position in society now where Black people can get to insert boundaries in many respects, demanding dignity, demanding equal rights and demanding recompense and amends for all the injustices that have been exerted towards our diaspora and specifically to Black Americans. It's not just police brutality. It's not just medical racism. It's all the indignities that have been committed against a community of people. There’s a lot of people that have benefited from white supremacy in a variety of ways, and that includes the South Asian community.”