People of color can be racist: Combating anti-Blackness within South Asian culture

Standing up against racism is everyone’s responsibility. Image courtesy of Traveling Chair. 


Is it possible for people of color to be racist? 

Within many non-Black communities of color, anti-Blackness is unfortunately highly prevalent. Anti-Blackness is a unique form of racism that specifically targets Black people. It is undoubtedly true that various forms of racism impact all people of color, but the dynamics of race are far more nuanced than this basic concept. Lateral oppression is an important concept to take into consideration when discussing this concept, since it relates to forms of oppression and violence where one marginalized group contributes to the oppression of other marginalized groups. 

Within South Asian communities in particular, anti-Blackness is concerningly high, and there are various manifestations of this. As someone who is South Asian myself, I have seen the ways that anti-Blackness permeates throughout South Asian communities. It is crucial to be aware of the anti-Black racism that one may be contributing to or upholding, and it is even more important to actively work towards dismantling it. 

Colorism within South Asian communities is a practice and belief that is unfortunately very common. From skin-lightening creams to deeply rooted beliefs of staying away from the sun to prevent deep tans, a distaste for darker skin is very evident. Darker-skinned South Asians are often discriminated against and face unique prejudices. 

Rai Singh, a sophomore healthcare and business major, is Punjabi American, and he provided some insight into the colorism that is prevalent in India and greater South Asia, especially within the context of Bollywood. 

“Many Bollywood stars who many look up to and idolize undergo fairness treatments, which is just the proper way of saying skin bleaching.” Singh said. “And it just sets a trend for the youth [and other people] to follow the same patterns these Bollywood actresses and actors are doing. And I believe it all stems down from a legacy of colorism and casteism that has opened the floodgates for anti-Black sentiment within South Asian communities.”

Skin-lightening products are common in South Asia. These cosmetic products symbolize such harmful rhetoric, yet they are still used quite commonly. 

Dr. Jishnu Guha-Majumdar, assistant professor of political science, is Indian American and shared that anti-Black racism is unique because of its pervasive nature. 

“[Colorism in South Asia] is one way in which anti-Blackness can show up even when Black people are not [physically] there,” Dr. Guha-Majumdar said. “There’s a product called Fair & Lovely that’s meant to lighten your skin and make you whiter. And if you watch Bollywood films, you’ll see that … they tend to highlight people with lighter or whiter skin. The inverse of that … is that dark skin, or Black skin, is devalued. And I don’t think that’s an accident. I don’t think that that’s separate from global hierarchies of race.”

Colorism perpetuates the narrative that lighter skin — whiter skin — is favorable, which effectively upholds anti-Black sentiment. This belief is ultimately a result of a history of colonialism, where lighter skin was associated with whiteness, and with whiteness came status. A colonial mark was left on the South Asian subcontinent where whiteness was meant to be desired.             

Dr. Guha-Majumdar also shared that anti-Blackness within South Asian communities has its roots in white supremacy and the proximity to whiteness of South Asian people. 

“One constant across every classification of [race] is that Black people or people from Africa are put at the bottom,” Dr. Guha-Majumdar said. “That is reflected in a lot of modern-day society in the sense that one of the ways that people who are non-Black and non-white can try to advance their social status is by throwing Black people, or Blackness, under the bus, and distancing themselves from Blackness. That’s how you achieve more social status or proximity to whiteness.”

Within diversity, equity and inclusion work, we often spend a lot of time focusing on how to combat the racism that people of color as a collective face. However, not much emphasis is placed on the importance of actively dismantling the racism that exists within communities of color. 

It is undeniably true that people of color face racism, but it is simultaneously true that non-Black people of color contribute to anti-Black racism. Even scrolling through social media, it is evident how prevalent anti-Blackness within South Asian communities is. 

Sophomore health sciences major Naya Weems is both Black and Indian, and she shared that she has witnessed ignorance from the Indian community with respect to many Black issues. 

“I know there are some people in the Indian [and] South Asian community who say the n-word,” Weems said. “And every culture has its biases, but it’s pretty hurtful when you are … bringing another minority down.”

Singh echoed this sentiment and shared that cultural appropriation of Black culture, the misuse of African American Vernacular English — or AAVE — and even the use of racial slurs are anti-Black actions that many South Asian people engage in. 

“In white communities, many [people] use AAVE, either properly or improperly, and within brown communities, they just assume that since they are similar to the skin tone of Black people that they have the free right to say what they want,” Singh said. “We, [non-Black people of color], shouldn’t be saying the n-word at all.”

The use of the n-word by non-Black people is a large-scale issue that only exacerbates the racism that the Black community faces. The reclamation of a slur that has such a loaded and derogatory history is not something that non-Black people have the right to appropriate.

Weems talked about how South Asians and other non-Black people of color should always continue to educate themselves, especially on issues relating to the Black community. 

“[Non-Black people of color] perpetuating the racism can lead to a lot of generational scars and generational trauma that [don’t] go away,” Weems said. “It’s a whole cycle; it’s never really breaking … I do feel like [non-Black people of color] should really educate themselves.”

One major step that everyone can take is listening to the perspectives of those around us. It is important to genuinely listen and understand what the struggles that other people face are like. Our struggles and identities may be interconnected, but there are still lots of differences that exist.   

Weems shared that her identity is something that she is deeply proud of. 

“Being Black is a privilege and a blessing,” Weems said. “[Throughout history], people have been trying to tear Black people down and … silence our voices … We deserve to be heard and we deserve to feel empowered.” 

Weems’ statement is powerful and true. As marginalized people, we need to uplift and empower the perspectives and voices of other communities, especially the Black community.

Dr. Guha-Majumdar also shared how important it is to recognize that all movements that support liberation and progression are interconnected. 

“Say, you’re in a group that’s interested in South Asian issues,” Dr. Guha-Majumdar said. “Don’t limit yourself to just throwing pretty-colored powders at Holi and putting up lights for Diwali. Your group should not be considered separate from Black Lives Matter and those sorts of organizations organizing against police violence. Those are part of the mission. You can’t wall yourself off.”

As supporters of equity, we must all understand that our movements and struggles are deeply connected; standing up against the racism that South Asian communities experience is not separate from the fight for other marginalized groups. 

Allyship and collective organizing are highly important pillars of recognizing our interconnected struggles. We may face similar battles, but each individual struggle is still unique. Just because various marginalized groups face prejudice and bigotry does not mean that marginalized people cannot contribute to the marginalization of others; it is entirely possible to contribute to the subtle prejudices that someone experiences even if you are a person of color or any other type of minority. Being a person of color does not mean you are excluded from contributing to racism. 

As non-Black people of color, we are complicit in perpetuating racism when we fail to stand up against anti-Blackness.

It is also important to note that anti-Blackness is not always explicit. Sometimes, it can be very subtle, and it is important to reject anti-Blackness and all types of racism in all forms. The subtle nature of anti-Blackness allows for it to exist in abundance, and it is critical to acknowledge this. The only way that progress can be made is if we actively recognize how our privilege can harm other people, intentionally or unintentionally. More often than not, the hidden privileges we are privy to are at the expense of others.

Singh spoke about how progress can only be made when genuine unity and allyship are achieved. 

“If we want to progress forward as a society, we have to be united,” Singh said. “We cannot be discriminative towards other people of color because ultimately they’re our brothers and sisters.”

For Weems, being Black and Indian is something that brings her joy and pride. 

“I wish people would know that I love being half Black and half Indian,” Weems said. “Both parts of my culture are very important to me. It wasn’t a mistake that … my parents came together. Because ultimately, now both parts of my family [know] about different cultures, and I think that’s beautiful.”

To my South Asian community, I know that our cultures are beautiful and diverse. There are a bounty of differences, and similarities, between the various intricacies that each individual South Asian culture holds. As a collective, however, we need to acknowledge the harm that we contribute to. The time for dismantling anti-Blackness is long overdue.


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