We must all stand against racism, colourism, prejudice, discrimination
The recent killing of George Floyd was the very epitome of the struggle the black man has endured throughout history: Being crushed under the knee of the white slave-master, powerless, defenseless, begging for the oppression to stop, pleading to ears which have never known mercy.
And while it once used to be acts of inhumane cruelty carried out by colonists on their subjects, or Jim Crow and apartheid laws to enforce “social segregation” not too long ago, recent events bear an eerily striking resemblance to an age (that we thought had) gone by. Systematic, often-state endorsed, racism against black people has endured.
The Black Lives Matter movement in the United States has been a beacon of hope -- a hope that institutional racial inequality and injustice will somehow be addressed. It is a rallying cry that has united voices, not just in the US, but from all across the world, including to an extent, here in Bangladesh. But the question surely arises; why should we, halfway across the world from the epicentre of the movement, ourselves often the target of racism and prejudice, care so much specifically about this? Why does Black Lives Matter even “matter” here?
Let us establish one thing from the get go: We are very much a racist nation. And no, I do not speak with regards to how we are prejudiced towards darker skin tones. Yes, “colourism” as it has come to be known, is in itself absolutely unacceptable, and something that has no place in society. But to truly be able to diagnose the problem of racism in South Asian communities, a clear distinction must first be made between racism and colourism. Colourism, as research has shown, is more a symptom of the class divide in society.
And although one does contribute to the other in many cases, we must differentiate between the two -- else we run the risk of overlooking and failing to acknowledge a deep-rooted societal issue.
So as deplorable as this skewed view of skin shades is -- think of light-toned Bollywood leads and the business of fairness creams marketing the inferiority of dark skin -- to draw parallels between the dislike our society has for dark-skinned people and the systematic victimization of an ethnic group is wrong. In fact, to make the implication that people of a darker skin tone have it as bad as African-origin communities worldwide do is disrespectful to the struggles of the black man.
No one is going to shoot you in broad daylight or randomly call the police on you because you are dark skin toned. The upshot is that we brush over the more pressing issue, of how racism and prejudice is rampant among South Asians societies, expressed both outwardly, and in more passive and subtle, yet equally damaging ways.
On first thought it might not be entirely obvious -- we’re not really that racist, are we? Outward expressions of racism in our societies are rare, simply because there is not enough interaction between us and people of other ethnicities. Expatriate communities are few and far between, and even then, they often do not venture out much (which in itself should give us some clue of the issue at hand). But the subtle prejudices we hold, especially against black people, are evident.
I have first-hand seen European foreign exchange students being mopped like they’re celebrities, while black students are avoided like lepers at the cafeteria. Whenever a black man gets on a public bus, you can see all eyes turn towards him, almost silently pleading for him to get off at the next stop. And God forbid he take a seat next to one of us.
I have heard of families going as far as filing GDs against blacks living in their apartment, “just in case” they do something harmful or illicit. The assumption right away is that black people cannot be good, honest men and women -- they must be in our country to carry out nefarious deeds.
I have heard our elders, so respected and revered in our society, talk in such a demeaning way about black people. Describe them as if they are uncultured savages. Say horrible racial slurs and crack unamusing ethnic jokes at their expenses. Portray them as filthy and untouchable, advising us to best stay away from them. Even use them as a comparison when patronizing us -- as if being a black man or woman is a disgrace.
I have seen whole families ostracize and banish their children for choosing to marry a black person (funny, because I have also seen families allow children to marry white, Arab, or other Asian partners, and depict the wedding as a grand convergence of two rich cultures).
I have seen so much racism from our society against black people. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. These occurrences are so widespread; it cannot be claimed that they are isolated incidents. To do so would be ignorant -- and ignorance is the fire that fuels any and all discrimination.
Clearly, racism exists much closer to home than we realize. For a myriad of historical, political, and socio-economic factors, South Asian societies seem to have created their own racial hierarchy, which puts white people on top of the food chain and black people at the foot of it, while conveniently slotting us somewhere in the middle. It is a recessive gene, inherited from our forefathers, passed on from generation to generation, which manifests only time to time, before disappearing deep into its abode inside our very hearts, making the disease all the more difficult to diagnose.
Although racism has always existed, the communal mind of human society is such that there only exists certain windows of opportunity to raise certain issues, to ensure it resonates with enough people. Now is one such window. And it won’t stay open for much longer, unfortunately. Yet, racism will persist. The onus, then, is upon us to make the most of this chance, to raise awareness and start conversations on a topic we like to brush under the carpet so often.
The argument that this is an issue not relevant to our society is a flawed one. Unconscious discrimination is pervasive and contagious. It drains us of empathy, it conditions us to despise those who are different to us. To address racism would be to address the bigotry and intolerance we see around us everywhere, every day.
As a problem, this is a very difficult one to solve, yet we all can play a part. There’s definitely no point arguing with random people on the street. But we can look at closer proximities, starting with ourselves. The first step to solving any problem is understanding it. We must be more aware, more educated -- what is prejudice, where does it come from, why do we choose to drench our society in it?
If our friends or family, people you can talk to freely with, show racist, colourist, or discriminatory behaviour of any sort, talk with them. Make them understand the fault in their thinking. And maybe, they in turn will spread your message to others. The more we talk, the bigger the circle of understanding gets, the more it propagates.
It is much harder to actively make a meaningful change than it is to share posts and express opinions on whatever is trending, only to move on to the next outlet of outrage as convenient. Prejudice and racism is something that is deeply ingrained into our collective psyches, whether we like to admit it or not. And just as it has taken generations for this idea to entrench itself in our culture, it is not something that can be erased in a day or two. We must take a purposeful, persistent stand -- against racism, against colourism, against prejudice and discrimination.
To quote Rosa Parks, “to bring about change, you must not be afraid to take the first step.” To eradicate this disease from the heart of our society, it may take decades, centuries even. But together, we can take those first steps, make the little differences, such that it takes no longer.
Arfaa Islam studies civil and environmental engineering at North South University, and has a keen interest in politics, culture, and their influence on society.