‘To be Asian is not to be anti-racist’: Why we need to address racism in Asian communities

“There is a distinct lack of solidarity”


There has been an eruption of protests in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement following the killing of George Floyd – an African-American who died after a policeman knelt on his neck.  This Tuesday, our respective social media feeds were flooded with black squares, accompanied by the caption #BlackOutTuesday.  Everyone from corporations, celebrities, and the general public participated, with the idea reportedly being to halt the time usually spent on social media to create an opportunity free up for people to educate themselves on the Black Lives Matter movement.  Millions of people from different parts of the world participated in the campaign. While these displays of solidarity are reassuring, within many other minority communities in the UK, it is clear that there is a lack of solidarity in supporting BLM.  Colourism, anti-blackness, discrimination, racism and xenophobia are still major problems in the Asian culture in particular, and here two Cambridge Tab writers highlight their concerns over the racial biases within their own communities.

Amira on the uncomfortable truth of colourism in the Asian community:

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests following the horrific killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there has been a fantastic outpouring of support.  However, while it is reasonably assumed that other BAME individuals might be sympathetic to the BLM Movement, ultimately there is a distinct lack of solidarity.  Not being white does not mean that you can’t be racist. Racism and anti-blackness are prevalent within non-Black POC communities. Who can forget the iconic line in Bend it like Beckham when Jesminder makes clear how furious her parents would be if she fell in love with a black man?

There is a long history behind the Asian obsession with skin colour, owing primarily to caste and culture.  More affluent castes, which were and are still lighter-skinned, continue to uphold the legacy of colonialism through the perpetuation of racial prejudices and superiority complexes.  Throughout South Asia, there is an ingrained institutionalised racism and unconscious bias towards a lighter skin which is seen as a marker of success and attractiveness.

Kathy Russell Cole, the author of the bestselling and provocative book, The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium, notes that many people from lower castes have darker skin because, for generations, they were and are still being subjected to harsh manual labour in the searing sunshine.  Thus, since caste and class often intersect, fair skin is perceived as being evidence of “better financial and social status of a person.”

India’s colourist attitudes are not going anywhere. Politicians continue to make colour-based prejudices and gender colourism, which particularly impacts dark-skinned women, has been found to limit job and marriage prospects.  This fetishisation of light skin is also reflected in consumer tastes – skin lightening products continue to be popular.  In 1978, Unilever launched Fair & Lovely cream, which has subsequently spawned numerous other whitening products including face cleansers, shower gels and even vaginal washes.  A decade ago, a report released by market researchers ACNielsen reported that India’s whitening-cream market was worth $432m, and has continued to grow at a rate of around eighteen per cent per year; on average, the Indian population reportedly consumes two hundred and thirty-three tonnes of skin-whitening products per year.

But as a British Asian, it is clear that this colourism extends beyond the insular walls of our own communities and culture.  From a young age, I noticed the negative perception of black people that many people in my stupendously large Indian family held.  To my shame, I never asked why, and I didn’t dare challenge them.  On one occasion, I attempted to point out the flaws of the hate an uncle was spouting, only to be promptly slapped down and reminded that my bastard birth was a shame to the family.  Ultimately, however, in modern Britain, there is no excuse for this continued perpetuation of such hate.  Racism is about ignorance, and it can only be taught.

In 2016, Ted Cantle released a controversial report warning of the dwindling number of white residents in the ethnic minority-dominated areas of British inner city.  Census records showed that between the 2001 and 2011, the white British population of Birmingham fell from 65.6% to 53.1; in Leicester, it declined from 60.5% to 45.1%; and in Newham, London, only 16.7% of the population is white British.  Cantle had, of course, already made waves with an influential report, originally released in 2001, which that argued that one of the causes of the riots in Bradford and Oldham that year was that people lived “a series of parallel” lives.  This voluntary segregation practised by many members of the Asian community is something I have experienced and seen first-hand and helps to allow this prejudice against other minority groups to be perpetuated through generations.  Frankly, if you primarily socialise and interact with other members of the same ethnic group, you get exposed to their prejudices and experience the world from their narrow point of view without embracing the true beauty of real multiculturalism that only full integration can provide.

So when we express support for protestors in the coming weeks and months, we must also recognise the colourism and anti-blackness in the Asian community as a genuine problem if we intend to be real allies to the BLM protestors.

Sinthu on the deep-rooted anti-blackness within the Asian community:

White supremacy is not new, and neither is racism. For centuries, Black lives and the concept of ‘Blackness’ have been given lesser value.  As Amira mentions, just one glance at the abundance of colourism amongst Asians should show this clearly enough.  The Asian community is incredibly diverse; you have South Asians, South-East Asians and East Asians. To make it easier for myself, I will broadly refer to these communities together as ‘Asians’, but it is essential that we take a moment to appreciate the diversity of this collective.

Other POC communities (Asian, Indigenous, Latinx) have also been at the brunt of both subtle and overt racism.  But it is important, as allies to the Black community, that we do not speak for the Black experience.  I, myself, am the daughter of South Asian immigrants; I understand very well what racism can be like.  However, I can never possibly claim to relate to the Black struggle, for I am not Black.

This is where we, as Asians, often fall short. To be Asian is not to be anti-racist.  Asians are all too often complicit in the fight against anti-racism.  I wonder why.  Although not on the same level of institutionalisation, we have experiences of racism and white supremacy – so why are we so hesitant to fight anti-blackness?  In fact, anti-blackness has been weaved into the very fabric of being Asian; we just don’t notice it.  Whether we want to admit it or not, Asians have even benefited from it.  It has become our way of surviving in a white world. Why is this?

If you’ve been sifting your way through the many BLM resources on the Internet right now, you might have heard of the ‘model minority myth’.  And, if I’m honest, I didn’t know much about it until a few weeks ago. It describes how the immigration of Asian individuals based on their academic qualifications is primarily used as a cover for the systematic oppression of Black communities.  If Asians can be successful, surely the same applies to every other POC group?  Asian and Black individuals are pitted against each other, having to compete for white space, with the odds heavily stacked against Black people.  Rather than seeing anti-black oppression as institutionalised racism, we see it as “not trying hard enough”.  We are white people’s middle-ground; they can’t fully accept racial equality, but maybe they’ll try giving Asian communities a head-start. And we internalise this mentality.  The whole “I’m Asian, I can’t be racist” concept doesn’t help either.


So, what can we do to counter this as a community?  And what can we do to start these tough and uncomfortable conversations with our parents?  It won’t be easy, but it’s also not supposed to be easy.  I can tell you that from personal experience.

The first point we need to start with is reflection.  We all harbour some biases; it’s what happens when you grow up in an institutionally racist society.  These values are instilled at a young age, but, just as racism is learned, it can be unlearned.  For instance, reflect on your (or your relatives’) dating racial biases and subconscious stereotyping.  Or ask yourself why you’re hesitant towards allying yourself completely with the BLM movement when you regularly consume and engage with black culture (I know plenty of South Asians who love RnB and hip hop – but what are you guys doing right now to engage?).

There are a lot of great resources circulating on Instagram right now – @southasians4blacklives is a particularly handy one.  They have a lot of great tips on how to start discussing these topics with family members.  It’s the status quo in Asian culture that your parents are always right, so it can be quite hard to challenge these prejudices without them going on the defence.  There are several posts available on their account for how to better go about this. They also have prompts for you to personally think about.

It’s a constant learning process, and no one knows how to be a perfect ally. But we have to do better.  It’s our responsibility to show up for Black communities, particularly when they’ve shown up for us time and time again.  So, donate, protest, stay informed and stay reflecting.  No justice, no peace.

Cover image credits belong to Evie Playfoot-Orme