We must recall King’s message

On the day Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, we should not be afraid to see racism in our own societies, writes Shelina Janmohamed

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shakes his fist during a speech in Selma, Alabama in 1965. (AP Photo/Horace Cort)
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We are still waiting for the dream to come true, the one where “people will be judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”. In 1963, Martin Luther King shared his dream with an America that was highly segregated and where black Americans were a colour, not a person. Today was the day, in 1968, he was assassinated for being bold enough to dream of justice, respect and emancipation.

Nearly half a century on from King’s assassination, America has travelled from establishing civil rights all the way to electing its first mixed-race president. But as tumultuous events in the US in 2014 have shown – from Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson to Eric Garner’s shooting in New York – the equality due to non-whites is still distant.

It’s easy to point to the US and its repeated proclamation that it is bringing liberation to oppressed peoples around the world, while so many of its own citizens suffer. But to do so without admitting that racism is endemic in our own cultures and countries is hypocritical.

It’s time to shine a spotlight closer to home and speak an unpalatable truth: racism is pervasive and toxic in our own cultures.

Across South Asia, women with pale skins are preferred for marriage, black men are rejected. Darker skinned actresses don’t get to be Bollywood icons. Whether it is the huge industry of skin whitening creams, the determination of what colour skin is “beautiful” or who gets to be in positions of management or political power, ethnicity, caste and colour still hold a powerful role that is not tackled at a fundamental social level.

Some of the racism is subtle. White workers in the Gulf are expats, brown workers are labourers. Those with brown skin who cross over into management are confusing for the social order based on ethnic origin, often treated less well.

The non-white world complains – and rightfully so – of being treated as the “other”. For too many, the standard of the full complete human being is still the white Christian.

Yet we must admit that those who are “othered” are often themselves guilty of racism too. I’ve heard it too often: the complaint about suffering discrimination for being Arab/Asian/African (insert any ethnic group) while in the same breath disparaging someone for having dark skin or coming from a particular race.

Those who are victims of racism should be the first to root out such toxic discrimination, not plead exemption. Worse, victims of racism are forcibly silenced, because the wider population of which they are part suffer a broader discrimination and they are told they shouldn’t be airing their dirty laundry.

We need to say enough: we will not tolerate racism of any kind. That’s the legacy of Martin Luther King. Fifty years on, the global struggle persists.

King gives us a solemn warning, one that must not be forgotten whatever colour we are: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish as fools.”

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk