By C. Chandrawala
Why is it so difficult to talk to our parents about Black Lives Matter?
2020 has been a year for hard conversations. With our parents especially. Everything from how pathogens work to gay marriage, and why “all lives matter” is not a suitable response to Black Lives Matter. It’s been a year that has seen a lot of us cheer the successes of overturning racism with one hand while scratching our heads with the other hand, wondering why our parents, and boomers from across the subcontinent, just weren’t getting it.
Bridging the intergenerational gap
The recent upsurge in the Black Lives Matter movement pushed a lot of South Asian conversation into confronting anti-blackness within our culture. Five months on from the murder of George Flloyd which sparked worldwide protests, how far have we come? For a culture that is so inextricably caught up in race debates, and so infatuated with the precision of pigment, Boomer’s dismissiveness around the BLM universe seemed to border on willful ignorance. And most worryingly, we were all kind of expecting it. Oh, Boomers.
In bridging the intergenerational gap, even in the arena of racism, which should have been common ground, why has this conversation been so hard? Though we may inhabit the same era, it has become increasingly apparent that these two generations are speaking from starkly different realities.
Though South Asian Boomers as a group have encountered racism far more often and more deeply than Gen Z has, they’ve never had the constructs of racism explained to them in the safety of a classroom setting, they’ve never watched POC talk show hosts breakdown in detail the futility of racist dogmas. And as a starting point, they haven’t been given the space and the lexicon to discuss racism as a finite construct that could be broken down at all. So while Gen Z may able to pull together a well-thought-out, nuanced, critical analysis of the foundations of racism based on a well-established lexicon of wokeness, Boomers are still struggling to come to terms with its existence as a non-mythical concept altogether. And herein lies the crux of the issue.
BLM and the South Asian dinner table
This past summer, the BLM movement shone a spotlight on racism in a bolder and more urgent way than we have encountered over the past years. Riots ripped across the entire globe - spreading from the US to the UK all the way to Australia, Hong Kong, and South Africa. BLM became a global rallying cry out of the pain and frustration of never-ending police violence and endemically racialized structures in the very laws meant to protect us. And the conversation around racism became altogether unavoidable. In 2020 alone, there've only been 14 days where the police haven’t killed someone in the US. The BLM movement sought to not only shine a light on this act, but also to hold those responsible accountable, and seek justice for the systemic racism that were bearing grave and often fatal consequences. And although justice is still yet to be seen in many cases, understanding racism faced by Black communities and how to work against it has filtered into public consciousness more than we’ve ever seen before, So finally, this conversation has worked its way, all the way down to the South Asian dinner table, sitting there, piping hotly, right beside the rotis.
Don’t pay attention to racism, and racism won’t pay attention to you.
Yet Boomers have deftly avoided the conversation at every turn, holding tight to the values they had been instilled with. Don’t pay attention to racism, and racism won’t pay attention to you. Personal run-ins with racism were still being requalified and rewritten to suit a more 1990’s savvy narrative. Chatting over the dinner table, racist bosses or colleagues are chalked up to under-appreciative and dismissive. Racism in the service industry gets hushed with a quiet “maybe they were having a bad day,” and extra-eager TSA Agents were inevitably still just “doing their jobs.” While in the meantime, John Boyega’s speech is playing, muted, on the TV.
And so after decades upon decades of this, when Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd’s faces stared back at us from blinking screens, it became too easy for Boomers to say “I’m sure this was all just a misunderstanding,” all while their Millennials and Gen Z sons and daughters looked on in horror, and we collectively realized just how big this intergenerational gap is.
Internalized Racism, Colorism, and the Post-colonial Legacy:
Where Millennials and Gen Z have grown up in a time where colonial legacies continue to shape their social structures, Boomers were part of the generation which saw the most modern iterations of those structures built, while others fell. Colonialism has been woven into the very fabric of their baseline. Though the caste system had long pre-dated the arrival of the British, the rigidity of colourism was set most deeply during the colonial era, when the Whiteness of the British (and gunpowder) rendered them superior. Indians were told not to question, when we were not allowed into the dining halls of white men in our own homeland, when we were not allowed the shop in the same stores, and attain the same positions in government, economy, and law enforcement. We were told not to question it when, even to date, our natural treasures somehow became the jewels that sat in the very crown that oppressed us.
And because this language of colonialism, the norms of it, have been so deeply normalized within the fabric of the Indian psyche, even where it continues to exist, it goes unchecked and unnoticed. Even today, attentiveness in the service industry is almost defined according to one's pigment in many parts of the country, and when English is spoken in India, everyone else in the conversation will regularly switch to English as well. Those who don’t know the language will apologize, and penitently retreat from the conversation. The “colonial ambiance” of hill-stations are regularly praised, and boutique furniture companies dedicate themselves to cultivating a colonial palette and a campaign aesthetic. The romanticization of the colonial era speaks not to an ignorance of the past, but rather the normalization of it and how deeply seated this ideology runs.
Even outside the subcontinent, after having migrated to all parts of the world, first-generation Indians are still responding to this internal conversation with the colonial, refining, and growing their coping mechanisms to include everything from blushing apologetic pretenses at unfamiliarity with anglophone culture to fullscale adoption of Western personas. Boomers, in particular, have been remarkably adept at coping with their internal perceived inferiority - whether it was to accept this judgment or adapt within it. The option to question the basic premise of “why should one strive to be more like the white man?” was never provided. It is within this context then, that Boomer’s comprehension of race issues today resides.
For a lot of Boomers, the legacy of British superiority lives within them, and colours how they see things, even if they’re unaware of it. And in a lot of ways, it’s hard to see that they’ve had to live with that sense of baseline inferiority. They didn’t really have the choice to say “No, I won’t accept this”, so it was more useful to ignore it.
It’s a confusing logic to navigate, but it’s definitely there, and it’s generation-wide, especially for immigrant parents.
A Color-Based Zero-Sum Game:
And of course, the long and well-established history of colorism within Indian culture made these renewed hierarchies of color much easier to ignore as well. For example, there have been numerous calls to remove a statue of Gandhi at both the University of Ghana and also at the University of Manchester, because of his use of derogatory terms against South Africans whilst he was there in his early 20’s. In his early career, Gandhi thought that the struggles of Indian liberation were different from the struggles of Africans, and despite the fact that these views changed later on, it is still reflected in the attitudes of our culture.
As times progressed, the fragile unity between South Asians and Afro-Caribbean communities dissolved, and hierarchies developed. Whilst South Asians were still under the anglo ex-colonial master in the hierarchy, Afro-Caribbean communities were certainly lower on the ladder. In the UK, for every £1 of British wealth, Indian households have 90–95p, Pakistani households have around 50p, Black Caribbean around 20p, and Black African and Bangladeshi approximately 10p. In the US, Indian-Americans are the highest-earning ethnic group, and their median income of $100,000 is almost double the national average. With all this in mind, believing that all communities get an equal kick at the can in post-migration environments is a bit of a hard sell. One that GenZ wasn't buying.
Indian diaspora groups were seemingly doing better than Afro-Caribbean Communities. And they wore this badge of Relatively-Better-Than with immense pride. To question the system which gave it to them or the rules by which it was awarded, would have meant potentially recalculating what small gains they had made. And the struggles they underwent to make those gains.
Now clearly, before we go any further, we have to point out quite markedly:
Just Because We Understand It, Doesn’t Make It Right
The obligation to consider Boomer’s perspective, respect their context and recognize the socio-cultural norms which shape their opinions is real. However, this doesn’t negate the importance of being an ally, and the importance these community alliances bear on today’s politically ripe climate.
So, armed with all this understanding, (granted, it’s a lot) let’s move forward. How do we help our majority-mindset parents, better understand, and identify with, minority issues?
It’s a confusing logic to navigate, but it’s definitely there, and it’s generation-wide, especially for immigrant parents.
Step 1: Taking away the ability to Remove Oneself from the Issue
Faced with a community that has long been let out of its own politics, the key to opening the conversation may be found in making the political personal. How does one see themselves reflected in politics? If they don’t see themselves reflected in politics, how do they express this lack of reflection? How would they want to see themselves and their identities reflected? Asking questions which prompt greater self-reflection, and provide people who haven’t had that option, the space to consider their own identities may be key in addressing a chronic sense of underrepresentation.
Step 2: Identifying Minority Markers
The strange thing about minority issues is that they actually apply to the vast majority. Nearly everyone has a way of identifying themselves as a minority. Perhaps it is a religious angle, perhaps it is that they are left-handed, their pigment, their regional community, their gender, or their belief system. What aspects make them feel distinct or separate from the mainstream or the majority? Learning to identify how one is part of a minority helps us unlearn automated and destructive antagonistic assumptions about “minority issues.” When broaching these subjects, helping each of us understand how we are each part of the minority, helps us set our feet in the shoes of minority communities with real, and significant, grievances.
Step 3: Dialling into the Minority Narrative
Once all parties to a conversation are able to identify the plight of minority communities, we are able to foster a dialogue wherein everyone at the table is able to appreciate the unique struggles of minority communities. This helps them understand why, for example, Black Lives may be more at risk than others. Clearly identifying the increased exposure to risk and threat faced by minority communities helps establish why certain communities are at greater vulnerability, and thus require prioritization in the political arena, over others.
Step 4: Negating the Idea of a Zero-Sum Game
Now that we have clearly demonstrated the need for prioritization of minority issues, whose vulnerability and threat is understood and felt, and have also identified that representation is important within the political arena, newbies to minority issues may worry about the slippery slope phenomenon - “if these people need to have their sense of quality improved, then what’s to stop everyone else? Where will it end?” And here we have our final takeaway - Equality is not a Zero-Sum Game. It does not have an end - improving others equality improves everyone’s equality. There will always be the need to progress towards greater equality. And every generation does its part. Even the Boomers. Even now.