In my family we were told you “never marry a BMW, that’s Black, Muslim or White”, these are the words of UK born Hindu, 25 year old Daksha Parekh. Is this racism or simply an innocent foundation upon which certain communities are built? According to Daksha, the opinions of her family and a large chunk of the Indian community towards those from Afro- Caribbean backgrounds is ultimately inter-minority racism. Although she agrees that many people and families from South- East Asia often subscribe to the belief that they wouldn’t marry outside of their cast let alone into another culture, she is adamant that the prejudice towards black people is on a far deeper and discriminatory level.
In 2011 a scholar of cross- cultural relations Dr Nitasha Sharna spoke at the National Conference of Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education where she challenged the concept that ethnic groups only suffer from attitudes of white supremacy. Dr Sharna argued that these groups can in fact be the perpetrators particularly when instigating inter-minority racism.
A prime example of this is the relations between Afro Caribbean and people of African descent and Asians in the UK. Though generalisations are to be avoided, there are many Asians who will always cross the road when a black person is walking towards them as a result of the stereotypical beliefs about black crime which they have been exposed to. For some the ‘racist attitudes’ are subtle, so though there is unlikely to be the calling of names such as ‘nigger’ or ‘paki’, it is evident through Asian shopkeepers having a harsh attitude towards black school children when they enter their stores, is this racism or simply a result of stereotypes and experiences? Simultaneously, there are some people from the black community who detest the thought of working with colleagues from the Indian community claiming that they cannot be trusted, a British Ghanaian colleague once said about her British Indian manager “In my family we have a saying, if you have a snake in front of you and an Indian, kill the Indian.”
Racism in any form is not to be tolerated and continues to be an injustice both in the UK and beyond. For some, the prejudices which exists between ethnic groups is perhaps a greater tragedy as there is so much which binds them together. For example, both the Asian and Black community have experienced racism, racial profiling, stop and search campaigns, discrimination as a result of skin colour or having a ‘foreign sounding name’ and continue to be marginalised in many spheres of society. Even ‘equal opportunities’ employers give identical CVs with ‘white’ names more replies than ones with ‘black’ names . For decades the Asian, Caribbean and African communities have lived together in the UK and shared a common heritage of colonialism, fighting for freedom and the burden of white supremacy.
Yet despite this it is common in British society today to see tensions between minority groups, often expressed through the establishing of social superiority over one another by embracing and reinforcing stereotypes. Whether it is differences in colour, culture or socio-economic status which has led to this is debatable.
In the case of the Asian community the attitude of many towards their fellow Indians, Pakistani’s or Bangladeshi’s marrying a black man or woman is extremely telling. Born in the UK to Indian parents, Sania Singh grew up within a fairly open minded family who only had one rule when it came to marriage “Marry any Indian, any white, we will even accept a Muslim from Pakistan or the Middle- East but no black, never.”
As fate would have it Sania ended up in a relationship with British Jamaican, Bradley Upsall and as expected both their parents were not willing to accept the match. Although in the UK the trend for mixed-race relationships is growing, in the case of most of these one partner is white.
When Sania and Bradley challenged their parents on their issues regarding their relationship they were shocked to discover the depth of negative attitudes both families held about the other’s culture and community. Her family felt that being black meant that Bradley was beneath them, his dark skin being an issue and the stereotype regarding black men not being faithful being a dominant reason for their opposition.
Bradley’s family emphasised upon him the shrewd nature of Asians, the intolerance and hostility he would have to face from Sania’s family and society and their general dislike of the Asian population.
Bradley and Sania were able to challenge this and decided to go against the wishes of their family stating that younger generations are now more liberal and accepting of marrying out of their culture. “I asked my parents to meet Bradley, after which they admitted that their only problem with him was that he was black, at that point I knew what my decision was.”
This advert for cheerios cereal in America caused outrage because it featured a mixed race couple:
Other reasons for the attitude of some British Indians towards the black community need to be considered. In general many Indians are of a higher socio-economic ranking than other groups and therefore it is possible that wealth is a motive behind their sometimes negative response to interracial integration.
In turn, the image in the media of Indians as being close minded, racist and difficult does little to thaw relations between the groups.
If we look beyond the borders of Britain then Uganda is a prime example of a country where racism between East African Asians and African Ugandans is an ugly and often silenced reality.
An example beyond borders: Uganda
From my bedroom in Kampala I looked out of the window and saw an Asian Ugandan boy and an African Ugandan girl playing. I wondered, in twenty years time, would these two still be friends? Would they set up a business together? Would they maybe get married?
The subject of integration or maybe lack of it is a sensitive one in Uganda, particularly in regards to the relationship between Ugandans and Ugandan Asians. Kampala is home to people from all over the world, however it is more a salad bowl of people almost tossed together than a melting pot of nationalities.
Both the Asian and Ugandan communities work side by side and live side by side, in what can perhaps be considered to be an uneasy truce; many Asians based in Uganda are keen to emphasise the fact that they see themselves as Ugandans, they feel a kinship towards the country and its people particularly as it is so closely linked to their own history and the migration of their forefathers. However it is often these indigenous Asians of Uganda, those who have roots in the country and classify themselves as Ugandans that some point a finger at for segregating themselves.
It is startling to note how little even the younger generation of Asians in Uganda are seen to be socialising with their Ugandan counterparts at popular hangouts. At high end restaurants and hotels the who’s who of both communities can be seen dining together and one wonders if it is only business and politics that is the binding factor.
The lack of mixed Indian- Ugandan couples walking the streets of Kampala explains how rare romantic relations between the two groups are. One Asian girl was honest enough to say that if she was to date a Ugandan it would have to be hidden and the relationship would have no long term prospects, “My family have been in Uganda for generations, however marrying an African Ugandan is not an option for any of us.”
Some argue that it is a trait of the Indian community to generally ‘stick to their own’ however, in a fast evolving world it is impossible to believe that the younger generations subscribe to this way of thinking. Furthermore, there is far more interaction between the communities in neighbouring Kenya, though of course that country did not have the Amin experience.
A young Indian lady who worked in Uganda spoke about when she visited Garden City with her Ugandan boyfriend, “We walked to the food court and a table of young Indian boys turned to stare at us each of them glaring as if we were committing a crime, it is almost reminiscent of post- apartheid South Africa.”
A young man from Western Uganda also spoke of his parents shock when he suggested dating an Indian girl, their concerns centred on the prejudice the couple would face from both communities and though they did not explicitly forbid him from getting involved they did warn him off.
There are also those alleged stories of men from the Indian community dating Ugandan women yet leaving them in order to marry women from ‘back home’ or keeping them as mistresses, some of these men simply use the Ugandan girls under the guise of a relationship for sexual purposes before going on to marry an Indian girl.
The other area of life where interaction between these communities is prominent is in the realms of work, business and employment.
The Ugandan President once talked about Ugandans resenting Indian factory owners, reasons cited for this revolve around blaming Indians for taking businesses and jobs. However an alternative argument for this resentment may be because of how some Indian Ugandan employers treat their employees. Though sometimes both communities exchange banter and enjoy themselves within the workplace stories of exploitation are not uncommon. One Ugandan lady working at an Indian owned IT firm spoke of how her Indian employers would not speak to staff except to give instructions, this made her think she was being looked down upon. She also spoke of exploitation through overworking, underpaying and verbal and sexual abuse that some of her friends suffered from their Asian employers, she was quick to add though that even Ugandan employers exploit their workers.
Unfortunately very few people from the Asian community were willing to comment on this matter and those that did argued that there is no prejudice or segregation as such. One Ugandan lady argued that her bad experiences with people from the Asian community was nothing to do with them being Asian but rather a reflection upon a person’s individual personality. However some warned that Asians are still considered a minority and if they are resented by the host culture they continue to put themselves at risk of hostility which can lead to incidents such as the 1972 expulsion by Idi Amin or the 2007 Mabira riots in which one Indian man was killed.
All said and done in reference to Uganda, one wonders if in twenty years time the two children I was observing will be walking down the aisle as husband and wife or walking down the street as complete strangers.
To return to the UK, aside from marriage and relationships, it is common to see younger generations of the Afro- Caribbean and Asian community hanging out together which certainly suggest that this is a step in the right direction. However, by the same token, racism, discrimination and prejudice between people of colour is a very present challenge which needs to be broken through. It is owed to the heritage, struggles and possible future that is shared between the groups.
Samira Sawlani is a UK based writer specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa, in particular Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. She also writes fiction and human interest stories set in Africa. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London she has previously worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat and as an International Election Observer for the Kenyan elections in 2013. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Twitter: @samirasawlani