The death of George Floyd in Minnesota at the hands of the white police officer who knelt on his neck for nine minutes reopened a festering wound in America’s social psyche. And this time it was the ignition for an anger that could not be tamed but swelled and spread across the world to form the largest civil rights movement in history.
People had seen this before. A litany of black men murdered, many whose names are known, many more who aren’t. But where previously, ambiguity could be argued by select individuals debating the morality of the victims or the nature of police brutality, here it was all laid bare in a video and there wasn’t an excuse in the world that could be trotted out to redeem the police officers names.
What has followed is America’s descent into authoritarian chaos, where brutal crackdowns on protests, whether peaceful or not, have further fuelled the civil unrest unfolding in the United States. While there are concerns about the morality of burning down local businesses, particularly in economically deprived communities, without any means of a natural recovery, the lawlessness stems from the growing realisation that the law itself stands on shaky ethical foundations, not built to protect all people.
Online discussions encircled around what people could do to be better allies to black people. A lot of this was rooted in sincere empathy, love and care. There was also a refreshing introspection amongst many South Asians. But unfortunately, there was plenty of the opposite.
The social unrest in America has unpackaged the anti-blackness of South Asian circles, particularly when entwined with discourse around Islam, and revealed us to be a people with racism embedded deep within our historic cultures and modern norms. Anti-blackness within Asian communities is a close relative of the colourism that grips our Desi circles, ingrained in the obsession with the fair skin.
While we all romanticise Bollywood, we ignore how it is often presenting racist idealism lurking within our cultures, where light skin is symbolic for purity and goodness, and those belonging to the upper castes of society, while those of a darker skin are seen as morally impure and often consigned to the lower rungs of society.
Cast your mind back to your favourite Indian films, and recall the last time there was a dark-skinned Indian who wasn’t part of the musical backdrop. Within our community, that is what too often dark-skinned people are treated as, pushed into the backdrop, ridiculed and mocked, and not treated as equals.
India itself has suffered from capitalism itself marketing these prejudices through the sale of skin lightening products. Whereas the elites in the so called West have often appropriated social liberalism to create a woke capitalism that exploits black and brown bodies whilst preaching diversity, Desi societies haven’t even been able to relinquish the racism and colourism.
And even when they have sought to understand, it is clear that to them Black Lives Matter is not an actual term imbued with any moral, political and social meaning but a vacuous marketable catchphrase just because it’s a trend to jump on and surf the waves of a news frenzy.
Sara Ali Khan had the audacity to post a picture that crossed out the word black and replaced it with all to indicate “All Lives Matter”. Undoubtedly it was not meant with malicious intent akin to that of white supremacists, but it exposed an ignorance regarding anti-black racism and that for many within our communities, the understanding of anti-blackness is a deeply shallow one.
The actress Disha Patani released a picture saying “all colours are beautiful”, which was another thinly veiled way saying”All Lives Matter”, even though, as someone pointed out, she features in a fairness and skin lightening cream commercial.
Sadly enough, we actually have seen “All Lives Matter” discourse taking place within Muslim circles. It usually follows around the theme, spouted largely by Asian men, as to why no-one talks about Palestine, Syria, Kashmir and Uighur as much as they talk about what happened to George Floyd.
Never mind that Syrians in Idlib have themselves protested for George Floyd, this is nothing more than a disingenuous act of erasure that dressed up resentment in grievance for another cause. People have spoken about what has happened in each of these caused. People have marched for Palestinians and Syrians. They have protested against Modi’s government in its treatment of the people of Kashmir.
This refusal to address the anti-black racism is deeply related to the erasure of black Muslims within diaspora spaces. Whether that is within mosques that do not cater to black Muslims but exist as Desi cliques or a refusal to understand the historical contributions of black Muslims to Islam, there is a tendency within our communities to treat black Muslims as guests to the religion than our brothers and sisters.
Back-tracking by insisting that one cares for the entire Ummah or trotting out the Prophet Muhammad’s quote about racial equality or mentioning a love for Bilal ibn Rabah or Malcolm X does not absolve many Desi Asians of their culpability in the acceleration of anti-blackness. It merely highlights that our own behaviours are sometimes as troubling as that of the right-wing white conservative.
There is a communitarian ethos surrounding Islam that elevates family and community over the differences brought about by race and class. But the purpose of this wasn’t to ask black Muslims to never speak about these racial disparities. It was for people to step up and participate as allies in the elimination of racism.
That has not happened, even though it is almost a safe guarantee that should something of an Islamophobic nature happen in the near future, many of these Asian Muslims will be demanding solidarity and decrying the lack of it. Glass houses and stones at this point.
Right now, what is needed from us is solidarity, love and empathy. Many of us are too busy treating these as conditional terms. It’s our responsibility to us to end this. There are two crucial steps to helping this along the way. The first is the fight against the colourism that lurks within our culture and has created a profitable industry out of its prejudice and discrimination.
This is something that actually will be a struggle centred less around the efforts of the Asian diaspora but more around what our brothers and sisters in our motherlands do. It is within India, Bangladesh and Pakistan that the market for skin-lightening products is so strong. Secondly, stories of Bilal cannot be trotted out by British Asian Muslims whenever allegations of racial inequality within Muslim spaces are made.
There is an inherent anti-blackness within our communities, reflected in the dearth of black imams leading mosques or the common problem of mosques where the language is Urdu or Bangla. Mosques must stop treating black Muslims as guests, and be far more inclusive and welcoming.
Furthermore, British Asian Muslims who harbour resentment that the grievances of the black communities receive airtime – which is extremely disputable anyway – should consider collectively organising into movements that bring to light the issues they feel are unheard.
There are better ways to highlight plights than trampling over the voices of a very marginalised community. Throw your anger at the white supremacists vandalising your mosques, not at the people most likely to help you build your mosque back up again.