Confronting Anti-Blackness in Pakistan


An advice or “word of caution” I was frequently offered by people in Pakistan before I moved to New York was that I should steer clear of Harlem because of how “dangerous” it is and that I should avoid black people for the same reason. Then, once I moved here, my relatives and parents’ friends would inquire about the area I was staying in and would express their shock and worry that I was staying in West Harlem.

“Bach kar rehna”
“Beta bas kal’on se door rehna”

And in the current moment that America is experiencing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by the police, I think it is important for brown communities to confront the anti-black racism within. I cannot speak for every community of colour, of course, but I can certainly speak for mine. Some great individuals and organizations associated with South Asia have already issued a useful list of ways we can be better allies but there are a couple of things I wanted to re-emphasize:

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1. Don’t, for the love of God, use the N-word: You *can’t* use the N-word if you’re not black. You have no right to throw around a word built on the backs of a people abducted, sold and enslaved, their pain, and the hate for their descendants. If you are not familiar with the history and gravity of this word or the history of slavery, please read up and don’t be inhibited to reach out and ask for resources to learn.

[This statement from South Asian Students for Black Lives Matter is one excellent resource containing books, articles, podcasts, videos, along with a list of practical ways to uproot anti-blackness from among us + how to support the black community.]

Saying “oh we can use the n-word since we don’t have a history of slavery” or “we don’t have any black people in Pakistan” is terrible and ignorant defense of what is already indefensible. In fact, Pakistan does have its own indigenous black community who are known as the Sheedis. But again, you do not need to be in the presence of certain people in order for you to respect them or in order for you to not be racist. You do not need to be in the same room as me for me to respect you. It doesn’t matter if Pakistan doesn’t share America’s ignominious history of slavery, what matters is that history exists. And that should be reason enough for you to be mindful of it and respectful of those for whom it is an everyday legacy that they experience as they continue to struggle, live and breathe under systems and structures which carry on from that history and from that barbaric institution.

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2. Quit colourism: our pervasive social and cultural obsession with “beauty standards” that pit fairness against dark skin, which is deeply disliked and disdained, is deeply racist. (Someone on Twitter quite pertinently added that colorist contempt against the Bengalis was also of no less significance in the attitude of West Pakistan towards East Pakistan and the fateful rift which developed eventually). Comments on complexions and judgements based off those are not uncommon, but are far too common. Whenever you find yourself in the middle of such discussions, please speak up. We have entire industries of fairness creams and entire industries of relationships of rishta-hunting for gori chamri running on this. Break their chain.

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3. Do not make jokes about “kaala rang” or “Africa” and do not condone cultural appropriation: Again, “hum Amreeka main thori hain” is not an excuse, your location does not determine your morality, ethical positions or decency, and regard for people’s experiences and lives. Black people’s cultures are not costumes for you to trot out for fun. And neither are they fodder for your cheap laughs and giggles. I know anyone who attempts to stop such things is usually met with “yaar can’t you take a joke” and “har cheez serious nahi hoti/mazak bhi koi cheez hoti hai” and I know, for a fact, that I too will soon be told “Amreeka jaa kar Amreekiyon wali baatein karna shuru hogayi hai, social justice warrior ban gayi ho.”

But the thing is, none of these are jokes, none of this is anything to be laughed about or to be flippant about. Would you laugh about something deeply personal and agonizing? Would you, if it was not for your internalized anti-blackness, joke or laugh about black people? So while it is often uncomfortable to be that one person who doesn’t laugh along and calls others out, it is also one less person partaking in a system as vicious and savage as racism; which affects real people and real lives. It is one less person in whose presence others can think anti-blackness is kosher. Doing the right thing may not be easy or fun, but it is the right thing at the end of the day. There is plenty of stuff in the world to be joked about, but a people, whose past and present are bloodied with oppression and suffering, aren’t it. And the least we can do is not participate in the denial of this and perpetuation of it. Words, jokes, language may not seem concrete or material but they constitute material realities in equal part, which, in this case, is the dehumanization of black people.

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4. Educate your parents and your elders: anti-blackness in Pakistan is internalized and generational which is why it is widespread. Have a conversation with your parents, your elders and relatives. It doesn’t have to be confrontational and angry, sit them down, patiently explain things, have a dialogue. Keep trying. Inform them about the state of brutality and zulm faced and battled by the black community.

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[Credits to Rehma for this]

Living in West Harlem over the past 8 months, I have actually had several conversations with my own parents, my grandparents, and my relatives on this subject and I have tried to untie the stereotypes they have held about the black community. If it helps, use examples that resonate to make your point: Hazrat Bilal’s life, the Prophet’s exhortations against racism, or even more contemporary examples such as Muslims=terrorists stereotype. There is absolutely no parallel for the black condition and it shouldn’t require examples from different contexts but here we are.

 

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5. Hold yourself accountable: unlearning our internalized anti-blackness will have to be and should be a continuous effort. Listen to black voices, read black writers. Continue supporting black movements for justice. Support and help however you can: donate, reach out, amplify them.

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6. Please acknowledge the entrenched anti-blackness within: Being a person of color does not exempt or excuse you from being racist and the possibility of it. Brown people can be racist, and brown people are racist often. Please play your part in unlearning it, in educating others, in continuing to educate yourself. Put an end or a stop to anti-black discourses, conversations, comments, jokes and stereotypes—whenever they circulate in your presence, intervene, confront and counter them.

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Be better. Do better.

Know there exists a system in which the life of a black man is worth less than a $20 note, in which black people are killed while jogging, while walking home with Skittles, for getting a normal traffic ticket, for simply sleeping at home. All for being black. All for the color of their skin; a license for harm and hurt, a warrant for death.

This is a system of racism and the dehumanization of black people. Apathy is complicity. A difference of geography from the location of this system does not excuse your participation in it. Anti-blackness is not as afar as you may think. It exists within and among us. Bigotry is complicity. Apathy is complicity. And empathy is action, solidarity is work.

Cut yourself out of complicity from a system of white supremacy which consigns black bodies and lives beyond the confines of humanity and dignity because black lives DO matter.

20200126_163750-2
[Photo taken in Harlem, January 2020]

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

9 comments on “Confronting Anti-Blackness in Pakistan

  1. Flower says:

    So proud of u for writing dis. Keep it up.

  2. S. Ayub says:

    Great read!

    The presence of African community is rising in our country as well and it never hurts to learn about these cultural nuances and be respectful. Black life surely matters.

    • Thank you for reading this! Clinging onto internalized ideas which dehumanize and devalue other lives is as deeply harmful as it gets, but it definitely does not hurt for us to unlearn and then learn to be and do better.

  3. Zawar Hakeem says:

    Lately been watching netflix documentaries on Black history… and it certainly is a shocker to how our perceptions were built against the black community over the years through movies and serials….. Well written article Hafsa. Change is evident and we need to act upon greater acceptance of all by being educated enough to carry out our own research before blaming the other.

    • Yes! Anti-blackness and even negative stereotypes about black people are widespread across media, especially movies and serials which are then consumed by a large mass of people.

      Thank you for reading, Zawar! We certainly need to re-educate ourselves, which may not be easy but which also isn’t impossible.

  4. Mahmood Ahmad Malik says:

    Assalamo Alekum! I found this blog to be enlightening and educating. Cheers for having changed your own attitude towards a community. Then you are also trying to educate and convince others not to use terms and phrases that a community considers to be racist and derogatory for them in any sense. Rightly you have pointed out that Islam teaches this philosophy. Holy Prophet (pbuh)’s address at Hajjatul Widah is a magna carta for Muslims for all times to come. No superiority on the basis of caste or colour or creed. At the time of Meccan conquest, Holy Prophet sallalaho alehe wa sallam declared amnesty for all those who took refuge under Hazrat Bilal’s flag. This was a lesson for the Meccans. Bilal was the one whom the Meccans had tried to disgrace and dishonor. They persecuted him a lot. Now Islam had given honour and respect to the same Bilal that nearness to him would provide peace and amnesty to the Meccans who had been looking down upon him. This was a an appeasement for Hazrat Bilal too who had suffered a lot and dragged on the streets of Mecca. May I please with due respect, point to the hatred campaign in Pakistan against one community. This is about Ahmadis. We Ahmadis proclaim the Kalima and believe in and practice all the 5 tenets of Islam and 6 fundamentals of deen. But day in day out we have to bear an unending hate campaign. Those who know, know that Ahmadis played their role in the making of Pakistan and in its development and defence. We face this persecution in the name of religion from those who claim that they love Holy Prophet Muhammad sallalaho alehe wa sallam. But the Mercy for Mankind didn’t ever endorse or give this teaching. Tragic most part is that this persecution is state institutionalised. Sorry, for the digression. In the end once again I congratulate you for writing a very useful blog that is in conformity with the highest values taught to us.

    Regards, Mahmood Malik

    • Walaikum Assalam,

      What a beautiful and timely lesson from the Prophet (PBUH)’s life you’ve written as a reminder regarding this matter, thank you so much!

      And I am in complete agreement with you that the state-sanctioned and societally-practiced persecution against the Ahmadi community is reprehensible, which is, ironically and repulsively, done in the name of religion and its love. While the removal of the state’s sanction for this persecution may be difficult, individual refusal of this persecution and hate is a responsibility the majority can reflect upon and espouse. There needs to be a great deal of education, dialogue and effort for this to happen but it is important nonetheless.

  5. Mahmood Malik says:

    Thanks Hafsa for pointing to a common mistake in Pakistani culture to use the complexion related taboos without caring much about the sensibilities involved. You have rightly pointed out that the respect given to Hazrat Bilal in Islam is an outstanding example of equality in Islam to the people of all colours
    At the time of Meccan conquest, Holy Prophet sallalaho alehe wa sallam declared amnesty for all those who took refuge under Hazrat Bilal’s flag. This was a lesson for the Meccans. Bilal was the one whom the Meccans had tried to disgrace and dishonor. They persecuted him a lot. Now Islam had given honour and respect to the same Bilal that nearness to him would provide peace and amnesty to the Meccans who had been looking down upon him. This was a an appeasement for Hazrat Bilal too who had suffered a lot and had even been dragged on the streets of Mecca. 

    May I please with due respect, point to another type of faith related”blackness” in Pakistan. The hate campaign in Pakistan against one community is depressing and suffocating. This is about Ahmadis. We Ahmadis proclaim the Kalima and believe in and practice all the 5 tenets of Islam and 6 fundamentals of deen. But day in day out we have to bear an unending hate campaign and one sided negative coverage in the media. Those who know, know that Ahmadis played significant role in the making of Pakistan and in its development and defence. We face this persecution in the name of religion from those who claim that they love Holy Prophet Muhammad sallalaho alehe wa sallam. But the Mercy for Mankind (pbuh) didn’t ever endorse or give this teaching. His teaching was of love, harmony and tolerance. Tragic most part is that this persecution is state institutionalised. 

    Mahmood Malik

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