As a POC (British Indian), I have had my fair share of racist comments. Luckily for me, most of them have been pretty trivial, reflecting ignorance rather than malicious intent but nevertheless, not easily forgotten. I know that discrimination faced by members of the black community is so many times worse.
Across the world, many people, including South Asians, have been raising awareness, protesting, donating and fundraising in support of Black Lives in response to the appalling murders of George Floyd and others. High profile, influential Bollywood celebrities have tweeted their support for BLM, encouraging other South Asians to follow in their footsteps. We have seen the pain inflicted on Black Lives for too long and need to stand together in solidarity, exposing and overcoming white privilege.
Yet, how can we claim to sufficiently support BLM when many of our cultural attitudes are inherently racist and indirectly propagate anti-black sentiments? Most notably is the South Asian obsession with fair skin- which is often seen as a prerequisite for beauty. Skin colour bias is commonly thought to be derived from the Hindu caste system- with lighter skin associated with more superior castes. Although the idea of castes predates colonialism, it is likely that associations with colorism were exacerbated during the double-century long British Raj. People would cater to and strive to be more similar to white people with the hope of accessing better opportunities. Fair skin was seen as a desirable characteristic when seeking out marital partners and this is still the case today (although arranged marriages are less common).
Today, South Asian fair skin obsessions are largely driven by the film industry. Actors with lighter skin are more likely to be seen in more prominent roles, and “brownfacing” is common practice to reflect characters of poorer origins. A recent example is the 2019 “super-hit” Bollywood movie Bala, in which the actress Bhumi Pednekar was brownfaced when playing Latika, a talented girl who is rejected by several marriage proposals solely due to her dark skin. It is disgustingly ironic that a lighter skinned actress was brownfaced over casting a darker skinned actress, when the very moral of the movie is the beauty of different complexions.
These attitudes towards preferring lighter complexions are propagated by the thriving South Asian market of skin lightening products and skin bleaching. When I was just 10, excited about my first pedicure before a wedding in India, I was painted with bleach up and down my legs. I remember thinking it was moisturiser; it was only when my skin started burning that I realised otherwise. Safe to say I have never had a pedicure since. Somewhat hypocritically, Karan Johar, Dishi Patani and Priyanka Chopra, all Bollywood celebrities who tweeted their support for BLM, have all also advertised skin lightening products. In response to criticism, Priyanka Chopra deleted her tweet. This is not enough. We need statements from these influential celebrities condemning the pursuit of fair skin. South Asians who have been emotionally alienated and even physically harmed by these attitudes deserve an apology. Crucially, this warped perception of beauty results in colourist sentiments towards darker skinned individuals and hence members of the Black community. This is frankly unacceptable.
Furthermore, following the US 1965 Immigration Act, people from Asia were permitted to immigrate to the USA; Asians were portrayed via the “model minority myth”. This stereotyping favoured their success, whilst simultaneously expanding the gap between Black Americans and Southern Asian Americans. The systemic racist oppression faced by Black people is reflected by statistics- according to the US 2018 consensus, the median household income of Black American houses was 41,400 USD, almost half that of white people (70,600 USD) and under half that of Asian households (87,200 USD). Similarly, in the UK, data from 2015-2018 showed that the 42% of the Indian British population earnt over £1000 per week, whereas this was only true for 19% of the Black British population. It is evident that South Asians have also benefited from white privilege at the expense of Black People. It is about time that we addressed these disparities.
It is crucial that South Asians continue to support BLM by donating money, fundraising, protesting, signing petitions, increasing our understanding of the hardships faced by the black community and raising awareness. However, although we may not be white ourselves, unless we address our cultural racist ideologies, we become complicit with white supremacist ideologies. We need to educate ourselves on the history of casteism, colourist attitudes, colonialism and slavery so that we are better able to recognise and call out racial insults within our own community as well as elsewhere. We need to stamp out South Asian obsession with lightening skin and finding fairer skin attractive. Interracial relationships and friendships with black people need to be supported and accepted, not stigmatised.
In order for many of these measures to be successful in the long-term, it means challenging the ideals of those in our close community circles and family. These difficult conversations can be approached via discussions about how peaceful BLM protests are being met with violence by the police and how black people have wrongfully been facing such a threat of police violence for decades. Highlight the positive role South Asians have been playing to support the cause, including how the owners of the Gandhi Mahal Restaurant in Minneapolis used the restaurant as a base for protestors and medics, and how Rahul Dubey welcomed over 70 protestors into his house in New York for refuge. Emphasise how small changes in attitudes can have extremely rewarding consequences.
Fundamentally, encourage support for the lives and wellbeing of our fellow black ethnic minorities. Black Lives Matter.