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What Political Blackness can Teach South Asians in the Current Moment

Since George Floyd was murdered, my timeline has been inundated with “how to tackle anti-Blackness in South Asian communities” resources, aesthetically pleasing graphics on how to pull your aunty up on her ingrained colourism, and guides on what “meaningful ally-ship” looks like for South Asians. At first, these resources seemed like a good thing, a nudge in the direction of collective engagement in difficult but necessary conversations. This was short lived, however, and these resources quickly became another trendy bandwagon that consumed my timeline for days on end. Every South Asian-led collective or charity was creating and reposting these resources, all of which included the same content, just painted with different colour schemes to match their individual online aesthetics. I know I wasn’t the only one wondering why, when the conversation began about police murder and the systematic oppression of Black life, we felt the need to re-centre ourselves and co-opt the movement to appease our own racial guilt. By all means, have these conversations with your communities, but there is a time and a place for everything, and the wave of posts seemed more to me like performance and virtue signalling than any form of unity with the cause. In other words: this moment calls for radical change and conversation, and, to be honest, there is nothing radical about calling your aunty-ji racist.

Contextualising Political Blackness

A black and white photo from 1977 of the The African Caribbean Self-Help Organisation (ACSHO) leading a march.

Political Blackness is an identity unique to the UK. It’s conception as a political identity can be traced to the 1970s, born from the united struggle of working class African, Caribbean and South Asian communities against racism and imperialism. These communities emigrated here - upon invitation - during the post-war period in the 1940s and 50s, and were collectively described as the “coloured commonwealth migrants”. They occupied menial labour jobs, were offered little in the way of economic advancement, and suffered marginalisation and discrimination “through a rhetoric that underscored ‘non-whiteness’ as a common thematic in the discourse of ‘coloured’”.

To adopt a Politically Black identity was not the same as identifying as racially or descriptively Black, rather it “symbolised a commitment to resisting the oppression of diasporic populations,” using it as a mobilising strategy that “galvanised seemingly disparate migrant communities to engage in collective activism.” According to Amrit Wilson, “that unity was deliberately destroyed, after the 1981 youth uprisings against racist policing…when the Thatcher government imposed not only more police powers, but the term ‘black and minority ethnic’ (BME) to define us all.”

This shift kickstarted the disintegration of African-Asian unity in the UK, and ‘BME’ people and organisations were pitted against one another, and made to compete for handouts from the state. This was worsened by Thatcher’s emphasis on self-reliance and the ‘enterprise economy,’ which favoured the “double migrants” of the 1960s and 70s - Asians who emigrated here from East Africa. These communities were considered by the Conservatives as ‘civilisers’, and were comprised largely of Kenyan and Ugandan Indians who enjoyed prosperity and wealth in their East African homes. Ugandan Asians, for example, comprised only 1% of the population in Uganda, but controlled a fifth of the wealth, and benefited off of the racial hierarchy which placed them above native Ugandan populations. With them, they brought their economic wealth and also their anti-Blackness, which was “shaped by the colonial rule in which they had lived”. Thatcher’s government encouraged them to start businesses and buy property, and this ultimately contributed to building the ‘model minority’ myth that is attached to the British South Asian population. It is worth noting that all the current Asian MPs in the Conservative cabinet are from this community of East-African Asians.

It is uniformly agreed across our generation that organisation under Political Blackness (PB) is outdated, and that the term is extremely monolithic. Similar to ‘BAME’ and ‘BME,’ these labels ignore the marked differences between the lived experiences of (and within) these peoples and, instead, reduce us into nothing more than a category - a mere acronym - and, to the White government and population, lumping all of the non-White communities together becomes convenient, it allows them to engage with the politics of multiculturalism without making any meaningful structural changes.

Kehinde Andrews notes, “to define ourselves in relation to whiteness is to entirely disempower our politics…a shared non-white identity has never been necessary to build coalitions. Real solidarity is based on organising around shared issues and not trying to create a shared identity that erases the substantial differences between a wide variety of peoples.” The invocation of a ‘Politically Black’ / ‘BME’ identity reinforces what Vera Chok calls “counterproductive shadiesm,” where worth is tied to the shade of a persons skin and non-white communities are positioned in relation to white oppressors or black oppressed, propping up the centuries old ‘black/white’ language binary that saturates conversations about race. Chok believes that this reduces Blackness to a “victimhood that needs to be rebalanced,” and flattens the experience of non-Black people of colour, leaving us in a position where, to talk about race, we must first frame the conversation in terms of anti-Black discrimination.

Similarly, Tariq Modood argues that PB is in fact harmful to British South Asians, explaining that the use of ‘Black’ as a political identity during the 1970s and 80s to encompass all non-White peoples led to ‘Black’ becoming “hegemonic” in relation to other ethnic and racial identities. Furthermore, the problem for non-Black communities of colour is that the demands of Black resistance are used as a marker for other ethnic minorities, which is both inaccurate and harmful. Brah notes that this is a consequence of PB organisation being contingent on engaging with collective practice, leaving members with no choice but to “transgress the limits of their own heterogeneity.” Modood, therefore, argues that we should find our own voice to speak on our own forms of oppression, and that to organise under the PB label is ultimately harmful to our communities; after all, we are Asian, not Black.

Learning from our History

British youth organising in solidarity over the deaths of Gurdip Singh Chaggar and Blair Peach.

So why am I talking about PB, then? If it is outdated and harmful to both the South Asian and Black communities, what is the point in discussing it? Despite its flaws and limitations, I believe that there are useful lessons we can learn from Political Blackness, especially during the current resurgence into the mainstream of the Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements.

It is true that anti-Blackness among non-Black people of colour (and even the lack of accountability for this within the term ‘Politically Black’) is a main reason it is such a contentious identity for our generation. Our awareness of racial and diasporic identity is heightened. It exists at the forefront of our lives and, with this, comes the knowledge that anti-Blackness is an insidious and far reaching phenomenon. In her podcast, “About Race”, Reni Eddo-Lodge discusses this with Farrukh Dhondy, an Indian-born British writer, playwright, activist and committed member of the British Black Panther Movement during the 1970s. In their conversation, Farrukh recalls that back in PB’s heyday, there were anti-Black and anti-Coolie (the derogatory term used for Asians) sentiments in both the Asian and Black communities; sentiments that the united front of the PB movement was fighting against. Obviously, anti-Black and anti-Asian discrimination are not the same - politically, socially or economically speaking. As Asians, we benefit from our proximity to Whiteness which Black people simply do not. However, Dhondy points out, what was important wasn’t who was discriminating against who, but the “common fight against the ex-colonial masters,” which African, Asian and Caribbean communities could engage in together under the politics of solidarity.

This emotion is really what I want to evoke for fellow South Asians in this moment. We carry a history of anti-racist organising and a unity with Black resistance which should be drawn upon in moments like now and always. We must look for the lessons we can learn from the generations before us that paved the way for our engagement with de-colonial, anti-capitalist and anti-racist movements. Despite its limitations, PB can teach us how to effectively organise ourselves across racial and ethnic boundaries, without getting caught up in performative activism. Simon Woolley, founder of Operation Black Vote and current Advisory Chair of the Government of the United Kingdom, shared his thoughts with Reni on the matter:

“…when you look at the Caribbean countries you know the kaleidoscope of ethnicities which emerged from the independence movements of the Caribbean that we were looking outwardly as internationalist and we took that back to the UK and began this black political which meant that people of colour faced a particular type of discrimination, broadly say racism and that an Asian struggle was an African Caribbean struggle or Africans struggle and that we were stronger united. Yes we’d have our differences. Yes most of them we celebrate and our challenges. White supremacist society was built upon divide and rule. And so we knew we had to confront that. But what it meant was that non white collective could be galvanised in such a way that one, we support each other and two, politically we could be uniquely extremely strong.”

Diversity as a Farce

While we can agree that organising under a homogenous PB label is unrealistic and outdated at this moment in time, Simon’s remarks about the divide and rule tactics of White supremacist society are as true as ever. Questions of representation and the politics of multiculturalism have led us to a world where the Conservative party can proudly parade their brown skinned, white-hearted Asian MPs in their cabinet; colluders with Whiteness who can weaponise their brownness to gaslight and silence Black MPs, lead an inequality commission in the UK while questioning the existence of systemic racism, and leave a vulnerable UK citizen who was groomed at the age of 15 stateless, stripped of her citizenship, trapped in a refugee camp and denied the right to fair trial.

These people are used as an ideal; pillars of inspiration, success stories of the ‘model minority’ myth, proof of what you can achieve if you work hard and keep your head down, because no matter if you’re Black, Brown or White, we all have access to the same state resources and opportunities, right? Wrong. The Priti Patel’s, Munira Mirza’s and the Sajid Javid’s of the world - “Karen-jeets” as Natasha Samrai coined - are weapons used in the divide and rule tactics of the British government.

To stand in unity with Black resistance means not only denouncing and detaching from these figures, but also recognising that any one of us could be weaponised in the same way; we, too, have the ability to mobilise our privilege and our proximity to Whiteness to marginalise Black communities. I believe that this transparency will also help to remind us of our own histories of anti-racism in this country, and the duty we have to our parents and our grandparents to challenge racism wherever we see it, leading us to reject the divisive practices encouraged by categories such as ‘BAME’ and the language of diversity, which are also rooted in the “divide and conquer tactics of our colonial oppressors” and have, sadly, invaded our own thinking.

Conversations with our Elders

So, where do we go from here? When asked by Reni about her opinion on the shift in perception of PB, MP Diane Abbott remarked that “the rise of a more individualist politics has its merits, but we’ve lost the notion of collectivism.” For the most part, I can agree with her comments; recognising the distinct forms of racism and discrimination we face as separate communities is an integral step in our approach to anti-racism, but the vague notion of collectivism here is not helpful when considering a political and social unity with Black resistance. Reni notes:

“I’m not usually the one calling for unity, and I think it has be be done carefully here, so as not to flatten differences or ignore existing discrimination. But it’s really clear to me that there needs to be some intergenerational dialogue. There may never be a consensus on political blackness, but we could learn a lot from each other.”

This, in my opinion, is the most important lesson we can take from PB: to open our ears to our elders and the previous generations who put in the work far before we did, without dismissing it as outdated and chucking it aside because it doesn’t fit the current anti-racist discourse. From the same conversation, Reni also interviews Angelica and Kelsey from Sisters Uncut, a Feminist group taking direct action against domestic violence. On the issue of PB’s validity, Angelica remarks:

“There's a problem with… knowledge not being passed down from our older activists, foremothers and fathers. And I think sometimes with younger activists, myself included, there's a bit of an arrogance. We feel like OK we've got it all figured out. [As if] the older generation…don’t know shit, like they’re old school…and actually…we're experiencing a lot of the same things again and again.”

The radical tradition of our elder activists that framed the PB movement has been somewhat lost in intergenerational transition, and is perhaps a contributing factor to the lack of coherence among anti-racist organising. While we certainly should critique PB and recognise its limitations, it can teach us a valuable lesson about the “golden thread of unity” needed “to confront persistent racism”, which is as “true back then as it is today.”

I urge South Asians to continue to deploy anti-racism in their everyday lives, and to remember that radical action does not start or end with a post on Instagram about anti-Blackness. To truly dismantle racism and all forms of oppression, we need to be looking at the material ways anti-Blackness manifests in the lives of our communities and within ourselves:

The Black Lives Matter Movement has shown, at this time more than ever, that solidarity among Britain's minority communities is needed. The Asian community has a proud legacy of fighting against racism, rejecting anti-blackness and standing on picket lines. Let’s not let the Tories define our history.”

Inaya Hussain is a volunteer at The Rights Collective. She is a recent graduate from SOAS University, where she studied International Relations & Social Anthropology, specialising in South Asian studies, and completing her dissertation on diasporic cultural identity. Her interests lie in social activism, politics and identity amongst the British South Asian community.

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