By Manahil Hassan, February 28 2021—
We have failed as a society and it is time that we admit to this. Our biggest failure is our disregard for human life. We let our own interests cloud our judgments and our compliance with systemically racist institutions that put the Black community at a disadvantage, is one of our biggest failures of all. We are all responsible in our own ways, so I wish to shed light on some of the phenomenal accomplishments of extraordinary figures in Black history.
Many of us have heard of Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou and Viola Davis. These three individuals, along with many profound and prominent Black men and women, have fought bravely to counter social norms to allow the Black Lives Matter movement to gain the momentum it has today. They have broken barriers and have fought for their rights so that members of the Black community could obtain opportunities that have been — and still are — unfairly denied to them. These three women, however, have not acted alone. It is vital that we recognize many other Black activists, lawmakers, scientists and individuals of vastly different professions that have boldly striven for change.
Take Marsha P. Johnson, for example. Not only was Johnson a self identified drag queen, but played a paramount role in advancing the LGBTQ2IA+ movement. Johnson went by the name of “BLACK Marsha” before deciding on Marsha P. Johnson, with the P standing for “Pay It No Mind.” This stood for the response the activist would provide when asked about her gender. She cofounded STAR, an organization that housed queer homeless youth and campaigned for equality rights through the Gay Liberation Front. There is no doubt in my mind when I say that Marsha P. Johnson was a force to be reckoned with.
Ruby Bridges is another example of a prominent figure in Black history. She was aged six when she became the first African American student to enter the all white segregated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. At the height of desegregation and racism, the student set the catalyst for change. Right after Bridges attended the school, white parents pulled their children out of William Frantz Elementary and protested Bridges’ attendance. All but one teacher agreed to teach young Bridges. This young girl had to endure numerous threats and harassment almost daily, but regardless of the unimaginable hardships this six-year-old bravely faced, she held her head high and showed commendable courage.
And what about Mae Jemison who made history when she became the first African American woman to orbit into space aboard the Endeavour Shuttle? She is another prominent figure in Black history who in addition to making history, became a Peace Corps volunteer and the president of the Jemison Group, a tech company that explores and develops stand-alone science and technology.
Briefly writing about the history and challenges these women have faced can never do justice to the challenges that countless figures in the Black community have endured. What can be done, however, is taking the time to honor and commend their accomplishments not only during Black History Month, but in our everyday lives.
I will be honest when I say that, growing up, I knew next to nothing about Black history. It was only when I moved to Canada two years ago that I discovered what Black History Month was. Even then, my lack of effort and ignorance prevented me from fully understanding why Black History Month was, and still is, so crucial to recognize.
Whether you wish to hear this or not, the truth is that we live in a systemically racist society where racism is not condemned to the level that it should be.
In the South Asian community, exceptionalism is a systemic issue that has undermined the successes and relationships with members of the Black community for far too long. To put it simply, it is associating certain nations or people as superior to others on the grounds of work ethic. The work of Dr. Anjali Gouda Ferguson further emphasizes and explains this issue within the South Asian diaspora.
There should be no surprise when I say that generations of elders have instilled in us the idea of collectivism. As Gouda explains it, it is the instillment and practice of obedience, loyalty, and honor within one’s family. And while loyalty is respectable to an extent, it reveals itself to be toxic within the South Asian community, especially when considering the dating scene. Often, children will sacrifice their own interests to ‘respect’ their elders and maintain the family honor and marry someone who is lighter skinned as they are deemed to be more “successful” and “desirable.”
The first aspect of this conundrum arises through expectations of achievement and consequences of family rejection. Even in the 21st century, many families and elders ration love as a function of one’s own successes. Because of the biases relating to success and exceptionalism, dating or marrying someone who is wealthier or lighter skinned is applauded and celebrated within the community. If you happen to deviate from these social norms, you are shunned and outcast by everyone. People buy into this systemic issue by only dating people within their own race to avoid such a conflict.
Also, perfectionism is striven for by many members of our own diaspora. To strive for perfection, many South Asian individuals do not bother associating themselves with members of Black communities to abide by their family’s wishes. Unsurprisingly, this not only affects relationships with the Black and South Asian communities, but allows for the persistence of racial biases that undermine the achievements of Black people.
Being conservative and dating someone lighter, wealthier or someone within your own caste adds to the systemic racism that Black people face and prevents us from forming stronger relationships with members of the Black community. We become compliant with the very system that puts our fellow Black brothers and sisters at an extreme disadvantage.
I have come to realize that colourism is not the only problematic issues within the South Asian community, but that this ideology of exceptionalism is the root cause of many of our behaviors and actions. To call ourselves allies of the Black Lives Matter movement, to fully understand and appreciate Black History Month and Black history, we must be anti-racist. We must first pay attention to our biases pertaining to the Black community and have these conversations with our parents. Being compliant is just as bad as being racist so we must talk about these issues with our parents and once again, learn about Black history and the hardships the Black communities have faced for hundreds of years.
We may be minorities as South Asians, but we have not been exposed to the monumental challenges and hardships all Black people are still facing. You and I will never be able to fully understand the trauma and systemic racism Black people face, but we can surely incite change by actively condemning the racist tendencies of our own communities because Black Lives Matter.
There are thousands of strong and fearless men, women and children all over the world. These are the people that wake up, despite the atrocities they are facing, and push forward without looking back. These are the people that sacrifice everything so their families will have a better future. This is what The Contemporary Dilemma highlights. This column is part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board