Collective Amnesia in Colonial Apologisers - Zeerak Khurram
“Those four black girls blown up
in that Alabama church
remind me of five hundred
middle passage blacks,
in a net, under water
in Charleston harbor
so redcoats wouldn't find them.
Can't find what you can't see
- American History (Michael S. Harper)
In 1903, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, wrote, “The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the colour line”. He was referring to the racial segregation that was present in the United States in the years following the abolition of slavery and the implementation of the 14th Amendment. The “colour line” made it impossible for the descendants of free and formerly enslaved African Americans to gain access to proper education, housing, bank loans and medical care. It became a mantra, of sorts, for him to begin and end his books with this quote. It was almost as if he wanted his readers to realise that the problems of black America lay in unequal treatment by their white majority counterparts.
While Du Bois did write primarily about African Americans, we can extend his reasoning to other minority communities like the Native Americans who have been protesting at the Standing Rock Reservation for the past few years; the Asian American community who has seen an uptick in racially motivated attacks since the COVID 19 outbreak; other gender and sexual minorities that, until the last century, were not afforded all their human rights.
Because of the colour line, it is near impossible for people of colour and other minorities to achieve the American Dream. Let me rephrase that, it is near impossible for people of colour, not born in upper-middle class privilege, to achieve the American Dream. A Dream that, one can argue, was initially meant only for white America’s migration from rural to urban centres. Achievement of the Dream for some led to the establishment of “model minorities” and added to the developing concept that one’s individual achievement was, in some way, related to one’s ethnic background instead of one’s economic status.
This same colour line has also impacted people of South Asian descent and yet, instead of attempting to understand the similarities of our situations, we are far more willing to jump on the model minority bandwagon and, in doing so, become complicit in the very same strands of racism that made the desi diaspora in the 70s and 80s come out onto the streets against discrimination in the United Kingdom.
“It was down in Louisiana
Just a mile from Texarkana
In them old, old cotton fields at home
It may sound a little funny
But, you didn’t make very much money
In them old cotton fields at home”
- Cotton Fields (Lead Belly)
Our behaviour during the Civil Rights protests in the United States and around the world is of two extremes. We either support the ideals behind the movement or we adopt a “well, that never happened to us so there must be a reason why you are being treated that way” approach. The latter is one that is often spoken about in desi circles, also known as the living rooms of some older relatives, with no African American there to defend themselves. Whether these living rooms are in our countries of origin or not, one thing is the same: they all refuse to acknowledge our own history with colonisation and colourism and racism and how our civilizations were crippled to pave the way for Eurocentrism.
Violent protests, historically, have been employed by groups so disenfranchised and persecuted by their governments that violence is quite literally the only answer. That is not to say that violence should be condoned but that condemning the actions of a people without having been through the same trauma that they have, speaks only to one’s privilege. When a people or peoples are oppressed and persecuted for centuries, violent protests are to be expected and are only natural. If we as desi people cannot relate to or, at least, see their trauma then we are ignoring a huge proportion of our own history and the way that our freedom fighters were discredited.
The very fact that the 1857 Indian Rebellion was dubbed the Indian Mutiny by the GCSE O Levels and is still taught as such to a majority of the middle and upper classes in Pakistan may give us a hint as to how we are taught to treat authority. To label a revolution, albeit a failed one, a mutiny is to then state that the ones in power were not tyrants that drove the public to revolt but were rather legitimate rulers that were wrongfully rebelled against. Now we could sit and have a conversation about how the Indian subcontinent hasn’t been ruled by a legitimate indigenous dynasty for centuries but that would be beside the point. The history of our land, and yes, I am referring to all three major countries in South Asia, is one that rooted in colonization by the Mughals, the Afghans, and, finally, the British.
We are a people that have learned to adapt to different rulers over time. Much like how our Hindu brothers and sisters did when Ibn Qasim landed on the shores of Sindh and how our Kashmiri brethren did when ruled by the Dogra dynasty. And so, we adapted once again and decided to survive in the new environment created by the British Raj. This is not meant to be a criticism for the people that wanted success, the desire to succeed is only natural. It stems for our innate instincts of survival which, although they may have evolved over the years, still inherently remain tied to the core ideal of living a comfortable life. Adopting a foreign nation’s way of life when they have proclaimed themselves your rulers is one of those ways.
“All that I've been taught And every word I've got Is foreign to me Screaming the name Of a foreigner's God The purest expression of grief”
- Foreigner’s God (Hozier)
Our society, like many others, was run on a system of hierarchy for centuries before Babar rode down from the Hindu Kush. Foreign systems of nobility and aristocracy were not really causes for concern for people that had already seen the clashes between the Aryans and Dravidians. Being a largely Indo-Aryan population ourselves, we already had colourist tendencies in place before the British arrived. However, it appears that we have held onto this notion that success can only really be defined in Anglo-Saxon terms. It is disheartening to see a relatively free and independent people engage in, not only, colonial apologism but still see the rule as holding some form of legitimacy. Back then, we believed we had little choice but the fact that we have continued this line of thinking is problematic and confusing. Yes, we have been given the impression that our relationship with the British was one of mutual benefits. Let me make one thing clear. It most certainly was not.
The railways, education and irrigation systems that we use now were not made for us. We, in the wake of the Radcliffe debacle (really, it was an extremely flawed plan), adapted once again and co-opted the use of technology meant exclusively for the upper classes for everyday civilians. We didn’t get access to these facilities because the British wanted us to, it was because they had no choice but to leave them behind. We could not control who oversaw our land. The House of Lords and Commons were the ones appointing the Viceroy and really, a country that did not want to give their working classes the right to vote were not particularly open to their colonies voting for their leaders.
Our cultures, languages and religions were targeted to the extent that now when an individual refers to Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Indian cultures as singular homogenous entities, we don’t really bat an eye. Our people were also enslaved and shipped to Eastern Africa. Now, we weren’t exploited to the extent of Western African nations but that doesn’t negate the fact that we have more in common with them than with countries in the EU, for instance. The British Army in World War II was fed and clothed at the expense of some odd millions of Bengalis that starved to death in the world’s largest man-made famine in Bengal, courtesy of Winston Churchill.
We protested at that time. Violently too. Strange that these history lessons are often forgotten when we attempt to justify protestors being arrested and dragged on the asphalt.
“Rasm e jafa kaamyaab dekhiye kab tak rahe,
Hubb e watan mast e khwaab kab tak rahe,
Daulat e Hindustan qabzah e aghyar mein
Be adad o be hisaab dekhiye kab tak rahe!”
- (Hasrat Mohani)
There are those of us who do not understand why we continue to bring this history up. It is for the very simple reason that we have yet to receive any form of reparation for what we had to endure and what we still do endure by way of our collective colonial hangover. Our generations are not that far removed from the conflicts that arose from the divide and rule policy. Some of our townships, schools, roads still honour the memory of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Goethe, now the House of Windsor-Mountbatten.
We have had our own share of violent protests against our oppressors. I understand that it does read strange to hear a twenty something year old talking about oppression as I type this on a laptop, knowing full well that that in itself is a privilege. I also understand that for our older generations who dealt with more potent remnants of colonization, it feels as if I am picking at old wounds. But if we do not reconcile ourselves with the fact that we were oppressed and were fortunate enough to survive, we are bound to repeat that behaviour. We will treat our religious, ethnic and gender minorities the way that we are and, sometimes, still are. We are quick to point out racist behaviour if we are stopped by TSA. Why does it appear to be hard for some of us to understand the Black Lives Matter Movement and how it has become a global movement that addresses the way that the world has continually sidelined and sidestepped the needs of the entire continent of Africa and people of African descent?
It is convenient to believe in stereotypes and it is easy to spew out hate. Being politically correct is a lot harder than not caring about offending people. It is especially easy to be racist and colourist when you have seen other countries, that taught you that they were better, engage in the same behaviour. Our colonial past does not mean that we have somehow been absolved of our racism. It means that we are in a better position to know how bad it is.
So, to the desi people saying All Lives Matter: If you are bringing up All Lives Matter only when attempting a critique of BLM, you do not truly believe that All Lives Matter. You adding to and supporting the prejudicial structures in place in society that once again, sidesteps and side-lines the concerns of people of African descent, the same way that ours were all those years ago. The very fact that this article was in English instead of Urdu or Sindhi or that our society still sees the ability to communicate in English as a sign of intelligence should let you know that we are still operating through our own colonial hangover. The least we can do is address our own racist tendencies and understand that no lives matter until black lives matter.
“I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.”
- I, Too (Langston Hughes)