British South Asians Speak Out About Anti-Black Racism Within Their Communities

As the Black Lives Matter movement demands change, British south Asians have been calling for their own friends and families to address Afriphobia, too.

“Anti-Blackness is in our history and customs through wealth, inequality and casteism, colourism and, later, colonialism.”

Journalist Sharan Dhaliwal is discussing anti-Black racism within south Asian communities in the UK – particularly in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has gained momentum during 2020 fuelled by police violence towards Black people.

Journalist Sharan Dhaliwal
Journalist Sharan Dhaliwal
Sharan Dhaliwal

“There has still been solidarity,” Dhaliwal told HuffPost UK. “But there have been many noticeable moments of anti-Blackness, whether it’s the N-word, microaggressions using Black vernacular or profiting off Black creativity.”

It is 43 years this week since the Race Relations Act became law in the UK, largely thanks to the efforts of Black campaigners.

The act finally gave some limited protection to Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people who faced discrimination in employment, the provision of goods and services, education and public functions.

But just as it failed to prevent systemic racism by white people, it also failed to prevent Afriphobia among other ethnic groups, too.

“It can be seen across many white and non-white people of colour communities,” said Dhaliwal. “Within the south Asian [community] I am in, I have seen it a lot.”

Dhaliwal is not alone in calling this out: British south Asians have stood side-by-side with anti-racist protesters of all backgrounds, as well as writing frankly about addressing their own internalised anti-Black racism. And people with south Asian heritage are, of course, victims of white supremacy too.

Colonial systems

Afriphobia within south Asian communities likely has its origins in the colonial system in Africa.

Africa’s then white colonial rulers placed themselves at the top of the social system, with south Asian workers serving as a buffer for commerce and administration. It was a deliberate move by the hierarchy to divide and conquer. South Asians placed in Africa were also given land and a large share of commercial trade in east Africa.

In 1963 Kenya gained independence from the UK, and the ruling African majority gave Asians two years to acquire Kenyan citizenship.

Fewer than 20,000 submitted before the deadline, fuelling growing animosity and distrust from Africans, who considered them to be disloyal. A policy of “Africanisation” was introduced and many Asians were sacked from their jobs and replaced by Africans.

The introduction of the Kenyan Immigration act required Asians to obtain work permits, while the Trade Licensing Act limited the areas in which Asians could trade. Many left Kenya and resettled in the UK.

In 1972 Uganda’s then president, General Idi Amin, announced the expulsion of “any person who is of Asian origin extraction or descent” as part of an “economic war on foreign exploitation” after he accused the population of disloyalty, non-integration and commercial malpractice. Amin defended the expulsion by arguing that he was “giving Uganda back to ethnic Ugandans”.

Over 27,000 south Asians were expelled from Uganda. Many settled in culturally diverse areas of the UK: London, Leicester and Birmingham were particularly popular.

But divisions persisted in Britain.

White families and affluent Caribbeans first began to move away from the Lozells area of Handsworth in Birmingham in the mid-1980s as south Asians settled and made an economic base for themselves – much to the annoyance of Caribbean traders, who saw their customer bases shrink as south Asian businesses grew.

On October 22, 2005, tensions boiled over in the first of two days’ civil unrest between Black and south Asian communities. It followed the alleged gang rape of a teenage Black girl by a group of Asian men, triggering protests and peaceful demonstrations urging Black people to boycott all south Asian businesses in the area.

But events quickly escalated, shops were attacked and police were pelted with bricks and bottles. Twenty-three-year-old IT support worker Isaiah Young-Sam, an innocent bystander, was targeted by a group of Asian men and stabbed to death, while 18-year-old Aaron James was accidentally shot by his friend whilst allegedly fleeing from police during the disturbances.

Police take to the streets during a second night of violence in Lozells, Birmingham, in October 2005
Police take to the streets during a second night of violence in Lozells, Birmingham, in October 2005

Speaking to the Guardian in 2005 about the riots, Maxie Hayles – who chaired the now-defunct Birmingham Racial Attacks Monitoring Group – said: “The problem transcends economics. Afro-Caribbeans have been spending in Asian shops for many years now, but they don’t give them enough respect. They don’t employ Black people in their shops and it’s about the way they treat their customers – the way they look at them.”

His words were echoed by Dhaliwal, who told HuffPost UK this week: “Unifying the communities shouldn’t be the forefront of the struggle for Black people. It should be for south Asian people to take accountability and move forward. Although this is happening greatly with bubbles in the community and from younger generations there is still a lot more work to do.

“Anti-Blackness is inherent in many non-Black communities and with south Asians, until we all recognise it within us to work on it, we won’t be able to move forward.

“I think the Asian community should do more. You have to stand up for things that are wrong. If you don’t, nothing will ever change.”

What it’s like having both African and Asian heritage

Earlier this year, a British south Asian caller to LBC’s Majid Nawaz’s weekend show implored the South Asian community to do more to support and show solidarity towards the black community.

A mother of mixed-race children, she said they had experienced more anti-Black racism from their own community than from outside it, and that there was a strong need for change.

I think Asian people only claim the Race Relations Act when it suits them,” says Amarah, 17, a third generation British student from north London whose family is Pakistani and Black Caribbean.

“I’ve seen it many times. They are like: ’I’m a person of colour, so I should be able to have this, things like certain jobs, but Black people can’t have the same thing as me because I am better than them.”

Amarah first became aware of ”subtle” anti-Black racism within her own family two years ago.

“I watched the movie The Hate U Give [a 2018 film about the aftermath of a Black high school student witnessing a police shooting] and afterwards they started making racist jokes about the character, and said Black people get stopped on the street because they are all criminals anyway, and I thought: ‘OK, this isn’t normal.’”

As she got older and began to surround herself with more Black people, she quickly realised these were not jokes but racist comments.

Just before she went on her first march, she decided to call her Asian side of the family out. “I said to them: ‘You are not doing enough to support me at this difficult time.’”

Since then, they have made small gestures of support for BLM, she says. But she feels they are still at times ignorant to the situation.

“They will post on social media in solidarity for things like Blackout Tuesday – and then straight after, they will continue to make insensitive jokes and say the N-word,” she said.

For her, the most frustrating thing is that family members consume Black culture, but stay silent or even spread misinformation when it comes to Black suffering. “They say stuff like they [Black people] weren’t the only ones – Indian people were slaves too so they should get over it. They are just oblivious to the whole BLM and really believe it doesn’t affect them.”

She added: “What annoys me the most is that they will claim to be a person of colour until they have to stand in solidarity with a Black person of colour. I have tried to educate my family and I post a lot about BLM on social media but, sadly, I don’t think it’s getting through.”

Adil Sheikh and a friend, from east London, at a Black Lives Matter protest from Parliament Square to Downing Street in June
Adil Sheikh and a friend, from east London, at a Black Lives Matter protest from Parliament Square to Downing Street in June

‘I wouldn’t go on a BLM march’

Ali, a first generation British Asian, believes the BLM movement has been “created to divide the whole community – Blacks, Asians and Whites”.

“They say it’s for Black people, to create more opportunities for them, and they encourage us to go on marches to support them. But if we do that, white people are going to think: ‘We matter too.’”

The 45-year-old businessman admits he is finding it difficult to support the movement. “Black lives matter,” he said, “but equally all lives matter and the reality is it’s the same people, white people, that enslaved Black people that are now saying Black lives matter.”

Ali believes the BLM movement gives people a false sense of power, and thinks that all people should be treated equally.

“We are all humans and we should all be treated equally and when I say all lives matter, I am going through the Islamic way,” he said.

“The majority of my friends are Black, but I wouldn’t go on a BLM march to show solidarity.”

Asked why, he replied: “Would a Black man come with me on a Pakistani Lives Matter march? No, and I know he wouldn’t.”

Ali feels the protests and marches are a tactic “to create hatred and disunity between the cultures”.

“The BLM movement is not a good idea at all, to be honest,” he said, “and I don’t think that Asian people have benefited from the Race Relations Act either.”

Ali used the example of his brother, a scholar who tried for a long time to get a job without success before resubmitting an application under an English name and receiving an offer within hours.

‘Blacks, whites and Asians all standing together’

Adil Sheikh, 25, believes many Asian people have benefited from the Race Relations Act without acknowledging the efforts Black people made to make it law in the UK – among them, people such as Paul Stephenson who were behind the Bristol bus boycott.

Historic England

Adil’s anger following the death of George Floyd in the US made him want to show solidarity to the BLM movement here in the UK. Despite the country being in the grip of coronavirus lockdown, he protested alongside other BLM demonstrators in Parliament Square in June.

But his parents, he says, initially opposed his decision to help.

“I sat down with my parents and told them that I was going to be involved,” he said. “I’m going out there in the middle of a pandemic. They needed to know why I was going to support the cause and to make sure that my own household is on the same wavelength as me – because if they weren’t I had to educate them.”

His dad’s experience growing up in the UK was much more segregated than his, and Adil said it took some time to convince him that BLM was a good cause.

Adil Sheikh, who spoke to his own family about their anti-Black prejudice
Adil Sheikh, who spoke to his own family about their anti-Black prejudice
Adil Sheikh

“He was apprehensive,” he said. “He remembers, growing up, the clashes between racial groups. He said: ‘Would a Black man stand up for you?’ But we reasoned and I got through to him in the end.

“My mother is Pakistani and my father is Moroccan. I’m still heavily involved in the Asian culture but I identify more with my Moroccan culture because I see similarities with the Black culture.

“When I was at college my friends at that time were mostly Asian. What I noticed was the segregated racial groups. I felt pressure to stick to a side, but I didn’t want to be defined by one racial group and from then on I have always tried to have a diverse mix of friends.”

Adil said he felt it was his duty to dispel myths about south Asian communities’ lack of solidarity with Black people.

He said: “When I was there, at the BLM march, I felt a sense of togetherness. There were Blacks, whites and Asians all standing together trying to fight the injustices of racism.”


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