Unfixing South Asian identity: beyond the politics of allyship

The past and present of anti-racist struggle in Britain shows that solidarity between oppressed groups is much more powerful than discourses of ‘allyship’ allow for. The most effective anti-racist strategy will draw together all those affected or repulsed by racism in a common struggle to overcome it and the system that sustains it.

Protestors sit down outside a police station at the Battle for Brick Lane in 1978
Protestors sitting down outside a police station at the Battle for Brick Lane in 1978.

I.

In the weeks after the murder of George Floyd by the US police, protests and riots spread rapidly across the US and the world. How fitting that the grim legacy of the imperialist plunder of Africa should give rise to a movement that shook the world in a matter of days. As would be expected from such a global revolt, different parts of the world saw different local issues merge with demands over police killings in the US. Here in Britain, at the heart of the old colonial order, protests took place in over 260 locations, not only in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US but also confronting the British state’s own colonial and imperialist legacy and ongoing racial oppression of Black people.

The names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were joined by those of Sean Rigg and Mark Duggan, and others who have died at the hands of the police in Britain. People demanded justice for Belly Mujinga, a Black railway worker who had died of Covid-19 after reportedly being spat upon by a customer while at work. In Bristol, a city that had been at the heart of the transatlantic slave trade, a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was torn down by a multiracial coalition of protesters, who promptly dragged the statue to the harbor and tossed it into the water below.

The movement has also led to a resurgence of discussions of strategies for combating racism. In Britain, the question of how we overcome racism throughout society has been posited sharply: on the one hand, we have seen militant protests uniting people against police brutality, providing the possibility of a fundamental challenge to the racist power structures of the state; on the other, we have seen calls for ‘unconscious bias training’ from the new and decidedly mainstream leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, no less, who promised to attend an online course lasting ‘two or three hours.’ More importantly though, some have called upon racialised groups in Britain to deal with their own manifestations of racism, particularly among South Asians. This went beyond the obvious point of challenging racism where it manifests in our families and social groups. South Asians, we were told, benefit from the structures of racism, and so confronting our own internalised anti-Black racism was our central task.

Such calls have also been placed upon Asian-Americans, with one viral video made by an Asian American shopkeeper calling on people like him to donate time and money to Black causes. Yet throughout the video, the shopkeeper repeatedly refers to a ‘we’ – a ‘we’ that has remained silent in the face of the oppression of Black people. As well-meaning as the maker of this video surely is, I am assuming that the ‘we’ to which he refers is not shopkeepers.

In what follows, I use the case of Britain to show that communities of colour can go beyond these introspective positions, seeing our role in the anti-racist struggle as merely being ‘allies,’ to show that there is an alternative rooted in a history of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles that forged common bonds of solidarity between Black and Asian people at the sharp end of racism. This history provides a lesson that we can assert another ‘we,’ one that does not evoke difficult memories of presumed and ascribed racial identities for those of us who do not neatly fit into the roles expected of so-called model minorities.

 

II.

I came to Britain with my parents in December 2001. I was born in Kerala in South India and was raised by my grandparents until I was seven, while my parents worked as migrants in Oman. I joined my parents there for seven years before they decided that we should move to Britain so that my brother and me could receive a better education. My mother was a nurse and the NHS was always in search of nurses from around the world.

When I arrived, the only school that had a vacancy for me to join in the middle of Year 9 was a few miles away from home. I got in after passing an English and Maths test. One of my first experiences at school was of trying to be friendly with a group of Asian kids from my year. There were about seven Asians and two Black students in the class. My one and only interaction with the Asian group was when someone asked me what my caste was; I anxiously responded that I was brought up a Christian. After that, they wouldn’t talk to me.

My experiences at school had been very painful. I would be scared to wait for the bus because there were a few boys that would come and speak to me in funny accents. There were a few instances where they spat on me and called me a ‘Paki,’ which at the time I naively justified it by telling myself it means Pakistani and they don’t know that I am from a different country. I would not be able to relax at home since my parents were also struggling to be in this country in their own ways. I was often reminded of my roots and where I came from as their main worry was that I would forget the language. At school all I wanted to do was forget my roots and shed every sound and inflection that made me feel like I was an outsider. All of this had been internalised since there was no one to speak to about it all.

Mine is not an exceptional experience. There are many stories like this, and a lot of them are much worse.

On a fundamental level, I felt thrown into a world with which I was familiar but could not understand. I was a ‘freshy,’ a ‘migrant,’ ‘Paki,’ ‘Indian,’ or ‘Asian’ at school and a ‘Malayalee’ or a ‘Christian’ at home. These identities were ascribed onto me and I never got to choose my own. I was not able to express my problems with these identities nor interrogate them, so I stayed within the boundaries of my new identities and dreamt of getting out of there after school. It was only much later that I was able to figure out that my community was not based on my racial identity but rather that it was made up by the people I studied, worked, and organised with.

The pain of being trapped within identities, stereotypes, and inscriptions meant that I spent my life’s journey undoing and unpacking them and forming a more complex understanding of my relationship with race, sexuality, history, and the state. Therefore, when the conversations about dealing with anti-Blackness in the South Asian community emerged, I felt as though they were again boxing me into an identity of being a specific kind of South Asian, that my role was to intervene in a community of South Asians. Again, I was being misrecognised based on my racialization. Who comprises this South Asian community?

 

III.

The idea of a static or homogenous South Asian community is a reactionary one. South Asians have moved to Britain for decades, bringing with them different cultural, religious, and political traditions. They have come from, and moved into, very different class backgrounds. The workers and communists who founded the Indian Workers’ Association, the ‘twice migrants’ who moved to Britain from East Africa and were courted by Thatcher’s Tory Party, and more recent arrivals who have come to study or to work in the NHS. Parts of this community identify strongly as socialists and went through the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s that established a collective ‘politically Black’ identity among all those racialised by the British state. Others were and are convinced right-wingers.

In the run up to the general election in 2019, I was part of a group of socialists who were mobilised and sent to primarily South Asian areas to canvas for Corbyn. We understood that a far-right group, Overseas Friends of Bharatiya Janata Party UK, which supports the Narendra Modi government in India, were intervening in the election by spreading misinformation such as Corbyn being anti-Hindu and anti-India.

The hard-right Prime Minister of India, Modi, is known to use Hindu nationalism to systematically oppress Muslims. During the election, this group used Indian identity interchangeably with Hindu identity and Kashmir was used as a political tool to create divisions within the diaspora. At the doorstep, we were confronted with hate from conservative and far-right Indians. It is no coincidence that this technique of divide and rule was also employed by the British in India, where they pitted Muslims against Hindus.

The idea of a South Asian identity needs to be interrogated further, since it rarely takes into account Muslims, Punjabis, South Indians, Christians, Dalits, and the many different identities imposed upon us. Too often ‘South Asian’ can be used interchangeably with ‘Indian,’ a problem because it doesn’t include the experiences of Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, nor other recent migrants from the Subcontinent. Furthermore, British Muslims, who are primarily from South Asian backgrounds, experience extreme state racism under anti-terror laws and the Prevent programme, as well as hate crimes from racists and the far-right.

A recent article in Vice argued that while there had been unity between Black and brown people in the 1970s, the development of a South Asian middle class and the rise of Islamophobia had divided these communities. But the majority of South Asians are not middle class; they are working class. The lowest paid ethnic groups in Britain are Bangladeshi and Pakistani, who are themselves overwhelmingly of the Muslim faith. The danger in the generalizing narratives of South Asian anti-Blackness is that a particular experience of one middle-class strata is presumed to be the norm across people of South Asian origin.

This cannot be the basis for an effective anti-racist strategy.

 

IV.

The notion of a South Asian community is further complicated by recent reports from Leicester of the retailer Boohoo, co-founded by the Kamani brothers, who were alleged to be paying their workers as little as £3.50 an hour. They were forcing people to work even when they were sick and refusing to provide proper equipment during the pandemic. How do we confront questions of race and class in a context where the employers are South Asian and where most of the workers are also South Asians living on the sharp end of racism and exploitation?

Fundamentally, the state’s tactics of divide-and-rule grow out of the way in which capitalism generates the requirement for different kinds of workers, workers that can be employed for low pay, and on worse terms and conditions. This requires not only migrant populations in Britain but the exploitation of low-paid workers along supply chains stretching across the world. Thus, to be consistent anti-racists we must be anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. When we say that we reject racism in Britain, in our workplaces and our streets, we must also reject the racist structures in India and elsewhere. The common struggles faced by racialised working-class people were important in fighting racism in the past.

As Arsalan S. points out, in the 1960s and ’70s, the Indian Workers’ Association ‘did not strive for unity among Indians from all classes. They supported strikes by workers, even when the employer was Indian, and in some cases even when they were IWA members.’ In their struggle to unite Black and Asian workers, they sought support from across the community ‘but not at the cost of taking the soft line preferred by many of the middle-class immigrants.’

Our struggle against racism must similarly seek to raise people to a higher level of understanding of these processes. Rather than reducing racism to a psychical effect that is experienced on an individual or community basis, we need to understand how it operates as part of capitalist exploitation. Our tactics cannot be tailored towards an internalised conversation within an imagined community but instead should be aimed at drawing together all those affected or repulsed by racism in a common struggle to overcome it and the system that sustains it.

 

V.

The idea of uniting is not abstract or wishy-washy. Unity is not a static thing, or the denial of difference between people and groups, but rather a process in which we are always becoming through struggles. For example, in Anandi Ramamurthy’s Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movement, Mukhtar Dar remembers how identities were in a state of flux as people found the unity required to fight racism. He recollects:

I was there in Pakistan when the war between India and Pakistan took place, …our village was very close to an oil refinery, and the oil refinery got painted, so there was a lot of nationalism, patriotism, that I grew up in… All I knew was India was this horrible place, which denied our very existence as Pakistanis. So when I arrived in England I just couldn’t understand why my father was staying with Indians and Sikhs.

Ramamurthy continues: ‘Mukhtar ended up having a fight with a young Sikh boy before understanding the very different conditions of Britain that demanded new alliances.’ What strikes me about this is the honesty about the effects of the partition but also the necessity of reconfiguring divisions in a way that did not disavow differences. It rather stressed the importance of unfixing identities according to our shifting social relations. At a time when the organization and self-activity of the working class, i.e., those that must sell their labor to make a living, are weakest, as socialists we need to find ways to build solidarities. We can only be free when we organise all parts of the working class, particularly its oppressed sections.

We can learn from our histories of struggle in order to move beyond some of the current discourse on anti-racism. Sivanandan explains that multi-ethnic solidarity ‘had been created in the post-war years by a culture of resistance to racism in the factories and the neighbourhoods of the inner cities to which Afro-Caribbeans and Asians had been condemned to work and live’. There were many practical examples of this solidarity. For example, in 1980 South Asian youths set up a campaign called the Gary Pemberton Defence Campaign, in support of a Black security guard who was charged with assaulting a police officer. The campaign exposed the criminalisation of Black people and after much mobilisation during his appeal Gary Pemberton won his case.

In Britain today, we still see the potential for this solidarity in the estates where buildings like the Grenfell Tower stand, and in the united community response to that crime for which the racist British state stands responsible. We see it in the Peach E16 campaign in Newham, East London, that won a 60 percent reduction in rent for a community of working-class residents of social housing, Black, brown and white, after a four-year struggle. We see it on the diverse picket lines of Tower Hamlets local government workers, striking against the council’s attacks on terms and conditions that would disproportionately impact Black and Asian women. And we see it everywhere in the huge multiracial protests for Black lives across the world.

The right delights in dividing people into fixed identities that generate hate as well as a hierarchy of oppression. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon described practices of colonial divide-and-rule as ‘the racial distribution of guilt.’ In India today, the BJP pits a Hindu nationalism against a Muslim ‘other.’ Governments led by the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson would be delighted if the challenge to divide-and-rule in the US and Britain was limited to solipsistic self-reflection or challenging attitudes over the dinner table. If we were to fight racism as a multi-ethnic collective, they wouldn’t know what hit them.

 

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