Confronting Anti-Black Racism

Grow­ing up with white supremacy’s ide­ol­o­gy of beau­ty that brown was not beau­ti­ful- that brown need­ed to be light­ened- was a bur­den I car­ried for years. Although I was “light for a South Asian” I was nev­er light enough. I was told to stay away from the sun, avoid the beach, try prod­ucts like Fair and Love­ly, try any­thing that could make me lighter, do any­thing that could make me more beau­ti­ful. Beau­ty over intel­li­gence was empha­sized to me, as if all I could attain to as a South Asian woman was to be a good light skinned house wife.

Often mis­tak­en for not being ful­ly South Asian- I was told to take pride in this fea­ture. To be glad I could pass as bi-racial- to be hon­ored to be con­sid­ered even par­tial­ly white. When peo­ple called my house and heard my mother’s slight British accent they assumed she was white- as if a brown woman could not be edu­cat­ed in a for­eign coun­try- as if a Brown woman could not speak Eng­lish ‘prop­er­ly.’

This year I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to attend South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Together’s (SAALT) Young Lead­ers Insti­tute (YLI) in Wash­ing­ton D.C., on address­ing and con­fronting anti-black racism with­in the South Asian-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty. Say­ing the pro­gram changed my life is an under­state­ment. It changed me. YLI allowed me to meet and inter­act with fel­low South Asians, whom I could expand my under­stand­ing and knowl­edge of racial jus­tice. We spoke about struc­tur­al racism, how it affects our ide­ol­o­gy, the impact it still has on not only our cul­ture but our peo­ple and how we can go about com­bat­ing racism inter­nal­ly. Final­ly, being able to bring light to the colo­nial ide­ol­o­gy still present in our cul­ture and back­ground was refresh­ing.  Although I attend school in a diverse and South Asian com­mu­ni­ty, issues of South Asian col­orism and white suprema­cy were nev­er spo­ken about and YLI gave me courage to break this silence.

Par­tic­i­pat­ing in YLI’s work­shops allowed me to become more aware of issues faced by our com­mu­ni­ty. Learn­ing about the his­to­ry of oppres­sion and racism allowed me to step back from the strug­gles we faced as South Asians and acknowl­edge the ben­e­fits we had over oth­ers, specif­i­cal­ly the Black com­mu­ni­ty. I real­ized how anti-Black­ness took pres­ence in my life. How we as South Asians often ben­e­fit­ed from it. How we often add to the fuel by blam­ing one whole race for actions result­ing from hate and cru­el­ty by white suprema­cy.

Anti-Black­ness took place in my life as I grew up being told to stay away from those who were ‘Kala.’ It took place in my life as I became afraid see­ing a Black man walk­ing behind me dur­ing night fall. It took place in my life as I was com­pared to fam­i­ly mem­bers and con­grat­u­lat­ed for being fair skinned. I real­ized that I had often over­looked how rel­e­vant anti-Black­ness was in my life because it had become the norm. It was some­thing embed­ded in my cul­ture, his­to­ry and life and was unac­cept­able for me to ignore.

As South Asians we ben­e­fit from anti-Black­ness. The fault is often tak­en away from us and giv­en to those who are dark­er. We pride our­selves in being the ‘smarter’ race, the more ‘cul­tured’ race, the race clos­er to ‘beau­ty’. We often cat­e­go­rize a whole race for being vio­lent and devel­op fear instead of real­iz­ing that we too are often stereo­typed into one cat­e­go­ry from the actions of some. We fuel anti-Black­ness by depict­ing our­selves as the bet­ter race and tak­ing pride in our lighter skin. While accept­ing our col­or, our race, our cul­ture is empow­er­ment- it does not require us to look down on oth­ers because there are racist and oppres­sive forces impact­ing them in ways that it does not impact us. We embody the mod­el minor­i­ty myth that is built on the pil­lars of anti-Black­ness. We ben­e­fit from anti-Black­ness because it allows us to not be the tar­get. We par­tic­i­pate in it by con­demn­ing dark skin by allow­ing anti-Black­ness to con­tin­ue inter­nal­ly with­in our com­mu­ni­ties. We are not suc­ceed­ing by con­form­ing this way of think­ing but instead fail­ing our­selves by strength­en­ing and empow­er­ing white suprema­cy.

We are priv­i­leged because while we stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty, while we are out­raged from police bru­tal­i­ty against Black peo­ple we do not feel afraid. We are able to show our pres­ence, we are able to voice our­selves, con­demn racial injus­tice because we do not have to fear being the next vic­tim. We, as South Asians, need to real­ize we have both ben­e­fit­ed from anti-Black­ness and have gained from the strug­gles of Black peo­ple .

We fail to see this ide­ol­o­gy only hurts our youth, only weak­ens our peo­ple. Only caus­es us to hate our­selves for the qual­i­ties we should love- hate the skin col­or that defines us- the skin that makes us beau­ti­ful. Though we are no longer under rule of the British, while we now have our land, we still are under the influ­ence of white suprema­cy. That while they may no longer occu­py our land- they occu­py our minds.

Colo­nial ide­ol­o­gy still exists- the idea that white is bet­ter and that Brown is bet­ter than Black still haunts us years after our ‘inde­pen­dence’. The idea that Brown is beau­ti­ful is one unheard of to many. ‘How can Brown be beau­ti­ful if white has always ruled over Brown? How can Brown be beau­ti­ful if it is close to black?’ Anti-Black­ness lives in the roots of our cul­ture. It man­i­fests itself in our ide­olo­gies of beau­ty. With­out even real­iz­ing we as South Asians often con­tin­ue a cul­ture of anti-Black­ness through tra­di­tions like apply­ing Hal­di to our faces, pur­chas­ing prod­ucts with bleach­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics and thoughts like stay­ing away from the sun. The fear of becom­ing dark roots from a cul­ture of anti-Black­ness we too often fail to acknowl­edge.

As South Asians- specif­i­cal­ly as South Asian youth we have a duty. We have a duty to unpack and unlearn these ide­olo­gies and while it will not hap­pen overnight and will take time- it is pos­si­ble. YLI allowed me to gain the courage to speak up against issues I felt strong­ly about. It allowed me to under­stand the neg­a­tive impact white suprema­cy has on our cul­tur­al ide­ol­o­gy of beau­ty informed byan­ti-Black­ness. Through YLI I gained not only a fam­i­ly of sup­port but com­rades to empow­er me through my jour­ney of unlearn­ing the anti-Black­ness I grew up with.

We need to encour­age one anoth­er to embrace our cul­ture, embrace our race and break the stereo­types in place for us. Break the ide­ol­o­gy that we are less than them. End the cul­ture of anti-Black­ness by no longer fear­ing the sun, no longer fear­ing a tan that brings us away from white­ness. We need to stop con­demn­ing those who are dark­er- we need to stop encour­ag­ing bleach­ing.

Over­all, we need to break the idea that we are not enough- that we must con­form to white ide­ol­o­gy to suc­ceed. Instead of embrac­ing white ide­olo­gies of beau­ty we need to take pride in our Black­ness. Only then when we change our mind­set and real­ize that we are not sole­ly the vic­tims that we are aid­ing the oppres­sor with anti-Black­ness will we be lib­er­at­ed- will we be able to suc­ceed.

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Aysha Qamar
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2015 

The Young Leaders Institute 2015 is sponsored by:

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One Brown Girl’s Perspective on What it Means to be Carefree

I was six years old when Baba and Mamma moved from India to America. When they arrived here, my mother realized that she was less restricted—she had no extended family to answer to, more control over her time, and the independence to focus on her career and kid.  

At the age of eight, Baba took me back to India as a way to get Mam­ma back to the coun­try, and per­haps as a way to revert to the unequal pow­er dynam­ics they shared. He took me back to our moth­er­land, India, but I was moth­er­less for a whole year.

Through the sheer will and cos­mic ener­gy that my moth­er is made up of, she got both of us back to our two-by-one apart­ment in Amer­i­ca. Once I was back, I was admit­ted into a pre­dom­i­nant­ly white ele­men­tary school where I would study for mere­ly two years. Through­out my time there, my accent, the way my food smelled, the cot­ton skirts I wore (which you can now find sell­ing at Urban Out­fit­ters, by the way), and my frizzy hair, were all made fun of by my white and non-Black peers.

I remem­ber feel­ing as if I was walk­ing back­ward, not real­ly part of this but not real­ly liv­ing there. My white peers’ teas­ing and taunt­ing served to draw the white cir­cle around me, divid­ing me from the rest—the ones whose tongues did not betray their eth­nic­i­ty, the ones whose food did not smell ‘eth­nic’ (and did not smell at all, in fact), the ones who had mold­ed into the per­fect preser­v­a­tive-filled Lunch­ables brown bag that would nei­ther draw atten­tion to, nor deny, the right­ful pres­ence of its con­sumer.

Although many of my fel­low immi­grant-born and immi­grant-descend­ed peers had shrugged off the iden­ti­ty their par­ents had come to Amer­i­ca with, I could not do the same. Per­haps I was dis­en­chant­ed with the idea of giv­ing into a col­or­less melt­ing pot that bub­bled hap­pi­ly when we crushed one anoth­er while we all sought the same things and strug­gled to reach for lib­er­ty, a chance at hap­pi­ness, a dig­ni­fied life.

Per­haps it was because I went to India look­ing for a sense of myself, and hav­ing not found it, I came back still seek­ing. Per­haps, I was clutch­ing onto some­thing, in the deep haze and lim­it­ed vision of ado­les­cence, that I yearned to unfold.

Per­haps I wished for some­one to read my secrets, my desires, and silences and nour­ish me with the warm space of pro­tec­tion and sta­bil­i­ty that so many immi­grant chil­dren often starve for.

Though this bul­ly­ing con­tin­ued through­out my sixth-grade edu­ca­tion, I nev­er allowed it to affect me. I was too busy with my silences, with what I had seen and want­ed to under­stand. There were so many faces that float­ed up, with­in my grasp, but nev­er stayed long enough to tell their sto­ries. There were so many ques­tions I want­ed to ask but had no words to cre­ate. My face was for­ev­er turned in the oth­er direc­tion, see­ing some­thing else, so that even when I came home, even after the worst days, I would not tell Mam­ma about the way the kids laughed and jeered at me.

Look­ing back to that time, I think I had a deep aware­ness of the way my life was shift­ing from one world into anoth­er, and how it would con­tin­ue mold­ing itself to the jolt­ing back and forth of a third space. I knew that my peers were only dis­trac­tions for the work I had to do in myself, and this work was nei­ther option­al nor sug­ges­tive. I knew this self-invest­ment would ensure my sur­vival in this world. I remem­ber think­ing that the mean­ness in my peers urged them to reflect that tox­i­c­i­ty towards me.

[Read Related: What it Means to be a First Generation Desi——From the Lens of a Half-Indian, Half-Irish Woman]

For­give­ness came eas­i­ly then because I knew that I was strong enough to deal with the bul­ly­ing on my own, and I hon­est­ly felt bad for the bul­lies, for they had to live with their atti­tudes, not me. Per­haps that’s why I nev­er allowed that bul­ly­ing to stick to me. I came home, untouched, not even giv­ing the day’s events a sec­ond thought, know­ing that my ener­gy had more impor­tant work to do.

Yet, as I grew up and dug more and more into my silences, the con­scious­ness in me bloomed with anger, pain, and sor­row. Per­haps, as a child, I was for­giv­ing because I did not know what it meant to be teased for the smell of my food or the frizz of my hair. I did not under­stand that my white peers were slow­ly ful­fill­ing the expec­ta­tions that white suprema­cy had of them. When I looked at them, I felt pity, because they spent so much of their ener­gy try­ing to make me feel bad and nev­er received the reac­tion they worked so hard for.

Now, when I see sim­i­lar mind­ed folks, such as peo­ple who spew hate, I feel fear because I see the more man­i­fest­ed, ugli­er insti­tu­tions that reward and encour­age them to con­tin­ue think­ing, act­ing, and behav­ing as they do. Yet, that lit­tle girl still exists in me today and is still hold­ing onto her secrets and inked words, not know­ing where to reach for safe­ty.

Nowa­days, I come home so tired that I can­not even speak. Some­times it feels like I know too much about the world and where I stand with­in it. Oth­er days, I feel emp­ty, igno­rant of so much more, of so many oth­ers and their fold­ed up pages, their unsaid truths. I wish to be as untouched and care­free, deeply invest­ed in my truths rather than resist­ing the lies of anoth­er, as I once was.

In this time and age, when South Asian folks are learn­ing more and more about what their skin col­or, gen­der, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, caste, and class means in rela­tion to this soci­ety, as well as how we ben­e­fit and suf­fer from ugly insti­tu­tions, it is increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to be carefree—or to even under­stand the mean­ing of ‘being carefree’—and actu­al­ly prac­tice it to sur­vive, thrive, and strength­en our, and oth­er, col­ored com­mu­ni­ties.

We are begin­ning to under­stand how rev­o­lu­tion­ary and pre­car­i­ous our exis­tence is, and how we were nev­er meant to sur­vive as we do. This is the time when the pres­sure against our lungs is mak­ing it hard to med­i­tate upon our imag­i­na­tions. Indeed, it is only through our imag­i­na­tions and through the expan­sion of our imag­i­na­tions that we can read the secrets and silences of our con­scious­ness. Indeed, it is only by invest­ing in our truths that we can take care of our blood and the blood of our loved ones.

Here is my [ever expand­ing] set of def­i­n­i­tions on what it means to be care­free, and I urge you—whomever you are, who has tak­en the minute to read this—to also come up with your set of Care­freeisms:

To be carefree…

….Means to not have to wor­ry about what caste, class, gen­der, reli­gion or race your lover is

Means to not think and rethink whether wear­ing a kur­ta will make oth­ers like you less

Means to be com­fort­able in a space you occu­py

Means not hav­ing to won­der whether the bad cus­tomer ser­vice was because the staff was rude or rude because of your skin col­or

Means to sing in the rain after class­es, on your way back home

Means going out and allow­ing the sun to kiss you with­out the wor­ry of get­ting dark­er

Means to not spend the rest of your life edu­cat­ing your lover

Means singing and laugh­ing loud­ly with­out being told by your elders that only loose girls do so

Means not hav­ing uncles and aun­ties polic­ing your body & the ways you decide to dress it

Means not hav­ing to bar­gain your iden­ti­ty with Amer­i­can folks and your moth­er­land rel­a­tives

Means lov­ing and grow­ing with your brown, black, and white sis­ters rather than see­ing them as com­pe­ti­tion

Means what you want it to be, what makes you feel whole, more than a label, more than a sta­tis­tic, more than this world’s pol­i­tics, what makes you feel human and hap­py

Because to be care­free is to be rev­o­lu­tion­ary

To be care­free is resis­tance.

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Ena Gan­gu­ly
Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2015

This post was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on Brown Girl Mag­a­zine, and being repub­lished with their per­mis­sion.

The Young Leaders Institute 2015 is sponsored by:

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