Anti-Blackness and the South Asian Diaspora

Written by Chayya Syal.


It’s not often that I bring in a deeply personal element to my blog concerning this matter. Probably because I didn’t know whether or not I could articulately write about this topic.

Predictably, this is an experience which has been niggling away at me for quite some time now. It’s an issue that I used to feel quite wary about discussing, because of the backlash I received for writing a post about Indians being politically defined as black. You can read here.

About a year ago, my aunt got married. In most cultures, when someone gets married, it’s a happy occasion where everyone generally attends the wedding in good spirits. However, her wedding wasn’t met with the usual fuss that most Indian weddings have. My aunt married out (so to speak) to a Nigerian man. News of her husband’s ethnicity ricocheted throughout my family, with many expressing their disgust, horror and sympathy for my great aunt and uncle (her parents). Some even went as far as to cut off contact with her because of what she had done.

It sounds like something that would have happened years ago – a family flips out because their daughter married out of their community – however it is surprising to see how widespread this reaction actually is across a variety of ethnic groups. What has stayed in my mind was the disappointment and the rage that so many of my family members felt the need to exercise. It is interesting to note that the anger mainly came from the men. But that is a topic for another day!

” […] Yeah, it’s ok, because we’re all the same underneath […] “

There are numerous articles, documentaries and films detailing the intolerance that many, with South Asian heritage, have towards individuals of African-Caribbean heritage – particularly men. Film maker, Gurinder Chadha, depicts a relationship between an Indian girl and a Caribbean boy in her film Bhaji on the Beach, which showed a near enough accurate portrayal of the reaction one would expect to see from such a relationship.

Another which particularly leaps out at me, was a relatively recent phone-in discussion during the Nihal Show on BBC Asian Network, where callers debated over intolerant and anti-black views that many members of the South Asian Diaspora believe in. It is a mindset,  which we would usually associate with an older generation steeped in prejudice who were not necessarily exposed to people from different backgrounds, cultures and religions. However, it is increasingly alarming to see such mentalities being cultivated in younger generations, who are generally well educated, professional, fairly affluent, have exposure to a variety of people.

Anti-blackness within the South Asian Diaspora and in the motherland is a contentious attitude that we must begin to acknowledge before we can think of ways to address it. As with many contemporary issues concerning the constructs of South Asian identity, it is natural to look back to history, and see where it all went so horribly wrong.

The first port of call is the British Empire which notoriously instilled ideas of inferiority and shame within its subjects across the world as they tried to appease their colonial masters. It is safe to say that many of these beliefs have sadly managed to stand the test of time and be present today in the form of colourism, a desire for Eurocentric facial features, inter-ethnic feuds and continued disputes over land due to newly drawn borders.

“Many of the native prisoners are only one degree removed from the animal and often created rows and fought among themselves.”

This is an excerpt from a letter written by one of the most prolific South Asian figureheads. He is often referred to as the ‘Father of a Nation.’ This extract was written by Mahatma Gandhi when he was forced to share a cell with black people. Gandhi, as a figure, is honoured by so many members of the South Asian for his peaceful protests against the British presence in India. Many often insist on focusing on Gandhi’s role in the liberation movement and how his contribution continues to inspire millions around the world.

The reason that I am focusing on Gandhi, in this respect, is because of the distinction between black Africans and Indians he wanted to make. By referring to black Africans as ‘kaffirs’ and insisting that Indians should not be using the same facilities as they did, he created a ‘them-and-us’ argument which is still visible across the Diaspora today.

There are those who also say that he was merely speaking from his experiences with black people, at the time. This is fair enough; he was brought up in a colonial setting and naturally absorbed social beliefs that surrounded him. Back then, his views would not have been considered to be particularly racist, but by modern standards, they are. With this in mind, how can we fully revere a man who held such views towards black Africans and those from lower castes? It’s natural to say that Gandhi was flawed; nearly every single human is, but given the level of elevation he is given by many South Asians, it is slightly disconcerting to overlook this fact.

[…] We all know at least one person who holds similarly bigoted views towards non-Asians. It’s a bit like a dirty open secret.

His reference to black Africans as ‘kaffirs’ and as ‘one degree’ above ‘the animal’ are no different to the prejudiced views that many people (of all generations) of South Asian descent privately believe. I’m pretty certain that we all know at least one person who holds similarly bigoted views towards non-Asians. It’s a bit like a dirty open secret.

There is a general, and rather blasé, comment of: “Yeah, it’s ok, because we’re all the same underneath our skin colour” only to then cast out men and women who date/marry outside of their ethnicity in the way that my aunt was. These are the very same people who, feel self entitled enough to go out, and protest against interfaith/interracial marriages when it has nothing to do with them and claim to be defending their ethnic heritage/religion – often at the expense of others.

When I really think about it I’m not sure which is more terrifying. The blatant, mouthy racism that we associate with thugs up until the 1990s? A burgeoning revival of racism and discrimination amongst and within ethnic minority groups? Or this new more discreet and sophisticated blanket of racism that is becoming ever present in well-educated and ‘liberal’ people?

Originally published in AvidScribbler. 

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