Racism in the South Asian Community

By: Khadeeja Abd-Allah

           On Monday, May 25, 2020 George Floyd was mercilessly and wrongfully murdered by Minneapolis police in broad daylight, and the conversation of race in America hit a historical turning point. This event spurred a great rise in international awareness of the horrors of racism and police brutality, especially that in America. However, the white community is not the only community that has had to face some ugly truths. All over the world, communities have been looking within themselves, only to discover deeply rooted racist and colorist sentiments and have thus begun the process of advocating for an end to racism within their own cultures and countries. The south Asian community is no exception to this internal scrutiny. We can't point our fingers at the white community without fixing the internal biases and racist mentalities within our own, and the first step to any solution, is identification of the problem. Not only is turning a blind eye to our communities' issues indicative of the privilege we have by being able to remain blissfully ignorant, but it is un-Islamic. Our beloved Prophet(SAW) said in a well-known hadith, “Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.”

           One of the very common ways that racism and colorism in the south Asian community is manifested is through marriage. Oftentimes we see elders who have immigrated from their respective south Asian countries tending to prefer their children's marriages to stay within their own culture, as to preserve it for future generations. This is understandable; moving to a country where you are the minority is difficult, and it's natural to want your children to hold on to their culture and implement it in their future homes. However, this preference should not be a deciding factor in whether the marriage is accepted by the parents, although it too often is. The Prophet (SAW) said, “A woman is married for four things, i.e., her wealth, her family status, her beauty and her religion. You should marry the religious woman (otherwise) you will be a loser. “(Bukhari) The same applies to men as indicated by this hadith: “When someone with whose religion and character you are satisfied asks to marry your daughter, comply with his request. If you do not do so, there will be corruption and great evil on earth. ” (Tirmidhi) In neither of these hadiths does the Prophet(SAW) mention race or skin color as a significant factor in selecting a spouse, rather he cites piety and character as the most important component in a decision of marriage. However, many south Asian men and women know there would be objections made by their parents, grandparents, maybe even themselves, into marrying someone from another culture, someone with a darker skin tone, or even someone from a different tribe of the same country.

           The racism and colorism in the south Asian community is unique in that it is often internalized. My own cousins, who are half Indian and half Egyptian, often talk down on Indians and seem to reject that side of themselves, despite their mother being Indian. A friend of mine has cousins who are half Palestinian and half Indian and has seen a clear difference in treatment between those cousins and her full Indian cousins. I’ve seen social media posts highlighting how it’s seen as a compliment by a Desi girl to be told they “look Arab”. This internalized racism, originating as a result of the white Arab superiority emphasized in the Muslim community, is disheartening, and only reinforces the already wide held belief that whiter skin equates to more beauty. We can also see that these internalized belief systems often go beyond race, and transcend into simply skin color. Growing up one of my friends was constantly compared to her older, more light-skinned sister, having to endure comments and different treatment from both friends and family, just on the account of her skin being darker. They are both Pakistani-American and yet one sister is seen as better by some of her own also Pakistani-American family members. The half Palestinian and half Indian cousins mentioned previously not only have paler skin than their full Indian cousins, but also blonde hair. Had they been half Sudani and half Indian, their treatment would likely be different. To be treating people from your own culture differently on account of the color of their skin, is a prime and prevalent example of the blatant internalized colorism within the South Asian community. This sort of colorism, rooted in colonial pro-white sentiments, has become normalized both in the West and “back home”. According to a report from Global Industry Analysts, the skin lightening industry is expected to turn into a $23 billion dollar business this year, and as far back as 2009, $432 million dollars worth of skin lightening products were consumed by India alone. Huge Bollywood actresses like Priyanka Chopra, Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, Sonam Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, Disha Patani, and many, many more have shamelessly endorsed skin-lightening creams and then spoken up about black lives in the same breath. Multi-billion dollar companies like L'oreal, The Body Shop, Ponds, Garnier, Olay, and many, many more advocate for diversity in the West and simultaneously feed off of the South Asian communities’ insecurities by providing countless skin lightening creams. Even bridal makeup is very commonly done using foundations and powders much lighter than the bride’s actual skin tone.

           The Islamic stance on racism and colorism is very straight-forward and clear: it is never acceptable. Allah(SWT) says in the Quran, “...We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you.” (Qur’an, 49:13) Any societally created distinctions or classes is rejected by Islam, and irrelevent to the character of any person in the eyes of Allah(SWT). Our beloved Prophet(SAW) said in his infamous final sermon, “an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over a white – except by piety and good action”. The Prophet(SAW) had many black companions, like his second mother Umm Ayman, Sa’ad al Aswad, and Usamah bin Zayd, although we tend to only remember Bilal as the “token black companion”. Just this one hadith and ayah tells us all we need to know: all of humanity is on the same level, and that is below Allah(SWT). The only way to elevate our ranks is to be righteous for His sake, and that elevation is not determined by us.

           As we enter this new stage of American history, I can’t help but notice that in the past, it was always white Americans vs. black Americans. Today, there are countless minorities living in the United States who have faced and continue to face struggles similar to the ones black Americans are currently facing. It is our responsibility to stand up against the oppressors, and help our black brothers and sisters, not to be some sort of savior, but because it is our duty as citizens of humankind and required of us Islamically. We need to be empathetic to the plight that black Americans face every day, and not use our privilege against them. In fact, many of us owe our acceptance into this country to black Americans. If we or any of our family members immigrated to America after 1965, we owe that to the Civil Rights Movement, a movement primarily run by black Americans, which aided in passing the Hart Celler Act. Just like they advocated for our acceptance in this country, we need to advocate for theirs. This begins with working on yourself first: recognizing your internal biases and correcting them, recognizing the privilege you hold and educating yourself on things like black history, racial disparities, etc. As a community, placing value on skin color and race, whether when choosing a spouse for yourself or your child, when choosing a friend, or even when choosing things like the Islamic speaker you listen to, needs to end. This is much easier said than done, but can be achieved by, for example, calling out racist/colorist jokes or microaggressions, having conversations with your family about racial injustices or biases they may hold, making an effort to diversify your mosque (over 60% of black muslims in the UK said they didn't feel like they fit in with their muslim community!), amplifying black voices at school, work, mosque, etc, and stopping the normalization of the use of the n-word. We are not the “model minority” that black Americans need to draw inspiration from. The concept of a “model minority” is used to pit us against each other, so that white Americans stay in power. Whether we are students, teachers, lawyers, engineers, doctors, stay-at-home moms, anything, we have a voice and should be using it to amplify the voices of black Americans that have had a metaphorical knee on their neck for over four centuries. For example, health care workers' biases lead to massive and devastating disparities within the health care system, seen in this alarming statistic: the corona virus is killing black Americans at a rate 2.5 times greater than white or asian americans. South Asians make up almost 5% of physicians in America despite making up only 1.2% of the American population. South Asian doctors should use their positions to be a part of the solutions to end these racial disparities in their field, just like any south Asian in any field. Islamically, we should treat others the way we want Allah(SWT) to treat us, and do we want to be ignored on Judgement Day by our Lord? We, the South Asian community, should be the one of the biggest advocates against racism and colorism, not one of the proponents, and that begins with recognizing it in our own community first.