Exploring the role of South Asian Solidarity with Black Lives
After attending the ‘Allyship & Challenging Anti-Blackness in South Asian Communities’ Webinar and the ‘Calling Whatsapp: Our Role in Black Liberation Movements’ panel, both organised by South Asians for Black Lives this month, our team felt the need to further reflect individually and as a collective on what South Asian solidarity for Black lives actually means in this moment and always.
The ways in which the Black Lives Matter movement has gained popular recognition in recent months has brought to light the importance and urgency with which South Asians need to figure out how to be better allies, and not only when it’s in the news or when black people are being murdered. That means going beyond performative allyship, practicing genuine solidarity, being co-conspirators with our black contemporaries and taking tangible actions for racial justice in the spaces we occupy. We need to be leading a sweeping revolution in our homes, in our communities and our institutions; we need a call for radical change.
While the Black Lives Matter movement is by no means a new one, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A., in late May caused a domino effect nationally and globally with large-scale protests taking place throughout the US, London, New-Zealand, Paris and more, despite an ongoing global pandemic. We demanded an end to police brutality and systemic racism. Attending protests in London, we heard chants such as “All lives can't matter until black lives matter!” and saw placards stating that “None of us are free until we are all free”. This begs the question: what role are South Asians playing in dismantling systems of oppression which seem to both oppress us, privilege us and hold us up as a model minority at the same time? In what ways are we complicit in racist systems and how can we work towards reimagining our role in creating a better future for us all?
South Asians have a long and rich history of aligning with radical black thinkers and leaders in their struggle for freedom. The Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra took ideological inspiration from the Black Panthers to fight against casteism, learning from the radical roots of the U.S. movement. And the pockets of Bengali Muslim men who immigrated to the United States in the 1880’s and 1940’s and chose to marry into African American and Creole communities. These existing communities took in South Asian immigrants, and together they built homes and multi-ethnic families.
We have a shared history. In the U.K., the racist murder of Bangladeshi textile worker Altab Ali in 1978 radically mobilised London’s East End, where the South Asian (mainly Bangladeshi) and Black communities living in Tower Hamlets came together to protest against the fascist National Front Party which had stood for local elections. This marked a turning point in race relations and gave rise to many anti-racism movements such as the local Bengali youth movement and the Anti-Nazi League (you can find out more at the Altab Ali Foundation).
Even Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote about his experiences seeing progress against caste discrimination on his visit to India. While the issues are not the same, parallels are seen in the form of interconnected solidarity and allyship in a collective struggle against oppression. Now is the time for us to mobilise, organise, and take lead from Black leaders. Black liberation is central to our collective liberation. We need to fight for Black lives like our very lives also depend on it, because they do. This is why the conversation around Black Lives Matter is so critical to demystify the racism in our communities.
Anti-Blackness vs. Systemic Oppression
Anti-Blackness is defined by South Asians for Black Lives as ‘the practice and underlying belief that Blackness - its history and rich culture - is something to be denied, belittled, oppressed, and hated’. This is not to be confused or conflated with tackling the institutionalised oppression against Black people. Black people are other-ised by the system and subjugated to systematic brutality and state violence because they are Black. South Asians participate in this same brutality against Black people with our damaging behaviours, actions, and ideologies that is pervasive in our cultures and thought-processes.
Anti-Blackness and anti-Black racism in South Asian communities is often an intergenerational phenomenon that is reproduced and reinforced by communities in the diaspora. This is the generational perpetuation of anti-Blackness in our families seen through subtle examples. For example, the linking of crime and danger to certain low-income and poverty stricken neighbourhoods that should be avoided. Or even the making of overt racist statements in casual conversations. How are we challenging this? How are we also challenging the casteism and colourism that is so deeply linked to such forms of oppression? The issue is multi-layered and requires constant unlearning and examination. Anti-Black racism must be uprooted and eradicated from our culture, language, and practice.
We should not forget about our role in ending systemic racism against Black people and taking the conversation beyond just anti-Blackness and recognise our own role in upholding oppressive systems. The ways in which the South Asian community perpetuate racism is seen in a number of different ways.
In the diaspora, many of the South Asian community who appear to be liberal actually align with right-wing factions ‘back home’. In the U.S. context, take the high-profile example of Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. On the surface, the Hawaii native is seen as a progressive ‘rising star’, racking up endorsements from top Party groups such as the Progressive Democrats of America, but her sketchy support for Syria’s Basar Al-Assad and India’s Modi paints her as a polarising and somewhat dangerous figure. Diaspora communities understand oppression and systemic inequality here but cannot comprehend it in their homelands. We must work to dismantle this right wing faction in our communities if we want to reasonably talk about solidarity with Black Lives.
The Black Lives Matter movement has also brought to the fore the call for abolition and defunding the police. We need to look at how South Asian members of the police force have contributed to the issue of police brutality and directly abetted white supremacy. Consciously or unconsciously, the presence of brown bodies in the police force, which is the direct agent of the State and perpetuates violence against Black people, is something we need to talk about.
Globally, from Kashmir to Palestine to Minneapolis, we are seeing the increasing militarization of the police force against racialized populations. South Asians benefit from the police state as we believe we are protected. But as Audre Lorde said, your silence will not protect you. We need to speak up about how we are complicit in these power structures that subjugate Black People.
As South Asians, we also find ourselves in the position of policing others, specifically other minority groups. Lets not forget that it was an Arab Palestinian Muslim man who called the cops on George Floyd. As Sharmin Hossain of Equality Labs stated in the webinar, South Asians need to ‘kill the cop in their head’ first and dissolve the politics that comes with this thinking and connect it to the struggle against Hindu nationalism.
The worldwide protests have ignited a fire of change and have shown us what a radical vision could be if we action these demands. India’s Dalit communities have supported the Black Lives Matter movement, have acknowledged the connection of the similar struggles, and have called on India to abolish the centuries old caste system. Upper caste Indians have a duty and arguably, a responsibility, to exercise their privilege and align themselves with frontline activists who are working to abolish caste and Hindu nationalism. India's caste issue needs a reckoning and the demand for an end to oppression must extend to all of our communities here and beyond.
Caste and race are two wholly different categories but the ways in which they operate against minority groups is similar. Hossain says ‘caste has divided our community into a graded system of humanness and has allowed us to say that anti-blackness is a white problem.’
We need to dissect the deep seeded structural impact of colonialism in our communities that continues to persist, and which has led to white structures being looked up to, seen as attainable, and encourages conformity to uphold the status quo. Whiteness is seen as a goal to be achieved, and it's this internalized white supremacy that has settled in our communities which has allowed and festers a supremacist mindset.
In addition to this, South Asians, among others, benefit extensively from the Model Minority myth. This is the belief that certain minority groups achieve higher socio-economic success compared to other groups due to racial stereotypes. One such stereotype is that one can be successful simply by working hard. This is a tool used to divide minority groups and pit them against each other, ignoring systemic reasons for inequality. Essentially, this has led to many Asians to believe they have achieved the American or British dream.
The Model Minority myth combined with a rugged sense of complete individualism has led to our apathy within our communities. This thinking that permeates our households exclaims that our hard work is solely down to the individuals and others (read: Black people) should do better.
Centering Black Voices
It’s crucial to always take lead and inspiration from Black voices, community organisers, and activists when discussing Black Lives Matter. The number one thing to do is always centre the main hegemony first and that is Black voices and Black struggles to fight against systemic racism. Now is not the time to grapple with our own internal shortcomings about Fair & Lovely creams: it is much bigger than that. There needs to be a complete overhaul of the racist thinking that permeates our communities globally; and that is, white supremacy.
South Asians influencers and online personalities were quick to flock to social media to show support for Black Lives Matter, and rightfully so. But the core messaging that came through appeared disjointed. Whilst the intentions may have been in the right place, the way this was executed was poor, lazy, and came across as tone-deaf. British Actor Zakariya Gayle outlines here how the issue has become conflated in South Asian (and Arab) circles when it comes to discussing anti-black racism.
“Stop talking about bindis, marrying black people and colourism right now. That’s not a radical demand.” - Sharmin Hossain, Equality Labs, New York
South Asians need to be co-conspirators with Black activists and demand structural and systemic change. The conversation on allyship needs to be framed which de-centers South Asians and places Black comrades at the core. This also goes hand in hand with centering voices which place emphasis on breaking free from class and caste oppression. Our liberation should be collective, not individual.
Performative vs. Effective Allyship
To be an effective ally, we need to ask ourselves, “what am I willing to give up as an ally?” For allyship to be effective it needs to be sincere and actionable. Think about your intent and match this with your action.
A performative ally may have good intentions, but good intentions alone does not dismantle systems of oppression. A performative ally signs petitions and shares resources across their social media but doesn’t really need to give anything up to do that. In fact they may even gain some clout for doing it. They may speak up in safe spaces but they will generally avoid speaking truth to power if it means they may lose some of their own comforts. They may “check in” on their Black friends but won’t offer any tangible support or actions as a way of support.
On the other hand, an effective ally shows up at protests for Black lives and uses their privilege to ensure those who are marginalised are protected. They put their money where their mouth is and work to redistribute resources by donating to Black organisations and bail out funds. Effective allies actively support Black owned businesses and brands all the time, not just when it’s cool to do so. Effective allies understand that they are not “helping” anyone but that their very liberation is tied up with the liberation of Black people. They mobilise with the local grassroots communities and work to constantly educate themselves on the issue. Most importantly, an effective ally takes responsibility and does the emotional and intellectual labour themselves to stand for Black lives. They examine their own part in perpetuating racism and various forms of oppression and work hard to unlearn and delink themselves from such practices.
Importantly, effective allies mobilise their own communities so Black people don’t have to. This means checking our own privileges, and taking action now. Think about:
As South Asians, how can we use our privilege to uplift Black voices?
Are we asking challenging existing structures and how they impact Black people, even if they benefit us?
Would we dare to challenge our bosses about racist practices within our institutions? Are we willing to do that if it means we have to give up some of our own power for it?
Do our mosques and community groups have Black people on the board or are they even allowed to attend our spaces?
Are we trying to dismantle parallel structures which feed off and uphold racism, such as casteism, facism and capitalism? Are we willing to do that if it means we will lose some of our own comforts?
The Black Lives Matter Movement is a movement, not a moment. It’s not going to fade away, and it’s definitely not going to stop until demands are met. Black Lives Matter, and they always will.
To find out more, you can read and learn further by perusing our ‘Anti-Blackness in South Asian Communities’ section in our resource guide, coming out soon, and check out some tips of our below.
These South Asian language cards have been translated into ten south asian languages to help with the language barrier and start conversations with family members.
Queer South Asian National Network have created this free facilitation guide on discussing anti-black racism in South Asian communities.
Check out the four levels of solidarity by Desis Rising Up and Moving, an organization that supports South Asian and Indo-Caribbean low wage immigrant workers, youth, and families in New York City to win economic and educational justice, and civil and immigrant rights.
Habiba Akhtar is a Project Lead at The Rights Collective. She is a graduate of SOAS University of London with an MA in Human Rights Law and works as a Researcher for the Legal 500 in London.