I’ve spent the last week in somewhat of a weird daze. I found it really hard to concentrate on anything, and spent hours scrolling through Instagram. On 9th June, my Instagram was a sea of black. Everyone I follow was either posting black squares, or asking people not to post black squares, or yelling about how posting black squares was ‘performative wokeness.’ My Instagram has been flooded, as has my news feed, as has every single lame-ass piece of marketing — right from Spotify to my vegetable delivery that says, “We must stand against injustice. We must fight racism.”
I didn’t post a square because I had lots of friends pointing out why I shouldn’t. Amongst them was a huge section of my Indian friends saying that it wasn’t alright to call out racism in the US when people have kept silent about racism and discrimination in India. At my old workplace, we called this “whataboutism”. Some people are dying, but what about this issue? We need to end torture, sure, but what about Kashmir? And it’s a fair point, but also, kind of not. If you’ve seen the debate for why we shouldn’t say ‘All Lives Matter’ — it’s a very similar idea.
Sure, all lives do matter, but right now, it is the African-American community who needs the attention, because Black lives are in danger. Their lives have been systematically targeted, and in America, there is a very specific history that has contributed to their oppression. We don’t need to co-opt it for an Indian cause right now.
It’s possible that toppling racial inequality will have repercussions on the world, India included. Our worship of all things White comes from the world power that influences every aspect of our culture. If we truly have racial equality in the USA, it is possible that it will also become the norm —much like the Nike shoes and Apple iPhones. Dismantling the structures of inequality in the US will have repercussions on white supremacy everywhere. But speaking out about Black lives when you haven’t said anything about other issues in India doesn’t necessarily make you a hypocrite.
By all measures, I’m pretty ‘woke.’ I have read all the anti-racist books that are now sold out online, and watched Ava Duvernay’s documentaries the moment they came out. I honestly felt just a tiny bit smug about my wokeness. I actively read Black authors and had difficult conversations with family and friends about racial and structural inequality.
I am an ally, but I didn’t use to be. I used to be the person who was a part of several racist conversations. In college, I made a racial slur at a bar once, until my now-husband sat with me calmly and explained why that wasn’t alright. I have actively taken part in them, not knowing any better, and kept silent when I should have called it out. I’ve also sometimes just not noticed.
In high school, I said something about a friend with darker skin, which still makes my stomach churn in guilt. I’m so ashamed of it. I had said those things not because I was an evil child, but because I didn’t understand that my actions were part of a much bigger problem. And why would I? I have benefitted all my life from white supremacy.
I speak English, have lived and worked abroad, and self-loathed my Asian skin. I have laughed at jokes in good nature that I didn’t fully understand. I have always been part of the problem. The way our world is currently set up, whiteness is an ideal to aspire for. Everything from the language we speak, to the food we eat, the news we consume, or the types of clothes we wear, are in some way, shape or form influenced by whiteness.
There is an idea that being white is better than anything else. It does not mean white people are bad. It means for thousands of years, the world has reshaped itself to favour white people. As Indians, we kind of half-benefit from this. Sometimes, this system benefits us as Indians, and when it does, we are 100% complicit in perpetuating white supremacy. When it doesn’t, we shrug at ‘racism.’ The thing about racism or any kind of oppression is that it thrives in secrecy.
There was an incident years ago when my sister and I sat down at a table in a restaurant in Europe, and the waitress took away all the cutlery, making it clear they didn’t want us there. I remember how painful and humiliated we felt. I’ve never been able to talk about it with my parents, because I know they would feel shame and embarrassment.
Somehow, the bubble of privilege of having a fair skin and money in India had popped in this strange place. When communities are oppressed, they lose access to the structures that allow them to use their voice. They start to collectively keep their heads down, and hide to keep quiet, because it’s easier than speaking up and drawing attention to themselves. I know this because I’ve been that person.
I am a Muslim. In India, the anti-Muslim sentiment isn’t new. I am a part of a community that is always at the bottom of the pyramid, and has been so for a very long time. A Muslim man once told me, “Being called a terrorist is just the reality of life for a Muslim boy in India.” A friend’s mother once asked me if I believed in God, and I blurted out ‘no’ before I could think. My sister once said it’s kind of like having a “green touch.” You get mutton-eating jokes and learn to laugh them off. I’m the unwanted, the wretched, the invader, and the loathed — but I am also not. I am rich and speak English, and I have been privileged for having fair skin in a country that takes pride in it.
I am the Muslim, you’re still okay with, because I’m not like “other Muslims.” I don’t have to deal with the humiliation and fear that millions of Muslims do, because they are Muslims in a country that is right now more divided than ever. The thing about discrimination is that it is humiliating and hurtful. It impacts people so deeply that they lose their self-worth. They start believing they don’t have a voice, that they don’t have anything good enough to say.
They keep their heads down, and when the angry white waitress takes away their cutlery, they don’t ask their parents why. Shame is passed down through generations, so you learn to hide, keep your head down and not draw attention to your Muslim-ness. I am not the perfect ally because I am often, by virtue of my privilege, far removed from the context. But I want to be a better ally.
It is only in recent years that I have made an active effort in saying that I am a Muslim, point this out to others, and do the work to take pride in it — I’ve been able to do this only now, when I understand that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Being able to do this has come after years of patience in safe spaces to discuss why I was ashamed of being a Muslim, and the time and space — to air my opinion and iron out the creases, voice my truth in a safe space, and confront myself that being thought of as less of an Indian has been a painful part of my childhood and growing up.
Maybe, just maybe, being able to speak up for Black lives will initiate the powerful process of questioning who you are. It allows you to have a take — a messy opinion that is spilling over the edges of family social circles, seeping under the rugs at casual drinks with friends, and plopping in hot, messy splodges across your social media.
It forces you to refine what you think, how you think, and question where it comes from. It encourages you to look within yourself and introspect. Most importantly, it gives you something to believe in, to stand by, to say, and the confidence to know that you can.
As Indians, our support and international solidarity is not to be undermined. We are at a critical point in time — as people of colour, we can bring a fresh wave of support to the movement. We can underline the issues of structural racism and white supremacy, and step back to create and honour Black voices.
Simply, we are stronger together. When we stand in solidarity with others, we pave the way to be able to speak up for other issues closer to home. We get better at speaking up with practice. We question our motives with a dialogue. We learn when we have discussions with people who are polar opposites of us. And we do so by being humble, willing to listen, open, and empathetic. Our smugness over our “wokeness” will get us nowhere.
Indian outrage has its place and we must commit to fighting oppression with everything we have. But dismantling the structures of inequality in the US will have repercussions for white supremacy everywhere. If you really are an ally, get on and do the work. I hope today, you call out ‘Black Lives Matter’. And I hope tomorrow, you look inside and question what you believe in. I hope one day ,your opinion runs like distilled water into a polished glass, measured, thoughtful and crystal clear. And one day, I hope you take that opinion and pour it burning-hot all over oppression, everywhere.