In the first of a series exploring the issue, Dhruva Balram discusses the history and social implications of colourism in South Asia and diaspora communities, and how this relates to anti-Blackness worldwide.
Colourism, and its close relative anti-Blackness, is a pervasive scourge that underpins any notion of progress the South Asian community attempts to make. The prejudice and discrimination faced by individuals with a dark skin tone among South Asian people, despite belonging to the same racial group, is related to racism. This sentiment isn’t hidden away, tucked away neatly. Rather, it rears its ugly head on an almost daily basis – grandmothers are quick to remind people not to spend too much time in the sun; the darker you are, the less your chances of getting married.
This acceptance, that to be darker than your kin is to be less than, is something that has been ingrained into our minds – force-fed to us as children along with our vegetables. This and many other lies have seeped down through generations afflicted with the guilt of colonisation and casteism.
Though the anti-blackness in South Asia can be easily blamed on a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own unique strain of colourism, one that has been around for longer than European civilisation. Centuries of colonialism which led to systemic biases that favour whiteness have contributed to this idea in modern-day South Asian society.
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Historically, one’s caste or social class is closely identified with skin colour. Brahmins, at the top of the social hierarchy in the caste system, were traditionally fair while lower castes had darker complexions. Sweeping generalisations of colour still being associated with caste [or class] is entrenched in the minds of the elderly, passed through generations and seeps into the psyche. Companies seeking a profit in a vulnerable market decided to take advantage of these insecurities. With a staggering 50-70 per cent share of the market in India, with the total market valued at over $200m USD, Fair and Lovely is the highest selling skin whitening cream in India.
Colourism is a form of racism. It affects people’s livelihoods daily whether through employment prospects, potential marriage partners or abusive treatment by family members and friends. For the diaspora, the mass of South Asian immigrants that have found themselves stretched out across the world, the closer you are to the default – whiteness – the easier it is to assimilate into the default which, in the long-term, means success.
“This aspiration towards fairness – whether in behaviour or actual bleaching of skin – drives people towards a conditioned reading of bodies. This erases dark-skinned bodies, creating an anti-Blackness mentality within the community.”
In recent years, global superstar Priyanka Chopra has made her mark in Hollywood. She talks about being “too ethnic” in America, but leaves behind a trail of using her class and upper-caste privilege to step on others to enter stardom. She’s made a career of selling skin whitening creams; of promoting the ideology of white is right and to be dark is bad. The fairness of one’s skin in India has long been associated with success. Hundreds of online matrimonial profiles cite the fairness of one’s skin as a highly regarded prospect. It is ranked higher than a university degree or professional status on potential brides’ profiles.
This aspiration towards fairness – whether in behaviour or actual bleaching of skin – drives people towards a conditioned reading of bodies. This erases dark-skinned bodies, creating an anti-Blackness mentality within the community. This conditioned belief is visible in the way our community interacts with Black people; anti-Blackness works in a number of painful ways.
Though we may exist in tandem with Black people as being “othered” in the white-hierarchal race ladder, we are not Black. Nor do we share the same experiences or traumas as Black folk in a Western context. Yet, we will co-opt and exploit Black culture for our own benefit – a theme that moves like an underlying current through our daily actions.
NAV and Heems, visible South Asian artists that have infiltrated the mainstream of hip-hop, have felt all-too-comfortable using the N-Word. In the wider context of oppression, this conversation should be too easy to have. Yet, in a culture that is still dominated by white faces, visible brown ones represent billions and carry with them an added weight of responsibility. Every time a mainstream artist like NAV uses the n-word in his lyrics, he’s made it permissible for his scores of South Asian fans to do the same.
Heems, another South Asian rapper who was one of the first visible ones in hip-hop, was called out for using the n-word in 2015. During the Q&A part of his lecture at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), he was confronted about using the word. Though he has since apologised, the stance that brown artists always seem to have is one of equivalency with Black artists. We cannot claim the same struggles of Black people who have been abused and vilified with it.
“Singh seems to throw a costume of Black skin over her brown one in popular videos. Whether through her attire or mimicking of rappers, the persona she puts on borders on minstrelsy. She chooses when to be Desi as all her magazine covers show her unbraided with flowing long hair.”
Co-opting Black culture for our own benefit is a constant in South Asian communities. YouTube superstar Lilly Singh and Rupi Kaur, the Indian-Canadian writer, poet and viral sensation, have most famously benefited significantly from the appropriation of Black culture. Singh rose to fame on the back of her YouTube channel ‘Superwoman.’ With her channel accumulating 14 million subscribers along with 2 billion views, Singh is one of the world’s highest paid YouTube stars. She is clearly an aspirational model for South Asians everywhere.
Yet, she’s been blinded by her own success, claiming that she invented the word “bawse” – the etymology of which is so embedded in AAVE [African American Vernacular English] that it’s strewn throughout countless rap lyrics dating back to the mid 1990’s. Singh seems to throw a costume of Black skin over her brown one in popular videos. Whether through her attire or mimicking of rappers, the persona she puts on borders on minstrelsy. She chooses when to be Desi as all her magazine covers show her unbraided with flowing long hair. There’s a pattern in her actions. She continues to exploit Black culture and artists in ensuring her own success.
Rupi Kaur’s debut book milk & honey sold 2.5 million copies worldwide. A collection of prose and poetry, it also spent over a year on the New York Best Sellers List. But Kaur has allegedly unashamedly stolen from celebrated Black London-based poet Nayirrah Waheed. Waheed even approached Kaur on Tumblr a year prior to Kaur’s book release. She was met with no response. Despite her rise to success, Kaur has not cited Waheed as an influence. She refuses to see the parallels in their work – silence is complicity.
This mentality of co-opting, of stealing culture with ease while erasing or not respecting the people who created it seeps down to citizens everywhere. It’s reflected in how South Asian shop-keepers act when Black customers walk in. It’s visible in how immigrant parents will perceive Black neighbourhoods. It’s what makes the behaviour of Indian mobs assaulting African Nationals in a mall with rubbish bins, billiard cues and bats normal. Mobs like these have stripped a Tanzanian woman in Bangalore, India; killed a Congolese man in New Delhi while vicious rumours about Black people – including cannibalism and drug dealing – spread like wildfire through Indian communities.
There is a lot to dissect within the sphere of anti-blackness in the South Asian community. I’ve been guilty of it myself, exemplified by my conditioned use of the n-word in my adolescence, my co-option of black culture since immigrating to Canada. I’m happy to dust off my skeletons that I’ve hung for so long in the closet while dissecting these issues.
Over the course of the next several weeks, I will be analysing how anti-blackness works in the South Asian community. How the correlation between certain factors are the causation of this racism. The discussion of symptoms of this anti-blackness will range from Gandhi’s racist views to Mindy Kaling’s brother to the n-word to much, much more. South Asians are all to happy to perpetuate the cycle of anti-blackness for our own benefit than repair our views. Let’s help fix that.
Dhruva Balram is an Indian-Canadian freelance journalist exploring interests in pop culture, music, communities, societal issues, and South Asian identity, Dhruva is currently based in London, UK.Follow @dhruvabalram