Connecting the disconnected: when South Asians accuse East Africans of cultural appropriation
On August 9th, Yasmin Yonis, a Somali-American writer, caused a Twitter storm when she started a conversation about accusations of cultural appropriation made by South Asian Twitter against Black Twitter. At the core of the debate were headpieces, henna paintings, clothing, ear chains and necklaces worn by women in East Africa and elsewhere that South Asians claimed as theirs.
Conversations about cultural appropriation have since few years been on the rise but have, for obvious reasons, mainly focused on how white cultures appropriate those of people of colour. Debates between people of colour have largely been sidelined to Twitter, Tumblr and other social media conversations. Yonis’s tweets struck a nerve and were shared by thousands, predominately Black Twitter. She argued that most accusations of cultural theft made by South Asians against Africans are expressions of widespread anti-black racism amongst South Asian communities. And she is right.
When South Asians accuse East Africans of cultural appropriation, it is less about cultural relations or power dynamics at play. It’s about brownness and blackness. It boils down to a question of race-relations and border demarcations. Such accusations stem from both widespread ignorance, but also plain old racism. A few months ago, I started my own tweet conversation on the topic, and here’s an elaboration.
The sight of a Somali woman wearing a multi-coloured dirac wrapped around her body, or that of an Ethiopian woman with henna painted on her hands irritates many South Asians because it challenges centuries-old myths about their place in this world and racial hierarchy. It’s a sharp reminder that there are understudied connections between these two parts of the world and many of its diverse communities. But, many South Asians would rather want to sweep those under the rug and pretend they didn’t exist.
Truth being told, most South Asians can’t fathom to be related or share anything in common with Africans.
If you today casually ask South Asians about historic relations and shared cultural heritages with Africans, you will most likely receive a baffled look followed by a prompt and outright negation. We’ve in fact silenced our shared histories to the extent that scholarship needs to be produced outside of South Asia to force us to look into our pasts and face the histories that were never granted its rightful places in our own history books. And when we seldolmy discover them, we treat them as if they were some anomaly, some exotic trope or even human zoo. There’s today little interest in uncovering African-South Asian relations, unless it serves neoliberal projects. This stands in stark contrast to how many South Asians remember and write about their relationships to Arabs, Persians, Turks and European colonisers, and, importantly, how many South Asians claim ancestry based on such long, complicated and often times violent histories. You’ll search in vain for any references that will connect you to the African continent. And you’ll have to search long for any South Asian to claim African heritage on their own (unless they are busy appropriating Black American culture, of course) and find some form of pride in it.
For South Asians, the Indian Ocean that connects us to East Africa is only relevant when talking about Arab traders or European Invaders. African-South Asian histories find no space within it.
Africa is of course not a country and neither is South Asia. The millions of people and communities have different relations and degrees of connections towards each other. Just as their cultures may vary, so do their histories, relationships and genetic heritages. What unites South Asia across the board however, is their embracement of whiteness. The aspiration towards fairer skin drives them towards an ‘Aryanized’ reading of their bodies and histories, which values fair skinned-bodies while equally erasing dark-skinned ones. This reflects in South Asia’s most widespread religion, Hinduism, which vilifies dark bodies by construing them as either symbols of death or demons. Fair-skinned bodies are, on the hand, seen as those of saints and saviours. Any embrace of whiteness/lightness is therefore equally also a rejection of blackness/darkness.
The community I come from, Eelam Tamils from northeastern Sri Lanka, has for centuries been construed as black within the South Asian context, including by other islanders. One of Hinduism’s holy books, the Ramayan, depicts us in its North Indian interpretation, the most dominant one, as barbaric monsters whose island is burnt to the ground by fair-skinned saviours. Diwali, the festival that follows Ram’s return from Lanka, is today still celebrated in the North as a mythical victory over darkness. Eelam Tamil (often also referenced as ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’) is today a codeword amongst South Asians for darkness/blackness, even for Indian Tamils. In light of it, calling someone a Tamil can be used as a slur by fair-skinned South Asians against dark-skinned South Asians.
Within South Asia and its diasporas, we’re next to Afro-South Asians, Andamanese and Nicobarese people one of the main recipients of anti-black racism. Being called anti-black racial epithets however, doesn’t stop us from equally producing and maintaining anti-black racism towards others. Quite the opposite: it makes us even more eager to demarcate our differences.
When I today ask my mother why our hair texture isn’t the same as to that of Indians, she provides me a dry reply that we are not Indian. When I dig a little deeper and talk to her about her hair politics and put them in juxtaposition to those of black women, she usually reacts outraged. When I say dosai tastes like injera, injera like dosai, tibs like meat curries, meat curries like tibs, my family refuses to hear it. When I tell them of the Eritrean waitress who mistook my Eelam Tamil friend and I for a compatriot and started taking orders in Tigrigna, they laughed it off. When a group of Eritrean youths at a refugee welcome party full of white Germans and other light-skinned refugees took their seat on our table to start bond with us as if we’re family, it remained an anecdote without consequences. When an Eritrean friend told me about the many times she has been mistaken for a ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’, they said that’s impossible. When my cousin was approached by four elderly Somali men playing chess in a McDonald’s in Norway in Somali, it was reduced to little more than banal entertainment. When a Somali friend wore a sari and my parents said in delight that she looked like a Tamil girl, they didn’t think about the meaning of their words twice. When white men then called us the ’n’ word, we said we’re not ‘African’. When fair-skinned South Asians addressed us as black, we called them racists. These are just few of the anecdotes we carry around but find no space to articulate or share because of how we’re positioned between fair-skinned South Asians and white people — at the expenses of possible linkages and solidarities outside of both.
When American-Indian-Tamil comedian Aziz Ansari mistook 14-year-old American-Sudanese Ahmed Mohamed, who was arrested in Texas for having built a clock, for a ‘brown kid’ he could project his own bodily experiences upon, it was more than just a simple negation and/or confusion of/over Mohamed’s Black Arab heritage. It didn’t just speak to Mohamed’s type of blackness which sits at the borderlines of erasure and irritation amongst dominant Black and Arab narratives. It also spoke volumes about Ansari’s type of brownness which similarly struggles with erasure and dislocation from dominant South Asian narratives. Ansari’s misidentification shows how colour lines are not static or linear. Neither are black and brown two absolute separates that never collide, historically or in the present day. They can be ambiguous, confusing and even messy because of how racial classifications do not respond to the complexity and diversity of human bodies, experiences and self-identifications.
From attire to jewellery to food cultures to skin colour, there are many things we share. We’ve rich histories that require explorations. Anti-black racism, however, raises us to believe that we monopolise our own cultures, that they are the result of isolation or mingling with fair-skinned others — but never with our dark-skinned brethrens. It tells us that black folks do ‘brown’ things when we’re actually also doing ‘black’ things. Anti-black racism functions as a form of self-hatred amongst many of us that we’re raised with since childhood, and our communities have been instilled with for centuries, much longer than the first presence of European colonisers in the region. It remains deeply intertwined with Hinduism and South Asia’s resulting caste apartheid. Anti-black racism under white supremacy and Brahmin supremacy pushes us to position us closer to lightness than darkness in the quest of surviving racial and caste hierarchies. It makes my family think about the many intersections of our experiences as coincidences rather than results of shared histories.
When in 2004 the tsunami embarked from Ace, Indonesia, to kill tens of thousands on India’s and Sri Lanka’s coastlines, the waves didn’t cease there but continued all the way until they reached Somalia and Kenya’s coastlines. Several hundreds were subsequently killed hours after the first earthquake erupted thousands of km further east, on the Asian side of the ocean. Yet the 2004 tsunami remains to be remembered as an Asian catastrophe and not an Indian Ocean one. Most have in fact never heard about African victims of this catastrophe. It is reflective of our how mental borders, connections and knowledges are drawn, limited and reproduced by colonial mappings; how they erase connections that challenge their very raison d’être and hinder us from thinking beyond the spatialities colonialism has left us with.
But if we’d be able stop identifying by land but, say, the ocean, we’d not be people of two continents but one ocean. If we’d be able to think of the ocean as something that connects us rather than divides us, we could begin to reflect about the relationships, cultures and histories that bind us. We’d be pushed to move away from conceptions of Asia and Africa being two separate entities, but could see them as the fluid, interconnected spaces they are. It would enable us to build meaningful solidarities and embrace our darkness while remaining cognizant of how white supremacy and caste apartheid intersect and organise us to weaken us and see us as strangers, when we are in fact anything but. Our anti-black racism can erase many of our shared histories, even lead us to cry cultural appropriation when seeing Somali women wearing diracs, but it can’t erase the waters that connect us.