“If they just stayed out of trouble, the police wouldn’t murder them.”
That’s the DM I got on Facebook from an older family member after I posted about the horrific police shooting of Philando Castile, a Black Minnesota man, in 2016. As the last two weeks have unfolded with the killings of George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet and the subsequent protests, I’ve been thinking a lot about that comment. The message was sent to me four years ago, but it might as well have been four days ago. The radio silence from the South Asian community, my community (well, except for that one black box many posted on #blackouttuesday) has underlined the anti-Black racism that remains so prevalent in our community.
As a first-generation Punjabi woman, I’ve witnessed harmful racist stereotypes against Black people, repeated by South Asians of all ages, my entire life. What makes this even harder for me to comprehend is the influence Black culture has on South Asian communities across North America. Whether it’s in our music (just Google Sidhu Moose Wala’s hit track “So High”), how we dress, or even how we speak, the way the South Asian present ourselves to the world is deeply rooted in Black culture.
Perhaps this is due to our own struggle of finding representation within mainstream media; gravitating towards another marginalized community gives us a sense of belonging. But the result is troubling: We position ourselves close enough to celebrate and adopt Black culture, but far enough so we don’t confront the lived realities of being Black.
We position ourselves close enough to celebrate and adopt Black culture, but far enough so we don’t confront the lived realities of being Black.
Take Lilly Singh’s most-recent cultural co-opting, this time of the dancehall classic "Badman Forward, Badman Pull Up," which she performed in a Jamaican accent. What was meant to be an empowering message to women turned into another problematic instance of Singh borrowing and appropriating Black culture for her own gain. She’s yet to apologize. Or consider Nav, a Punjabi-Canadian artist, famous for producing songs for Drake and Travis Scott, who used the N-word in his debut album. (In 2017, he promised to stop.)
I realize that my community isn’t the only one straddling the line between appreciation and appropriation (white people have been consuming and stealing Black culture, but not supporting Black people, forever). But without acknowledging our own hypocrisies, and the biases directly impacting how Black lives are seen within our community, we can’t become the allies that we need to be.
We can’t hashtag Black Lives Matter or share a black square to our feeds without accepting that people of darker complexions are routinely overlooked, denigrated, and ridiculed in our community. Our preference for lighter skin positions whiteness as being aspirational, creating negative connotations against Blackness.
I understand these racial biases are deep-rooted, from our caste system, a traumatic colonial history, and this unrealistic expectation to be the “model immigrant.” But our proximity to whiteness through the careers we strive for or the schools we send our kids to, does not afford us more power and privilege, as many in my community and culture believe, but instead elevates white privilege and supremacy, which hurts all POCs.
I also know many of my South Asian peers are actively doing everything they can to help — by donating, advocating, and educating. And I know I’m far from perfect. I’ve stood by while members of my community have painted Black people as troublemakers; and I regret never responding back to that relative on Facebook and confronting his racism head on.
But the trauma I’ve witnessed the last two weeks far outweighs any discomfort I may feel confronting these biases. It’s not enough that solidarity is assumed due to the shared amount of melanin in our skins. By staying quiet, not only are we allowing the violence against Black people to continue, we become complicit in it. My silence, our silence, is not an option anymore.