It’s a blazing hot summer afternoon in 2000. I am 16, getting my hair braided by my friend’s older sister from high school. We’re sitting in the sunroom of a semi-detached home in the northwest corner of Scarborough. She combs through my Indian mane, smoking a spliff in between hair sections and tending to her two-year-old, as we bop our heads to a Mary J. Blige track in the background.
“You have a lot of hair,” she remarks, as two hours turn into four. I pay her $25 and keep the braids for a month. At school, the braids are a hit in the hallways paired with my Rocawear jumpsuit, which I later used to dress up as Flavor Flav for Halloween.
On my way to class, I pass the social hotspots in our high school. The bench is occupied by the “white girls,” the hill by the “Black girls,” and the halls by the “Asian girls.” I greet each group differently, unconsciously switching my language from “heyyy” to “heyy gyal,” and adapting my body language. I run with the “brown girls” — and we move in between worlds together, wearing blackness, brownness and whiteness depending on where we are and who we are speaking with; blindly participating in a charade under an apolitical mirage of race realities.
Inside the classroom, my language changes. Patois slang is replaced with the colonized English expected of a “good student” deserving of high grades and student council positions. At home, I am either rebelling against my family’s cultural and religious values or obedient to them, with my head in the books and arms rolling round rotis in service of a future, imaginary husband. When my parents see my braids, they say I look “kaala” — the Gujarati word for “Black” — often used pejoratively when a brown girl gets too much sun. My parents’ friends come over and remind me to look for a good boy, but joke no “BMWs” — “Blacks, Muslims or whites.” When a girl from my temple announces her engagement to a Black man, there is hysteria amongst the aunties.
It is not until a decade after high school that I started to examine why my friends and I felt it was OK to adopt aspects of Black culture as social currency. Having had my political consciousness shaken by the high-profile police shootings of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Jermaine Carby in Brampton, Ont.; Andrew Loku in Toronto; and the sit-in of Black Lives Matter at Toronto’s Annual Pride Parade, I began confronting the reality of anti-Blackness within South Asian communities, and within me.
“High school was a confusing time for me in regards to race,” said Tiffany Stewart, 32, a former classmate of mine who I reconnected with. Now a digital marketing consultant in Toronto, Stewart shared how she experienced constant microaggressions as a Black woman amongst her friends who were predominantly South- and East-Asian.
“I would have friends make comments such as ‘I’m blacker than you’ because they used more slang than I did, or knew more lyrics to a popular rap song,” she said. This often spilled over into a casual use of the N-word, and “vernacular like ‘wha gwan’ or ‘man dem,’ even though they’ve never stepped foot in Jamaica.”
Some of Stewart’s friends would return from vacation with a tan and say, “I’m almost as dark as you now,” even though she was well aware that being darker was not their desire. “It was a really weird fetishism of blackness, but only because they could use it when it was convenient to them,” she shares. “Friends idolized acting ‘ghetto’ or ‘hood’ even though they lived in a five-bedroom house in the suburbs.”
As the saying goes, she remarks, “everyone wants our rhythm, but no one wants our blues.”
Within South Asian communities, not much has changed since my high school days. Just a few weeks ago at a South-Asian wedding I attended in Northern Ontario, the drop of a DMX song was accompanied by a collective drop of the N-word — an observation also made by former HuffPost Canada Lifestyle Editor, Arti Patel.
Earlier this year, Lilly Singh, YouTuber and comedian, became the first South Asian woman to host a late-night television show on NBC. Her self-made rise to fame, birthed in the bedroom of her parent’s home in Markham, has been an inspiration to South Asians across the globe. Even I find myself taken and in celebration of her courage.
However, as Tayo Bero wrote in the September issue of Teen Vogue, Lilly Singh’s debut is not a win for all women of colour. Singh’s selective use of Black cultural products, including language, fashion and hairstyles — and often for laughs — is performed presumably without having to experience any of the insidious racism that comes with being in a Black body.
Bero builds on the work of writer and anti-oppression consultant McKensie Mack, who compares Singh’s performative appropriation of blackness to “modern day blackface.” Academic Ryan Persadie and writer Sharine Taylor have also critiqued Singh, calling attention to her use and ownership over slang, such as “ting” and “walahee,” which originate from Caribbean and East African communities and are rooted in historical genealogies which inform their use. Just recently, Singh was featured in a video created by Vanity Fair on Canadian Slang, where she claimed “ting” as her favourite word.
Many argue that Lilly’s early upbringing in Scarborough, a borough of Toronto with a large Caribbean community, affords her the right to wear Blackness — the same argument I used for myself in high school and thereafter. However, as Persadie emphasizes in his work on the politics of brown mutuality, “exposure does not provide one with cultural access.”
In India, anti-Blackness is less discreet, existing within the continued practice of colourism across the country. Africans living in India are often the victims of mob attacks, home evictions and slurs, including “bandar,” meaning “monkey.” When I lived in South Delhi between 2011 and 2014, seeing African people getting passed over or abused by rickshaw drivers in Khirkee Village, where I attended contemporary dance classes, was a common and accepted occurrence.
South Asians have long taken a hall pass for critical examination of anti-Blackness within ourselves, our families and our communities. We have allowed ourselves to accept a “model minority” identity — a myth that, in this context, casts non-Black racial minorities as harder-working, smarter or more likely to succeed than Black people. In doing so, we have become beneficiaries and scapegoats in the perpetuation of anti-Blackness.
In fact, the model minority myth has been so pervasive, owing to American politicians and academics who helped popularize the notion, that contemporary forms of racism and exploitation against Asians in the workplace and within educational institutions are often ignored. “Since we as desis, are used as a weapon in the war against Black America, we must in good faith, refuse this role,” asserts historian and journalist Vijay Prashad, in his book, The Karma of Brown Folk.
Our collective neglect comes at a time when Black people are 20 times more likely than white people to be involved in a fatal shooting by the Toronto Police. Black people in Canada experience above-average unemployment, restricted access to housing, racial profiling in security, education and child welfare, and disproportionate and extreme poverty, under a system that preserves anti-Blackness. Canadian culture falsely prides itself on being the exception to racial injustice, despite playing a role in slavery dating back to the 16th century.
South Asians have an opportunity to demonstrate true allyship with our Black neighbours. In turn, we free ourselves from our own internalized white supremacy and begin to rewrite the narrative of our own diverse realities and cultural spaces in Canada. In holding leaders like Lilly Singh accountable, I recognize their power to influence the change needed within our communities.
The process may feel daunting. At times, it will be uncomfortable to confront your behaviours and biases. You may find yourself getting defensive (“Does this mean I can’t listen to rap music?”). This process is not about shaming for past transgressions, but rather a call to act to overcome the harmful, violent and ongoing impact of anti-Blackness. Lean on people who can gently hold each other accountable, consult progressive South Asian publications, such as Wear Your Voice, Kajal and A Colour Deep to learn more, and consider speaking or writing a letter to your family and community about anti-Blackness.
Though some may feel like they are losing parts of their identity, a perceived authenticity and connection to formative and fond years of their life, we must remember that the selective and reductive use of cultural products, and Blackness, can only ever be performative. And harmful.
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