Whenever I suggest this I’m often met with looks of confusion and I’m generally not taken very seriously, cue the question: “How can Indians be black? We’re brown.”
For a long time, I wasn’t aware that anyone who isn’t white is automatically classed as black – politically speaking. This includes south Asians, east Asians, south Americans, native Americans, Africans, Caribbeans, people of mixed heritage etc. It’s a large and problematic umbrella term, especially when people are trying to balance an ethnic heritage with a national identity.
“Why does this even matter to us in this day and age? Things aren’t as bad as they were when the first bunch of immigrants came over and made a life for themselves! Be glad you’re here, because back in your motherland things are so much more worse.” These are just a few of the blindingly ignorant statements that I hear whenever I try to discuss my ethnic heritage in a British space – it’s dismissed and not taken into account. For a long time I thought that I was the only person who thought about this sort of thing, but thanks to the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick I soon discovered that there were millions of Asians around the world who felt the same way that I do and have done for many years.
Last month I wrote a post about where I’m from and how much of an impact it had on how I view myself today. I was one of a handful of south Asian girls in my secondary school; it got quite lonely sometimes and I didn’t really fit in anywhere. Whenever a teacher mentioned something about “Hindoooism” or “Indiaaa” (yes that’s how they pronounced it) I was met with a sea of ignorant eyes expecting me to come out with richly embroidered tales of how my family rode elephants in India, a never ending plethora of knowledge about India and Indian culture. They’d ask me if I knew the waiters at their local Indian restaurant, if I could speak “Indian” to them and if I preferred India to Britain – despite the fact that I’m British, have never been to India and have 3-4 generations of my family in East Africa.
But the icing on the cake was when Black History Month (BHM) rolled around. Every October, for a month, we learnt and celebrated the achievements of notable black people who’d made a difference in the world. Or perhaps I should say, the white world. I find BHM slightly problematic: on one hand it’s great to see the achievements of black people being celebrated and recognised. However, one month a year is pathetic considering Britain’s history and relationship with many previously colonised nations. Photos of Nelson Mandela, Dr Martin L King, Rosa Parks, Mary Seacole and Malcolm X were splashed out on display boards with their inspiring actions in captions underneath for all to read. So far so good, these are people that I personally look to for inspiration, but I couldn’t see anyone whom I could relate to. Was I not a part of BHM because I wasn’t African or Caribbean? I definitely wasn’t white so where did I fit in? I didn’t understand why there weren’t any Asians being featured in BHM – should there have been an Asian History Month?
I didn’t get it for a long time, my roots hail from the Punjab and Punjabis are fiercely proud of their history and heritage. I grew up on stories about the bravery of Mai Bhago, the strength of Bhagat Singh and seeing countless images of women being empowered in my religion. Yet no one else seemed to realise this; to the outsider we were just a group of people who stood in a quiet limbo, wanting to get on with our lives and put up with everyday discrimination.
It wasn’t until my final year of university where I studied modules that focused on literature written by black British writers that things suddenly began to make sense. It was like I’d found a missing jigsaw piece and something had clicked. Indians are black, at least in accordance to the political definition at the start of this post. At one point we were even called “niggers” and “coons” because they had lumped non-whites into the same group. Obviously nowadays, there are options for you to pick with regards to your ethnic heritage.
Asians deserve to have their achievements, their heritage, their history and their culture celebrated in the same way that we revere the actions of Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Dr ML King etc. Asian history, heritage and culture matters just as much as any other culture in the world because it is about people and how humans choose to record their experiences of life. We are a part of post-colonialism’s continuing story and a big part of that is acknowledging different histories, groups of people, their cultures and what they have to offer to the world.