It was within days of the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, at the peak of the national protests that the killing sparked, at the center of which was, is, the Black Lives Matter movement, that they started appearing: Facebook posts on my feed of friends and friends of friends joining the “All Lives Matter” bandwagon. It was part déjà vu and part not at all surprising. This moment had happened before, when Black Lives Matter first began and large portions of the white American populace lost their minds, taking it as a direct disregard for their lives. So began their counter “movement.”
Only, the posters on my feed were not white. They were South Asian, many of them Bangladeshis, like me, either part of the diaspora in the US or living in Bangladesh. Their extreme grievance had all the outrage and indignation of the original coiners of “All lives matter.” How dare their lives be left out! Some of the posts sounded as though they were personally harmed by the mere utterance and existence of Black Lives Matter. They scolded and they issued clarifications of why Black Lives Matter struck such a nerve.
A “Muslim lives matter” post appeared, and yet another, in its indignant inclusivity, added “Police lives matter.” In the real world, police across America were tear-gassing lawful protestors, beating peaceful marchers with batons, and firing rubber bullets and pepper-spray pellets at Americans decrying systemic racism and demanding justice.
Here’s a refresher: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi created Black Lives Matter in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman. Martin was a 17-year-old Black man and Zimmerman a 28-year-old man of mixed race. Zimmerman shot and killed Martin in 2012, claimed self-defense, and was acquitted. The following year Michael Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Eric Garner died the same year in New York, unable to breathe in a police chokehold, for selling loose cigarettes outside a convenience store. Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade – Black men and women dead at the hands of racist cops, not one of whom were charged with murder. Black Lives Matter is a specific and direct response to this. In the early days of the movement, posts and memes went around telling BLM and its supporters to “get over themselves.” Projection, anyone?
Those of my fellow South Asians and Bangladeshis that were, that are, so hair-trigger prompted to lash out against Black Lives Matter neglect a crucial aspect of what they’re latching onto as a consequence, however inadvertently or unintentionally: white supremacy. No, this doesn’t mean they’re chanting “White Power” and hurling racial slurs. Neither does it mean that just because they have black friends and co-workers whom they love and respect that they can’t be racist.
White supremacy is a multilayered, multifaceted system, not limited to the Ku Klux Klan or fringe outfits like the Boogaloo boys. In its most insidious forms it exists silently and comfortably in mainstream American life – at school, at workplaces, in finance, in real estate, in police departments and the military – and, closer to home, in my community, with those South Asians and Bangladeshis that have opted for white-adjacency.
Anti-black racism seems to come easy for too many in my community, easier than accepting Black Lives Matter. The roots of this are complex, ingrained in our attitudes toward skin color which favors “fair” over “dark.” Deplorable ads for a skin-lightening product named Fair and Lovely play across channels throughout the Subcontinent. The ones that I saw in Bangladesh featured prominent Bollywood actors whose skin color is shown in time-lapse going from an undesirable dark to a cleansed and palatable fair after they used Fair and Lovely as directed over a period of time. South Asians and Bangladeshis talk of “bad neighborhoods” in Chicago and New York and Detroit and Los Angeles with the same underlying suggestion as the white people from whom they’ve inherited the racist whistle: those neighborhoods are predominantly, if not entirely, Black.
South Asians and Bangladeshis have largely fared better in America. Education, upward mobility, wealth. They assimilated, which meant what it has always meant: blending and disappearing as model minorities within white society, not sticking out, not calling attention to themselves, being grateful for a shot at the American Dream, being okay and silent in a system rife with inequality and oppression because it doesn’t affect them.
The post-Black Lives Matter backlash saw Blue Lives Matters. Suddenly, there not only needed to be a movement calling for cop killers to be brought to justice but it had to use, of all the other choices of words and phrases, the one that hit home the hardest.
In June, a Dallas bar-owner, one of several suing the Texas governor over re-imposed restrictions because of COVID-19 spikes, organized a “Bar Lives Matter” concert and protest. On July 5, a news report out of Branson, Missouri showed Black Lives Matters protestors facing off with counter-protestors of the predominantly white town waving Confederate flags, wearing MAGA hats and Trump 2020 t-shirts. One man wore a black t-shirt that said “White Lives Matter,” and at least one other man had no problem with the Swastikas tattooed on his neck being shown, in close-up, on national TV.
Am I suggesting that my fellow South Asians and Bangladeshis are the same as those racists? No, not literally. But what do I make of them using the tactics of white supremacy without a thought, and defending their use of it? What do I make of them seeing the validity of a racist backlash over the legitimacy of a movement for lives that have repeatedly not mattered?
If we’re going to be allies, the only permission we have is to say Black Lives Matter. If we’re not going to be allies, fine. What we cannot do is appropriate, disregard specifics, and be ignorant of oppression we’re enabling and supporting.
Nadeem Zaman is the author of the novel In the Time of the Others (Picador India 2018; longlisted for the 2019 DSC Prize in South Asian Literature) and the story collection Up in the Main House & Other Stories (Unnamed Press 2019). His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in journals in the US, India, Hong Kong, and Bangladesh. Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he grew up there and in Chicago. He studied English Literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago and earned a PhD. in Humanities with concentrations on Fiction and Postcolonial Studies from the University of Louisville. He lives in Maryland where he teaches in the English department at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.