Dear fellow brown people, we need to have a talk
A South Asian man wrote me an email recently about my columns on the Peel District School Board. “I have not seen you focus as much on the South Asian students in that board as you have been on the Black students,” he wrote. He grew up in Peel, where he said South Asians faced “bigotry at the hands of white teachers and students and hostility at the hands of Black students.”
Most of the South Asian students he grew up with worked hard, persevered and are very successful, despite their working-class roots, he wrote.
“However, as was the case when we were growing up, the Black community and students are basically monopolizing the public’s and school board’s attention and resources.” He dived into predictable comments about Black family structures being to blame, “though external obstacles no doubt continue to exist as they do for all minority communities.”
The letter, sent in late April, expressed commonly held views among South Asians: the myth of the “model minority” — or the false perception of universal success among brown people; an ahistorical view of anti-Black racism; and racist ideas about Black “family structures.”
And we’re surprised Black people don’t trust us?
Dear brown people: a warning. I’m about to wash some dirty linen in public. Consider this an overdue act of tough love.
Two years ago when I called out various forms of discrimination within South Asian communities in a keynote for the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA), I was a minority voice within a minority; while many in the audience were supportive, we all knew there simply wasn’t a widespread movement to hold the anti-Blackness within to account. That is changing. In the wake of Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin’s callous disregard for George Floyd’s life and several botched — racist — police interventions against Black and Indigenous people in Canada, the reckoning of anti-Blackness steeped in the very pores of our existence has become urgent.
In recent days, Hasan Minhaj called out fellow brown people in a 12-minute special on his Netflix show “Patriot Act.” CASSA hosted a series of panels on anti-hate conversations including one on racism within racialized communities. (Full disclosure: I was on that panel.) The U.K.’s Burnt Roti magazine hosted a discussion named Dismantling Anti-Blackness in South Asian communities.
On June 19, three education experts — York University assistant professor Vidya Shah, former Toronto school board education superintendent Jeewan Chanicka and Herveen Singh, an assistant professor at Dubai’s Zayed University — spoke in a brutally frank session titled “Brown Complicity in White Supremacy.”
While anti-Blackness is also rampant among Hispanics, East Asians, Middle Eastern people and any people who are neither white nor Black, “brown” here refers to people of South Asian ancestry and their diasporic communities.
In the artificial racial hierarchy created by Europeans who placed themselves at the top and enslaved Africans at the bottom, brown folks reside in the uneasy middle.
“We shift towards Blackness when it’s cool, when it demonstrates some sort of street cred or street smarts and then we shift right back to whiteness when we need to maintain access or mobility within the system,” Shah told the panel. “We’re chameleons.”
At least a couple of factors make us ripe for this role in the grey zone. One, as architects/participants of a caste system that in practice transcends religion, we inherently understand hierarchies. Two, our own vitriolic colourism — further cemented by waves of colonization — means we’d rather kiss the ring of whiteness than be associated with Blackness.
This has turned us into white supremacists in brown skin, useful tools in the project of whiteness. Our presence enables white people to look like multicultural progressives — some of us are the checkbox diversity hires that help them avoid addressing anti-Blackness. Our success is then used to absolve whiteness: look, Black people are told, if these people can succeed, why can’t you?
In constantly aspiring to whiteness we make ourselves more palatable to a system that does not wish to dismantle the status quo, Singh told the panel. This makes us easier to hire and be promoted through the ranks than a Black person. “In this way we become honorary whites, meaning that we are accepted in white spaces by white people upon the condition that we continue to be passive, compliant and constantly striving for whiteness.”
That compliance requires us to not talk too loudly, especially on matters of racial equity.
Brown people, we love to pat ourselves on the back for our “success” — look at our high household incomes, look at our high-achieving kids, look how far we’ve come and how quickly. So hardworking.
But we forget to see whose activism even made it possible for us to arrive here. Whom we’re stampeding on in our rush for success.
Whose activism has the effect of making us appear compliant — and therefore palatable. And whose scholarship, despite it all, saves us.
“I want brown folks to remember we’re not just ascending on the backs of Black people, we have our feet on their necks as well,” Chanicka told the panel.
The fight for civil rights opened up North America to non-white immigrants in the 1960s. But immigrants were required to be highly educated people and in perfect health. These requirements a) filtered out those marginalized in their home countries and b) set those early migrants up for success even if they faced racism in the job market upon entry.
Some were able to fall back on their education and prior experience to became entrepreneurs while others sacrificed professional fulfilment for their children’s prospects. Fit in, they told their kids. Behave, study, fit in. Why would we not? Disrupt and we could end up at the bottom of the heap.
This, however, is a deal with the devil. Many of us gave up language, cultural practices, even names — anglicizing them or reducing them to monosyllabic ones.
“In this process of emptying ourselves of our core brown assets we’re filled with tremendous anxiety and insecurity,” said Singh. “And it is due to this insecurity that we lack the integrity to dismantle anti-Blackness within ourselves.” However, no matter how much we strive for whiteness, we never can be white.
It doesn’t matter how we sound, how we dress, how light-skinned we think we are, how much class privilege we enjoy to buffer racism, how many personal relationships we have that transcend race. Collectively, we are marked The Other.
When we’re rushing up the ladder we may not care that we’re crushing Black fingers on every rung. It’s when we or our children invariably hit glass ceilings — because racism against brown people is very real — that we begin to search for answers.
The shallowest of those questions is, “Why is everything just about antiBlack racism? What about us?” Chanicka calls this a way to silence the conversation. “It keeps dividing us as opposed to the understanding that racism is built on anti-Blackness. You cannot solve racism without addressing antiBlackness.”
An awakening of our critical consciousness comes from the deep well of Black knowledge and activism — there is no equivalent South Asian activism to turn to here, although there is growing Dalit (formerly called “untouchables”) scholarship; Anti-Black racism has centuries of intergenerational roots in Canada, running parallel and at times intersecting with anti-Indigeneity.
There is yet another steep cost for brown folks in the white man’s game. When we look down upon dark skin, view it as inferior, we implicitly accept our inferiority to whiteness. That’s the most cruel cut we could inflict on ourselves.
It makes anti-Blackness among brown folks the ultimate act of self-hate, one that all the Fair & Lovely cream in the world cannot erase.