The Black Story webinar sheds spotlight on ‘Dismantling Anti-Blackness in South Asia and the Diaspora’

Echoing solidarity in light of the global Black Lives Matter movement against racial injustices, ‘The Black Story’ – an ongoing virtual interactive exhibition organized by the Gallery Cosmos and supported by Cosmos Foundation, hosted a special webinar recently, as part of a series of intellectual interventions for the interactive exhibition.

The webinar, titled ‘Dismantling Anti-blackness in South Asia and the Diaspora’, took place on March 2 at the YouTube channel of UNB and the Facebook pages of UNB and Gallery Cosmos, with a vision to examine, explore, and embrace the historical ties between the Black and South Asian communities through an active and engaging conversation between Nahar Khan, Curator of ‘The Black Story’ interactive exhibition and Executive Director of Gallery Cosmos and Cosmos Foundation, and Dr Haider Ali Khan, John Evans Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Economics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

Featuring insightful discussions on deconstructing the ties between Black and South Asian communities, the webinar explored striking topics including the intermarriage and forging of lives between Black Americans and Bengali migrants as per Vivek Bald’s book Bengali Harlem, the Model Minority Myth and the need for inter-minority solidarity, connections between the Black Freedom Movement and the Indian Independence Movement, issues regarding Caste and Colourism in South Asia and more.

Touching on what exactly enabled the forging of lives between the Black Americans and Bengali migrants in America, Dr Haider Ali Khan mentioned, “There was a cultural flourishing in Harlem, but what professor Bald has done is to draw our attention to the migrants from South Asia, particularly Bangladesh, and particularly some specific districts of Bangladesh like Sylhet, Noakhali, Chittagong, and also some others. Some of them had to overcome their own racism towards African-Americans in America, and they found support and forged very solid relationships – quite often matrimonial relationships, especially with African-American women and Puerto Rican women,” in reference to the historical inter-minority and solidarity between the two communities.

Answering Nahar Khan’s questions regarding what role did the Civil Rights Movement play in South Asians being able to migrate to the US and the possible connections between the Black Freedom Movement and India’s Independence Movement, Professor Khan said, “I think South Asians today and other immigrants from Asia, immigrants of colour, in general – should be immensely grateful to the Civil Rights Movement, especially during the 1960s – which coincided with the relaxation of immigration policies towards non-white people and Asians in particular. The historic struggle started even before the US became independent, but certainly, during the post-Civil War period from the 1870s onwards, racism actually became more intense in the US – in the South in particular. Although legally there was equality, in reality, there was tremendous inequality and that was reinforced.”

Alongside her insightful questions, Nahar Khan pointed out that the Civil Rights Movement really made way for the historic victories that were to come for minorities in America – and South Asians directly benefited from the movement in the 1960s and the Nationality Act of 1965. She also addressed the interesting interconnectedness between the Black Freedom Movement and the Indian Independence Movement, shedding the spotlight on Bayard Rustin who taught Martin Luther King about Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance and advised him on the tactics of civil disobedience – a form of peaceful protest that is strongly reflected in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 19555-1956, and the March on Washington as well in 1963 where Dr King delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

‘A vicious myth’

Answering Nahar Khan’s next question regarding the existence of the Model Minority Myth, a much prevalent factor which created a deep racial wedge within the BIPOC (Black Indigenous and People of Colour) communities, Dr Khan said, “I think the Model Minority Myth is indeed a myth because it papers over the more rebellious minority groups, and in fact, maligns them, impugns them, and brands them as not fitting into American society, not willing to be quiet and trying to get whatever they could get from within the system.”

Nahar Khan then added, “In 1965, the US passed the immigration act where Asians were only allowed to immigrate based on high education levels or special skills – so we were predetermined to be successful – law abiding, and good, and essentially model minorities – and seemingly the opposite of black people. But many times we don’t connect that black Americans were not introduced to the country based on education; they were enslaved, systematically dehumanized and oppressed. And so the Model Minority Myth was a tool to divide people of colour by giving us Partial access to rights, healthcare, education, employment and creating a feeling of false rivalry between minorities.”

When Nahar Khan asked about the importance of Inter-Minority Solidarity, Dr Khan said, “I think it is definitely something that people have analyzed, starting with pioneers among the African-American community. We now have the idea on the concept of intersectionality, which brings together the ideas of class, which you mentioned with respect to more elite class immigrants from South Asia, gender and race, and these are all very deep issues.”

He added, “We know that race is fictitious, but racism is, unfortunately, altogether too real. If we take this intersectional perspective we find that the poorer working-class, blue-collar, low-income communities of people and more recently, women – they are discriminated against as a group more, and because of the history of racism in America against Black people, Puerto Rican people and Mexican people in particular, and Spanish-speaking groups; and although there has been tremendous genocide, there are still some native Americans left and they have been discriminated against perhaps the longest, which still continues. So this separation of minorities in terms of class and racism, both implicit and explicit, especially among East Asians and South Asians, is very pervasive.”

When Nahar Khan questioned the origin of the anti-blackness and anti-black sentiments of the South Asians and how can the society disrupt and dismantle binary conceptions of homeland and diaspora, Professor Khan said, “Racism, in a broad sense, is discriminating against and looking down upon people who are of slightly different shades of colour or differentiated in some physiognomic aspect of hair or the shape of their face, and even minor differences can be accentuated very intensely if it serves some purpose for people who are in charge, who are in the dominant position – and racism is pretty much like that in India, in South Asia.”

Explaining further, he added, “It goes back actually to the old days of the caste system among the Hindus. The Muslims and Sikhs were not supposed to and did not have a caste system, but on the other hand, there was a distinction between Ashraf (upper-class) and Atrav (lower class) people, and the distinction was also in terms of skin tone and skin colour. So it really predates the Europeans coming to the subcontinent, but once they found themselves in the ruling position – these Europeans, especially the English, knew that this was a very good weapon to use. So they accentuated, and defined some people, as for example – the Punjabis, as being martial – and they classified Bengalis as being non-martial. The fact, if you look at history, is that the Bengalis were the first rebellious group of people so it cuts in many ways. Coming back to the race question, it is basically the accentuation of skin colour and some physical features over others, and making one group look superior and in fact, once they start believing this then you do not have to work very hard to keep this division going.”

Sharing his further thoughts on the presence and perpetuation of colourism within South Asian communities, Dr Haider Ali Khan said, “I think it is a vicious circle that will reinforce itself unless strong opposition at various levels is offered – and conversations like this are needed to offer some light, in terms of historical, sociological and economic analysis.”

When asked about his opinion regarding the unique story of the newly-elected Vice President Kamala Harris and what does the achievement mean for the black and brown communities, Professor Khan said, “I think it is a great story, and the story of her mother and her father are also equally interesting. I have been very lucky because I learned from her father, Professor Don Harris, who was a prolific and deep thinker and still is. Kamala Harris learned from her surroundings and she represents, in some ways, what Melville in the 19th century expressed for America that if you cut any one of us, in our blood you will find the entire world and the whole human race. Melville was a great democratic person just as Walt Whitman was, in the 19th century – and Kamala Harris combines so, so much just in her genome, I suppose – combining South Asia with the Caribbean and the American experience, growing up in Northern California, and becoming a very successful professional in her own rights, and being very brave in so many ways.”

“I think she is a great role model for people, and she is inspiring especially minority women, but also for men like me. I think we should really look at the positive side of our example and learn from it, and maybe the next generation of activists will do it even better. I certainly hope that the next generation of activists, and activist scholars, in particular, will do it better than my generation has done so far.”

Nahar Khan concluded, “Looking back at the historical solidarity the black and brown communities shared in the West – They spent decades forging lives across the kinds of ethnic, cultural, and religious differences that are too often presumed to be insurmountable or impossible.”

“And so the hope is that our historical ties and interconnectedness can be reflected in societies and communities today through inter-minority solidarity and allyship,” she added.

The ongoing month-long virtual exhibition was inaugurated on February 25 by social activist Khushi Kabir, visual artist Osi Audu and curator of The Black Story Nahar Khan.

Conceived and curated by Nahar Khan, The Black Story is organized by Gallery Cosmos and supported by Cosmos Foundation. Proceeds from The Black Story will go towards the Black & Indigenous People of Colour Creative Association (BIPOC-CA).

The month-long virtual exhibition is inviting people from all walks of lives from February 25 to March 25, 2021, on the official website of the exhibition at, as well as through the social media pages of the Gallery and UNB. Interesting segments are being showcased in the exhibition alongside webinars, photography, poetry, film, and various audio and visual multimedia pieces through its dedicated and interactive virtual gallery.

Source: United News of Bangladesh