Anti-Blackness in Asian-American Communities
Anti-Blackness in Asian-American Communities
BY : ZARNA SURTI
‘No BMWs,’ was an acronym I heard over and over again growing up—but people in my community weren’t referring to luxury cars, they were talking about race. It was semi-jokingly referring to the kind of partner you’d marry, and the meaning behind it? No blacks, whites, or muslims.
As a first generation Indian-American, my community always encouraged our extravagant and opulent culture. It’s something I will always be proud of and am extremely grateful to have grown up with, but when it comes to darker skin within and outside of the culture, there has always been a strong negative stigma. Bollywood movies glorified lighter skin, my aunts would scrub me down with the skin-lightening Fair & Lovely soaps when I went to India, and I was always encouraged not to lay out in the sun because having darker skin in India meant you were a low caste manual laborer, whereas those with lighter skin were revered as higher caste with indoor careers.
I do acknowledge my privilege—I grew up in America and had the ability to understand culture in a way my elders weren’t able to. The learning curve for them has been vastly different, but the heavy anti-blackness within our communities, young and old, is one that is deep rooted and ugly. I’ve heard older generations make derogatory comments about black people while glorifying white people within the same breath. I’ve heard younger Indian-Americans identifying as ‘more black’ or ‘more white,’ and even recently spoke to a 25-year-old Indian woman who said she was, ‘basically white.’ The ideology that even those within the community don’t see themselves as brown, is extremely disheartening. We are brown and should be proud of it, and along with that comes certain responsibilities. Not only to fight for justice and equality for ourselves, but also coming together in solidarity for and with our beautiful black brothers and sisters.
To dig further into the issue, we spoke to three Los Angeles-based creatives: Indian-American creative producer Angana Barathur, Pakistani-American food & wardrobe stylist Aban Sonia, and Chinese-American songwriter and one-third of The Flavr Blue, Hollis Wong-Wear.
Have you ever experienced anti-blackness within your community? If so, how?
Angana Barathur: Anti-blackness was definitely present in my close-knit South Asian community in Southern California. My family never said it explicitly, but there was a sense that dating, hanging, and/or associating with the black community was ‘unsafe.’ My parents are more woke now, but growing up in the ‘90s, our exposure to and interaction with American blackness was extremely limited in our affluent white suburb, and they derived preconceptions based on white American media.
Aban Sonia: Absolutely. It’s that unspoken, yet well-known (and utterly embarrassing) secret that dark skin is bad, lower class, or poor, and that light-skin represented the good, civilized people of a higher caste. This unfortunate cultural stigma was passed down to us during the British Raj, better known as the colonization of India. At times it was subtle, like when my aunts and cousins would refuse to go swimming during the day and the thought of laying out to sunbathe was not only laughable, but it was just simply out of the question. I remember being reprimanded for playing outside all day because I’d get darker during the summer and when my tan faded in the winter, the scolding was replaced with backhanded compliments about how much better I looked after losing some of the color. Family functions were another funny-yet-unfortunate social circumstance, because some of the aunty ji’s would proudly wear makeup two to three shades lighter than their actual skin color. The outcome was hilarious, yet inexplicably depressing and sobering.
Other times, it was much more blunt and direct like an unavoidable sucker punch. My first boyfriend was Haitian and my first intimate relationship was with a Jamaican man. Needless to say, that didn’t go over well with the community. There were always comments and jokes thrown around about how so-and-so’s kids would come out with light skin and light colored eyes, versus someone else’s who’d have a dark or “dirty” skin color. Sometimes, the ones that had the most to say about skin color had lustrous and beautiful dark skin themselves. The ignorance, self-hate, and miseducation still upsets me today as much as it did back then—so I do my best to continue to rebel, soak up the sun, and fall deeper in love with my brown skin.
Hollis Wong-Wear: Absolutely. I grew up in a suburb that was largely white with a sprinkle of other ethnicities. My dad is white, and my landscape was largely white. As whiteness itself is inextricably tethered to and situated upon anti-blackness, I grew up in an anti-black environment in my suburb and the Chinese-American community within it.
What ideologies do you think this anti-blackness is rooted in?
AB: We all lived in or live in an anti-black stratum. The Indian community has prejudices and deep-seated misconceptions fed to them by white culture and white media—unfortunately accepting them as the truth. In my opinion, these preconceptions are part of a larger historical problem and system within white supremacy.
AS: I believe anti-blackness in the South Asian community stems from the rule of the British Crown that began around 1858. They took over the army, the education system, the infrastructure, the trade routes, the way we spoke, the way we drank tea, and what Gods we should or shouldn’t believe in. It was a colonization that still has a stronghold on our psyche today. The lighter skin represented the European aesthetic; a symbol of beauty, civilization, and living a refined life like the great British rulers, while dark skin reflected a hard life working in the fields or begging for a living. Centuries after winning back their land and independence, most Asians are still battling this deep-rooted damage done by social stigmas and the subsequent brainwashing as a result of colonization.
HW: In my experience, older generation of Asian-Americans have a complete lack of understanding, and usually exposure to, black people and black culture; a dismissal of the trauma and struggle of black American history, and how contemporary black American culture is the only good thing we have going right now in 2017. In my current generation, I see folks who interact with and value black culture—anywhere from reverence and emulation to appropriation—but rarely feel compelled to stand up for black lives. We ensconce ourselves in the safety of our Asian privilege. We pretend that we are not partially responsible for how critically fucked up things are for black and indigenous folks through our inaction and narrow-mindedness. We call ourselves proud Americans but what we really mean is proud to be in the good graces of whiteness; cheer for and sing along with black athletes and entertainers, but tune out when “it gets political.”
In your opinion, how did Asian-Americans become the “model minority,” and in some ways, become separated from other minority groups?
AB: The idea that Asian-Americans are the “model minority” is a terrible stereotype—it’s deep-seated in the historical assumption that Asian Americans are obedient, hardworking, and smarter, because Asian-American communities have remained insular for the most part.
AS: I personally don’t like that stereotype because it’s unfair. I don’t believe that any one culture or community is a model, because we all have our quirks and are trying to figure it all out in different ways. That said, the term is a half-ass representation of the fact that education outweighs damn near everything in Asian families. Your future, your child’s future, and your potential partner are all dependent on your level of education or career trajectory. That’s something that’s ingrained in us from the womb, it’s unavoidable. What the “model minority” title fails to project is the ongoing harsh criticism, deep-felt shame, and physical and verbal abuse that comes with the pressure of being top of the class year after year. I personally know people who have been forced or guilted into careers and marriages that they never wanted for themselves, but did so because it was what their families expected of them. They never were allowed to live their truth and I don’t think that’s a positive or empowering model to observe. So, yes it may be true, Asians have been historically known for global academic achievements, but I think it’s crucial to discuss the implications and personal struggles of the individuals affected throughout the process.
HW: It’s hard to talk about racial dynamics with broad strokes—black, white, other—but what I do know is that the acceptance of the “model minority” mantle by Asian-Americans was first about survival and being accepted within a society that once excluded you—and then about social positioning. To survive and succeed within America, aligning with whiteness was and is strategic. And thus, as whiteness is positioned upon anti-blackness, to be anti-black was and is strategic. To many first generation Asian-Americans, we’re playing their game; why side ourselves with the team that the game-makers made to lose? We see this today with the erasure that the term “people of color” can cause. The term POC was founded by black and brown women movement organizers with an intentional purpose: to mark solidarity of those of us non-white in relation to and empowerment of one another and to defend against the splintering that keeps whiteness fully in place. POC is a placeholder for non-white, to the point where those of us of East Asian descent feel comfortable conflating our experiences with those of black Americans, while feeling no accountability to the deep-seated oppression of black folks that we are structurally complicit within.
In what ways do you think we can change this within our communities? Especially with our elders?
AB: I think we can start to change mindsets and attitudes within our community only by truly understanding and acknowledging America’s violent racial history and its connection to present anti-blackness. Our elders need to understand that it’s systemic—the same system that allowed them to immigrate and succeed is also the same system working to prevent the black community from finding the same success or quality of life.
AS: Conversation. Intellectual and logical ongoing conversations that support the truth as it happened not as it was documented. I firmly believe that we must be open to asking our elders about their experiences and perspectives, and we owe it to our ancestors and children to listen with patience and understanding. Some of the things I’ve heard from elders makes my stomach turn because it’s just so backwards, out-dated, and illogical—but I have to understand that they’re coming from a different time and place, and accepting this old way of thinking was their means for survival. We have to create space for safe and open communication around this topic within our communities because it’s up to our generation to create a future where our kids won’t feel the need to avoid the sun or bleach our beautiful and resilient brown skin.
HW: There is some really fantastic activism by Asian-Americans that directly confronts anti-blackness and stands in solidarity with movements that push to upend systemic racism. I look to those activists and try to use my platform to amplify how whiteness and anti-blackness operate, and how we can leverage our relative privilege as Asian-Americans to push towards actual equity and justice. I encourage Asian-Americans I know to do an honest audit of their privilege in relation to those who are browner, those who are black, those whom this country was, at its foundation, structured to exploit and oppress. We have to understand history and grasp our capacity to be change agents within it. To be honest, it’s hard for me to think about how to approach speaking directly to my Asian-American elders and calling them out on their anti-blackness. Our language and our perspective is so vastly different. But I know they keep tabs on me, say they’re proud of me, and if that’s the case, they also know how I feel about pushing back against our special Asian brand of anti-blackness. calling it what it is, and not being in denial of how they’ve found relative safety in the ways things are today.