On Saturday evening, I stretched my legs out after a long day (it was communion at church – beautiful, essential, but well over 2 hours), and decided that I was going to braid my hair. So I threw on the new Zara coat that I’d fought off the animals at Westfield for (Boxing Day sales – don’t do it, save yourself), and ambled down the road to my local hair shop.
I browsed through the different varieties of afro-kinky hair, and settled on one that for some reason was called ‘Cuban Twist’. I snorted at the hair companies that are suddenly touting five different curl creams for natural hair, when a year ago they only sold relaxers, paid for my hair, and left.
On the way home, I started thinking about a conversation I’d had with an Asian friend of mine where we’d briefly spoken about anti-blackness in the Asian community. I thought about my trip to Nepal and the overt prejudice I’d encountered there. And I thought about solidarity.
The relationship between the black and Asian community in the UK has always been somewhat complicated. On the one hand, when my grandparents first came to this country, every brown person, regardless of whether they came from the East or the West Indies, or the African continent was termed ‘black’. Black became a political identity, a supposedly unifying term in the face of rather overt and clearly institutionalized racism. Over time, Asians no longer ‘needed’ black people in order to progress. They developed more economic power than the black community as a whole, and the term black became reserved more or less for those with African descent. As racism became less overt, the need for solidarity diminished.
I remember a few years ago, the tensions between the Black and Asian communities in Birmingham erupted. Some Asian owned shops were damaged, people shouted at each other in the street, there was a public spotlight on something that had been festering for some time. Around that time, a documentary came out, part of which used secret camera to film conversations in the Asian community where they discussed black people. Some people were shocked at the level of prejudice within the Asian community.
Really, there should be no surprise. There are probably a number of reasons as to why there is such a high level of anti-blackness in the Asian community.
Historically, many countries in Asia operate on a caste system, in which skin tone plays a partial role. I was shocked by the level of skin bleaching when I was in Nepal – major brands like L’oreal, Garnier and Vaseline plastered slogans like ‘fair and white’ ‘intense whitening cream’ ‘white beauty’ all over their products. Watch most Bollywood movies and you would swear that Indians exist in one shade of extremely light brown, although any visit to India would tell you the complete opposite. Although there are many black people who are light skinned, and lighter than some Asians – there are more black people who are darker skinned. It’s not surprising then, that the self hatred in terms of skin tone that plagues the Asian community expresses itself in anti-blackness.
Additionally, the images of black people exported to many Asian countries are dominated by white mainstream images. There are of course exceptions, but hip hop culture, ‘oppression’ films (slavery, poor people, black kids being ‘saved’ by the middle class white teacher/person), and skewed depictions of black sexuality probably aren’t helpful in fostering any kind of positivity towards black people.
Not to mention the fact that White supremacy, by nature, is hierarchical. South Asians have become in the UK, and in America (along with other Asian communities), a ‘model minority’. Ignoring the completely different history of how Europeans operated in Asia in comparison to Africa and the Caribbean, and the overwhelming effort to dehumanise Africans, the Asian community is subtly compared to the black community. The underlying tone is that if the Asian community manages a certain level of economic success, why can’t the Black community do the same? (A form of racism which also ignores the varied communities within the black community. Black Africans and Black Caribbeans have different educational outcomes and social outcomes, which in itself proves the enduring effects of slavery on Caribbean communities).
It is only natural that Asian people will seek to find a way to separate themselves from Black people in a system that rewards anti-blackness. To be Black is to be at the bottom of the pile. And who wants to be at the bottom?
It’s up to the younger generation to challenge the legacy that has been handed down to them, instead of mildly accepting the prejudice of their elders…
Thought? What are your experiences?