Dismembered: Exclusion And Colourism, Being British South Asian

Last Saturday morning, the 4th May, I had an encounter that disturbed me profoundly. The previous evening, I had seen a post from a page I follow, via an Instagram story, showing details of a new, inclusive, sex and body-positive page aimed at women of South Asian heritage. I felt really excited by this news- I’d always wanted to participate in something of this nature and, based on what I’d seen, thought that this could be the right opportunity. The requirements were to send a photograph of your choice, with some text that would go underneath in the caption as a story, in a direct message to the person who’d set it up, which I did the following morning. The personal story I provided was my experience of colourism within the South Asian community, particularly as a British Indian woman with light skin, along with a photograph showing my décolletage. The text I sent is exactly as appears below, as are the responses I received in the exchange after- the replies in the white boxes are from the other person, the ones in grey are mine.


Colourism is something that I have been subjected to from within the South Asian community- from relatives, friends (former), the parents of those friends, and the wider community- since I was a child. Many people only associate colour discrimination with darker skin tones, but it works both ways, and it is horrendous in all demonstrations. To be at the end of derogation and prejudice, and to be seen as deserving of them, because you “don’t look”, or behave like others from your ethnic background (like there is some kind of standard and stereotype to which we must innately conform), and are separated and dismissed because you are perceived as “anglicised” or “white-assimilated”, “a whore” and “less Asian” for being light-skinned is incredibly demoralising, and it fucks with your sense of self and identity. I didn’t choose to be born with what are perceived as ‘atypical’ South Asian, Indian, Panjabi features: they are a representation of the vastness of how heritage manifests, and it is random and scientific and I am proud of them. Equality doesn’t happen if only ‘accepted’ representations of ethnicity are included in conversations, everybody, and every body, needs to be embraced and respected, not the attainment of linear imagery that, allegedly, doesn’t complicate discussions. In truth, these discussions are complicated, and it does no-one any favours to try to diminish that. I don’t subscribe to labels- I don’t call myself ‘brown’ and I don’t call myself ‘white’, because I am neither. I have found that people make up judgements as they go along, find cause to discriminate where and how it suits them, whatever it is those regressive viewpoints fulfill- what is most paramount is how I view and define myself, and that’s not anyone else’s domain. I don’t want to continue feeling like some discussions and concerns “aren’t for me” because I don’t look a certain way, and I don’t want to be excluded on that basis: I am British Asian of Panjabi descent and this is how that manifests in me. I prefer to receive people on a human level, rather than qualify them by what’s on their bodies, which includes things they were born with and develop naturally, like skin colour, and however they express their physical appearance- I hope others do the same.

The one regret I have from that entire exchange is apologising at the end of my last message. Because I’m not discompassionate, nor an asshole, I felt, at the time, that it was right to emphasise what I did, even though I felt it was falling on deaf ears and a closed heart, in respect of that conversation. Bear in mind, her responses were based upon the text and image I sent her: she hadn’t, and, to my knowledge, hasn’t seen my face, and knows nothing about me other than the miniscule glimpse I gave, yet chose to judge me by it. The last time I checked the thread, which was that Sunday, my messages following her last one had not been seen, so the chance of a response was non-existant, let alone wider and open consideration of the subject. I later deleted the thread from my inbox, but not before taking screenshots for the purpose of this post.

What I gleaned from that encounter was exactly what I hoped I would not- that I would be excluded, othered and dismissed, based upon an addition to a discussion that is seen, by some, as having only one facet and representation, and that anyone with an equally valid view is disregarded because they express an experience that is at odds with what some individuals want a definition to be, in this case, of colourism, both inside and outside of the South Asian community. My personal exposure to colourism is embedded entirely in my experiences with former friends, their parents, relatives, and the wider South Asian community, as I stated in my piece; I have not, to my knowledge, experienced discrimination, as far as my skin tone goes- at least, not as overtly- outside of it. Growing up, and still, in adulthood, numerous people see me as Italian, Greek, or Israeli- Mediterranean, in general- but definitely not Indian or of South Asian heritage. Sometimes, the response to “I’m Indian/of Punjabi/South Asian heritage”- “Oh, you don’t look it!”- will have been intended as a compliment. Whichever way I have taken it, depending on what I feel of the person’s intentions at the time i.e. whether it is an, albeit careless and uncalled for, observation, or whether their manner changes towards me, positively or negatively, after I have told them my heritage versus what they assume it to be, these encounters have always kindled the question in me of how someone, of any background, is ‘supposed to’ look and, whether I am supposed- expected by others, I should say- to feel some kind of shame at looking ‘typically Indian/Panjabi/South Asian’, if I did, and some sort of relief at not looking so. Of course, we could speculate the potential meanings behind that statement all day and more; it’s a complicated thing to navigate in the moment when you are faced with it, as you don’t know the reasons behind why it was said, or whether there were any at all, sinister or otherwise: people do, sometimes, run their mouths off without engaging any introspection, but that characteristic, like so many, transcends ethnicity and heritage. Regardless of the reasons behind my experiences of colourism, my encounters ‘not being the same’, or ‘not on the same scale’ as others’ does not invalidate them- I find it extremely troubling, the fact that I have endured such discriminating reactions from within the South Asian community, for reasons that are as distressing as they are hypocritical and nonsensical (in view of the mentalities within the South Asian community towards those with darker skin- I honestly believe people make up prejudices as they go along, for whatever, and however, it suits them). Whether somebody’s skin colour falls on the darker or lighter side of the spectrum, they should not be excluded or discriminated against for this, or any other reason, period. From how her response escalated in her second message, the brazen presumption and condescension, my reservations, dishearteningly, were corroborated- I didn’t assume what her response would be, I try not to with anyone I meet, but it was what I feared: I expected better, but received worse.

A week on from the encounter, I feel the same level of sick and sad at this response as I did when I received it, and deeply unsettled by what it represents. I didn’t say it was the same- I wasn’t trying to “level up” my experience, like it’s a sodding game. I detest that sharing my experience, or anyone else theirs, is automatically taken by some as diminishing and invalidating of others’ important encounters: it’s not at all. I can’t get my head around why some people are so intensely averse to acknowledging and accepting the intra-ethnic discrimination that exists, in this case, pertaining to skin colour, where it is perpetrated towards lighter tones as well as darker. Nobody- certainly not I- is trying to invalidate anyone’s experience by sharing theirs, in aid of providing a more representative view of the issue. Some people do use their experiences to one-up their suffering against others’, but that is not the case here, and I don’t believe it should be received as a default intention. I don’t understand why bringing focus to another problem within the same subject is met with such aggression and resistance- surely colourism overall, including the inequalities and prejudices it masks, is the problem that needs to be combated, not facilitating in-fighting and a so-called Oppression Olympics? I don’t see why it’s my fault, or that I personally should feel penitent for the way some others see me, when I have never used my so-called skin tone privilege, in this example, to get ahead in life, however this ‘privilege’ is qualified, nor have I ever judged anyone based on the colour of their skin, or anything other than the way they behave as humans, and trying to understand why they do as far as I am able to. I’m sure a number of people will mar my thinking as naive and idealistic, or ignoring of significant points, but it is possible to accomodate more than one viewpoint within a subject, especially if the conclusion on all sides is that, here, colourism is bad and should be dismantled. It shouldn’t matter for what reasons it occurs, or indeed, which ones seemingly have more validity: the reasons should be known and recognised to be challenged and torn down, not used as factors to determine whose suffering should rule the conversation. The objective should be equality, not dominion- can we not understand each other? Discussions about equality, visibility and inclusion need to include everyone in order to progress and have any effect in reality: the thought that there are people, who are marginalised, for a variety of reasons, who want equality for others like them, but, fundamentally, not for everyone, or anyone they see as ‘different’, or as ‘non-qualifying’ to them, is counter-productive to the goal of inclusion and non-discrimination, and revealing of embedded prejudices, with which some people do not want to part for equally sinister, discriminatory reasons. And this is the experience of someone with the same ethnic, geographic, South Asian heritage: I can only imagine her views towards those from other backgrounds, namely individuals regarded as and, who describe themselves as ‘white’, if this is her behaviour towards someone of South Asian heritage who just happens to be lighter than she.

I, intrinsically, can’t support anyone who deliberately excludes and diminishes others in order to make themselves heard and seen, and I reject the mistreatment of anyone because it is seen as ‘deserved’ for their perceived privilege, which often has no basis in that individual’s personal experiences, the way they live, or how they see and treat others. In this example, if the person involved, and others like them, resents light-skinned women for how they have been treated for not being like them, for being held to standards of beauty, self-worth, and perceived social status that have been fabricated to derogate those with darker skin, the encompassing attitude is what needs to be questioned and challenged, not individuals who are seen as a representation of these standards, who have not personally caused anyone any harm, like myself in this instance, and whose views and behaviour, in actuality, are non-discriminatory. Part of me, in my anger, wanted to confront her about what shade of ‘brown’ would be acceptable to her as a valid representation of a South Asian woman as she defines it; allegedly, we’re all on some definitively backwards colour chart that determines our validity….

There is always someone who is going to be darker than you, and lighter than you- if you are the kind of person who judges people based on their skin tone either way, even if you have a skin tone that has, wrongly, been used to invalidate your identity as a human being, doing the same to others to achieve visibility for those ‘like you’ will just further discrimination, but in another way and towards other people. On a separate, but associated note, I don’t believe that people should claim oppression and subjugation if that is not their personal experience. It is possible to unwaveringly support those who have been and are persecuted without claiming those oppressions as your own. Dominating narratives does not forward equality; in fact, it skews conversations by making them appear something they are not, by excluding voices that detract from a desired, insular view of suffering (in aid of monopolising a subject) and, dilutes the experiences of others who are mistreated, for a variety of reasons. It is important- vital, even- to know and recognise historic prejudices where they pertain to discrimination of any kind, in order to call them out, whether you are part of a marginalised group or not. However, if you, as a non-‘white’ individual (however ‘white’ is qualified, and it varies depending on who the mutable definition benefits), assume that you are going to be discriminated against by default because of your skin tone, ethnicity and associated culture (whether or not you conform to cultural conventions or stereotypes), then you position yourself in the mindset of judgement and prejudice. By assuming that others will judge and prejudge you, for whatever reason, you also become judgemental, and suspicious of others, marring them with the same brush because you assume and fill in the gaps of who they are and what they think, versus who they really are and what they really think. Do you see how wearing and absurd this mentality of presumptive hate and judgement is? I truly believe that picking differences between each other makes us weaker- standing together and supporting one another as equal human beings takes away the need for us to validate ourselves, which is what we want, isn’t it? I thought of how strong it would look and how powerful a message it would be if we, myself and this individual, had our experiences of colour discrimination shown side-by-side, standing together in solidarity against an ingrained and corrosive issue, from both our perspectives. Apparently, there is no room for that in her view- obviously, it’s discriminatory, and racist, to state that you want only a certain type of ‘brown’ woman to contribute her experiences; it would, no doubt, harm this person’s reputation as a ‘woke influencer’, or whatever other labels with which she, and others like her, so tightly entwine themselves for their own ends and image. I called my personal story “Dismembered” as it described the picture I chose, and was also explicative of the act of being excluded from the South Asian ‘community’ (is it really when there is such entrenched and perpetuated division?), for the reasons mentioned- I’m thrilled, by the exchange, that I was proved wrong…

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