Thursday July 07, 2022

Not just an American hashtag

June 07, 2020

There seems to be a common misperception in Pakistan that the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is a purely black vs white issue or a police brutality issue, specific to the US, and anyone piggybacking on the movement is just an opportunist.

While this may be correct to some extent, let us not delude ourselves into thinking Pakistan does not have a problem with black people, or for that matter, with police brutality.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has to do with structural oppression rooted in racism. Racism itself is not merely the manifestation of hatred toward a group because of their skin pigmentation; this is too pedestrian an interpretation.

Racism is a system of visible and invisible privilege, with cultural, religious, and social contexts, that permeates every aspect of life. Sure it manifests as visible hatred, but it also manifests invisibly, in the form of privilege, access, indifference, and obliviousness. To believe otherwise is willful ignorance, or a lack of a frame of reference (read: privilege), or insidious reinforcement.

#BlackLivesMatter has become a rallying cry around the world not only because of disproportionate violence against black communities in the US, but because of the pronounced effects of classism, perceived piety, socioeconomic status, sexism, and other forms of accepted and ingrained discriminatory metrics.

There is now debate in Pakistan about how joining the movement is simply “jumping on the bandwagon”, or how “it does not really apply to us”, or “people are just clamoring for attention”. While some of that may be true, it is a fact that #BlackLivesMatter is as pertinent to privilege imbalances in Pakistan as it is in the US. In that sense this is not about debating the semantics of what is or isn’t a black issue, it is about addressing social injustice everywhere. This is not false equivalence; it is contextualization in Pakistani terms.

#BlackLivesMatter, first and foremost applies to our collective issue with black people (not skin tone; that is a whole other issue). In the middle and upper class, this is especially evident, perhaps because the bulk of our opinion comes from American media’s depiction of black people. In 1995, when leaving on a trip to Los Angeles, a family friend offered unsolicited advice to actively avoid black people, for that is where the drugs and crime are. He told me black people were looters and rioters, something he distinctly remembered from the news when they tried to burn down LA in 1991. To put it in perspective, he was referring to the Rodney King incident, of which all he remembered was that black people were the bad guys.

#BlackLivesMatter applies to people in Pakistan with a darker skin tone, another obvious, but important parallel. Pakistanis’ marital potential is determined by how light-skinned they are. Despite established risks, Pakistan remains one of the primary consumers of skin-whitening products, in line with India, Korea, Japan and China. This national obsession with skin tone is as integrated a part of life in Pakistan as chai, and it remains one of the most prominent examples of casual racism in this country.

#BlackLivesMatters is especially applicable in Pakistan in terms of police brutality. The police system in Pakistan is based on an anachronistic, archaic system of governance dating back to the 19th century. The police are universally mistrusted, believed to be inexorably corrupt, and consistently in the spotlight in cases of torture and extrajudicial killings. In fact, an art illustration on extrajudicial killings conducted by notorious former police officer Rao Anwar was razed to the ground in Karachi. So prevalent is police brutality in Pakistan.

#BlackLivesMatter applies to leaving menial and lower class jobs to minority candidates. There is a famous example of a government public posting asking for applicants for the position of a sweeper, and specifically indicating that “only Christians and Hindus apply.” Racism regarding religious minorities is so prevalent that comedians often use a derogatory word for Christians as a casual curse in their routines. In households with minority servants, utensils are often separated. The dominant religion and sect is weaponized by clerics and public alike for short-term gains with nary a thought spared for the long-term consequences.

The bottom-line here is that #BlackLivesMatter applies to the social injustices and privilege that exists in Pakistani society as it does anywhere else. It is one thing to say that black vs white is a US-specific issue, but it is quite another to claim that the movement has no parallels or application in Pakistan.

As a society, we have deeply entrenched biases, clusters of privilege, structural and cultural normalization of discrimination, and religiously-justified hatred. To simply shrug the hashtag as a Western issue is a disservice to the daily examples of inequality and injustice that exist all around us. At the very least, it is an opportunity to have difficult conversations we have been avoiding for far too long.

The writer is as a senior research fellow at the Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad, and a freelance journalist.

Email: zeeshan.salahuddin@

Twitter: @zeesalahuddin