Toronto Star

Dear fel­low brown peo­ple, we need to have a talk

- Shree Parad­kar Twit­ter: @Shree­Parad­kar

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.

 ?? INES BEL AIBA AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO ?? A pro­tester in Wash­ing­ton this month had a sign read­ing “South Asians for Black Lives” on the back of her bi­cy­cle. The reck­on­ing of anti-Black­ness steeped in the very pores of our ex­is­tence has be­come ur­gent, Shree Parad­kar writes.
INES BEL AIBA AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO A pro­tester in Wash­ing­ton this month had a sign read­ing “South Asians for Black Lives” on the back of her bi­cy­cle. The reck­on­ing of anti-Black­ness steeped in the very pores of our ex­is­tence has be­come ur­gent, Shree Parad­kar writes.
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