Understanding Colourism

In this, the second article written by Aryia Harar, attention is paid to the meaning and significance of colourism, its relationship with racism, and it's perpetuation. It does so by focusing on anti-blackness in South Asian communities.

Colourism is a form of discrimination rooted in internalised racism among people of colour. It systemically oppresses those with a darker skin tone and ensures the unearned privileges of those with lighter skin within the same race. The strong prevalence of colourism in South Asia was originally enforced by the eternalised and brutal legacy of British colonialism in India, in which our differences were used to divide and conquer. Unfortunately, this legacy of colonialism and British imperialism resulted in the creation of a system that upholds the discrimination and deprivation of dark-skinned people in the South Asian diaspora.

The history of colourism in South Asian communities originally began with the implementation of the caste system, which was used to categorise and classify people. The Indian Caste System began in 1500BC and is still engrained within Asian communities today as it disadvantages certain groups of people, particularly those with a darker skin tone. This is because people belonging to the ‘lower’ castes tended to work in direct sunlight whilst doing manual labour. This stereotype created a link between poverty and darker skin.

On the other hand, those in the ‘higher’ castes tended to be wealthier and fairer, creating the false distinction between power, intelligence, and beauty with fair skin. Furthermore, this manifested the deceitful and prejudiced concept that lighter skin was superior and darker skin was associated with disease, poverty, and illiteracy. Additionally, these beliefs were further enforced and developed by British colonisers.

The Caste System upholds the discrimination and stigmatisation of dark-skinned people and ensures the advantages and idolisation of those with fair skin. Throughout the prolonged period of British colonialism in India, this system was reinforced to divide and conquer to maintain power to exploit India. For example, Dalits – also known as the ‘untouchables’ - are one of the lowest groups in the caste system and are frequently perceived as impure and are abused for having darker skin. The brutal gang rape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in India revealed the extent of colourism and how the caste system can greatly harm and oppress people.

This is not a rare occurrence. In 2019, ten Dalit women were raped per day. Additionally, Dr. Suraj Yengde, author of "Caste Matters" has emphasised how casteism has guaranteed the hatred and exploitation of Dalit women, by stating that

"The Dalit female belongs to the most oppressed group in the world... She is a victim of the cultures, structures, and institutions of oppression, both externally and internally. This manifests in perpetual violence against Dalit women."

Overall, this illustrates how colourism is so deeply entrenched in South Asia that people are willing to inflict sexual violence upon those whom they deem as ‘inferior’.

Not only is colourism and the caste system so prominent in the 21st century, but it is greatly harmful towards our black counterparts. For example, Sharmin Hossain is the political director of Equality Labs which is an organisation that intends to defeat the caste system, Islamophobia and white supremacy, and religious intolerance states that:

"...the hierarchy and impunity that comes with the culture of caste discrimination in our home countries shapes so much of our relationships with black communities in the UK and the US."

As a result of a prolonged history of conditioning people into viewing light skin are superior, anti-blackness has become increasingly more apparent across the South Asian diaspora meaning that colourism sustains anti blackness. Additionally, the Editor-in-Chief of Burnt Roti Magazine - Sharan Dhaliwal - highlights that Black experiences are not the same as that of any other person of colour.

"We can't and should not compare, especially since we ourselves have and can continue to be the cause of many of these issues. Let's not forget the police officer who watched as George Floyd died was [East] Asian."

This depicts how South Asians a closer proximity to whiteness, which some utilise to unjustly treat black people as inferior beings.

Furthermore, Dhruva Balram, an Indian-Canadian journalist stated that:

"South Asians use the N-word to exploit black culture for their own gain while slipping into these clothes of whiteness to further themselves in education or financially."

Gandhi's anti-Blackness and extremely racist remarks get buried so much, but how he treated his own citizens came from a very patriarchal Hindu supremacist upper caste mentality. I would love to see Gandhi’s statue toppled just as much as the slave traders in the UK.’ Therefore, not only are we complicit in anti-blackness but heavily perpetuate and exude these behaviours, which preserves anti-blackness and racism.

Overall, the majority of those in the South Asian diaspora have either experienced or perpetuated colourism, allowing anti-blackness to be rife in our community. Despite colourism being deeply entrenched within South Asians, we should all be making an active effort to unlearn our subconscious biases and educate ourselves to become better allies to our black counterparts. Therefore, understanding the depth of colourism and defeating it is fundamental in tackling the anti-blackness which is indeed prominent within the South Asian Diaspora.

Aryia Harar
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