Dismantling Anti-Blackness in South Asia and the Diaspora

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The recent wave of protests against racial injustices perpetrated against the Black community in America, inspired people of all colours across continents to proclaim “Black Lives Matter” in solidarity with the movement. In light of this global Black Lives Matter movement, The Black Story – a virtual interactive exhibition, has been organized by the Gallery Cosmos and Cosmos Foundation to deconstruct the historical ties between Black and South Asian communities.

Featuring a powerful combination of artistic expression and intellectual interventions, from five prominent Bangladeshi visual artists and intellectual interventions with global personalities, the exhibition and series of webinars aim to create meaningful dialogue around issues of race, identity, and power. Through multi-disciplinary art and intellectual discourse, ‘The Black Story’ will explore our past, examine our present, and imagine our future as we delve into the historical interactions between the two communities

Conceived and curated by Nahar Khan, Executive Director of Gallery Cosmos and Cosmos Foundation, the virtual exhibition was inaugurated by social activist Khushi Kabir, visual artist Osi Audu and curator of The Black Story Nahar Khan.

As part of a series of intellectual interventions for ‘The Black Story’ interactive exhibition, a webinar on ‘Dismantling Anti-blackness in South Asia and the Diaspora’ took place on March 2, in order to examine, explore, and embrace the historical ties between the Black and South Asian communities through a conversation between Nahar Khan and Dr Haider Ali Khan, John Evans Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Economics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Excerpts:

Nahar Khan (NK): “Thank you Dr. Haider Khan, for being here with us today and I look forward to our discussions on deconstructing the ties between Black and South Asian communities. Let me start with my first question relating to the American framework. Historically speaking, if we look at the events between the 1880s and 1900s, an era of intense anti-Asian sentiments in America, there were multiple waves of Bengali Muslim migrants - primarily those from Bangladesh that jumped ships and started to form communities of colour, by marrying and starting families with Black, Puerto Rican and Creole women in cities such as New York, New Orleans and Detroit. What do you believe enabled the forging of lives between the Black Americans and Bengali migrants?”

Haider Ali Khan (HAK): “I think this is a rather recent angle, and we have to thank Professor Vivek Bald from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Media Studies for writing a great book on Bengali Harlem. Harlem is a part of New York City, far from midtown, and historically has been a place for African-Americans and other minorities as well, and in the 1920s, Harlem Renaissance took place - a very famous incident in American cultural history: There was a cultural flourishing in Harlem, but what professor Bald has done is to draw our attention, to the precise angle that you mentioned the migrants from South Asia, particularly Bangladesh, and particularly some specific districts of Bangladesh like Sylhet, Noakhali, Chittagong, and also some others. Some of them had to overcome their own racism towards African Americans in America, and they found support and forged very solid relationships - quite often matrimonial relationships especially with African-American women and Puerto Rican women. I personally experienced some of these when I first came to this country. I actually knew the owner of a restaurant in the Manhattan theatre district, and his wife was a Puerto Rican lady whom I also got to know rather well.”

NK: “The Civil Rights Movement by Black Americans in fighting for social justice was the time when segregation was very much in place, and Jim Crow laws were heavily enforced. Neighbourhoods, schools, facilities were all segregated, interracial marriage was illegal, and black folks did not even have the right to vote. Much of the peaceful movements were led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., like March on Washington advised by Bayard Rustin - what role did the Civil Rights Movement play in South Asians being able to migrate to the US? Additionally, what are some of the connections we see between the Black Freedom Movement and India's Independence Movement?”

HAK: “To answer briefly, first of all, I think South Asians today and other immigrants from Asia, immigrants of colour, in general - should be immensely grateful to the Civil Rights Movement, especially during the 1960s - which coincided with the relaxation of immigration policies towards non-white people in general and Asians in particular. The historic struggle started even before the US became independent, but certainly, during the post-Civil War period from the 1870s onwards, racism actually became more intense in the US - in the South in particular. Although legally there was equality, but in reality, there was tremendous inequality and that was reinforced.”

Professor Bald has also drawn our attention to one particular immigrant from South Asia - Dada Amir Haider Khan, who jumped ship in 1918 and spent quite a few years in the US starting in New York, then going through the Midwest and visiting various parts of the US. Unlike many others who came but were mostly illiterate and could not really leave any written document, Amir Haider Khan was literate and even literary, you might say. Later he got into British jail because of his politics in the 1930s, from 1939 to 1942 he was in a British jail in India, and he wrote his autobiography then called “Losing the Chains” - and later it became two volumes. What is significant about Dada Amir Haider Khan among other things, is that - he evolved. He was also a racist person towards the non-white people and he gradually realized how racist he was, and he very honestly described his progress, and his great debt to the black activists - the African-American activists in the early 1920s whom he met particularly in Detroit, Michigan, and he participated in the Labour Movement as well. So altogether, this is a fascinating and amazing story and told very well.”

NK: “That is a fascinating story and it is so important for our communities to decolonize our minds and unlearn the implicit biases that are conditioned within us. I also have to agree that the Civil Rights Movement really made way for the historic victories that were to come for minorities in America - and South Asians directly benefited from the movement in the 1960s and the Nationality Act of 1965. What is also interesting is the interconnectedness of the Black Freedom Movement and the Indian Independence Movement. It is fascinating that an individual like Bayard Rustin who taught Martin Luther King about Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent resistance and advised him on the tactics of civil disobedience – a form of peaceful protest that is strongly reflected in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 19555-1956, and the March on Washington as well in 1963 where Dr. King delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. This brings me to the Model Minority Myth, which has been so prevalent and has created a deep racial wedge within the BIPOC (Black Indigenous and People of Colour) communities. Your thoughts on this, Dr. Khan?”

HAK: “Well, again it is a very profound question and thank you for pointing out the antecedents to Dr. Martin Luther King's own non-violent movement. One of my mentor’s in America, Late Professor Vincent Harding, who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, and a friend , Professor Sudarshan Kapoor have published a lot on Dr. King, Gandhi and non-violence which would be very good resources for those who are interested on this issue. I think the Model Minority Myth is indeed a myth because it papers over the more rebellious minority groups, and in fact, maligns them, impugns them, and brands them as not fitting into American society, not willing to be quiet and trying to get whatever they could get from within the system. The Model Minority Myth served and still serves a purpose in keeping people quiet - people who might otherwise be quite rebellious, and it applies in particular to Asian-Americans - not just South Asians, but also to the Japanese Americans to Chinese-Americans to Korean-Americans to Americans who come from Southeast Asia, and indeed this is a vicious myth and it needs to be understood and analyzed for what it really is. It is an ideological ploy to keep people subjugated and under submission.”

NK: “Absolutely. Sometimes we don’t realize or connect that when the US passed the Immigration Act in 1965 – Asians were only allowed to immigrate based on high education levels or special skills so we were predetermined to be successful, law-abiding, good and essentially “model minorities”. We were presented as the polar opposite of Black people and black communities – but we don’t connect that Black Americans were not introduced to the country based on education levels. They were enslaved, systematically dehumanized and oppressed. So, I have to agree that the Model Minority Myth was a tool to divide people of colour by giving us partial access to rights of health care, education, employment and created a feeling of false rivalry between the minorities. However, prior to that, there was a strong sense of solidarity between the two communities in the West during a time when there were deep anti-Asian sentiments. The two communities interconnected through intermarriage, the forging of lives and forming communities of colour throughout working-class America. Why is this inter-minority solidarity important in your opinion?”

HAK: “I think it is definitely something that people have analyzed, starting with pioneers among the African-American community. We now have the idea on the concept of intersectionality, which brings together the ideas of class, which you mentioned with respect to more elite class immigrants from South Asia, gender and race, and these are all very deep issues. We know that race is fictitious, but racism is unfortunately, altogether too real. If we take this intersectional perspective we find that the poorer working-class, blue-collar, low-income communities of people and more recently, women - they are discriminated against as a group more, and because of the history of racism in America, against Black people, Puerto Rican and Mexican people in particular, and Spanish-speaking groups; and although there has been tremendous genocide, there are still some native Americans left and they have been discriminated against perhaps the longest, which still continues. So this separation of minorities in terms of class and racism, both implicit and explicit, especially among East Asians and South Asians is very pervasive. I listened to a talk by a very amazing, intelligent and articulate student of Indian origin who lives in Scotland – it was a lecture on racism and how deeply embedded it is in India which also relates to subtle differences of colour.”

NK: “These notions really do uphold status quo and a system that only benefits some over others. That leads me to our current day situation: as South Asians we carry and, much of the time, perpetuate anti-blackness and anti-black sentiments. Where does this stem from and how can we disrupt and dismantle binary conceptions of homeland and diaspora?”

HAK: “Racism, in a broad sense, is discriminating against and looking down upon people who are of slightly different shades of colour or differentiated in some physiognomic aspect of hair or the shape of their face, and even minor differences can be accentuated very intensely if it serves some purpose for people who are in charge, who are in the dominant position - and racism is pretty much like that in India, in South Asia. It goes back actually to the old days of the caste system among the Hindus. Muslims and Sikhs were not supposed to have a caste system, and they don’t . On the other hand, there was a distinction between Ashraf (upper-class) and Atrav (lower class) people, and the distinction was also in terms of skin tone and skin colour. So it really predates the Europeans coming to the subcontinent, but once they found themselves in the ruling position - these Europeans, especially the English, knew that this was a very good weapon to use. So they accentuated, and defined some people, as for example - the Punjabis, as being martial - and they classified Bengalis as being non-martial. The fact, if you look at history, is that the Bengalis were the first rebellious group of people so it cuts in many ways. Coming back to the race question, it is basically the accentuation of skin colour and some physical features over others, and making one group look superior and in fact, once they start believing this then you do not have to work very hard to keep this division going.”

NK: “I have to agree, I feel there are some roots embedded in Colonialism but also much that pre-dates it. It brings to light how we must question ideas and impacts left by colonialism, whether it’s economic explpitations, ethnic rivalries, human rights violation – and really challenge that sense of hegemonic power. Dr. Khan, you mentioned racism and coloursim, even looking at the entertainment industry within South Asia where colourism is heavily perpetuated and practiced through skin lightening and certain projections of standards of beauty, I think inclusivity becomes an extremely important aspect of industries like that and thankfully colourism has started to enter the foreof  South Asian public discourse. What are your thoughts on the presence and perpetuation of colourism within South Asian communities?”

HAK: “I think it is a vicious circle that will reinforce itself, unless strong opposition at various levels is offered - and what we are doing today through this conversation is to offer some light, in terms of historical, sociological and economic analysis. The history of Bollywood is very interesting because although this colourism was always there, the pioneering and more progressive days started in the 1930s and continued in the 1940s and 1950s - especially the 1950s when there were a lot of progressive and so-called social films being made. If you look at a movie like Mother India, which was nominated for an Oscar, the heroes and heroines were not necessarily very fair. They were people with strong personalities, even women, especially in Mother India with its heroine Nargis. In the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the 70s there was a progressive movement where Smita Patil, who is not very fair, she played roles in very progressive films and then we have the 80s, 90s - and things do get worse. People who are not familiar with the entire history of the film industry in India, might very easily think that is the way it has always been. To some extent that's true, but as I just pointed out, there has been very creative oppositional forces. However today I think it looks bleak and people have to speak out, and people have to create an alternative film and media presence which is very important, and I would focus on that to break through this vicious circle that we see today.”

NK: “Absolutely Dr. Khan, I believe it’s absolutely crucial to challenge issues of caste, colourism and shade-ism in order to realize that this form of discrimination that treats people of lighter skin as superior and assigns more value over those that are darker within the same race is really counterproductive to the entire BIPOC community. Moving towards where one must stand in ally ship around issues of race and power – Ibram X Kendi makes a distinction between anti-racist and non-racist. Do you believe it’s enough to be non-racist?

HAK: What he means by anti-racist is somebody who gets involved in the struggle, and I think that’s a good thing. I would think that you would need a critical mass of anti-racist people who are also broadly aware of different dimensions of racism and the need for fighting in different manners, at different times, in different circumstances – all the way from economic, political and social discrimination to cultural expressions of racism. Human beings live as part of a totality which anthropologists call culture, but in this totality, there are many different parts and we have to figure out what kind of anti-racist movement would be necessary. Also what kind of cross-race alliances we must make, as anti-racists cannot win unless they make cross-race alliances with the proper kind of allies who are also anti-racists themselves – so we need to look for bridges as well.

NK: Many believe that James Baldwin was the most important Black thinker of the era when you first arrived in America. Did his work influence you - if so, how?”

HAK: “Well, I have many memories of James Baldwin or as he asked me to call him Jimmy and I complied very happily. I actually read him long before I had met him, but I met him by coincidence in Paris where I studied with some great philosophers and I made my living by singing. I lived in a commune with a very egalitarian group of idealistic people who thought we should live together and experience sharing and caring for each other. So I used to sing on the right bank because that’s where the money was, and then bring the money to the left bank to make sure that we all survived. One night, he came to the place where I was singing which was a more progressive place. That night I sang ‘Mona Lisa’ a very famous song made famous by Nat King Cole, the great African American singer, and after that he was very kind and said it was very moving for him. He very kindly invited me to come visit him in South of France where he lived, where I met many other luminaries there – many jazz musicians and singers, writers, painters. His house of kind of a commune by itself – people came and went; the conversations were lively with lots of creative artists. The part of Baldwin that I think people need to understand better, is that he wanted everybody to be creative - and he realized sadly for himself and for others like him, that during that time in America during the 40s and 50s and 60s even - it was not possible for creative black artists, thinkers, painters or poets to be in America - and that is why, many of them ended up in France, or Paris in particular, which was more open than many other parts of the world, and they did create great things there.”

NK: “That is such a fascinating experience and thank you Dr. Khan for sharing that with us. What does the unique story of Madam Vice President Kamala Harris mean for the black and brown communities, in your opinion?”

HAK: “I think it is a great story, and the story of her mother and her father are also equally interesting. I have been very lucky because I learned from her father, Professor Don Harris, who was a prolific and deep thinker and still is. Kamala Harris learned from her surroundings and she represents, in some ways, what Melville in the 19th century expressed for America that if you cut any one of us, in our blood you will find the entire world and the whole human race. Melville was a great democratic person just as Walt Whitman was, in the 19th century - and Kamala Harris combines so, so much just in her genome, I suppose - combining South Asia with the Caribbean and the American experience, growing up in Northern California, and becoming a very successful professional in her own rights, and being very brave in so many ways. I think she is a great role model for people, and she is inspiring especially minority women, but also for men like me. I think we should really look at the positive side of our example and learn from it, and maybe the next generation of activists will do it even better. I certainly hope that the next generation of activists, and activist scholars in particular, will do it better than my generation has done so far.”

NK: Absolutely Dr. Khan, and the hope is that it does get better with every passing generation. I think it’s also really positively impactful on children because representation matters. On a personal level, growing up in South Asia – that wasn’t something that I was exposed to – seeing characters that looked like me in books and illustrations, or even on TV. Representations of people of colour were not commonplace so I feel for children – girls and boys alike – so growing up seeing people that like yourself is extremely powerful. Dr. Khan, you have written at length about the polyphonic, anti-racist and anti-imperialist poetics of Kazi Nazrul Islam in a fascinating piece for Alal O Dulal. Could you recount some of it here – I’m sure our audience would enjoy it.

HAK: I’ve always been influenced by Nazrul and he was a polymath, and he struggled against tremendous odds to become what he became. My basic take on Nazrul in terms of his poetics and the aspects of his poetry - both in terms of form and content - is that it came from deep within the tradition of the oppressed and rebellious people and it had a message of harmony among those people and a message of resistance against those who were their oppressors no matter what their colour was. Clearly in his lifetime, the English who ruled India were the main target, but he also was against oppressors from within Hindus, Muslims, and other groups as well. He has a very moving poem called Amar Kaifiyat which means in my defense or explanation – and there he tells the reader how Hindus are against him because they think he is too much of a Muslim, and how Muslims are against him because they think he is too much for Hindus. It’s quite humorous but at the end he says, I really don’t want to be a timeless, ageless and eternal poet, but what I fervently wish for is that once all these things are over there will be newer generations who will build a new, who will be truly creative, will be truly living in a society fit for human beings. I think anything that spreads the message, that makes people feel more deeply, think more reflectively and act more boldly is worth getting involved in.

NK: Thank you Dr. Khan for sharing your deep insights in deconstructing the ties between the communities. Your commitment to continuing your commendable efforts is truly inspiring. I think it’s absolutely crucial to question our own implicit biases, our own sense of brown fragility and the interpellation of certain roles society has created for us or even assigned to us by culture. Looking back at the historical solidarity the black and brown communities shared in the West, they spent decades forging lives across the kinds of ethnic, cultural and religious differences that are too often presumed to be impossible or insurmountable. I think that says something important today when South Asian communities, more often than not, set themselves apart from African American, Puerto Rican and other communities of colour – and so the hope is that our historical ties and interconnectedness can be reflected in societies and communities today through inter-minority solidarity and ally ship.

  • Black Community
  • Nahar Khan (NK)
  • Haider Ali Khan (HAK)
  • South Asia and the Diaspora
  • Dismantling Anti-Blackness in
  • Black Lives Matter

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