In the third of his articles discussing anti-Blackness in South Asian communities, Dhruva Balram discusses how South Asian people often gravitate towards Black culture and music, and how use of the n-word became an issue.
Moving to Canada from India at the cusp of adolescence, I instantly felt different, out of place – ‘othered’. Within a neocolonial society that continues to perpetuate whiteness, I found myself unconsciously gravitating towards the closest representation of myself within society: Blackness.
When I immigrated to Toronto, the diversity of ethnicities making up the city was immediately apparent. It was a global melting pot; an amalgamation of the world’s culture, countries and continents – with communities hailing from Ethiopia, to Korea and as far-flung as Fiji. All walks of life were reflected in my new home. After a childhood marked by an infatuation with predominantly white celebrities – Backstreet Boys, ‘Nsync, Spice Girls, coveted pop stars of the 90s – I aspired to be white, i.e. to be happy.
“In a Westernised pop culture framework, we have been portrayed through poverty porn or mockery. Films like Slumdog Millionaire are lauded for their ‘true’ portrayal of India as it feeds into the poverty-stricken, singing and dancing narrative of what India – and South Asia – is to whiteness”
In Toronto, I was introduced to Black culture in a way most members of the South Asian diaspora are when yearning for a community with people who look like them. It was easy for me, as a young adolescent, lost and adrift, to adopt Black culture . In a world where whiteness was (and is) the default, we gravitated to the ‘other’. Without understanding the weight of history on our shoulders, we grouped with other cultures underneath an umbrella of marginalisation.
Culture carries an unparalleled weight in shaping how communities are perceived. In a South Asian context, Bollywood tends to be the go-to for a feeling of representation (which, in itself, has a myriad of issues). In a Westernised pop culture framework, we have been portrayed through poverty porn or mockery. Films like Slumdog Millionaire are lauded for their ‘true’ portrayal of India as it feeds into the poverty-stricken, singing and dancing narrative of what India – and South Asia – is to whiteness. Apu Nahsapeemapetilon in The Simpsons is what whiteness reduces South Asians to be: a caricature. By erasing cultural complexities and representing us through a single lens, it is whiteness which ultimately decides how we are represented in the mainstream.
Simpsons caricture, Apu Nahsapeemapetilon
Like spice on an unseasoned dish, South Asians find themselves tossed around the world. With this comes a warped sense of otherness: that we are at the top of the pecking order of privilege, when it comes to Black people. There are plenty of South Asian youth in the diaspora who consider themselves Black.
We grow up thinking we are Black, happy to exploit the culture and co-opt its identity for own capital and cultural gain. Yet, in doing so, we negate the lived experience of being Black. Not to mention the specific, inherited, cross-generational trauma that comes with it. We do not feel accurately represented in the mainstream and so we.position ourselves closer to Black cultures – or rather the packaged version marketed to us – in an attempt to feel something that always seems familiar but is an arm’s length away.
In her book, Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness, Nitasha Tamar Sharma writes: “European and American colonialists and imperialists constructed white normatively by conceptualising Asians and Blacks as deviant groups on each side of the spectrum with regards to matters of intelligence, physical ability and so forth.” An ethnography of individuals, Sharma explores the aesthetics and politics of Desi Hip Hop. What she finds is that people in the diaspora flock to a predominantly Black genre as that is where they feel most comfortable.
“It [saying the n-word] was common growing up in New York,” Bangladeshi-American rapper Big Baby Gandhi stated. New York-based art director Amad Ilyas echoed the sentiment stating, “I think the use of the word can go as far back as I can remember”
Writing in The Fader, journalist and critic Anupa Mistry eloquently encapsulated that “in the absence of aspiration that reflected our own hybrid South Asian identities, we gravitated towards Black culture and role models.” Sharma’s subjects leaned towards hip-hop as that was they felt most represented them. What Sharma’s subjects don’t discuss enough is the co-opting of Black identity, of using the n-word as if we have ownership of it. South Asians have positioned ourselves here, just far enough away from Blackness to allow this idea of hybridity to persist through co-option, through exploitation, through profiting off the labour of others.
Navaraj Singh Goraya grew up in Rexdale, Toronto – not too far from me. A Punjabi-Canadian artist and producer, his self titled debut commercial mixtape, Nav, helped him soar to pop culture stardom: he co-produced Drake’s Back To Back – the viral Meek Mill death blow and diss track; he also helped deliver the chorus for Travis Scott’s Biebs in The Trap – the drug-laced anthemic club banger. Alongside his rise came a close inspection of his lyrics coupled with criticism. It was mainly to do with his use of the n-word – littered, at the time, throughout his discography.
Nav and Travis Scott in a still from the ‘Beibs In The Trap’ video
It was – and still is – common for brown youth to use the n-word in our lexicon. “It [saying the n-word] was mad common growing up in New York,” Bangladeshi-American rapper Big Baby Gandhi stated. New York-based art director Amad Ilyas echoed the sentiment stating, “I think the use of the word can go as far back as I can remember. I remember it being used by my uncles when I was young.” Mistry also weighed in, “growing up, I knew brown people who justified their use of the n-word by getting the ‘consent’ of their black friends. I also believe that some people use it because they equate the oppression and marginalisation of brown people with that of Black folks .”
Facing backlash, Nav told Complex in an exclusive interview that he would drop saying the word. He stated, “Well, it’s like the neighbourhood I grew up in is very multicultural. It goes from Chinese to White to Black to Jamaican, everything, right? Everybody uses that word freely. A Chinese guy is saying it to me, I’m saying it to a Black guy, and a Black guy is saying it to me.” As Mistry stated, consent from Black peers does not permit us to use the word. For Nav, because he was making music for his friends i.e. his cohorts, he didn’t think his use of the word implicated him. It was only when he had entered the mainstream he was able to see the error of his ways.
Nav, like many of us in the diaspora, postured himself close to Blackness. Like Chokalingam and myself, he did this subconsciously without ever absorbing the trauma that comes with being Black. We have all been shackled by white supremacy, but the weight and struggles we face are different; both are as important as the other, but each is a battle the other hasn’t had to experience. Brown celebrities like Riz Ahmed and Zayn Malik are just as much in the spotlight, yet tend to stay away from this language – understanding that we have our own culture to represent without stealing others’, knowing that when we trade language, there are enough words to choose from.
Big Baby Gandhi
“A lot of Americans co-opt Black identity on a baseline level,” Big Baby Gandhi said. “Black people are the largest creators of culture in America. South Asians are just as guilty, and probably go extra hard the more they feel maligned by/want to distance themselves from white America.” Once you strip away the fat, it really does boil down to representation. When South Asians are portrayed as meek, as emasculated versions of ourselves, why would we ever want to aspire to what we see being represented on a global scale: Raj Koothrappali from the Big Bang Theory. Like everyone else, South Asians gravitate towards coolness which, in this current climate, appears to be Blackness and Black culture. “South Asians should be aware of their own racism against Black people, in India or otherwise,” BBG continued.
Marcus, a British person of Black Caribbean heritage, said: “At university, British born South Asian and Caribbean people had a kind of kinship, we were the children of Windrush and the migration that followed. On Fresher’s week, a group of South Asian guys fist-bumped me when I offered a courteous handshake. They were dressed in the hip-hop style of the era and worshipped Eric B and Rakim, Public Enemy and Dr Dre and wore “Malcolm X” snapbacks. They partied with us at our African Caribbean Society events, until the inevitable point when the police would come and shut us down – ignoring the white indie kids’ parties of course”.
“But when i became good friends with a South Asian girl, it became a huge talking point among her South Asian peers that we were possibly dating (we weren’t – I’m gay) and she heard gossip about her turning her back on her culture. It was as if appreciation and appropriation of Black culture was fair game, so long as no one got TOO close”.
Writer, editor, producer and host Anupa Mistry
Wanting to be Black does not give South Asians an excuse to use the n-word, nor does it permit us to co-opt Black identity. However, understanding the root cause of an issue allows us to start fixing it. As Mistry said, “the onus should be on most people to use Google to educate themselves.” It’s simply a click away and our knowledge of both history and race-based issues is expanding quickly. We are conversing constantly about these topics. It is hard to keep your head up when Sony Music publishes a Punjabi rap song called N****r Banda, but as Mistry confessed, “It’s my hope/belief that most people will make thoughtful and right decisions when given the information and choice.”
In the diaspora across the world. being South Asian is finally starting to have its own identity, with a particular thanks to people such as Zayn Malik, Imaan Sheikh, Riz Ahmed and Kumail Nanjiani to name a few. except due to years of conditioning, a lot of South Asians still equate the struggles of being Brown with those of being Black. Over email, Anupa Mistry writes, “South Asian people and other non-Black people, co-opt Blackness in ways that need to mitigated. It’s particularly egregious when people co-opt blackness for profit or personal branding, like when rappers use the n-word.”
“I think being called out pushes people to a really defensive place, and if you’re really committed to collective justice you have to be able to stop centering yourself in that way because it’s actually not about you.”
We need to learn to unpack the weight of conditioning that is firmly seeped into our minds; it is where we still equate the struggles of being Brown with those of being a Black person. And sometimes, that means seeking to educating each other.
“I think being called out pushes people to a really defensive place,” Mistry explained. “And if you’re really committed to collective justice you have to be able to stop centering yourself in that way because it’s actually not about you.” If South Asian artists are using slurs of any kind – gender, caste, sex or racial – they need to be confronted. Yes, it’s uncomfortable but it’s for the betterment of society. And, maybe, start small as Mistry emphasised, “you need to talk to your cousins.”
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