Over the last few days, one could not have escaped the incredible #BlackLIvesMatter (BLM) movement spreading across the US and parts of the world.
BLM is a campaign around shining a light on the injustices that Afro Carribeans and members of the Black community have faced in America over the last few decades. Despite the advances of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1960s, people of black colour are more likely to be stopped and searched by police; are more likely to be incarcerated and if not arrested, to be shot. The number of stories of innocent Black people being shot by police or others has become more prominent because of the proliferation of social media highlighting a problem that has been there since the Rodney King incident of the nineties. The BLM movement is really about campaigning for the rights of Black people to be treated with dignity, justice and equality and also about safety: stopping the unlawful and unnecessary killing of Black people. Unfortunately it has also come to symbolise where people of colour have been seen to be suspicious or more likely treated roughly by law enforcement.
South Asia has been no stranger to this affinity and shows of support. The movement has gathered its supporters with many Bollywood celebrities also endorsing the campaign and recently in Sri Lanka, pro BLM protestors being arrested (for violating Covid-19 regulations) and many declaring support on social media.
Yet what is really interesting in these declarations of support largely from an English speaking middle and upper class, supported by celebrities, is its hypocrisy. In declaring an affinity with BLM, there is strangely a glossing over of internal filters of racism and discrimination within these communities.
Many Bollywood celebrities who have expressed their public support have been rightly called out for their endorsement of whitening creams that are deemed to make people fairer. The mere fact that there is a market in India, Sri Lanka and other parts of South Asia for such products depicts an unhealthy obsession with being fair or against those who have dark skin. The litmus test for this is when it comes to seeking arrangements for marriage as is common in South Asia where often advertisements in papers seek ‘fair’ partners. In some cases, those with a darker complexion often are from different ethnicities / minorities or from different castes / socio economic statuses which compounds the discrimination. This desire to be ‘fair’, a reverse type of ‘cultural’ appropriation in my opinion, remains one of the hangovers from the colonial period where our colonised psyche has become ingrained with the image that the ‘white man’ is somehow more superior and better, whereas the image of the ‘blackface’ is one of ridicule and horror. Many South Asian countries have their own ‘black’ communities who are either descendants of the indigenous communities that originally inhabited the land or remnants of the colonial slave trade who somehow ended up in these countries destined to be forgotten and turned into some folklore that is trotted out at national days or for tourists as a superficial ‘celebration’ of the diversity we have in South Asia. Rest of the time they are reduced to the shadows of society with no representation and agency.
Our South Asian psyche has somehow become wired to the fact that ‘dark skinned’ are bad and that the ‘fair skinned’ are to be trusted. We cannot help it. My best friend’s mother, a sweet unassuming woman, once told me that “if she saw a black man driving a Mercedes Benz, he must be a drug dealer. There’s no way that he could have earned that legitimately”. This is not the opinion of some nationalist bigot but of someone who is mainstream, educated and tolerant (as far as I know her), yet capable of holding such a view.
This is a paradox. If history is to be understood and learnt from, it was actually the fair skinned colonial invaders who were not to be trusted, stealing the resources and manipulating the internal politics of the countries they invaded. The litmus test once again is marriage, that most sacred of personal institutions within South Asian culture, religion and traditions. Contrast the backlash that would come if a South Asian brought home a Caucasian partner as opposed to someone from the Afro Caribbean community as their prospective marriage partner!
The irony is that there would be as much if not more backlash if someone brought home a partner from the same country but of a different caste / socio economic status / ethnicity / religion. This is the second part of the hypocrisy of those supporting BLM from South Asia.
World over, BLM has become a poster child for the indignity and mistreatment that members of minority communities feel in their own countries. For many minorities, they identify with the BLM movement because in their countries they are the ‘black’ community in terms of how they are treated and perceived. Currently, South Asia has been rocked by violence and xenophobic rhetoric against minorities at a level that has largely been unprecedented. For example, in countries like India and Sri Lanka the rhetoric and violence, often with state complicity, against the Muslim community over the last year has been well documented. COVID-19 added another layer of complexity where mainstream media was used to blame a community for its spread. As such, the rise in Islamophobia in these two countries is at an all-time high. Yet what has been deafening has been the silence of those celebrities and other BLM supporters who either are complicit in their support for what has happened at their doorsteps or are not bothered because it is not trendy. The same has to be said in Pakistan and Bangladesh for the treatment of their Hindu and Christian minorities.
This hypocrisy needs to be called out: if you support BLM because of the injustice faced by the black community in Europe and North America, then you need to speak out against what is happening to the Muslim and other minority communities in your own countries. That is the message and the lesson of BLM--not to appear on social media with a statement. That hypocrisy will be called out.
Seventy plus years after ‘independence’ in South Asia we are somehow still in need of decolonisation of our minds, away from the attraction of the ‘white’ skin and mind. This decolonisation of the mind posits the notion that diversity in our countries is a fact. We have always had them and they have always strengthened us, despite what our colonial masters taught us. If diversity is a fact, then inclusion is an act. This is ultimately what BLM stands for. This is what, if we are sincere about it, we need to push for in South Asia.
(Amjad Mohamed Saleem is a political scientist with extensive knowledge and experience on peace building, humanitarian affairs and development work. He has a particular interest on interfaith conflict resolution and a focus on South Asia. He has worked for different international organisations on peace building and humanitarian action).