South Asia and Black Lives Matter

It’s not easy looking at images of burning, looting and rampant violence. Not today, when the modes of inflicting said damage have become faster and more co-ordinated than at any point in our history.

The only thing worse than looking at those images, is living through it and that is what African Americans have been doing for as long as your memory will take you. It would be incorrect to simply think of this as an American problem, or one that is limited to the western world. Racism against the black population  has existed across the world regardless of geography, and that is true of South Asia too.


“Neanderthal who evolution had stopped for”

These aren’t comments from a casual conversation at a pre-Civil War southern US plantation. This is from a 2019 Whatsapp rant from Bollywood actress Esha Gupta, commenting on Arsenal player Alex Iwobi, who is a Nigerian national. Rewind to 2008 and the Priyanka Chopra movie Fashion, depicting the alcohol fuel  rise and fall of a model.  When does her character realize that it has hit rock bottom? After she has a one night stand – with a black man.

Move further back and look up Imran Khan on youtube, Pakistan’s current Prime Minister no less, taking a jab at one of his political opponents called Babar Ghauri and his dark skin from a video over a decade ago. Imran Khan isn’t your average, working class Pakistani. He is a part of the country’s Oxford educated elite, who travelled the world during his cricketing career, leading a liberal private life plastered across the front page of every British tabloid. If someone like him can hold such regressive views , one can only imagine what the others, who have had no exposure or interaction with the outside world would think.

We can leave public figures aside, even though the list on the wrong side here  is rather extensive.

Ask your South Asian parents, or your grandparents, of what their definition of beauty is. Simple physical beauty that is appealing to their eyes. You’ll got a host of different answers covering amultiple different features, with the one common answer in most of them being this : Fair Skin.

The subcontinent’s  obsession with fair skin and shaming dark skin at the same time goes back further than most of us would like to imagine. Even in 2020, it is still an active part of daily life. Walk into any grocery store. Not just small ones, but the most prominent ones across Lahore, Delhi, Mumbai or Karachi,and the cosmetics section will be full of skin whitening products. From fairness creams, to shaving creams. It doesn’t stop there. Advertisements for these products will show up on prime time TV and Billboards on the city’s busiest roads. From Sonam Kapoor, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopria in India, to Annum Fayyaz, Nadia Khan and Elnaz Norouzi in Pakistan. Are all of them racists who value fair skin more than dark? Probably not. But one does chuckle when they denounce racism on social media posts, yet endorse products that do exactly the opposite.

The English speaking world gave up the N word a long time ago, yet it’s equivalent in the subcontinent, ‘Habshi’ , is still used in everyday life. This isn’t to imply that the subcontinent is a more racist society than other parts of the world, but only to highlight the shocking divide that exists there on the issue of racial acceptance. Subcontinent celebrities coming out on social media to express support for the Black Lives Matter movement will serve little purpose when the anti-black sentiment is ingrained so deep in everyone’s mind at a subconscious level, from large corporations to high ranking public officials. In the western world atleast, large parts of the civil society have denounced this school of thought, yet that has simply not happened in the subcontinent. Part of that could be blamed on the numbers – the black population in America, the current epicentre of solidarity movements,  far outnumbers the one in the subcontinent.  As such, their plight is barely noticed, and when it is, only makes it to the back page of a rarely read newspaper in both Pakistan and India.  That is a weak excuse however, since the sanctity of human life should not be based on population numbers. It should be based on respect and rights for all.

For the South Asian population’s part, there is a lot that they can do. Mobilizing movements on the ground, online activism, donating, or even having conversations with those around them. Every single bit counts.  The interest in supporting the black population needs to go far beyond simply celebrating hip hop culture and rap music, for racism is a very global issue.



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