Photo courtesy #unfairandlovely campaign featured on BBC
Anti-blackness has no place in 2020, not even at your dining table. At dinner tonight, when that awkward silence creeps up, when those pregnant looks are exchanged, and your family decides to talk (or not to talk) about the murder of George Floyd, be the voice for the black community. It is important for us to remember that this is not just an American issue, we have to talk about where anti-blackness rears its ugly head in Sri Lanka, why it exists, and what we can do about it.
Anti-blackness is inevitable in a post-colonial country. It is a relic of an era in which skin colour was viewed on a spectrum of tone but also superiority, where whiteness was seen as the acme of sophistication and civilization and blackness relegated to the opposite end of the gradient. We were conditioned to believe that whiteness equated success, and blackness is a condition that we must leave behind. It is an idea so ingrained in our fabric as a society that its colourist sentiment is still very much a part of Sri Lanka today. You hear it whenever your grandmother compliments you by saying that you look fair and wards off darkness by warning you not to stay out in the sun too long. Fairness creams are expertly marketed and beautifully wrapped packages of colourism. They promise to make you “fair and lovely,” furthering the idea that to be less fair is to be less lovely. When we buy products that are designed to bleach our skin, we casually and blindly propagate white supremacist ideas. But can you blame us? We are fed the idea that white is right from every avenue, look at Sri Lankan advertising. The aid campaigns of both Spa Ceylon and Cotton Collection, companies that pride themselves on being local, exclusively feature light-skin Sri Lankans. It is easy to understand how such insidious messaging can seep into our thinking when it is plastered all over local billboards and magazine fold outs.
Growing up, I was ever so slightly darker than my sister and our female cousins, and I struggled with that. I remember there being a tube of Fair and Lovely in my mom’s toiletry cupboard and sometimes I would sneakily apply it to my face, knowing that what I was doing was silly and wrong, but doing it anyway. I like to think that I have dealt with that now, but every now and then I feel upset when I spend too much time in the sun and look even minutely darker. Janet has not just one, but a whole line of whitening products, from creams to deodorants, just in case the shadow of white supremacy snuck up to your armpits. They sneakily market is as “fair and natural,” but what is natural about altering your skin colour to satisfy a European beauty standard? Loreal’s “White Perfect” has a huge market in Sri Lanka, feeding into the already pernicious idea that anything darker than white is less than perfect. Next let’s look at Sri Lankan entertainment, where blackface is disgustingly prevalent. In the wake of the protests for George Floyd, two Sri Lankan influencers faced increased criticism for doing blackface in skits that they posted online, as well as for taking on roles where they would have to do blackface. In both cases, the new dark skin character was the ugly one, or the creepy one, even the dumb one – almost a modern-day recreation of the stereotypical, villainous, animal-like black characters in Birth of a Nation, and we all know what the outcome of that was. On Sri Lankan television, dark skin characters are most often the “bad ones” in the story. This furthers the negative stereotypes and associations that have followed black people for centuries, from ugliness to criminality. When called out, the two influencers defended themselves by claiming that the villagers who consumed their content did not think about it like that, essentially using “it’s not that deep” as their justification, but that is the point. It is that deep. Anti-black roots run so deep in Sri Lankan culture that we are blind to it. Viewers consume this messaging, learning it as fact and then passing this ‘truth’ on to the next generation.
Brown people in Sri Lanka position ourselves in the middle of the skin colour spectrum. This allows us to convince ourselves and others that we are somehow superior to the black community, but still attempt every day to reach that great-white status, fooling ourselves into thinking that we might attain the same privilege and power. Sri Lankans actively buy into the lie that we are the “model minority” i.e. we meet the ideals and standards (set by white people) of how you should behave in society in order to succeed. The myth of a “model minority” is a pillar of the white supremacist society we inhabit. It promotes the idea that looking and acting white will boost your social currency. It is a racial wedge, designed to divide and conquer, separating us from our coloured brothers and sisters. The idea itself is anti-black, it suggests that if the “model minority” can succeed in Western societies, then the continued poverty and prevalence of crime within black communities must be testimony to something inside them rather than of the exterior institutions that are designed to hold them down. It functions on the ignorant sentiment that hard work and good grades can overcome internalized, interpersonal, institutional, and structural racism, and allow one to gloss over more than two centuries of enslavement.
Our handy position in the middle of the spectrum allows us to exploit either side whenever it suits us. We’re ‘basically white’ when we want a taste of the privilege and power that comes with that, but the moment we are called out for using the ‘n’ word, then we’re ‘basically black.’ The trend of Sri Lankans using the ‘n’ word is also a form of anti-blackness – intentional or not. We develop as people through a combination of our primary and secondary educations. Your primary education is what you learn within the walls of your home, at the dinner table, from the things you overheard your dad say in response to news headlines. Your secondary education is what trickles down to you from the institutions that make up your society. The problem in Sri Lanka, especially for kids in local schools, is that anti-blackness pervades our homes, whilst at school, there is no mention of the struggles of the black community in America. I went to a private school that prided itself on being one of the best on the island. I studied world history, yet we never learnt about slavery. I was privileged enough to learn about the civil rights movement – which is more than what is taught in local schools. However, this meant that we began to see racial discrimination against the black community in the US as a piece of history, a solved issue, not one that is prevalent today. We never learnt about the weight of the word that we had picked up in rap songs and were so casually using amongst our friends until we began to learn it through the internet. The problem for some is that it was too late, the word had already been ingrained as a casual component of their vocabulary. They justify their use of the word by saying “I don’t mean it that way,” but the issue is, there is only one way to mean it. It was a word used by white people to dehumanize black people, justifying their enslavement as a sub-category of humans. It is synonymous with ‘rapist,’ ‘parasite,’ ‘dirty,’ would you call your friends any of those things? The second justification I have heard time and time again, is that brown kids get to say the n word because “we’re basically black.” In fact, the very people on my Instagram feed reposting the empty black square on their profiles are the same people who casually and callously use the ‘n’ word. This is not to say that anyone who has used the ‘n’ word in the past cannot be an ally, but to be an ally you have to proactively educate yourself and grow using what you learn.
Dismantle anti-blackness in your own home, at your dinner table. Have those conversations, as uncomfortable as they may be. I know it is exhausting and can feel futile, but it’s doing a lot more than a black square on your Instagram will ever do. When your aunties say that they “understand why black people are mad” but “there are better ways to protest,” correct them. Peaceful protests work when your government and the institutions responsible are willing to listen to you. Not when they are the very people killing you – that forces action. When your uncles ask what rioting will do to help, tell them it is the only reason that the murderer of George Floyd was arrested. When your grandmother mourns over the destruction of property, remind her of the lives that have been destroyed – Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, the list goes on. Say their names. Do not avoid the conversation. It is not a difference in generations anymore, it is 2020. Complacency is racist, silence is violence. Always remember that it is not just about educating those around you, but continuing to educate yourself. Unearth your own anti-blackness. Confront it. The oppressed can also be the oppressor. Hold others accountable, but first hold yourself accountable.