Remember the 1990s? The era when Saudi-influenced political Islam had a strong hold on British South Asian Muslims and black Muslim women were told, in no uncertain terms, that their headwraps were categorically not hijab? Remember when ten years later a sizeable number of Asian women donned all manner of African-influenced headwraps without bothering to acknowledge the roots of their appropriated clothing?
I remember. I, like other countless South Asians, Africans and Caribbean people across the UK, add this cultural event to the ever-growing list of incidents, attitudes and appropriations practised by South Asians, which ignore, undermine and insult other minority groups. Top of the list, when it comes to Muslim-specific behaviours, is the much-referenced story of Bilal. His resilience and triumph over adversity has, for all intents and purposes, been co-opted by non-Black Muslims to impress on others our fair treatment of those we continue to oppress. While we repeat our sound bites about ‘equality in Islam’ and one ummah of all races, we keep schtum about the trans-Saharan slave trade; we choose to ignore rampant casual racism within our own communities ; and we shrug off our indifference at the seemingly unconquerable problem of looking down on Africans. Our attitudes of indifference and disdain towards black people have aided our ascent on the racial hierarchy in Britain. Success in the UK means reaching for an integrated anglicised ideal, and that include stepping on the backs of those who sit lower down the ladder than us.
I write as an Indian Brit, aware of the intricacies and the problematic nature of pointing a finger towards South Asian privileges. Referring to ‘South Asians’ is a nod to the way white British ruling classes have seen us for centuries: as an amalgamated mass who, compared to criminal black men and angry black women, don’t seem to be doing so badly. It does, however, put us at least one rung below the nice East Asians, the folks from China, Hong Kong and South Korea, whose low levels of crime, English first names and superlative offspring put us to shame. The term ‘South Asians’ lumps together a range of people whose incomes, religions and circumstances are varied. It ignores that some of us live in the most deprived, underemployed areas of the country while others rub shoulders with policy makers and politicians. It sidelines the struggles that South Asians continue to experience in this country, including the old perceptions of wheeler-dealer men, submissive women, and oppressive family structures. More importantly, it pays little attention to the powerful white people and wealthy Arabs who stoke the flames of racial divide.
Tricky terminology aside, since we know the world doesn’t consist of clear cut perpetrators and victims, where has this incipient racism within our communities come from? Why do we not take a moment to recognise the advantages we have over others given that being able to ignore our privilege is a privilege itself?
This prejudice is partly a product of our perception of religion. The oil-rich Arabs who funded our mosques and religious centres also turned them into bastions of Wahhabism, which tends to look down on anyone who does not follow the true ultra-conservative and puritan path of this sect. Given that most of the Wahhabi, and their Deobandi off-shoot, mosques were controlled by South Asians, they naturally saw other Muslims, particularly the Africans, as lesser beings. Their Islam was contaminated with Sufi ideals and African folklore, their women did not ‘dress properly’, which made them somewhat inferior in the eyes of true believers. Through a process of osmosis, the Wahhabis also transmitted their hierarchical notions of race and racial purity to their South Asian fellow travellers.
But there are also specific historical roots to this racism. South Asians are among the beneficiaries of certain historical events, which produced favourable depictions, associations and assumptions made by non-Asians about us. These include how we are perceived by the white community as well as language and terminology associated with us, and dissociated from us like the term ‘racial privilege’ which is usually synonymous with white privilege. Consider, for example, the notion of the ‘model immigrant’, to borrow an American term. These immigrants are the ones who contribute significantly to the infrastructure of their country and make an effort to integrate in ways outlined by the host population. By doing so, they align themselves with the dominant majority, overcoming resistance to their own civil rights. As the noted American historian of race, Noel Ignatiev notes, this alignment is necessary for successful social mobility where race is a factor. It is a way immigrants can convince the establishment that they are worthy of equal treatment. The other key element of social mobility is distancing oneself from less desirable communities. For the Catholic American Irish of the 1850s, whom Ignatiev writes about, the least desirable were the black population including the free and the enslaved. You could argue that black people, particularly those who retain a visible or audible African-Caribbean identity, still occupy the lowest levels of the racial hierarchy today. These two elements are of course linked. If you can convince the dominant population that you have a common enemy, you appear pleasing to them. You have fallen in line; and removed at least some barriers to climbing up the social ladder.
South Asians have aligned themselves with the dominant white culture in modern day Britain in a similar way. Our visible social mobility since the 1950s has seen the suit-wearing members of our pack join political parties, enter into government, and grace the media. We own multi-million pound businesses, we are board members of FTSE 100 companies, we own luxury restaurant chains, and we are reliable regulars in annual rich lists. The younger generation are doing their part too by dutifully anglicising their names, developing impressive technology start-ups, and populating clubs and bars. They’ve not only entered into relatively new desirable professions but continue to conquer the traditional ones such as medicine, law and accountancy. These client-facing white-collar careers are one way to communicate a clear message to those who might oppose our claim to equal status in this country: when it comes to equality, we deserve it.
While this seems innocuous, and indeed it is, the foundation beneath this success is altogether murkier than we would like to admit. Our top level positions in so many fields are proof that a significant number of South Asians know how to be seen as equals. To our great advantage, we’ve had hundreds of years of British rule to give us a head start. And yes, I know exactly how that sounds and it makes me cringe too. I’m not suggesting we should be grateful to have been colonised. However, in terms of our status as a model minority amongst a white British majority, it’s hard to deny that our historical image as obedient colonial subjects makes us more palatable in Britain today, especially in comparison to African communities in the UK.
One example of the British Empire’s long standing disdain of blackness and preference for what they considered ‘Asian qualities’, is evident in its construction of the Uganda Railway. In 1896, when construction began, the British imported 32,000 labourers from British India to work on the railways. Although the conditions were horrendous and the work gruelling, the attitude behind the import of those Indians was centred on the idea that Indians would make a docile, diligent workforce whereas black people were too lazy, stupid and volatile to do the work. These ideas about black labourers came from years of trials in Britain’s Caribbean plantations after the abolition of slavery in 1833. After the slaves were freed and given their due rights, the workforce consisted of paid, strong, black, male bodies with a freedom that made them all the more feared and loathed. Many of them left their former slave masters and the plantation owners shipped in workers from China, Europe and India to fill the labour gap. They concluded that by British standards, Indians were the better workers and so kept them on.
The British implemented a similar labour import of Indians in colonial East Africa. The Indians were entered into a new form of temporary slavery while much of the Ugandan population refused to work on such a dangerous job. The construction of the railways lasted only five years after which, the Indians stayed and fuelled the rapid growth of cities like Nairobi and Mombasa. They became shopkeepers, hotel workers and administrators. To their advantage, they could also do business with the more established Indian traders who had followed Arab trade routes to the coast of Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar. Though they were not allowed to own farms and were excluded from middle and senior positions in government, by the time the British began their process of decolonisation after the Second World War, Indians had a stronghold on commercial trade in the area. These Asians were to become the professional class that Idi Amin expelled from Uganda in 1972, the class who were acknowledged as ‘the backbone of commercial life in Uganda’.
While the expulsion itself was a tragic episode, the discourse around it viewed Asians favourably compared to their black immigrant counterparts. Despite facing tough legislation including the 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act introduced specifically to curb an influx from East Africa, many Asians in Uganda held British passports and could lay claim to British citizenship. These new Asian immigrants were seen by many Brits as educated and entrepreneurial and so able to create employment opportunities for the British population. The sentiments were summed up by a white-collar worker interviewed on the BBC News in 1973: ‘There’s no doubt about it, Ugandan Asians coming to the North East will prove to be a very very valuable asset to the North East. In the first place, most of them are businessmen. They will offer employment opportunities to the North East, to local Geordies and of course to the local Asian population. They shouldn’t be a drain on the social services, there’s no evidence to suggest that…I would say that the Ugandan Asians, if they do choose to settle in this area, will not only be invaluable in providing more jobs for the North East but that they will play a lot in the work, life, culture and the society of the North East.’
But the Ugandan Asians also brought their preconceptions of blacks with them. As the writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown points out, it was not uncommon for Asians in Uganda to hold extremely racist views about black people which mirrored the white establishment assumptions of them as stupid, dangerous, easy to fool and incapable of leading commerce the ways Indians could.
Asians arrived here from Africa on a wave of sympathy and hope, a very different story to the people who arrive from Africa today. As expected we faced predictable racism but we found we had allies. There was a sense of solidarity among Asian and black communities against their racist abusers – and we fought racism jointly and often successfully. But that solidarity has now evaporated, thanks largely to the conscious distance the Asians have placed between themselves and the black communities. The current state of affairs is neatly summed up by Lance Bunkley, one of the first black immigrants to arrive in Wolverhampton. He was asked by journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, exploring the legacy of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in Birmingham, whether he would rather be a young black man in 1968 or today. ‘In those days’, Bunkley replies, ‘we were a community. We looked after one another; we paid each other’s debts; blacks and Asians worked together. Today, there is no sense of community and everyone is an individual’.
Since 1968, there has been a fierce jostling for position in the racial pecking order that has not just separated Asian and black people but caused fault lines to form within our communities. The dissonance centres around ideas that blackness is bad and those wishing to prove they deserve acceptance in the UK will uphold the notions that black men are criminal and that black women are undesirable. We see this today in the prejudice surrounding interracial marriages between our two communities and in the preference for Asians who have European features and fair skin. We see it in the dismissive attitude we have towards young Asian boys who emulate the perceived stereotypical mannerisms of their black counterparts. We see it in the Asian shopkeepers who perpetuate ideas about beauty by supplying Indian hair extensions to black women. There is a cruel ignorance in our expectation of black people to conform to their stock characters while we consider ourselves worthy of more nuanced depiction.
The South Asians have been good students; we have internalised the lessons of our colonial masters. We have learnt that subjugating black people is in our best interests when it comes to establishing ourselves among Britons. Our success in so many fields as a single ethnic South Asian group rather than part of an amalgamation of equal, cooperative and successful multi-ethnic immigrant communities is a testament to our understanding of Ignatiev’s two principles of social ascension.
And we are passing these lessons on to our children. They are being taught to abuse the next wave of immigrants. Take a walk in any area with a discernible South Asian population and hear what our young have to say about Somalis, Sudanese and Nigerians. Not to mention the Poles, Romanians and the Albanians.