This isn’t specifically more important now than at any other time, but in light of George Floyd’s murder and the momentum that has been building against structural White Supremacy and the murderous apparatus of the colonial nation-state, my mind is buzzing and I want to have a clear space where my full thoughts are traceable rather than a few tweet threads. This is not to center myself in this moment, I am simply attaching this to the threads and resources I have already put up to ensure there is a fullness of my thought to accompany them iA.
The conditional promise of Whiteness and its impossible condition to POC
I shared a few not-particularly-novel ideas a few days ago about how non-Black South Asian individuals and social norms often reinforce racial hierarchy. And about how people who are not Black often internalise White supremacy to the extent that we fall for the conditional promise we are offered: that if we gain proximity to Whiteness, we will be accepted, loved and ultimately that we will be safe. But we won’t, the condition is impossible to fulfil to the extent that would truly make us safe because we can never “become” “White”… it’s a trap, and it’s a trap which serves to divide and conquer people of colour that has roots in colonial times.
A classic example is Thomas Babington Macaulay notoriously stating, “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” The idea of cultivating a class of collaborators who are close to and invested in Whiteness and colonialism has roots in the very history of Britian’s relationship to South Asia. This class of peoples are part of enforcing the colonial state and they’re “almost” “English” – but their inherent “Indianness” is deemed to be unchangeable. Macaulay’s quote is instructive. This class of peoples, if push came to shove, would never be accepted in or granted safety as “English”, they’re still “Indian in blood and colour”. And yet, the cultivation of that class of colonial collaborators can be traced right up to today. In the UK we see them in the likes of Priti Patel and Sajid Javid who carry out the will of the ruling racist system – expelling, detaining, incarcerating, deporting and dehumanising migrants, asylum seekers, Muslims and all people of colour from across the globe.
On my twitter thread a few days ago I flagged up this dangerous investment in Whiteness which is also a direct investment in structures and norms which kill Black people. Many people of South Asian heritages are groomed into operating with and for these structures and so, in light of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent protests against policing, the USA’s police state, and white supremacy, I felt it worth examining. I flagged it up ultimately in the hope that if non-Black POC are able to unlearn ideas of racial hierarchy that expose Black people to constant death, we might actually be in a position to access broader justice for all of us. After all, there is no anti-racism that doesn’t include Black people and there is no end to oppression that doesn’t end the violence Black people face.
Investment in the dehumanisation of Black people through investment in Whiteness & colourism
I just want to clarify a few of my thoughts around this so it’s on the record. The next few paragraphs will come back round to my main point – that this is why I believe addressing and redressing the issue of the dehumanisation of Black people amongst non-Black POC is crucial specifically for justice in Black people’s lives, but also for justice more broadly. I also want to add here that colourism and the hate, disgust and/or disdain for “dark” skin that exists in South Asian cultures which and is evident in overt things like skin-bleaching, partner-choices and overt discrimination; has very material consequences relating to darker-skinned people’s incomes, health outcomes, access to education, to resources and to power – as well as leading to police brutality, lynchings and murder in South Asia.
These outcomes represent a structural violence within South Asian (if we can use that term broadly but of course within South Asia there is much difference and variation) societal norms that are rooted in a history prior to colonialism, but which also was reified by colonialism. This history is connected to caste and social status, where darker skin usually (though not always) correlated with the lowest social positions. It is also linked to the relationships between East Africa and India through the Indian Ocean slave trade (which was not unidirectional though and should not be equated to the specifically “Anti-Black” chattel slavery by Europeans – the Indian Ocean slave trade saw Africans slaves in Asia but also Asian slaves in places like Tanzania, Zanzibar etc). These histories and dynamics associating darker skin with lower class and social position were made more concrete and reified through the process of colonialism and the introduction of European powers to the subcontinent.
Therefore, there is a nuance here: pre-colonial colourism is fundamentally different to modern Western racism because it did not connote ontological difference. In other words, colourism differed from Western racism because it did not impose meanings about someone’s humanness. It connoted wealth, social status and regulated social movement, gathering, access by colour and made (and still makes people’s lives unbearable and unliveable in many cases), however it was with the introduction of European ideas of White racial supremacy that it was funnelled into something that carried more dehumanising meaning. There are many contested historical and academic debates on this subject and so my main point here is just to say that the history of colourism in South Asia means that colonial racial hierarchy was easily reinforced by already present social inequities in the subcontinent and just added another layer of vitriol to the way dark-skinned people were treated. The caste and class systems in South Asia were made more immovable by colonialism which attempted to understand and categorise “religious” “caste” and other “groups” to make sense of them – often imposing new meaning in the process. I don’t have the expertise or knowledge to pretend to delve further into the history of caste and colourism but it is something I plan to do imminently, and something I urge us all to do.
I flag this up before I delve into the main part of this essay just to note that this is not an attempt to suggest the concept of colour-based discrimination is entirely a Western import to South Asia, but I also think it’s important to differentiate between this, and European ideas of “race” which inherently strip Black people of humanity. Now, of course, the mergence of both histories means that dark-skinned and Black people face a whole correlation of racist discrimination from South Asians who carry these norms. From the denigration and disdain for dark-skinned and Black people within families, within communities, in matrimonial processes, within institutional structures and which manifest in exclusion, erasure, abuse, patronising, paternalizing and rejecting.
Two things can be true: White Supremacy & the colonial nation state is the heart of the problem; but non-Black people of colour can be complicit in that problem by believing it makes them safer
I spend most of my work organising and campaigning against state-sanctioned Islamophobic violence which operate primarily through a structural set of codes, procedures and logics which pathologise “terrorism”/“violence” in Muslims (e.g. suggest violence is inherent to Muslims/Islam/a Muslim ideology/a culture). They do that for a REASON – to justify security policies which exist to protect the state and capital, expand the military and policing complex, restrict our freedoms, and surveil and data mine a population in order to control us better and to deflect from the state’s socio-economic and political responsibilities. They do all of this to maintain the status quo. To not have to redistribute wealth or restructure society by accepting citizenship across the board, redistributing wealth, ending homelessness etc. They do this to keep us distracted and turn us against one another, in order to maintain control.
I say this to position myself. But also to explain that the work I do is inherently bound up with a commitment to end structural Whiteness across the board, and to abolish policing structures in all forms. In order to do that I think there’s a fine line between refusing to be divided and conquered in our resistance (saying the system oppresses us all!) and staying silent and complicit on certain issues (saying we are never complicit in each other’s oppressions). The best and broadest solidarities from my limited experience and work on the ground, in community, has always been when people come together on a basis of understanding that the construction of race, capitalism and the creation of the nation-state have distorted our relationships with each other. I think that enables us to have the nuance of recognising the ways we’ve been told to dehumanise one another – and it entails then working together to transform our paradigms and our world. This demands telling the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it is – and then using that truth to think about how best to work together against the overwhelming oppressing force. This was ultimately what underpinned my tweet thread on the ways White supremacy’s Anti-Blackness manifests amongst people of South Asian heritages in the UK. As a Muslim it is incumbent upon me to speak about this to eradicate injustice and topple oppression in whatever its contemporary guises are but to also to make sure that in doing so I am not further oppressing anybody and that nobody is relegated or left behind.
The heart of the problem
So what’s the problem? I see it as a web, and at the centre of that web is capitalist colonial modernity. What do I mean? As far as I use and understand the idea of “colonial modernity” – in the very crude history I’m about to reductively overview – it means that since the inception of European colonisation which was based on the occupation of lands, exploitation of resources and expansion of coercive power, the world has experienced (relatively) a global reorganisation of power, resources and even paradigm shifts regarding how the majority of us think of ourselves, our planet, time, space, resources, and each other. Those shifts include the shift to a global capitalist economy which was built on the back of indigenous genocide, enslaving people from the African continent to work on colonised land and produce 100% profit goods for the imperial metropole (in this case, Britain). This shift was intertwined with attempts to successfully dominate colonised lands which required understanding their populations and resources. A premature structure of surveillance, population data capturing, mapping, demographic categorisation etc ensued in order to make sure control could be effectively maintained for the sake of capital – i.e. the apparatus of the colonial state.
*Disclaimer, this is not an attempt to tell a nuanced and complicated history but to consider themes and operations of power, hence, yes, I am generalising.*
In all of this, over a period of time, the defining and categorising of populations contributed to the invention of race. Before this moment ethnic differences were recognised, sure, but the idea of “race” as an absolute category where physical/visible traits were attributed to certain characteristics (e.g. skin colour to intelligence) and then put into a hierarchy of least to most human/civilised/worthy of power/life – was a novel concept. So even ideologically I think you can connect the theory of racial difference and hierarchy (which placed the people we call “Black” at the bottom, and “White” at the top), to early methods of surveillance, population control and the desire to make profit. All these themes continued to develop over decades and through the 1800s into the (very recent) 1900s, colonial occupation expanded, slavery morphed into systems of debt bondage and imprisonment meaning that whilst the formal “chattel slavery” ended, Black people in the Americas don’t experience anything near justice or liberation. In the colonies, the mid 1900s saw formal occupation thin out, (though in many cases military and other colonial presences remain), but crucially, the relationships of empire and imperialism continued.
Therefore, I don’t believe we live in a “post” anything world. We just live in a world which we believe is “post”, and where the idea of “post” exists. By that I mean that those concepts and relationships and dynamics which were premature 500 years ago, are mature now. The same people dehumanised by being cast as Black and therefore sub-human and enslaved, are the same people lynched through the legal apparatus today as individuals, but also en masse, and who have their labour extracted and are turned into commodities through the profit companies make off prisons and through e.g. their bondage and debt. Similarly, imperialism doesn’t require direct occupation in many cases anymore – in some it does, e.g. Palestine, e.g. military bases across the Middle East – but mostly it works through educating and co-opting ruling classes who hold institutional power across the world and through economic relationships of debt bondage between the “global north” and “global south”, arms trades, extraction of labour and resources by corporations and coercion through the threat of violence that e.g. if you don’t accept this system your political disobedience will be punished (see South America, see Cuba, see sanctions on Iran which are killing the population who do not have access to resources against COVID-19, etc).
This is not comprehensive, I am missing out complexities but I am trying to get to a different point. That point is this: if we begin to understand the past on our own terms we will begin to understand the present. And if we begin to ask questions about how things came to be, we will begin to understand the FUNCTION of things. Not the proclaimed function, but the actual one. By that I simply mean that if we empower ourselves through validating our own experiences and knowledge of the present, and through learning from our pasts, we will begin to get a grasp on the problem because we will begin to see that many of our ideas are actually constructed and instilled in us in order to justify the order of things.
If the norms we adhere to have histories, it means they are not natural or unchangeable
This is what I’m interested in. E.G. the idea that empire was benevolent and helped colonised peoples was developed to justify occupation, destruction and extraction. The idea that prisons are a necessary part of society and keep people safe and/or deter “crime”/“rehabilitate” people, was very recently developed to justify rounding up poor and marginalised people in order to protect the capital and property of the rich, and make them into a free source of labour to be profited off without any evidence, from conception, that there was any effect on crime levels. The idea of “crime” itself, used to justify displacing social problems such as poverty, trauma, etc onto individuals and away from contexts.
If we can actually deeply internalise the realisation that society is ordered by identities, norms, social relationships and dynamics that are historically constructed – we can denaturalise them. That means we can realise that they’re not “natural”. These things did not develop the same way a valley is eroded by a river, or a seed turns into a tree (and even that can be hugely impacted by human interaction tbf). These identities, norms, social relationships and dynamics all have histories and man-made reasons for being, and if they have histories and man-made reasons for being, that means they have a start and a purpose, they are not eternal or neutral. And that being the case, they also have an end and are not inherently justified, because there can be a world without them, because there was a world without them. In fact, most of the ideas I mentioned above such as chattel slavery, European colonialism and prisons were all developed extremely recently relative to the history of humankind with purposes that benefited only a minority of humankind.
“The problem” is huge then. The problem is not a rogue police office, the problem is not white privilege, the problem is not just prisons, it is this entire mansion, palace, fortress, militarised industrial compound of a world we live in, in which we lose sight of the wood for the trees. We focus on parts, fragments, bits, but we are distracted from the full picture. And the full picture is big. It’s a picture of deliberately created concepts like “race” and “crime” which work to justify people being controlled and removed from society in order that a protected class of peoples and property can protect their interests. Neocolonialism, capitalism, criminalisation, white supremacy, racism, and imperialism are the scaffolding, the bricks and mortar, the concrete, the cement.
Redressing non-Black POC’s complicity in White Supremacy & the Colonial Nation-State will help us to stop enabling Black people’s death, but also help us build a broader coalition against the source of the problem
And so, going back to my original point about raising issues about the ways South Asian communities and individuals have been bribed by Whiteness and its false promise to protect them if they concede to racism, to policing apparatuses and to be complicit in erasing that history; my purpose was to enable us to think more broadly. The point is not solely “now we will talk about this complicity”, but that we will ask WHY it has been prevalent, and what its function was. We don’t have time to waste. You’ve recognised it, you know it, you see it – in your family, your home, skin lightening, spouse preferences, poc organisation boards, use of the N word, ignoring use of the N word, never mentioning the violence Black people face, never talking to Black people, being indifferent to Black death, etc, the range is vast – it doesn’t have to be explicit or active to be there, it can be passive and silent. So now the point is that it’s time to point it out constantly so that it becomes “unnatural”. By constantly naming something you make it known that it is constructed, not natural, and if it is constructed, people can begin to ask why it is there (e.g. “why is that joke funny?”, “what do you mean my skin looks cleaner?” “why are there no dark-skinned characters in this show?” “why can’t we talk about Black Lives Matter?”) and therefore unlearn it because it’s been deliberately stifling us and harming our broader solidarities.
It’s been dividing and conquering all oppressed peoples by making non-Black POC buy into the oppression of Black people through racial hierarchy. But if you’re a person of colour in the world you also experience racism, your history is also bound up with that capitalist colonial modernity and you are also policed and surveilled. So the point is this: we MUST let go of the false promise that urges us to collaborate in White supremacy because it violently harms Black people and exposes them to unliveable conditions which temporarily make us feel secured from such debasement. But we have to refuse to be complicit because it is both morally right: it is just; but also because it goes against what this system wants. By refusing to collaborate with White supremacist colonial modernity – collaboration by either actively being racist to Black people or by being indifferent to Black lives and thus collaborating in their devaluation – we expand our possibilities for the future. The system doesn’t want us to disinvest from Whiteness, it doesn’t want us to be in solidarity with our Black siblings.
Precedents and possibilities for South Asians to collaborate with Black siblings against White Supremacy and policing in the UK without erasing internal hierarchies or complicity
And yet, in the UK especially, there is so much potential for solidarity between South Asians and Black communities. This is especially the case due to our often shared economic and class positions. In the UK the vast majority of South Asian diaspora are working-class due to migration patterns, histories and geographies that I don’t have space to get into in this piece but are well established and googleable (mainly those from areas like Punjab, Kashmir and Sylhet rather than more upwardly-mobile or middle-class backgrounds). The majority of Caribbean diaspora and more recent migrant diasporas from West Africa, Somalia and other parts of Africa are also disproportionately working-class, as well as refugees and asylum seekers who often live in poverty. This fact offers a potential for collaborating to defy colonial capitalism which demands White supremacy.
Historically, the precedent of this exists in collaborations through the 60s, 70s and 80s. We can critique these precedents and there are different opinions from those involved at the time, but I think they provide a useful framework at least. For example, campaigns against “colour bars” in many sectors (including community campaigns like the Bristol Bus Boycott, or against Rail companies) and advocacy for a Race Relations Act provide examples of both South Asians and those from the Caribbean all recognising and being harmed by colour bars. The era saw organisations like OWAAD (the Organisation of Women of African and Asian descent) and others organising against racist and misogynistic immigration rules; organisations like Awaz (the first feminist Asian women’s collective in the UK) collaborated with Brixton Black Women’s Group & the Indian Workers’ Association GB against police brutality in 1979, too. The 1981 “riots” sparked by police violence against “Afro-Caribbean” communities also saw South Asian solidarities especially in places like Southall and Coventry which continue to this day (with BLM protests in Southall just the other day). Many local campaigns also existed throughout this period for instance against “bussing” (local borough policies to disperse local migrant children of South Asian and Afro-Caribbean heritage) to schools outside the area (e.g. examples of this I know of in Bradford & Southall). These solidarities were rooted in the similar experiences South Asian and Caribbean communities faced as migrants from Britain’s colonies now facing exploitation and discrimination in education, employment, housing segregation, immigration law and more in the metropole.
I am not arguing that we go back to the days of “political blackness” which has obviously had its heyday and too much has changed since those decades including the broader political context, shifting migration patterns and new diasporas, and the state’s co-option and encouragement of competition between “cultural groups” for state resources. However, state-sanctioned racism remains and communities of colour remain disproportionately poor, exposed to violence and inadequate care. This history should remind us that although new contexts have arisen and internal racial hierarchies must not be erased, there is a strong precedent for South Asian and non-Black POC to collaborate with our Black siblings against white supremacist structures, specifically policing, and colonial capitalism. If we can figure out how Whiteness tries to co-opt us into joining in the dehumanisation of Black people, we have a chance to break its bonds and to resist the state’s fragmentation of opposition to its violence and policing.
Remembering these moments of solidarity and resistance reminds us that the history of imperialist exploitation that gives us intertwined histories, also produces our interlocked present. The British slave trade and colonisation of South Asia are intertwined from the point of view of the West whose industrial revolution only happened on the back of both – the free labour, and the free market. In the same way, today, global and local oppression by the British state are intertwined so that e.g. sweatshop workers in Bangladesh working for corporations based in the West are forced to produce fast-fashion for working-class people of colour in the UK who are not given appropriate living wages, housing or educations. Black people in the USA are being repressed by police equipped with “crowd control” equipment such as riot gear and tear gas sold by the UK! Of course, the possibility for wider class solidarities globally is within this, as well as solidarities between all formerly colonised peoples, but the specific solidarity of South Asians recognising our interconnected histories with those that colonial modernity designated “Black”, holds huge potential.
Immediately disinvesting from White Supremacy and Anti-Blackness is the only way to freedom for any of us. None of us is free until all Black lives matter and the struggle must NOT be co-opted
To me, all of that means it is only logical that as people whose histories are bound up with that history, we not only state the value of Black lives, but reflect that statement in all of our daily struggles and institutions and that we work against complicity in structural erasure and eradication of Black siblings. If we do not, we’re allowing ourselves to be co-opted by the state and by Whiteness which will never grant us freedom and which undermines the broader struggle against racist oppression. There will be no consolidated broader justice unless we oppose every type of racial injustice.
I hope that this lengthy piece gives some nuance to my views. In highlighting the ways South Asian people are able to be co-opted to serve the needs of Whiteness and the state by being complicit in dehumanising Black people, I am not looking to suggest that South Asians have the same onus, responsibility or work to do as White people and institutions and the state (so please, if you’re white don’t take it this way), neither am I suggesting that South Asians have no problem with colourism outside of the colonial framework. I am (at this stage, quite clearly I hope), stating the obvious: that South Asian people MUST disinvest from White supremacy and colonial logics of policing. We must completely resist the temptation of the bribe to benefit from joining in the eradication, exploitation and violence towards Black people. We must do this because it is just, and we must do this because it is our only chance of freeing any of us from racist White supremacist colonial capitalist modernity.
Co-option of anti-racism is all over the place right now. All corporations which exploit and extract labour and resources from people of colour and operate on neo-colonial relationships are suddenly posting that “Black Lives Matter” without disinvesting from Whiteness or restructuring so that they do not depend on racial capitalism. I’ve personally witnessed people who work in Counter Terrorism stating that they’re opposed to structural racism and dehumanisation of Black people without the self-reflection and awareness that Counter Terrorism is directly built on structures of racist policing which have disproportionately harmed Black people for decades – e.g. that it works on a basis of associating violence with a specific group of people and accordingly criminalises them in order to surveil, police, detain, incarcerate and deport them. The fact that those directly invested in and operating on lines of structural racism and neo-colonial policing/exploitation are able to co-opt “Anti-Racism” in this moment makes me feel even more strongly that we need to address and redress the dehumanisation of Black people in non-Black POC communities in order to urgently create sustainable anti-racist solidarities devoid of any collaboration with states, police, corporations or White supremacy. That is the only way I can see for us to truly fight for the freedom that has been being fought for in different but common struggles across the globe for the past 500 years.
I believe that if we can understand the history of things we can understand they haven’t always been around. Race hasn’t been around for ever. Neither has racism. Neither has the nation state. Neither have prisons. We learn all these things are normal from the moment we are born. Society and every process and behaviour from school, to hospital, to the food we can afford, to the way figures of authority treat us, and how we respond to them, tell us that this is the way things are and the way they must be. But we don’t have to operate in that order, we can unlearn it – we can think of ourselves more freely and work towards broader struggles for freedom across the globe – against capitalist neocolonialism which makes the lives of people across the globe impossible from indigenous people in Canada, to sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, to Palestinians in Gaza, to Iranians under sanctions, Sudanese revolutionaries protesting an economy underdeveloped by its colonial roots, and more and more and more including you, and including, right now, Black people across the globe and in all those communities that are exposed to death at the highest rates under colonial occupation, imperialism, White supremacy and capitalism as a whole system.
My circle includes large numbers of people of colour and non-Black Muslims with whom I wanted to share this message specifically. Always, but especially in light of George Floyd’s murder and the unbearably clear insight that the nation-state with all its policing apparatus is unjustified and lethal, we must assess where we are complicit or silent within the mansion/fortress of oppression and we must detach ourselves from it and exit it in order to help dismantle it. I pray that this desire to think through South Asian peoples’ complicity in the dehumanisation and murder of Black people is not performative self-flagellation or an indulgence, I truly believe it is a political necessity in a moment when it is more clear than ever that capitalism and Whiteness are restrategising and we, seemingly, are not. None of us will be free until all Black people globally and locally are free. If we haven’t already, it is high time to commit to this lifelong struggle against White Supremacy and the abolition of the nation-state with all its policing and colonial apparatus.
“O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do.”
[Surah al-Nisa: 135]