This blog post was contributed by Urwah Ahmad, Global Communications Fellow at Meridian, where we believe that we are stronger at home when globally engaged.
I never knew that my history of having grown up in between Pakistan and the United States would provide such a better perspective on a multitude of issues. Having learned about and experienced the long-term effects that colonialism and institutionalized racism has left on Pakistan and South Asia, helped me to be better engaged with and understand the Black Lives Matter movement at home in the U.S.
From the tensions and divisions between ethnic groups in Pakistan and role of language in racism, to the plight of the Sheedi (people of African descent) who still live on the fringes of society, it is so distressing to see nothing change, decade to decade, from the United States across the world to Pakistan.
Although I never fully understood, I became aware of colorism from a very young age, and the racial hierarchy and racialization that comes with it. From hearing things like, “Don’t go in the sun too much or you’ll get darker,” to comments such as, “You must be Pathan, you’re so light-skinned,” or, “Thankfully you’re light-skinned.” These statements, sometimes made by family members and other times by people I had just met, always made me squirm. Being a carefree kid, I never took the comments seriously because I did not mind if I got a little tan. But being the protective older sister I was, I would get upset when the euphemism of “sanwali” (meaning tanned/darker skinned in Urdu) was used instead of the “kali” (meaning black) to describe my sister’s complexion, because the individuals saying it were ‘trying to be nice’ but it never came across that way. They were still expressing a thought and bias that was unnecessary. They didn’t understand that their words hurt, that my little sister would cry after they had left, and that those experiences still affect her today.
I became more conscious of the nuances and euphemisms of racism and how it has manifested not only in America but also in Pakistan. From politics and jobs, to marriage prospects and beauty standards, I saw those that were lighter-skinned being favored. It started with me getting uncomfortable every time the commercial for South Asian skin lightening creams like Fair and Lovely came on. To me, acting in the little ways I could, I started confronting people in my community who thought being lighter-skinned gave them more privilege and status. I questioned those who would give me a backhanded compliment about being lighter-skinned and how I would be able to get married easily. These microaggressions perpetuated in the Pakistani and South Asian communities feed into the larger global problem of racism and anti-blackness, and it is not okay to let them continue.
Yet every day, I have seen tragedy after tragedy. I have read and heard about the tragedies through history, from learning about slavery, the fight for civil rights and the LA riots in 1992, to the current day prison and justice system, school zoning, our media industry and the continued murders of our Black community members. This issue of racism, colorism, racialization and its various other names is infused into almost every facet of our lives. Yet we forget the human side, the lives lost, years and generations of trauma and the futures destroyed by it.
I see our Black communities fighting for justice and privileges they should not have to fight for, and those non-Black allies standing up in solidarity. This has been going on for too long and has been perpetuated throughout history and all around the world. It has separated communities like the Hutus and the Tutsis, ostracized the Dalits in India, caused identity crises for the diaspora communities and been the cause of so much violence and loss of life.
As I continue to educate myself about the history and connect the dots between my identity as an American Pakistani, I have learned about what type of activist I want to be. I have learned that if I want to be an ally in the Black Lives Matter movement, yes, I should show up at protests; yes, I can use my photography skills; yes, I can pray with fellow protestors. But I also must address anti-blackness in my Pakistani and South Asian communities. By sharing information in the groups and organizations I am a part of, by having productive dialogue with my family and friends back home, and by continuing to support and give a voice to this movement.
I urge other individuals in all communities to find their role and help fight this issue, because it is systemic. We need radical developments in policy, and we need to be fighting the microaggressions that occur on a near-daily basis. It is high time there is change and reform. This will not be forgotten and swept under the rug again. We must stop accepting the sense of complacency from little changes and not again become comfortable with this issue being present in our societies. We must tackle it here and hopefully create a ripple effect for the rest of the world.