Growing up among the Egyptian-Armenians – Armenians who come from Egypt – one encounters the prejudices and outlook expressed by that particular community. Having absorbed the perspective of the overarching British colonial power – the latter having control of Egypt prior to the 1952 revolution – Egyptian Armenians for the most part see themselves as colonial patriots, reflecting the attitudes of the English empire loyalists.
The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for instance, was a frequent target of mockery and racial ridicule by Egyptian-Armenians – the veteran anti-apartheid campaigner and South Africa’s ethical conscience was greeted with ridicule by the corporate media when visiting Australia in the late 1980s and early 90s. A man who fought for the equality of races was considered an object of mockery by the colonial-minded Egyptian Armenians.
The Islamophobic and anti Black prejudices of the Egyptian Armenians – not quite white, but not coloured either – finds similarities in the South Asian communities in Britain and the United States. Dinesh D’Souza, conservative pundit in the US, is a prime example, expressing anti black racism in his commentary, particularly during the presidency of Barack Obama.
More important than just confrontational conversations with people who express anti-black racism, is the question why minority groups – such as South Asians – express overt racism? Climbing the right wing racial pyramid requires that we integrate into the notion of whiteness – and one way to do that is advocate hostility against those who are nonwhite. It is a peculiar kind of racism, directed against those similar but still different to us.
South Asian communities in Britain and the US have a stubborn history of reckoning with anti-black racism. Political figures such as D’Souza, Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley uphold their examples of immigrant success stories – by distancing themselves from their ethnic background and attacking other minorities. When D’Souza expresses his opposition to former US President Obama, he attacks not the Democratic Party policies, but Obama’s African American background.
There are both historical and contemporary reasons for the persistence of Afriphobia in the South Asian community. Britain, the former colonial power in numerous African nations, deployed non-African ethnic minorities as settler communities, providing them with privileges over and above the indigenous African population. South Asians were settled in Uganda and Kenya, and were maintained as economic props buttressing the colonial system.
After independence, the commercial and economic networks of the South Asians became targets of the newly assertive African governments. A policy of Africanisation ensued – with the Kenyan government demanding that South Asians acquire Kenyan citizenship. Uganda, ruled at the time by Idi Amin, summarily expelled the South Asian community.
They arrived in England, Canada, the United States and other nations with ready-made stories of ‘African persecution’, lapped by a corporate media eager to find fault with the administrations of newly independent African nations. Anti-black racism found a fresh start in the white majoritarian settler-colonial societies.
In Egypt, the policy of nationalisation lead many non-Arab minorities, including the business-oriented Armenians, to flee the country. My late father, in contrast, was politically awakened by, and remained part of, the Nasserist generation.
Turning to contemporary times, the colonial separatism of the South Asian communities received a boost – from Narendra Modi’s India. His government, which has elevated the Hindu supremacist ideology of Hindutva to national policy, has deliberately cultivated supporters among India’s diasporic communities.
Hindutva, an ideology of Hindu supremacism, shares many features with rabid white nationalism. Portraying the Islamic community as ‘foreign invaders’ who don’t belong in India, they have found common cause with the Islamophobic wings of conservative parties in Britain and the US. Turning the South Asian communities into stable hotbeds of bigotry is the goal of Hindutva diplomacy. Anti-black racism finds the prejudices of Hindutva separatism to be fertile ground.
Please do not use the excuse that ‘everyone is racist’. The claim that ‘everybody does it’ is not a defence for harmful or criminal behaviour. This retort is the nuclear kamikaze option – take everyone in the world down with me. Yes, I can hear the screaming objections – do not generalise; not every South Asian or Egyptian-Armenian is racist. Thanks for these helpful observations, but they are completely irrelevant and derail serious conversations about prejudice. And screaming ‘but I don’t see race!’ is equally ridiculous and beside the point.
One of the officers who watched his colleague, Derek Chauvin, suffocate a black man to death, was an Asian American man, a Hmong officer. The need for re-education about race and racism is greater than ever, but it can be done. While tensions between the African American and South Asian communities exist, there is no reason for those tensions to remain in place.
South Asian and African American communities have a long history of interracial cooperation and support. They have fought together, marched and been arrested together. There is no doubt that South Asian migrants, and their children, are having the difficult conversations about racism in their own communities.