The first Black Lives Matter protest I attended was on May 21, 2016. It was only a handful of people peacefully protesting outside the US Department of Justice building in Washington D.C. Amidst the speeches, chants, songs and gestures of solidarity, there was an ominous presence around us. Seven police cars were parked on the street across from us as over forty fully-armed police officers stood at a distance, carefully watching us. This unease was new for me, as I wondered why they needed forty cops for twenty people. I didn’t fully understand the dynamic back then. But with each unarmed black man killed by the police, with each failure of the government to hold the officers responsible, with each protest and with each news headline, I understood. I understood when Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into George Folyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as he kept saying “I can’t breathe”. I understood why hundreds of thousands of people protested, why they were angry and why they demanded justice.

As the days went by without the arrest of all four officers involved, the protests started to spread across 26 countries, marking this as one of the largest civil rights movements in history. The issue of anti-blackness and systemic racism is now being looked at through an international lens. People are introspectively looking at the problem of institutionalised racism within their own countries and trying to deconstruct, understand and resolve the issue.

In Pakistan, there has been an unprecedented support for the cause across social media platforms as #blacklivesmatter hashtags, photos and general gestures of solidarity have been trending. The support has been met with two starkly different responses that highlight the dynamic of racism in Pakistan.

The first response was praise of people who supported the cause. It is the first time that Pakistanis are speaking up on the issue on such a wide scale. Social media has amplified voices of the BLM movement to reach South Asia and has had a significant impact on the young population.

In contrast, the second response was directed towards calling people out over the hypocritical and performative nature of their activism. It is hypocritical when celebrities post a black photo with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter while raking in millions of rupees for their sponsorship to and appearance in fairness cream ads. It is also hypocritical when people denounce racism in America but make fun of their dark-skinned friends by calling them “kala” (black) and look down on people who have dark skin.

Performative activism, defined as activism that is done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause, has been rampant as people are jumping on the bandwagon to protest against racial injustice simply for their own benefit. South Asians in particular are being accused of using this “trending culture” on social media to protest something they inherently do not practice or believe in. In fact, people who are protesting racial discrimination benefit every day from the structures of their society that oppresses minorities. When called out on their performative nature of activism, many defended by saying it is because “racism does not exist in Pakistan”. Not only is this far from the reality but it only goes to show the level of ignorance when it comes to understanding racism in South Asia.

Racism in South Asia stems from the duality of casteism and colonialism. The caste system classifies the society into units of “graded inequality” and dates back to the Aryan era. Caste sets social class, social status and occupation but it has been racialised to frame lower castes as darker and upper castes as fair-skinned and “pure”. Over time, the prejudice became internalised into the social, political and economic fabric of the subcontinent. To this day, the caste system and its subsequent discrimination haunts South Asia as people of lower castes are oppressed by the system and society alike.

This culture of “anti-blackness” has been amplified by the advent of colonialism. Whiteness has been glorified as European standards of beauty were worshipped throughout British India. Suffering from this colonial hangover, countries like Pakistan, India and Bangladesh instil these false ideals through the media and beauty industry. India’s skin whitening industry is a multibillion-dollar industry and is still growing. Some of the most prominent and influential celebrities from both sides of the border have starred in ads for fairness products which blatantly promote the idea of “fair is better”. Many Bollywood roles of dark-skinned characters are given to light-skinned actors who are shown dark with “blackface” makeup.

In Pakistan, the film and TV industry does not have many roles for dark-skinned characters and often uses them as stereotypes. While these practices are slowly being challenged, they have formed, fuelled and solidified a whole culture of colourism in the subcontinent. This culture seeps through the social fabric of Pakistan and is evident every time a racist joke is forwarded on Whatsapp, every time a fairness cream sold in beauty shops, every time a upper caste landlord hits his lesser caste maid, every time someone is called “kala/kali”, every time the n-word in casually thrown around in conversation and every time a person is judged based on the colour of their skin, their caste or their ethnicity. How can we stop this?

It is imperative to educate ourselves and accept the presence of anti-blackness and colourism in Pakistan. It is equally important to recognise your privilege if you come from a place where you have not experienced prejudice based on your skin colour. The way in which racism can be tackled is two-fold; one, showing solidarity with African-Americans. The South Asian diaspora in particular needs to spearhead this by not appropriating black culture, not stereotyping it and actively working towards the cause of eliminating racial justice against them. Donate, sign a petition, stop using the n-word, speak up against police brutality and systemic racial oppression.

Two, start at home. Stop stereotyping and making fun of your dark-skinned friends, stop supporting celebrities who endorse fairness cream ads and stop obsessing over fair-skinned women whether in drama serials or as marriage proposals. We need to also teach others to stop indulging in practices that promote colourism. It is about time that Pakistanis get rid of deep-rooted casteism and residual colonialism by doing their part, one step at a time.

Raina Iqbal

The writer is a graduate of California State University Northridge and has worked at the Consulate General of Pakistan in Los Angeles. She is an award-winning public speaker with a keen interest in public policy and international affairs.