Complicating Desi Narratives

By Zara Nasir

“It…was assumed that identifying oneself as oppressed freed one from being an oppressor,” bell hooks wrote in her influential book Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women & Feminism. Although hooks was writing primarily of the racism that existed/exists within the (predominantly white) mainstream feminist movement, this idea has relevance to communities of the South Asian diaspora, who in some circumstances, operate as the oppressed and in others, the oppressor.

South Asian communities have been subject to hundreds of years of white supremacist, antiblack colonialism, capitalism and imperialism.  Because of South Asian proximity to blackness (and colonial project’s definition of humanity based on social distance from blackness), communities in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, became incorporated into the European colonial project.  Subsequently, these communities suffered all of the associated ills of colonial domination (exploitation of land, resources, and bodies; legacies of internalized racism, colorism; institutionalized patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, whorephobia, etc.; widening wealth disparities, access to education, food, housing, and all basic needs and privileges).

Meanwhile, the aforementioned colonial legacies are built upon with additional forms of ‘post-colonial’ domination disguised as neo-colonialfree-trade’ agreements, reduced international regulations, increased privatization,  and subtler forms of control like structural adjustment loans, ngo-ization and the non-profit industrial complex, the white-savior industrial complex and the international aid industry.  As Alok Vaid-Menon pointedly asks in their spoken word poetry, “so what if the best way to dominate a world is to pretend that you are saving it?”

With all these forms of domination and control on brown desi communities, it is easy to stop the conversation there, as many have, without addressing the perpetuation of anti-blackness and other forms of oppression by South Asian diaspora on their own and other marginalized communities of color.  Often, we desis focus on our struggle or our parents struggle, hiding under the term ‘people of color,’ without implicating ourselves and our communities.

But what about our communities tendencies to arrange social position by social distance to blackness through colorism? In the U.S. context, what about our compliance to the role of model minority, one that essentially supports ‘getting ahead’ by accepting systems of oppression (example: pursuing ‘safe,’ profitable career paths, striving for ‘success’ according to a capitalist white supremacist framework, silence rather than protest,  etc.)?

Though we have formally understood our voluntary immigration through the lens of displacement and suffering, we often forget that many have come to this context involuntarily by force (specifically: Native Americans & African Americans).  As Dark Matter writes so eloquently, “In other words, our families benefit from the spoils of centuries of genocide and anti-black racism… our families remained silent and continued to succeed on the backs of other people of color.”

In many contexts both related and separate from these, privileged South Asian communities exert control over others, leading to oppression, violence, and at times, genocide.  In 1971, the (hegemonic Punjabi) Pakistani armed forces committed genocide against ethic Bengalis in then ‘East Pakistan,’ a fact that most Pakistanis still deny.  Colorism is prevalent in most South Asian communities, where power, privilege, and money is organized around lighter skin color (read: anti-blackness, social distance from blackness).  Living in Pakistan for the last few months, it’s hard to watch a single commercial break without several ads from Fair & Lovely, Olay, Ponds, Garnier, flaunting their cream’s skin whitening abilities.  In Pakistan especially, Sectarian violence is rampant, with majorly Sunni communities discriminating and committing violence against Shia communities, as well as other (Muslim & non-Muslim) religious and ethnic minorities such as the Kalashi, Ahmadis, Hindus, Christians, and Jews.

In American Muslim communities, South Asians experience a kind of race-privilege and hegemonic control in mosques and Muslim Student Associations across the nation.  As prevalent in many communities around the world, heteropatriarchy, transphobia, whorephobia, ableism and other kinds of systemic ostracism of marginalized people is widespread in the South Asian diaspora.

While these realities do not erase our own experiences, they do and necessarily should complicate it (Kim Katrin Crosby).  How do we move forward, with this new understanding of ourselves? How do we move away from basing our communities on class ascendency  and complicity in the oppression of other people of color? How can we combat colorism and other forms of anti-blackness in our communities? How do we move away from narratives of trauma to more realistic descriptions of mutual accountability? How do we, in the US, express effective and genuine solidarity with our diasporic communities in the Global South and other poc liberation movements without co-opting or appropriating?

Though we may not be able to answer these questions sufficiently, MuslimARC’s discussions and panels may be a place where we can delve into these dilemmas and more, always remembering the work other people of color are doing and have done before us; the emotional, physical, and psychological labor to give us the critical understandings we have today.


Zara Nasir has spent most of her conscious life reflecting on the state of poor people of color, due to her background as the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. She began her involvement in racial justice and community organizing through an internship where she began a new student organization to mobilize students and Detroit residents around immigration reform during the 2010 Midterm Elections.

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