• Wednesday, Oct 28, 2020
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OP-ED: The colour of your skin

  • Published at 06:26 pm June 5th, 2020
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We must remember the words of Nelson Mandela: ‘No one is born hating another person’

Growing up in the UK, the words “paki” and “blackie” were terms frequently bandied around in the school playground. Being a brown kid, I was at the receiving end of the “paki” chants and the black kids had “blackie” hurled at them. 

I recall a white girl not wanting to hold my hand in class because she thought it was dirty. As an adult, the racial slur, in my case, has evolved to “Paki slag.” From a very early age, what was blindingly clear was that we were, and still are, judged by the colour of our skin. Over the course of my lifetime, there have been some positive changes but not nearly enough. In fact, not even close.

But this is not to say that South Asians are not guilty of being just as racist and prejudiced. On the contrary, brown people are complicit in perpetuating this cycle of discrimination, especially towards black people. This also extends to those within the South Asian community who are considered “dark-skinned” and it is just as abhorrent.  

Any form of racism is unacceptable. Period. There are no circumstances in which it can be justified or excused. It is a malaise that is so deeply embedded in human society that it is hard to imagine a world where people are judged by who they are rather than what they look like or what group they belong to. 

I am not black and I am not African-American; I am a brown Muslim woman -- a person of colour (POC) -- but that does not and should not stop me from feeling the rage, the outrage, the sadness and frustration I am experiencing right now at what is happening in the US. Despite having encountered racism, it has not pervaded every aspect of my life in the way that it does for black Americans. 

The more I read or hear about the injustices, the more horrified and humbled I am.

The murder of 46-year-old African-American father of two, George Floyd, by white police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25 in Minneapolis was caught on camera and shocked a world currently in the throes of a pandemic. The chilling image of George Floyd, prostrate and handcuffed, pleading for his life saying: “I can’t breathe,” with Chauvin’s uniformed knee on his neck, sparked protests across the US against racism and the brutality and deaths of black Americans at the hands of the police force. 

It was only after public outcry when Chauvin and the three other policemen involved were merely fired and not charged for committing a crime that legal action was taken. The four men have subsequently been arrested for murder though in varying degrees. 

This tragedy came soon after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot by two white men, a father and son in Georgia, while the 25-year-old man was out jogging. 

The number of black people who are victims of racist attacks in the US by both civilians and the police are countless. For every Trayvon Martin (17 years) shot while out walking, Sandra Bland (28 years old) arrested and found hanged in police custody, Aiyana Jones (seven years) shot by police while she was sleeping, Breonna Taylor (26 years) shot in her home by policemen, there are untold others.

I recently saw a post where 18-year-old Cameron Welch shared some unwritten rules his mother makes him follow when he goes out. These include: Do not put your hoodie on; don’t touch anything you’re not buying; never leave the store without a receipt or bag, even if it’s a packet of gum; don’t stare at a Caucasian woman; if a cop stops you randomly, don’t talk back, just compromise. As a mother of three having rules like this just so my children come home alive is a terrifying thought. But for black mothers, it is a reality.

Floyd’s death was the tipping point for black communities across the country where they have been, and still are, marginalized, discriminated against, and killed just because of the colour of their skin. 

The dice have been loaded from the beginning, whether we are talking about economic inequality, inadequate health care, or a criminal justice system that has systemic racism built into it. This ongoing crisis compounded with a pandemic where black Americans are more at risk of being infected and dying of Covid-19, once again due to structural racism, has yet again highlighted the dire situation. 

The demonstrations and protests taking place across the US have garnered momentum with thousands of people marching to demand change. Over the last week, solidarity for the movement has grown with similar marches taking place across the globe. As one placard read: “We are not trying to start a race war like the media tells you, we’re trying to end one.” 

Sadly, at a time where America is being ripped apart, instead of trying to heal the wounds, the president has seen fit to make inflammatory statements such as “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” which has racist origins, and then urged law enforcement to take strong action against the protesters. This has resulted in people being injured by rubber bullets, police cars being driven into crowds and tear gas and pepper spray used to disperse protestors.

Since then, many police chiefs and officers in the US have condemned the murder of George Floyd and acknowledged the racism endemic in law enforcement, stating their commitment to weeding it out. 

There are two quotes that seem relevant today more than ever. Martin Luther King said: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” It is high time that the rest of us take a stand against racism. It is not enough to advertise our support. 

We must go further and call it out wherever we see it. There can be no compromise or tolerance of racism in any guise. We must refuse to be part of it and demand from our governments and institutions that they eradicate discriminatory practices. 

The other quote is from Nelson Mandela, who said: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” If only we could harness these words and find a way to turn them into reality. 

Nadia Kabir Barb is a writer, journalist, and author of the short story collection Truth or Dare.

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