Many of us Sikhs and other South Asians in the diaspora have grown up with subtle and not so subtle messages of anti-black racism from our families and communities at large. While on the one hand we learn through Sikhi that all people are equal regardless of their race, caste, or gender, we simultaneously learn that we should not socialize with black people and certainly not date them. We learn they are not to be trusted, that we should keep our distance. We learn that they are unattractive and that we most certainly want to keep our (brown) skin as wheatish and fair and lovely as possible or else we might be called kala (which my Nana Ji used to jokingly call me, as I was the darkest in my family). I recall a family member bluntly telling me when I was a kid, “You can marry whoever you want when you grow up as long as she is not black.”
In his groundbreaking 2001 book Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting, Vijay Prashad explains the anti-black racism so pervasive in our communities:
But all people of color do not feel that their struggle is a shared one. Some of my South Asian bretheren…feel that we should take care of our own and now worry about the woes of others, that we should earn as much money as possible, slide under the radar of racism, and care only about the prospects of our own children…
Since blackness is reviled in the United States, why would an immigrant, of whatever skin color, want to associate with those who are racially oppressed, particularly when the transit into the United States promises the dream of gold and glory? The immigrant seeks a form of vertical assimilation, to climb from the lowest, darkest echelon on the stepladder of tyranny into the brightness of whiteness.
Indeed, South Asians and other immigrants have long distanced themselves from Black Americans for generations. This is not only a consequence of racial politics in the United States, but of racial and cultural dynamics in South Asia (and other parts of the world) that often rely on (false) notions of cultural and national identities existing in vacuums.
Given this often depressing storyline, it is crucial to understand that South Asian and African people have been interacting, sharing, and co-creating for hundreds of years. Prashad’s 2001 book documents some of this fascinating history from the subcontinent to the Caribbean, as he puts forward an alternative to liberal multiculturalism, which implies that cultures are mutually exclusive and are to be preserved. Instead, he suggests a paradigm shift towards polyculturalism, which, unlike multiculturalism, “assumes that people live coherent lives that are made up of a host of lineages–the task of the historian is not to carve out the lineages but to make sense of how people live culturally dynamic lives. Polyculturalism is a ferocious engagement with the political world of culture, a painful embrace of the skin and all its contradictions.”
In this polycultural spirit, I was excited and fascinated by this recent program that aired on Public Radio International last week called African Sounds of the Indian Subcontinent. The program and accompanying photo essay document the musical connections between Africa and South Asia, from African influenced Sufi trance music to jazz in Hindi film music to Afro-Indo-Portuguese Baila music in Sri Lanka. You can listen to the entire program below.
Uncovering these little known histories is essential to our communities unlearning so many misconceptions about people of African descent, who are so often seen as so different from us and so seen as the “other.” Indeed, our histories are deeply intertwined, as are our futures.