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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
[Photo taken in Harlem, January 2020]