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South-Asian Role in Anti-Blackness

Written by Aditya Gandhi

Second Year, English Major, Pomona College, USA



Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.



This article was written over a month after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd [1], which once again made the Black Lives Matter movement a centerpiece of attention in the United States: protestors left their homes and gathered together in the midst of a pandemic, donations flowed in large waves to bail funds and Black-led organizations, the phrase ‘Defund the Police’ became familiar to households and mainstream news channels. Instagram feeds reflected the political landscape as quarantine selfies and summer sunsets gave way to squares of information, calls for donation, guides on allyship, and local petitions.


But Instagram feeds are starting to return to “normal.” News coverage of protests and racial issues is reverting back to its previous equilibrium, while other issues, such as the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, are demanding attention.

Such is the nature of humans and the news cycle. However, we must combat the forgetfulness and past-tense thinking that has plagued Black struggles for justice. The idea that the indictment of George Floyd’s killers signals change is at odds with history. In 2016, the cop who shot Philando Castille faced charges of second-degree manslaughter, and the cop who shot Alton Sterling lost his job. In 2015, following the shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis, Minnesota—where Floyd would later be killed—the city budgeted $300,000 for police bias training (Feshir, 2015). Courthouse justice, attempts at police reform, and short-lived public outcry have all been and will continue to be insufficient in preventing violence against Black people in the United States.



The issues are large and systemic, so their solutions will have to be grand, too. In the meantime, however, every individual (especially non-Black ones) has a role to play. Every non-Black person should be educating themself, donating within their capacity to Black-led organizations and mutual aid funds, and caring for the Black people in their lives. Part of this process involves understanding one’s identities and communities and working against anti-Blackness within those areas. For South Asians in particular, reckoning with anti-Blackness must involve a framework that also takes into account colorism and casteism.



South Asian Anti-Blackness: At Home and Abroad


“Indian racism towards Black people is almost worse than white peoples’ racism.”

Arundhati Roy [2]


“I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi, in his “Open Letter” to the Natal Parliament in 1893. “A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw [South African]” (Desai, Vahed, 2016). Later, in 1904, Gandhi wrote, “About this mixing of the [South Africans] with the Indians, I must confess I feel very strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen” (Desai, Vahed, 2016).


Gandhi’s desire in these and other writings—to use Black people as a stepping-stool to assert South Asians’ proximity to whiteness—embodies a larger issue in South Asian society. Even as South Asians have historically struggled against racism in the form of British imperialism, too often have they conceded to white supremacy and used it to uplift themselves at the expense of Black people and even darker-skinned South Asians. A chance for solidarity was lost to the desire for self-betterment.


Due in large part to the slave trade, communities of Black people exist in South Asia to this day: the Sidi of Gujurat and Karnataka, the Sheedi of Pakistan, Afro-Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka (Duggleby, 2020). Needless to say, these groups are marginalized and vulnerable to racism in many forms, from economic disenfranchisement to individual hate crimes. Similarly, Black visitors to South Asia regularly experience anti-Blackness on their travels. In 2016, the Association of African Students in India held a protest, announcing that “African students no longer feel safe in India; we have to deal with racism at every turn” (Andre, 2016).

In South Asia, anti-Blackness exists at a subconscious level, as Arundhati Roy shows:

We are a racist culture. Last year I saw a Malayalam film called Abrahaminde Santhathikal (The Sons of Abraham). The vicious, idiot-criminal villains were all Black Africans—and of course, they were decimated by the Malayali superhero. There isn’t a community of Africans in Kerala—so the filmmaker imported them into a piece of fiction in order for this racism to be played out! This is not a State atrocity. This is society. This is people. Artists, filmmakers, actors, writers—South Indians who are mocked by North Indians for their dark skins, in turn, humiliating Africans for the very same reason. It’s like falling into a borewell with no bottom.” (Dalit Camera, 2020)


This learned anti-Blackness extends to South Asian communities abroad. Though white people undoubtedly hold power in the United States, South Asians benefit from and are complicit in anti-Blackness. This racism surfaces on many levels, from young brown kids saying the n-word to 50,000 South Asians roaring for Modi and Trump at the “Howdy Modi” event last September in Houston (The Hindu, 2019). Such support for far-right leaders like Modi and Trump indicates a willingness within the South Asian American community to support leaders who use their power to perpetuate anti-Blackness on a large scale.


The situation holds a little more nuance, though, for the United States purposefully selects South Asian immigrants who are poised to profit in an anti-Black nation. Vijay Prashad explains: “Careful state selection of Asians—with educational achievement and personal determination—allowed the Asian communities in the US to produce social outcomes that are at askance not only with other minorities in the US but also with populations in their home countries. … Much the opposite story for African Americans. … The violence meted out against African Americans is specific; it is not identical to the racism that Asian Americans face” (Prashad, 2014). Thus, even in a predominantly white and racist space, South Asians benefit from not being Black. This applies to low-income South Asians as well, but it is worth noting that well-to-do South Asians have done really well for themselves. The United States census reveals Asian Americans consistently have the highest median income out of any racial category, while Black people have the lowest median income. In 2014, Asian Americans’ median income was 39% greater than the national median income; out of all the Asian American subgroups, Indians had the highest household median income at $101,591 (Prosperity Now, 2018).


Whether directly or indirectly, this wealth is owing to the exploitation of Black people and other marginalized groups in the United States. James Baldwin wrote, in a 1967 essay, “It is bitter to watch the Jewish storekeeper locking up his store for the night, and going home. Going, with your money in his pocket, to a clean neighborhood, miles from you, which you will not be allowed to enter” (Baldwin, 1967). It is strikingly easy to replace ‘Jewish’ with ‘South Asian’ in this sentence and find a statement that rings true today— an interchangeability that speaks to the ever-growing proximity of South Asians to whiteness.


It is little surprise, then, when a group such as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh—the United States branch of the right-wing, Hindu-nationalist RSS of India—stages a campaign in support of police, as they did in 2019 to celebrate Raksha Bandhan (Soundararajan, 2020). While the example of the HSS is not representative of South Asians in general, their complicity in white supremacy is indicative of how South Asians tend to get by in the United States. In South Asia and the United States, South Asian communities must come to terms with the privileges they gain from the nation’s systemic oppression of Black people. South Asians in the United States are not innocent bystanders watching as white people oppress Black people; they profit off this anti-Blackness, and they remain on the side of white people until they make an active commitment to stand in solidarity with Black people.


Intersections of Anti-Blackness and Casteism


“We call it race in America; they call it caste in India.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. [3]


In Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, a horde of policemen in Kerala brutalize and ultimately kill a Dalit named Velutha for his love affair with an upper-class woman, Ammu. The young protagonists Rahel and Estha watch in numb naivete, and the narrator notes that they have learned two lessons from this affair. Lesson number one: “Blood barely shows on a Black Man” (Roy, 1997).


Needless to say, Velutha is not a Black man, racially speaking. Still, the casteism and colorism that are clearly at work against him throughout the novel—culminating in a vicious act of police brutality—have parallels to the current situation in the United States, as Colette Shade noted in an article entitled “Police Violence and the American Caste System” (Shade, 2016). Roy’s description of Velutha as a “Black Man” thus points to a broader truth regarding South Asians: for us, understanding and protesting the horrors of anti-Blackness and police brutality in the United States must also mean reckoning with the horrors of caste in South Asia.


For South Asia, anti-Blackness and anti-Dalitness are not alike only in their oppressive consequences but also in their origins. Though imperialism is not to be dismissed as a factor in South Asian anti-Blackness (and in casteism itself, if one thinks back to the early Aryan settlers), casteism may very well have been what allowed South Asian communities to embrace and learn anti-Blackness so easily. As Thenmozhi Soundararajan writes, “a casteist mindset...easily becomes a racist mindset, as the learned behaviors of a graded inequality...and criminalization of the ‘other’ have already been normalized and are continuously reinforced in the South Asian psyche (Soundararajan, 2020). Furthermore, the colorism that guides notions of caste—upper-caste people are fair-skinned—encourages South Asians to have a low view of Black people.


Historically, struggles against anti-Blackness and against casteism have informed each other. Just one example is that of the correspondence between W. E. B. Du Bois and famed twentieth-century Dalit activist B. R. Ambedkar. In the 1940s, Ambedkar wrote to Du Bois that “there is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary,” to which Du Bois responded that he had “every sympathy with the Untouchables of India.” [4] Similarly, Angela Davis, who often emphasizes the intersectionality of movements for justice, writes, “Dr. Martin Luther King was inspired by Gandhi to engage in nonviolent campaigns against racism. And in India, the Dalits...have been inspired by the struggles of Black Americans” (Davis, 2016).

The links between South Asian anti-Blackness and casteism hold so strongly that to effectively and wholly eradicate one, we must eradicate both. To end on another Angela Davis quote: “Our histories never unfold in isolation. We cannot truly tell what we consider to be our own histories without knowing the other stories” (Davis, 2016).



Autor's Note: Next Steps


In this article, I have touched only upon the surface of South Asians’ role in both perpetuating and combating anti-Blackness. I hope that we as a community will remember to not treat this issue as one of the past, as well as to recognize its connections to other issues, first and foremost, anti-Dalitness. I hope that we can continue to engage in these conversations, center Black people in our thinking and learning, further educate ourselves on Black history, and understand how our various degrees of privilege rely on Black peoples’ and Dalits’ lack of privilege. The following is a by no means a comprehensive list of educational resources and ways to donate, but it is a start.


Education:


Donations:








[1] Content Warning: The murders of Black people. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are Black people who lost their lives to acts of racist violence in the United States in 2020. Arbery was killed by civilians, while Taylor and Floyd were killed by the police.


[2] An interview with Arundhati Roy. (2020, June 8). Dalit Camera.


[3] King Jr., M. L. (1959). My trip to the land of Gandhi.


[4] The secret history of South Asian and African American solidarity.” Black Desi Secret History.org. https://blackdesisecrethistory.org/



Bibliography


1. An interview with Arundhati Roy. (2020, June 8). Dalit Camera. https://www.dalitcamera.com/indian-racism-towards-black-people-is-almost-worse-than-white-peoples-racism/

2. Andre, A. (2016, June 26). Being African in India: ‘We are seen as demons.’ Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/06/african-india-demons-160620101135164.html

3. Baldwin, J. (1967, April 9). Negroes are anti-Semitic because they’re anti-white. http://movies2.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-antisem.html

4. Davis, A. (2016). Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the foundations of a movement. Haymarket Books.

5. Desai, A., & Vahed, G. (2016). The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-bearer of empire. Stanford University Press.

6. Duggleby, L. The Sidi project. Retrieved from: https://thesidiproject.com/

7. Feshir, R. (2015, December 10). Minneapolis budgets $300,000 for police bias training. MPR News. https://www.mprnews.org/story/2015/12/10/mpls-police-bias-training

8. ‘Howdy Modi’ event ‘win-win’ situation for Modi and Trump: Mukesh Aghi. The Hindu. (2019, September 21) https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/howdy-modi-event-win-win-situation-for-modi-trump-mukesh-aghi/article29475057.ece

9. King Jr., M. L. (1959). My trip to the land of Gandhi. http://www.elegantbrain.com/edu4/classes/readings/depository/misc/mlk_ind_ebon.PDF

10. Prashad, V. (2014, December 8). Black bodies, broken worlds. CounterPunch. https://www.counterpunch.org/2014/12/08/black-bodies-broken-worlds/

11. Racial wealth snapshot: Asian Americans. (2018, May 10). Prosperity Now. https://prosperitynow.org/blog/racial-wealth-snapshot-asian-americans

12. Roy, A. (1997). The God of Small Things. Penguin Books.

Shade, C. (2016, October 25). Police violence and the American caste system. Literary Hub. https://lithub.com/police-violence-and-the-american-caste-system/

13. Soundararajan, T. (2020, June 3). South Asians for Black lives: A call for action, accountability, and introspection. Wear Your Voice. https://wearyourvoicemag.com/south-asians-for-black-lives-a-call-for-action/

14. The secret history of South Asian and African American solidarity. https://blackdesisecrethistory.org/


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