Indian Support for George Floyd, While We Remain Silent on Violence at Home, Is Hypocritical, Performative Wokeness
“Would the average upper caste/class Indian respond with the same empathy to the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula?”
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man was killed by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. An unarmed and handcuffed Floyd lay on the ground while Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than seven minutes, while Floyd repeatedly told the officers “I can’t breathe” – until he was motionless. Evoking a long line of police murders of unarmed black men and boys in the United States, several bystanders caught the entire Floyd incident on video, which has since been heavily circulated, triggering violent protests and sparking global outrage.
In the days following Floyd’s death, I witnessed a wonderful outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter and anger towards institutionalized racism from my friends and family in India, many of whom have in the past studied or lived in the US. Standing in solidarity with other disenfranchised/minority/systematically targeted communities is absolutely vital now more than ever. But while it’s human to feel shaken by such horrific violence, the Indian reaction to George Floyd’s murder is tainted by hypocrisy and complicity. It calls into question our community’s violent history with both anti-Blackness and Western infatuation.
My first instinct is to question why so many privileged Indians are quick to speak out about the murder of black people in America but are silent when it comes to the issues of communal and state violence against lower caste communities here. In the last several months, mob lynchings, attacks on students and incidents of Islamophobia, queerphobia and police brutality have been rampant across India. Incredibly graphic, chilling videos of these have circulated here with the same fervour as Floyd’s – but are they met with the same pain? There’s something specific about liberal anger for divisive politics in India – it comes from a distance, it’s mixed with resignation and a lack of surprise, and often it’s mired in privilege that prevents it from being truly personal.
Violence is almost expected in India. Much of the Global South is still grappling with its colonial legacy that confined it to being “backward and barbaric.” The idea that black and brown bodies are innately predisposed to violence is still shockingly common rhetoric, both in our collective subconscious and as a more explicit political tool. It is used to explain away everything from “black on black” crime, to inevitable communal riots, to the constant state of war in the Middle East. More importantly, in India, the virulent tenacity of caste continues to perpetuate this idea, internalizing and invisibilizing it into our culture. Would the average upper caste/class Indian respond with the same empathy and shock to the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula as they would to George Floyd?
Empathy is not zero-sum, and outrage over injustice in India and the US are not mutually exclusive. A comparison between them in this context poses problems of its own, and is perhaps reductionist by itself. The way we understand violence in India should not be contingent upon how it’s understood elsewhere, especially the West. Yet we’ve always witnessed the asymmetry with which violence is received – and the selectiveness with which people grieve – around the world. In the same way that black lives are treated as less valuable than white ones, Dalit lives are disposable compared to Brahmin ones. Isolated terrorist attacks in Paris are considered deeply tragic, but regular drone strikes on civilians in Pakistan are rarely acknowledged. The idea of a universal humanity doesn’t apply in such cases – one kind of life (Western, white) is worth protecting, the other feels fungible.
This is further complicated by the fact that many urban Indians are desperate – and conditioned – to emulate the West, and racism is no exception. Both India and the Indian diaspora are steeped in a long history of anti-Blackness. From African students being killed in New Delhi, to kids abrasively using the N-word and other racist slurs for “fun,” dark skin – often a marker of caste as well – has always been culturally disparaged. Aspirations to be fairer, whiter, run so deep that dark skin is frequently met with physical hostility and relentless discrimination.
When Indians take to their social media to speak up against racism in the US (or when a scattered Black Lives Matter march was organized in Delhi in the midst of the revoking of Article 370 on Kashmir), I wonder if a new form of appropriating cultural movements is emerging, one that replaces genuine solidarity and sacrifice with a performative wokeness merely to emulate our Western counterparts. From where we stand, calling out racism and having anti-Trump and pro-BLM sentiments is the new American status symbol that we must look up to, all the while refusing to introspect on our own actions. We conveniently ignore the fact that we, too, benefit from a power structure that oppresses all those on lower levels of a forced sociocultural hierarchy.
For years, thousands of Indian students and activists have spoken out against and fiercely protested the injustices of police brutality and state-led violence. Some have embodied an inclusive, intersectional and revolutionary approach to this struggle. But for the most part, the structures of caste privilege and colourism persist comfortably in India. South Asians – particularly those of Brahminical descent – have long contributed to the anti-Blackness and racism that has led to the present reality for black and dark-skinned people in the US and outside of it. Our reluctance to address this history, while tokenistically supporting the liberation of a community whose oppression we are complicit in, makes us hypocrites.
Instead of perfunctory sympathy and performative resistance, we ought to learn from the bravery and resilience of all those on the frontlines of this fight. To do justice to George Floyd, to the black men and women that were killed before him, and to the communities protesting this oppression, we need to do more than just pay lip service to these movements and take up the fight against systemic casteism, classism and racism here. We should work together to not only decolonize the framework with which we view ourselves and our histories, but also dismantle the structures of power that keep us from reimagining a collective future.
Paroma Soni is a data journalist and videographer from Mumbai currently based in New York. Her work focuses on politics, human rights, gender, and culture. You can find her on social media at @paromasoni.