Anti-blackness and colourism

The #blacklivesmatter movement is huge right now, talks of racism that need to be had are huge right now. All of this has led to many interesting debates between friends, families and colleagues. It has pushed me to make changes and a few days ago I shared a rant on my Instagram feed, the reception it got was not expected but it made me realise that a lot of people share this same view of anti-blackness and colourism within the South Asian community. I started talking to one of my good friends and we both decided to develop that conversation further into a blog post.

(anything in italics are my views and anything not in italics are Hina’s views)

Introducing Postgraduate Student and Practitioner of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Hina Ayub… 

Most of us will have seen the horrific video of George Floyd’s murder. His cries of not being able to breathe, pleading for Derek Chauvin to stop pressing his knee into his neck. The voices of the eyewitnesses growing hysterical as they notice George not breathing. But I was equally struck by Tou Thao, the Asian officer stood between the witnesses and Chauvin. Ignoring the screams from witnesses to intervene, refusing to even look behind him. His complicit silence was deafening – seeing as he was part of an ethnic minority himself.  

Thao certainly doesn’t represent all Asians. There’s widespread outrage and it’s admirable to see people come together to challenge the longstanding systemic racism that has landed us in this predicament in the first place. 

In terms of my own community, I’ve seen many South Asians demonstrating their unwavering support for the BLM movement; but I’ve also seen those who are silent and seemingly apathetic. Whilst it’s important to challenge governments and institutions, we need to look closer to home. We can’t continue to ignore the racism and prejudice that lies within our own community. 

“She is pretty, she has pretty features but she’s dark” or “Uska sanwla rang hai”or “Woh kali hai”. 

How many of us have heard this or something similar in the past? How many of us have heard someone being described by the colour of the skin? This is very common in the South Asian community.  

It starts from birth. I have cared for hundreds of families and there is one experience that has stayed with me for one particular reason. I was looking after a South Asian family; baby had just been born. I dried her off and was passing her over to her mum for skin to skin. The grandma was present in the room and once she saw the newborn, she commented at how beautiful and “gori” (white) the baby was. She has been in the world a matter of minutes and has already been exposed to the toxic superiority complex that is imbedded in the minds of many South Asians. It is predominantly the older generations however it would be foolish of me to ignore the fact that many of the younger generation South Asians also share this mindset. It goes back decades; my mum has spoken to me about her experiences of being ‘sanwli’ as a child. How she was made to feel inferior.  

Sundas has shared her experience of a grandmother who was elated by how “gori” (white) her grandchild was – which brings me onto colourism – intraracial prejudice against individuals with a dark skin tone. It’s something that runs rampant within the South Asian community. It dates back to colonialism and the overbearing sentiment that whiteness = power and superiority, which has been passed from generation to generation systematically through various elements of our culture. For me, there are three main culprits – the cosmetics industry, the entertainment industry, and the age-old caste system. 

Following on from that, let’s talk about my high school days because I am sure a lot of you will relate. At the time I had very poor makeup skills (pre contour days) but I remember so many girls (including myself) wearing foundation that was definitely a few shades lighter than our actual skin tone. I remember using Jolen (skin bleach) on my face, it is painful and I cannot believe I would put myself through that. I would go to local beauticians for facials and I can honestly say that each one of them would offer a skin lightening facial. These are South Asian women, women of colour, our melanin clad sisters who are openly promoting anti-blackness and colourism. Your beauty should never be measured by how fair your skin is or isn’t. Love your skin, your flaws and yourself. 

From skin lightening creams, facials, bleaching to the widespread advertising of products such as ‘Fair and Lovely’, which basically says that lighter you are, the more attractive. You only need to look to Bollywood and Lollywood movies to see the overwhelming lack of representation of dark-skinned women. It’s not unintentional. The caste system that seems to be the determinant on the suitability of a marriage proposal – whilst it’s mostly based on class and social status, I have heard people associate certain castes with a darker/lighter skin tone. 

In the South Asian community marriage proposals are denied because the girl is ‘too dark’, it makes me want to scream and blogging about it is my way of screaming. How are we going to let something so superficial and shallow win, it has been going on for decades and there has been no change. I have heard so many stories where girls are not worthy enough because they don’t have a fair complexion. I have sat at weddings where people will point out how fair the bride is or worse still how the bride is too dark for the groom! We have all seen the memes of how Pakistani brides are caked in ‘atta’ on their wedding day to satisfy societies standards of beauty. I will do everything I can to prevent myself being in a situation where the colour of my children’s skin is commented on. You are not and should not be defined by your complexion. 

Coming from a mental health background, naturally I start to lean towards the psychological implications of this internalised racism. Lack of self-esteem, low self-worth, a sense of inferiority – the mental toll it takes on people is significant. The sense that you’ll always be second-class compared to others. It’s imperative for us to be able to identify and challenge this. 

While I can write a whole other piece about the cons to social media, there is one positive to it that is clear as day. Social media allows us to encounter new people, places and points of view on a daily basis. This exposure to something outside of our own four walls not only expands our knowledge, but also our ability to connect with others on a human level. I don’t think the elders of our community had the same opportunities. The opinions they hold will be ones that their parents ingrained into them, and so forth – a generational cycle that was never questioned. How can the cycle be broken? The first step to righting a wrong is by acknowledging that something wrong happened in the first place. 

There is a quote from the Quran that resonates with me so much especially in this situation: 

Allah never changes the condition of a people unless they strive to change themselves’  

(Surah Ar-Rad) 

Change is growth. Change does not come from anyone but you. If we continue to stay silent and don’t confront these issues within our community then nothing will ever change. I do not want to hear another grandma, grandpa, uncle, aunt, mum, dad or anyone squeal with excitement because of the newborns ‘gora rang’.  

To delineate what anti-blackness is – a specific kind of racial prejudice that is directed towards black people. I’m sure we’ll have all heard passive racial jibes being used behind closed doors, such as “kala” (black) – granted, it’s the Urdu/Punjabi translation for black, but I won’t be the only one who feels there is some underlying ridicule there. Whilst it seems harmless, with everything we know about colourism and the desire to not be dark-skinned, how can we think this would not affect the way we view black people? It’s more harmful than we let on, as it tends to factor into our social dynamics – seeing those of a different skin colour as the ‘other’.

To bring it all back to base; complicity isn’t just aiding and abetting, like Thao did whilst George Floyd pleaded for air right behind him. We are also complicit when we ignore the microaggressions that occur daily right before our eyes, whether it be at home or in the workplace.

To show solidarity with black people and the BLM movement, we must also remember to look to our own families and communities, and the prejudice that continues to fester when unchallenged. Listen to their views, challenge them, and educate.  

Have those difficult conversations with your parents, aunties, uncles, grandparents, friends – the difficult conversations are always the more important ones to be had. 

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