Racism Among Immigrants Is Real, and It’s Our Generation’s Job to End It
We must be critical of the racism within our own communities while also acknowledging the immigrant complex and its roots
BY SUMAIYA AHMED
"We can look at racism from ethnic minorities and children of migrants, towards other ethnic minorities and migrants, to be some kind of trauma from systematic racism and a will to erase their identity, ‘whiten up’ and fit the mould."
12 April 2021
Being born and raised in London, I have always been in a multicultural environment. However, being surrounded by people of different ethnicities and backgrounds doesn’t always bring the feeling of familiarity and acceptance we often think it does, when there is a deeply unsettling racism beneath the surface. I have seen first-hand people from different ethnicities, especially immigrants, be pretty racist towards each other, sometimes even towards their own people – something I have noticed amongst my own Pakistani and Bangladeshi peers. But where does this even stem from?
I once had a conversation with one of my cousins about relationships and marriage, and when I asked her how she’d feel about her children dating outside of their ethnicity, she said “they can be from anywhere, but I don’t want them to be Black.” South Asians are some of the most anti-Black people I’ve met.
I have also seen the reverse. In school, new immigrant kids coming in always caused a stir amongst my peers, a lot of them Black, as these new students were being placed in the higher sets for Maths and Science. Perhaps the fact that these new students – immigrants – were deemed ‘smarter’ than most of us was irritating for some of my classmates. “They can’t even speak English properly,” one person said. “Just munch on curry and put in the Superset,” which was the name of our school’s top set for the three subjects: English, Maths and Science. Thinking back, the reason some of these students were in that higher class was probably because of their results from past schools or any tests they might’ve done for our school, because Maths and Science are pretty much the same in any language. Subjects with either a right or wrong answer, but this was never considered at the time. And as the majority of the students in the top two sets were Asian, this fuelled the racist stereotypes against us.
I distinctly remember in some of my classes, my Filipina friend had to constantly deal with being called Chinese or Japanese by some of the Bangladeshi and Pakistani students. She got sick of correcting them after some time. In one lesson, this person continually called her Chinese and mocked her eyes – when they didn’t listen to either of us and I could see how upset she was, I resorted to slapping them across the face. Funnily enough, this made them stop and apologise. For five whole years, my friend constantly had to deal with being told to “open her eyes” and asked “why are you sleeping?” – another Chinese classmate was asked if her family ate cats and dogs for dinner at home. The racism they faced was vicious, and at the time, they just laughed it off. But this didn’t come from nowhere. It all stemmed from stereotypes and prejudices fed to us through the media, but we were too young to be conscious of it all.
Kashma*, a British Bangladeshi, told me how she was one of the few South Asians at her school and was “mercilessly taunted by the Arab, Black and a few white classmates.” She explains the weirdness of the situation, as they were all minorities in a white-majority environment, “but maybe,” she went on to say, “they were just projecting their own insecurities onto me. Perhaps trying to project the otherness they felt themselves onto me to cope in such a white environment.” She also recalled that she was called the P-word a lot during school and ‘Hindu’ in a derogatory way.
Nobody seems to like talking about how people of colour can be racist towards other people of colour, but we really should. Wasn’t it Azealia Banks who called Zayn Malik a “curry scented bitch”? This is an insult that is used against us South Asians over and over again, and Banks rightfully faced some backlash at the time. Racism is not exclusive to white people: anyone can be racist. There is also an added layer of colourism for a lot of ethnic minorities, coming from Eurocentric beauty standards, where the idealised skin tone and features are ones that fit under the umbrella of ‘whiteness’.
Natasha*, from Hong Kong, talked to me about how she’s faced racist micro-aggressions from other East Asian people due to her darker skin-tone. “I’m not fair enough,” she explained. “And I’ve also seen other people of colour say that Asian people are not considered to be people of colour, or that we’re not oppressed and we’re appropriating the term.” This particular situation is due to the elements of anti-Black racism within Asian communities. “East Asian people are the least likely to be discriminated against because we fit the model minority myth,” Natasha told me. “But we are still discriminated against though, especially since Coronavirus started, and many younger Asian people are fighting against anti-Black racism from within.”
We can look at racism from ethnic minorities and children of migrants, towards other ethnic minorities and migrants, to be some kind of trauma from systematic racism and a will to erase their identity, ‘whiten up’ and fit the mould. This can be seen from using lighter foundations, rejecting cultural outfits, and even dating solely white people. Jennifer, from a Syrian background, explained: “My dad, who faced his own share of racism for being an Arab, often joked about us kids being forbidden to date an Arab or Black person, and I realised as I grew up this actually wasn’t a joke at all and came from a very serious denial of his own identity and journey as a migrant.” Once fitting (or trying to fit) into the societal mould, some think of people from their own ethnicity, country, or even immigrants, as ‘other’ and unacceptable. “I think some immigrants subconsciously develop some sort of complex and would feel like they’re going backwards if their children dated anyone other than a white person. It’s like they closed the door behind them when they came in and locked it for good.”
We openly talk about systemic racism today, which is clearly maintained by social and political institutions. We know first hand that institutional racism leads to further discrimination in housing, education, justice, healthcare and so much more. But we can also be racially attacked from people just down the street, our neighbours from other marginalised ethnic groups, people we grew up with, and even within our own community – as a direct response to their own insecurities, due to systemic racism. It can affect the foundations of the relationships we form as we grow older, but if we don’t want to perpetuate it, it’s up to us to put an end to it.
* Some names were changed on request