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BLM is a wake up call for South Asians

Appropriating Black culture is not being an ally


TW: Mentions of Police Brutality

The waves of protests ushered by the BLM Movement has been a rallying cry for not only effective allyship at all costs but also a call for us to start understanding and working towards bridging the gaps and cementing some of the fractious divisions within our own communities. 

Looking back a month later, police brutality cases and the everyday crippling injustices against the Black community present an even greater threat. George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Ahmad Aubrey, and Breonna Taylor are more than ghosts and echoes of Instagram stories. In the flurry of all those social media petitions, black squares, and Instagram posts, we need to remember the most important and hardest lesson yet- taking this back to our own households as well as our communities. 

How We Perpetuate Racism: Some Observations 

The realities of systemic as well as institutional racism do not remain clearer or more deeply entrenched than they are today. In countries like the US, where the model minority myth is propagated by both the East Asian as well as South Asian communities, they automatically benefit from the oppression of Black  communities. As a result, they are in closer proximity to White  privilege. The added privileges that come from immigration, race, as well as class further trumps this so-called ‘model minority’ myth, especially as they have not been subject to systematic and institutionalised oppression since the declared ‘abolition’ of slavery. This specific trip can be used to drive what is known as a ‘racial wedge’ between the different Asian communities and the Black community. 

The Indian or Desi community as they seem to be colloquially known as in the west, has a history and culture that promotes and at times, even glorifies Anti-Blackness. From often implicit bias, whitewashing, to the likes of purity politics and casteist beliefs, anti-blackness continues to be deeply entrenched in our socialisation. 

Snapshot of a skin-whitening ad by Fair & Lovely

Snapshot of a skin-whitening ad by Fair & Lovely

The omnipresence of skin whitening brands and products in the Indian beauty industry remains one of the most lasting and enduring signs of anti-blackness and racist notions within our communities. High profile celebrities and actresses such as Priyanka Chopra have promoted and advertised these products earlier in their careers. Girls are often told that being ‘light-skinned’ is preferred, whereas, being ‘Kala’ (black) is often deemed an insult or a dis. Individuals working as cleaners and sweepers are often referred to as ‘choorha’, without much consideration of the fact that it is a casteist slur. 

Police brutality and violence in India continues to endanger the lives of minority communities. A few weeks previously, a father and son, Jayaram and Fenix were brutally violated and beaten up by local police, who left them for dead simply because they were caught closing their shop past curfew. Moreover, police violence against Dalit, Adivasi as well as Muslim communities continues to be a systemic and pestilential issue in the law enforcement and justice system. 

Appropriation of Black Culture 

Canadian Punjabi YouTuber Lilly Singh has been criticised for appropriating Black culture

Comedians such as Lilly Singh, among many others, for instance, have been criticised for appropriating certain elements from Caribbean and Black culture. She has been co-opting certain aspects from these cultures since the beginning of her career. Most recently, she made a remix of Ding Dong’s 2006 song, Badman Forward, Badman Pullup, finished with a fake accent.

Yet, we may be unable to completely blame Singh here as this debacle is a larger symptom of how society fleetingly attributes and ascribes meaning to concepts we know very little about. In this case, we see yet another example when Black  culture and experience is exoticised and utilised without the nuances of cultural knowledge and sensitivity. We end up trivialising and reducing a rich and diverse culture by donning a false mask or costume. 

Moreover, Sharine Taylor sought to highlight this fact in her article for the Vice where she outlines how the growing prominence of Toronto’s slang should not be attributed to Lily Singh, rather than its true roots in black culture. Her depiction may result in the erasure of ‘blackness’ and the importance of black identity in this specific context as we don't allow black voices to communicate these stories. African-American writer Greg Tate coins this the 'fetishising'' of cultures. 

Bollywood Actress Bhumi Pednekar was made to look dark skinned for a role of a dark skinned girl

This goes back to all those countless Bollywood films with questionable item numbers, featuring background dancers clad with afros with what could only be called ‘brownface’ by darkening the skin of background dancers or actors playing the role of characters considered ‘lower class’ or ‘poor’ in a specific role. This further exposes the vicious cycles of entrenched issues like colourism that continue to dominate the film and entertainment industries. 

This example is microcosmic of a recurring problem we see with representation, where new tropes and 'fads' in our pop culture often overlook and are even complicit in silencing minority groups or communities from sharing their stories. 

In an era where cultural appropriation has become such a hotly debated and controversial concept, it would be better to take some of these concerns into account. When we caricature a specific group, we fail to do them justice and end up contributing to the normalisation of harmful stereotypes and inaccurate representations. 

What Next: What Allyship Is And Is Not  

The #SouthAsiansForBlackLives movement is partnering with Equality Labs to better educate and arm individuals with knowledge, research, and insight to be better allies and understand some of the underlying causes of racism within our own communities. Solidarity should be underscored by collective efforts at both the individual, community and institutional levels toward understanding sensitive race issues as well as working on feasible solutions. There is now a lot of focus on black history as well as the diversity of African communities in South Asia as well. 

Source: @sapnasscribbles

Conversations shouldn’t be centred around simply debating the rights of black people, but understanding the issues in the systems such as the unwavering and indisputable presence of white supremacy, fragility as well as the privilege and how that has endangered and imperilled black lives for centuries. For people within the South Asian community, this would mean finally discussing casteism and racism within our own societies and the everyday injustices that contributed in some way to anti-blackness and racism rhetoric in our daily lives. Brands like ‘Haati Chai were finally called out for their lack of sensitivity and awareness in the past, specifically when promoting a jewellery item known as the ‘Dalit ring’ a few years back. It was a clear sign of blatant disregard for the Indian Dalit community and the years of castist oppression they have endured. 

Yet, being an ally is more than just performative activism, signing petitions and making donations. Effective and beneficial allyship extends to committing yourself to lifelong awareness, education as well as self-examination and a reflection to understand past actions and belief systems. It comes with understanding the difference, distinctions and the question of intersectionality between different black experiences and stories. 

Long-lasting and sustained allyship is an important stepping stone for the South Asian community in particular, as we learn, understand, and ask ourselves - how the hell did we get here.

 We are ripped at the seams. 

About the author

Shivani is an aspiring journalist and undergraduate student majoring in Political Science at UC Berkeley. Apart from being an avid lover of coffee, podcasts and siestas, she is passionate about social and human rights issues, especially when it comes to feminism and intersectionality.

Instagram: @shivani.ek | Tweets: @SEkkanath

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