Gender and Reproductive Health Justice for South Asian Immigrant Communities

Reflection from SAALT’s 2016-2017 Young Leaders Institute

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Gender justice has always been a deep passion of mine, especially as a South Asian woman who grew up in the South.  It was while I was in high school in Atlanta, Georgia that I realized I was not receiving comprehensive information regarding reproductive health such as contraception and consent.  My school offered abstinence-only education.  This has clear shortcomings, which in tandem with the taboo nature of reproductive health conversations within the South Asian community created a culture of ignorance, fear, and avoidance surrounding this very important topic.

While I strengthened my understanding of reproductive health in college and beyond, I understood that I was particularly privileged to have this option.  So many members of my community did not have this access, and I was not sure how to create pathways to this information strategically or effectively.  When I learned of SAALT’s Young Leaders Institute (YLI), I thought this would be an important opportunity for me to learn the tools and strategies to create the change I wanted to see.

An important aspect that I explored through YLI was the fact that South Asians are often misunderstood in America to be exclusively upper or middle-class “model minorities.” However this narrative erases South Asians that do not fit into this stereotype, including immigrant women who often lack access to education, language acquisition, a career, financial security, and healthcare, resulting in barriers to accessing reproductive choice. Additionally, negative stereotypes about South Asians contribute toward racial profiling and even violence against South Asian women. For example, in Indiana, only two women to date have been prosecuted under the statewide feticide bill – and both were Asian women, even though Asian women make up less than one percent of Indiana’s population. While a general lack of knowledge about South Asian women’s access to reproductive health and rights may seem like a harmless issue, there are indeed actual victims and consequences.

As part of the YLI 2016 cohort, I attended a two-day convening in Silver Spring, Maryland in July. The weekend included several guest speakers, workshops, and activities related to organizing within the South Asian community.  In these workshops, we learned about the history of South Asian immigration to the United States, the laws and policies that stimulated waves of immigration into the U.S., the ways that South Asians have experienced increased hate violence after September 11, 2001, and about organized movements against immigrants, South Asians, and Muslims. The session that I enjoyed the most was facilitated by Lakshmi Sridaran, Policy Director at SAALT, and concerned the history of South Asian immigration into the United States. Before her presentation, we placed the year in which our own families immigrated to the United States on a makeshift timeline, which centered all of us in U.S. immigration history.

For my project in YLI specifically, I am working to interview several South Asian women with immigrant backgrounds about their experiences with reproductive healthcare. SAALT’s Young Leaders Institute helped me understand how diverse the South Asian population is in the United States, and how important it is to draw from a diverse range of individuals, by paying attention to sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and immigration status when choosing people to interview. While it will be a challenging task for me given the limitations of my own community and who I know, branching out beyond interviewing upper middle-class Indian women will be crucial for my project.

YLI also provided me with incredible insight, strategic guidance and helpful techniques to start conducting my project. Although I have always considered myself a feminist and intended to center my project on women, one of the activities during the SAALT convening forced me to realize that I often think about immigrant stories from a male perspective. When prompted to reflect on my mother’s experiences emigrating to America, I realized that I knew far more about my father’s experience than my mother’s. This was an important moment moving forward – I learned that I need to make a conscious effort to center women’s stories in my work.

By opening up this conversation at least on a personal level, I hope to enhance my own understanding of reproductive health within the South Asian community, as well as expand the conversation into the community within a culturally competent framework.  South Asians are the most rapidly growing facet of the American population, and the opacity surrounding sexuality and reproductive health issues can negatively impact families within the community for decades to come.

I am incredibly grateful to SAALT and the Young Leaders Institute for empowering me with tools to begin this exploration.

Anusha Ravi
Center for American Progress

The Unforeseen Impacts of Activism

Reflection from SAALT’s 2016-2017

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Sitting in my university’s library last spring, I was procrastinating on studying for finals by browsing Facebook—something any college student can relate to. In between the endless feed of news articles and photos, one event caught my eye: a three-part discussion series, “South Asians for Black Lives.” The Facebook event listed some incredible speakers and activists who would be talking about important issues such as the model minority myth and colorism in South Asian communities, which both affect whether and how South Asians choose to stand in solidarity with Black communities (or not).

Although we had really wanted to attend the discussion series, logistically it wasn’t very feasible to do so. Talking with my friends who expressed an interest in the event, we decided if we couldn’t go to “South Asians for Black Lives”, we would bring “South Asians for Black Lives” to us. That is, we would basically copy that event and hold it on UChicago’s campus instead.

There were some important differences, though. Our university’s South Asian Students Association was robust, but focused more on cultural and social events, like the annual spring show and chai socials. When it came to programming related to social and political issues, there wasn’t a whole lot. My friends and I weren’t sure what kind of response we’d get from our campus community—would anyone even show up?—so we decided to make our event a one-day affair, instead of Northwestern’s three-part series. We reached out to professors, activists, and fellow students from the UChicago community and the greater Chicago area as well, and invited some really incredible, passionate speakers.

Finally, it was the day of the event. Although there were some minor hiccups, everything went quite smoothly. After a panel discussion with two activists and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement, we moved into small group discussions led by members of UChicago’s Organization of Black Students and other student activists. Although the theme of our event was geared towards South Asian students, quite a few students from different Asian backgrounds attended, as well as students of other ethnicities. Afterwards, my friends and I were frankly surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response we got from those who attended! Many of them expressed that they would love to see more events focusing on social and political issues relating to Asian-American communities on campus.

The success of our “South Asians for Black Lives” event inspired me to find out whether other South Asian students across the country had also been trying to hold social justice-related events, and what kind of success they were having. While looking online, I stumbled on SAALT’s Young Leaders Institute (YLI) webpage. YLI seemed like exactly what I was looking for: a group of young South Asian Americans who were passionate about social change. By the time I found out about YLI, it was just a day before the application deadline, but I managed to send my application in anyway (a couple hours late). Thankfully, I got in!

The YLI training in DC was eye-opening in a variety of ways. It seemed like every member of the cohort felt like their colleges’ South Asian student groups also didn’t focus that much on social and political issues as much as cultural events. The theme of this year’s YLI was Immigrant Justice, and after hearing about the different projects we were hoping to execute on our campuses, I was honestly in awe of everyone else. We learned about the current immigrant right issues facing our communities, we heard from activists and organizers, and we had some very honest and important conversations.

For me, one of the most meaningful moments of the YLI training was finding out that the project that originally inspired my friends and I—the “South Asians for Black Lives” event at Northwestern—was actually organized by a member of the 2015 YLI cohort, Sanjana Lakshmi! One could say this was just a coincidence; Sanjana’s event just happened to show up on my Facebook feed one afternoon. However, I think it was more than just a coincidence. It was proof that our efforts to have these important conversations in our communities can have a much greater impact than we could ever imagine. I’m sure that in the coming years, as each YLI cohort works to tackle a variety of social and political issues in their campus communities, their work will serve as inspiration to many more young South Asian Americans, just as it did for me.

Nikhil Mandalaparthy
The University of Chicago

Organizing for Black Lives Matter

In the wake of the decision of non indictment of Tamir Rice’s murderers, advocacy and social justice have become even more important. The Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) has been doing a great job promoting equality for Black lives throughout the nation yet, as South Asians it is our civil obligation to support and further that movement. Students have the advantage of being able to reach out to their peers on campus to make them see why their cause is important and here to stay. Because of this, campus organizing has become even more necessary.

Personally, returning from SAALT’s annual Young Leaders Institute, I felt empowered to create change. New ideas were forming in my mind on how to involve my campus in the revolution- I wanted bring the movement to my university and have everyone know of its importance. I imagined protests to the Alachua County Office to remove the confederate statue, and sit-ins with my fellow students to show how we were against violence and institutionalized racism, and workshops with the center of Multicultural and Diversity Affairs on how to encompass everyone on campus in this movement. My vision was to see minority groups raise their voice in support for the BLM movement and bring awareness to students who had no idea what we were fighting for. To say the least, this all did not happen. Instead, what happened was my realization of the folks around me and their priorities.

I was beginning to see where I was and who I was around. My South Asian friends started to seem uninterested in my ideas and what I supported. They questioned my frustration with the government and my fear of the police. They didn’t understand why I refused to spell my name out to the white barista at Starbucks. They were confused when I started to call out all the South Asians I saw perpetuating the model minority myth. They didn’t like me getting angry at the Taco Bell employee for assuming I am a vegetarian. They were annoyed I stopped eating Krishna lunch with them because of the cultural appropriation of my food. YLI liberated my mind. Now, I had to bring this same light to my peers.

To make my fellow South Asians on campus feel the importance of the BLM movement, organizing events and meetings was a must. This task was near impossible because of stupid dance groups. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for showing dedication to our South Asian heritage and exercising in a fun way. But all I can hear on campus between South Asian folks is about Gator Adaa, Gator Bhangra, and Gator Garba. The focus is on how hard they work, how they need a place to practice, and how they needed to pass their premed classes. In this environment, it is difficult to bring social advocacy into the mix even when it is so much more important.

As students we are all living hectic lives. Being guilty of this myself, I am often preoccupied in my own mess and too busy to worry about what is going on around the nation. Nevertheless, I want to change that. I want to tell my fellow peers to rise up and stand up against anti-Black racism. We need to start the conversations about institutionalized racism, white supremacy, and cultural appropriation. Along with organizing, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We are held accountable every time a Black life is lost and we did nothing stop it. With more Black lives at risk each day, now in particular we must start practicing social justice and activism. I will continue to try and create a safe space on my campus for South Asians so we can start the conversation and show support to the BLM movement. I encourage you all to organize as well in support of the revolution, in any way possible.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

-Martin Niemöller

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Priya Sabharwal

Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2015

The Young Leaders Institute 2015 is sponsored by:

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Double Consciousness of the South Asian Identity

Every time I am asked “what are you” or “where are you from” I don’t really put much thought into it anymore. I have come to realize that my answer doesn’t really matter because regardless of what I tell you, I will continue to be what you want me to be—a manifestation of the image that you have been fed of my people, my culture, my history, no matter how twisted that image may be.

When I came across the concept of “double consciousness” coined by W.E.B. Du Bois, I found a connection in the way that I felt I was  perceived by others and the way that Du Bois explained this idea. In his 1903 work “The Souls of Black Folk” Du Bois defined his double consciousness as “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” He goes on further to apply this concept to what it meant to be Black in America by saying:

“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife–this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American.”

Double consciousness is the constant feeling of in between-ness and it is the feeling of straddling multiple borders at once. It is not knowing where your body fits in either place that you call home and not knowing how to respond to the way these homes will exploit you. Du Bois presented this term originally in the realm of being African American during the early 1900s, and the idea has grown into something that is applied to the experience of living in diasporic spaces as a whole, as well as the feeling of otherness. How can one be multiple identities at once? And how can one do so authentically when they are constantly seeing themselves through the eyes of those who exploit them?

White supremacy is the idea that whiteness is superior to other attributes and characteristics of a person’s identity. It serves as a construct that perpetuates the social, political, and economic oppression of all those who are not white. Whiteness has its own view of the other; as the global west has its own view of the global south and east. When I tell whiteness that my family is Indian, whiteness projects it’s own view of India onto me. When whiteness thinks of India, it sees colors thrown in the air, elephant gods, cows being worshipped on the street, Bollywood dances, and impoverished children living on the streets. When whiteness thinks of India, it thinks of “Eat, Pray, Love” and soul searching in the nostalgic backwardness of a third world country while trying to avoid food poisoning. When whiteness thinks of India, it dehumanizes Indians. Examples of these projected views can be found easily in popular culture—Major Lazer’s music video for “Lean On,” Iggy Azalea’s music video for “Bounce,” the entirety of the short-lived NBC sitcom “Outsourced,” and Coldplay’s music video for “Hymn for a Weekend.” When I see all of these modern representations of South Asia in the media I find myself wondering: how this is still the narrative? How is it that South Asia continues to be bastardized and depicted as a mystical dreamland sprinkled with slumdogs covered in colored powder that are existing only to be consumed by whiteness? The discussion surrounding these examples is often one of appropriation but it is important to go beyond that—this is an issue of colonization, Orientalism, and capitalism.

The relationship that colonizers had within South Asia can be seen as one that allowed them power and hegemony over the region. The legacy that colonialism left in South Asia is reminiscent of the way that the colonizers worked to ensure that whiteness could continue dominating and restructure the region in ways that benefited whiteness most. This is how the colonizer ruled over “the Orient,” a term often used in the context of Asia and the Middle East, meaning the East in relation to Europe. Historically, western discourse surrounding “the Orient” could be seen as parallel with the discourse surrounding the criminals, the “mentally insane,” and the impoverished of Europe. Because of this, over time usage of the word “oriental” to describe a person or group of people has been challenged greatly by Asian Americans due to it’s loaded history. “The Orient” has always been looked through instead of seen or understood and analyzed as a problem meant to be solved instead of as a region of diverse peoples. Westerners could always go back home and tell everyone just how stereotypically Oriental “the Orient” really was. Perhaps this history of Orientalism lends to the continued representation of South Asia as exotic and mystical.

The colonial legacy perpetuates structural violence of poverty, caste, and hindu supremacy that were created during British rule and these structures can still be clearly seen in South Asia today. 2013 Census data from India showed that over 65 million people were living in slums, which are defined by the survey as “residential areas where dwellings are unfit for human habitation because they are dilapidated, cramped, poorly ventilated, unclean, or any combination of these factors which are detrimental to the safety and health.” Many of the slums existing in India today were created because of forceful urbanization brought on by colonialism. The British colonial government expelled poor natives of colonial settlements and when these natives built their own settlements, the government invested nothing to the sanitation or infrastructure of these areas. These slums continue to exist because of the structures of class and caste from which the colonizers capitalized. Additionally, tens of thousands have been killed in South Asia due to Hindu-Muslim communal violence since the violent partition of India and Pakistan on a religious basis. This violence exists in the way that it does today due to the violent and polarizing policies put in place by colonizers. So when the west continues to be fascinated by India’s slums and poverty as well as Hindu iconography and traditions, it dehumanizes Brown bodies while perpetuating the violence that South Asia has faced for hundreds of years at the hand of Orientalists and colonizers.

When I am asked “what are you” or “where are you from” I know that my answer doesn’t matter and the reason for that is deeply rooted in the history of exploitation of Black and Brown bodies.  W.E.B. Du Bois explained through double consciousness what it means to be looked at as an “other” in your own home and be expected to perform the identity that is placed upon you by a white, western gaze. For years my Brownness existed in a way that was comfortable for those around me—it was an identity that I didn’t speak of until it was spoken to. I danced along to the Pussycat Dolls’ version of the song Jai Ho when everyone around me was suddenly into Bollywood. I chuckled along with the snide comments from my peers about getting an arranged marriage after returning from a winter break spent in India. I’m sure many of my Black and Brown peers living in the diaspora have felt forced to whitewash their own identities in similar ways. Though at this point in my life I have embraced my ethnic identity, I am still working hard to learn how to navigate living authentically in this Brown body without having my various identities working against me. The long history of exploitation makes it hard for me to believe that this space will become easier to navigate in the near future, but with generational shifts and continued personal reclamation of Black and Brown bodies I am hopeful that it will be one day. In the meantime, to the Major Lazers, Iggy Azaleas, and Coldplays of the world—South Asia is not your mystical dreamland. My people do not exist for your consumption.

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Vandana Pawa

Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2015

The Young Leaders Institute 2015 is sponsored by:

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Confronting Anti-Black Racism

Growing up with white supremacy’s ideology of beauty that brown was not beautiful- that brown needed to be lightened- was a burden I carried for years. Although I was “light for a South Asian” I was never light enough. I was told to stay away from the sun, avoid the beach, try products like Fair and Lovely, try anything that could make me lighter, do anything that could make me more beautiful. Beauty over intelligence was emphasized to me, as if all I could attain to as a South Asian woman was to be a good light skinned house wife.

Often mistaken for not being fully South Asian- I was told to take pride in this feature. To be glad I could pass as bi-racial- to be honored to be considered even partially white. When people called my house and heard my mother’s slight British accent they assumed she was white- as if a brown woman could not be educated in a foreign country- as if a Brown woman could not speak English ‘properly.’

This year I had the opportunity to attend South Asian Americans Leading Together’s (SAALT) Young Leaders Institute (YLI) in Washington D.C., on addressing and confronting anti-black racism within the South Asian-American community. Saying the program changed my life is an understatement. It changed me. YLI allowed me to meet and interact with fellow South Asians, whom I could expand my understanding and knowledge of racial justice. We spoke about structural racism, how it affects our ideology, the impact it still has on not only our culture but our people and how we can go about combating racism internally. Finally, being able to bring light to the colonial ideology still present in our culture and background was refreshing.  Although I attend school in a diverse and South Asian community, issues of South Asian colorism and white supremacy were never spoken about and YLI gave me courage to break this silence.

Participating in YLI’s workshops allowed me to become more aware of issues faced by our community. Learning about the history of oppression and racism allowed me to step back from the struggles we faced as South Asians and acknowledge the benefits we had over others, specifically the Black community. I realized how anti-Blackness took presence in my life. How we as South Asians often benefited from it. How we often add to the fuel by blaming one whole race for actions resulting from hate and cruelty by white supremacy.

Anti-Blackness took place in my life as I grew up being told to stay away from those who were ‘Kala.’ It took place in my life as I became afraid seeing a Black man walking behind me during night fall. It took place in my life as I was compared to family members and congratulated for being fair skinned. I realized that I had often overlooked how relevant anti-Blackness was in my life because it had become the norm. It was something embedded in my culture, history and life and was unacceptable for me to ignore.

As South Asians we benefit from anti-Blackness. The fault is often taken away from us and given to those who are darker. We pride ourselves in being the ‘smarter’ race, the more ‘cultured’ race, the race closer to ‘beauty’. We often categorize a whole race for being violent and develop fear instead of realizing that we too are often stereotyped into one category from the actions of some. We fuel anti-Blackness by depicting ourselves as the better race and taking pride in our lighter skin. While accepting our color, our race, our culture is empowerment- it does not require us to look down on others because there are racist and oppressive forces impacting them in ways that it does not impact us. We embody the model minority myth that is built on the pillars of anti-Blackness. We benefit from anti-Blackness because it allows us to not be the target. We participate in it by condemning dark skin by allowing anti-Blackness to continue internally within our communities. We are not succeeding by conforming this way of thinking but instead failing ourselves by strengthening and empowering white supremacy.

We are privileged because while we stand in solidarity, while we are outraged from police brutality against Black people we do not feel afraid. We are able to show our presence, we are able to voice ourselves, condemn racial injustice because we do not have to fear being the next victim. We, as South Asians, need to realize we have both benefited from anti-Blackness and have gained from the struggles of Black people .

We fail to see this ideology only hurts our youth, only weakens our people. Only causes us to hate ourselves for the qualities we should love- hate the skin color that defines us- the skin that makes us beautiful. Though we are no longer under rule of the British, while we now have our land, we still are under the influence of white supremacy. That while they may no longer occupy our land- they occupy our minds.

Colonial ideology still exists- the idea that white is better and that Brown is better than Black still haunts us years after our ‘independence’. The idea that Brown is beautiful is one unheard of to many. ‘How can Brown be beautiful if white has always ruled over Brown? How can Brown be beautiful if it is close to black?’ Anti-Blackness lives in the roots of our culture. It manifests itself in our ideologies of beauty. Without even realizing we as South Asians often continue a culture of anti-Blackness through traditions like applying Haldi to our faces, purchasing products with bleaching characteristics and thoughts like staying away from the sun. The fear of becoming dark roots from a culture of anti-Blackness we too often fail to acknowledge.

As South Asians- specifically as South Asian youth we have a duty. We have a duty to unpack and unlearn these ideologies and while it will not happen overnight and will take time- it is possible. YLI allowed me to gain the courage to speak up against issues I felt strongly about. It allowed me to understand the negative impact white supremacy has on our cultural ideology of beauty informed byanti-Blackness. Through YLI I gained not only a family of support but comrades to empower me through my journey of unlearning the anti-Blackness I grew up with.

We need to encourage one another to embrace our culture, embrace our race and break the stereotypes in place for us. Break the ideology that we are less than them. End the culture of anti-Blackness by no longer fearing the sun, no longer fearing a tan that brings us away from whiteness. We need to stop condemning those who are darker- we need to stop encouraging bleaching.

Overall, we need to break the idea that we are not enough- that we must conform to white ideology to succeed. Instead of embracing white ideologies of beauty we need to take pride in our Blackness. Only then when we change our mindset and realize that we are not solely the victims that we are aiding the oppressor with anti-Blackness will we be liberated- will we be able to succeed.

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Aysha Qamar
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2015 

The Young Leaders Institute 2015 is sponsored by:

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One Brown Girl’s Perspective on What it Means to be Carefree

I was six years old when Baba and Mamma moved from India to America. When they arrived here, my mother realized that she was less restricted—she had no extended family to answer to, more control over her time, and the independence to focus on her career and kid.  

At the age of eight, Baba took me back to India as a way to get Mamma back to the country, and perhaps as a way to revert to the unequal power dynamics they shared. He took me back to our motherland, India, but I was motherless for a whole year.

Through the sheer will and cosmic energy that my mother is made up of, she got both of us back to our two-by-one apartment in America. Once I was back, I was admitted into a predominantly white elementary school where I would study for merely two years. Throughout my time there, my accent, the way my food smelled, the cotton skirts I wore (which you can now find selling at Urban Outfitters, by the way), and my frizzy hair, were all made fun of by my white and non-Black peers.

I remember feeling as if I was walking backward, not really part of this but not really living there. My white peers’ teasing and taunting served to draw the white circle around me, dividing me from the rest—the ones whose tongues did not betray their ethnicity, the ones whose food did not smell ‘ethnic’ (and did not smell at all, in fact), the ones who had molded into the perfect preservative-filled Lunchables brown bag that would neither draw attention to, nor deny, the rightful presence of its consumer.

Although many of my fellow immigrant-born and immigrant-descended peers had shrugged off the identity their parents had come to America with, I could not do the same. Perhaps I was disenchanted with the idea of giving into a colorless melting pot that bubbled happily when we crushed one another while we all sought the same things and struggled to reach for liberty, a chance at happiness, a dignified life.

Perhaps it was because I went to India looking for a sense of myself, and having not found it, I came back still seeking. Perhaps, I was clutching onto something, in the deep haze and limited vision of adolescence, that I yearned to unfold.

Perhaps I wished for someone to read my secrets, my desires, and silences and nourish me with the warm space of protection and stability that so many immigrant children often starve for.

Though this bullying continued throughout my sixth-grade education, I never allowed it to affect me. I was too busy with my silences, with what I had seen and wanted to understand. There were so many faces that floated up, within my grasp, but never stayed long enough to tell their stories. There were so many questions I wanted to ask but had no words to create. My face was forever turned in the other direction, seeing something else, so that even when I came home, even after the worst days, I would not tell Mamma about the way the kids laughed and jeered at me.

Looking back to that time, I think I had a deep awareness of the way my life was shifting from one world into another, and how it would continue molding itself to the jolting back and forth of a third space. I knew that my peers were only distractions for the work I had to do in myself, and this work was neither optional nor suggestive. I knew this self-investment would ensure my survival in this world. I remember thinking that the meanness in my peers urged them to reflect that toxicity towards me.

[Read Related: What it Means to be a First Generation Desi——From the Lens of a Half-Indian, Half-Irish Woman]

Forgiveness came easily then because I knew that I was strong enough to deal with the bullying on my own, and I honestly felt bad for the bullies, for they had to live with their attitudes, not me. Perhaps that’s why I never allowed that bullying to stick to me. I came home, untouched, not even giving the day’s events a second thought, knowing that my energy had more important work to do.

Yet, as I grew up and dug more and more into my silences, the consciousness in me bloomed with anger, pain, and sorrow. Perhaps, as a child, I was forgiving because I did not know what it meant to be teased for the smell of my food or the frizz of my hair. I did not understand that my white peers were slowly fulfilling the expectations that white supremacy had of them. When I looked at them, I felt pity, because they spent so much of their energy trying to make me feel bad and never received the reaction they worked so hard for.

Now, when I see similar minded folks, such as people who spew hate, I feel fear because I see the more manifested, uglier institutions that reward and encourage them to continue thinking, acting, and behaving as they do. Yet, that little girl still exists in me today and is still holding onto her secrets and inked words, not knowing where to reach for safety.

Nowadays, I come home so tired that I cannot even speak. Sometimes it feels like I know too much about the world and where I stand within it. Other days, I feel empty, ignorant of so much more, of so many others and their folded up pages, their unsaid truths. I wish to be as untouched and carefree, deeply invested in my truths rather than resisting the lies of another, as I once was.

In this time and age, when South Asian folks are learning more and more about what their skin color, gender, sexual orientation, caste, and class means in relation to this society, as well as how we benefit and suffer from ugly institutions, it is increasingly difficult to be carefree—or to even understand the meaning of ‘being carefree’—and actually practice it to survive, thrive, and strengthen our, and other, colored communities.

We are beginning to understand how revolutionary and precarious our existence is, and how we were never meant to survive as we do. This is the time when the pressure against our lungs is making it hard to meditate upon our imaginations. Indeed, it is only through our imaginations and through the expansion of our imaginations that we can read the secrets and silences of our consciousness. Indeed, it is only by investing in our truths that we can take care of our blood and the blood of our loved ones.

Here is my [ever expanding] set of definitions on what it means to be carefree, and I urge you—whomever you are, who has taken the minute to read this—to also come up with your set of Carefreeisms:

To be carefree…

….Means to not have to worry about what caste, class, gender, religion or race your lover is

Means to not think and rethink whether wearing a kurta will make others like you less

Means to be comfortable in a space you occupy

Means not having to wonder whether the bad customer service was because the staff was rude or rude because of your skin color

Means to sing in the rain after classes, on your way back home

Means going out and allowing the sun to kiss you without the worry of getting darker

Means to not spend the rest of your life educating your lover

Means singing and laughing loudly without being told by your elders that only loose girls do so

Means not having uncles and aunties policing your body & the ways you decide to dress it

Means not having to bargain your identity with American folks and your motherland relatives

Means loving and growing with your brown, black, and white sisters rather than seeing them as competition

Means what you want it to be, what makes you feel whole, more than a label, more than a statistic, more than this world’s politics, what makes you feel human and happy

Because to be carefree is to be revolutionary

To be carefree is resistance.

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Ena Ganguly
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2015

This post was originally published on Brown Girl Magazine, and being republished with their permission.

The Young Leaders Institute 2015 is sponsored by:

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How Anti-Blackness Affects my South Asian-American Identity

I recently attended a weekend-long conference, the South Asian Americans Leading Together’s Young Leaders Institute in Washington D.C., on addressing and confronting anti-black racism within the South Asian-American community.

The following week, I spent time with extended family, and witnessed a group of young white adults chanting Hindu bhajans as a part of the closing ceremony for the end of their yoga training and later went to a fusion wedding between a Pakistani friend and her now white husband. I noticed so many things that I don’t know if I would have paid as much attention to, had it not been for that weekend with SAALT in late-July.

And for that, I cannot be more grateful.

I’ve always generally stayed away from the South Asian folks at my school, whether it was high school or college. I don’t know if it is because of white America’s consistent message that being brown isn’t good enough, or if it’s because most of the South Asian folks I know seem to care more about Bollywood, bhangra, and med school (that they may not even want to attend) than about confronting the issues within our community, or if it’s because I always thought I was so different from them, or all of the above.

SAALT[Photo Courtesy: SAALT Young Leadership Institute 2015]

SAALT’s program gave me the opportunity to meet South Asians with whom I could relate and form a connection. More importantly, it helped me see that the South Asian-American community that I’ve been around all my life is only a fraction of the whole.

Nothing but whiteness is good enough for white America, and no matter how hard we try to assimilate, we brown folk are still, at the end of the day, brown.

It took me a long time (much longer than I would like to admit) to truly realize how much South Asians benefit from—and actively take part in—anti-blackness in this country. I think I liked to believe that I sympathized with and cared about the struggle of black folk so much that it didn’t matter that I was a part of this (in some ways) privileged group of people.

I look at my family and see how well we’ve played into Silicon Valley’s version of the model minority myth—my parents came from India with nothing and “made it” here, but what does that “making it” really mean?

It means striving to reach the ideal of American life—that is, middle-to-upper-class whiteness. Whiteness is our model, and we brown folk, once we reach the peak that we are allowed to reach, are to be the subsequent model for black folk.

We are not to stoop to their level—it is, after all, the opposite of anything white, and in white America, that is a sin. White supremacy wants us to believe, like them, that we are better than blackness.

That we are better than blackness, even though it is the slave labor of black folk that paved the way for our immigration to the United States.

SAALT[Photo Courtesy: SAALT Young Leadership Institute 2015]

Brown and black people as a minority race have a shared history of resistance. We are also victims of hate crimes, for instance, the Indian grandfather who was paralyzed in Alabama by the police in February. White America constantly calls us “dotheads,” “terrorists,” and tells us to “go back to where we came from.” But, still, we must be better than black America, must we not?

[Read Related: Indian Grandfather Paralyzed by Police for Looking Like a ‘Skinny Black Guy’]

My family and I were taking pictures a few days ago, and my aunt called me over and said, “We need some lightness in the photos!” It was all “in jest,” of course, but these jokes come from a place of anti-blackness. This passing statement manifests itself in other families as self-esteem damaging comments during desi parties, as parents forbidding their children from going outside in case they become too dark or people bleaching children’s skin.

I didn’t know that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was desi until a few months ago when my mom told me. She and Louisiana Governor and 2016 Republican Presidential Candidate Bobby Jindal and people like them have done all they can to assimilate into white, capitalist America, but it’s still not enough. They still face racist attacks that their white counterparts would never receive. They will always be considered the “other.”

[Read Related: #BobbyJindalisSoWhite That He Is #Jindian]

As an example,  when I was younger and I used to write stories, all of my characters were white. I never tried to write stories about people like me because I never read mainstream stories about South Asians living in the Diaspora.

I still struggle with society’s need to conform to the majority’s standard. I didn’t know what to say when I spoke to the white yoga teachers, who were chanting Om Asato Ma Sadgamaya, complete with acoustic guitar, on the shore of a lake. I didn’t know how to tell them that their relationship with these verses, with the very practice of yoga, comes from a place of privilege. I didn’t even know how to confront my own family when they were making what they thought were harmless jokes about everybody’s skin color.

I’m constantly told that I shouldn’t make everything about race (or class, or gender), that I need to be able to have fun.

But it isn’t fun when I’m participating in a history of oppression and racism.

My boyfriend—before he was my boyfriend—and so many other brown men use the n-word with each other all the time. When I first called him out on it, he told me it was “just a word, Sanjana!” But it’s not, is it? It’s not just a word. It is a violent word with a history of systematic degradation and oppression and slavery and murder behind it, and it is not ours to use, let alone to try to reclaim.

Unlearning is a process, of course, and I am still in the middle of it. Our choices as South Asians need to be deliberate. We need to pay attention to the people we look up to and aspire to be, to the things we want to do, even to the words we use. We need to examine why we choose to stand on the side that we stand on. Because right now, the United States is at war, and there is no middle ground. Silence is complicity; there is no neutrality. We either stand on the side of the oppressor or the oppressed, and every choice we make is a testament to that.

I was in the car with my Pakistani friend before her wedding, going to get her hair done, and she told me that the other day, when she went to a salon, they tried to bleach her skin to make her lighter. The scary thing is, it’s not uncommon. She was told to lose weight and become lighter for the wedding—essentially, she was told to conform to white, colonial standards of beauty on a day that was supposed to celebrate her in all her beauty.

We are being used as pawns in white America’s war against black folk. When we play into the model minority myth, we are only helping white America oppress a people who have been oppressed since they have been here. When we make comments about skin color, we are doing what white supremacy wants us to do.

They seem like harmless choices—even beneficial choices—but they are, in fact, violent. They harm not only black folk, but they harm our own communities as well.

And, most of all, they are unacceptable.

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Sanjana Lakshmi
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2015

This post was originally published on Brown Girl Magazine, and being republished with their permission.

The Young Leaders Institute 2015 is sponsored by:

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The Development of “Who You Are”

As a Master’s in Development Practice candidate at Emory University, I am always investigating the ‘development’ of gender empowerment, housing, disaster response, environmental sustainability, among other topics. A common mistake made in development, specifically international development, is that a good idea or method of implementation is assumed to work in every context and in all communities. As a gay South Asian male, I want to understand development issues in the context of the LGBTQ community. Is the LGBTQ community making the mistake of using a universal method approach in understanding who we are?

“Coming out” came up in many conversations during my experience with SAALT’s 2014–2015 Young Leaders Institute (YLI), which focused on LGBTQ issues. Some students were “out,” some were in the process, some had not even thought about it, and some don’t plan on “coming out”. At different times in their lives, people explore coming out aIMG_0088nd its impacts in different ways. At eight years old, I came out to my mom after watching a television episode of General Hospital when one of the characters came out to his mom after acknowledging his homosexuality. I told my mom, “Hey Maa, the son is gay just like me!” My mom chuckled, as she knew I loved relating television shows to my own reality. I chuckled as well, but somewhere in me I knew I was gay just like the son in the soap opera. My first kiss was with a boy just like his was. I would get nervous around my guy crush just like he did. And I wanted to tell my mom that I am gay just like he did. At that time, however, it seemed like it was not the right time for me to come out to my mom. Maybe because her chuckle meant that she wasn’t ready. Maybe because she told me that I was too young to know if I was gay. Maybe because I was scared of losing my family and community even though I grew up knowing other LGBTQ South Asians who were always so kind and welcoming. Maybe, just maybe, I was scared thinking back to a party where I overheard some Indian aunties and uncles having a conversation about the LGBTQ community saying, “They do disgusting stuff, very disgusting.” Then, an uncle pointed his finger at me saying, “Stay away from them, Sumon, stay away from them.” How could I stay away from them when I was just like them?

It wasn’t until 14 years later that I felt it was right for me to tell my mom I am gay by simply saying, “Maa, I have been attracted to Ricky Martin since his debut of Livin’ La Vida Loca.” At that moment, I knew it was right for me to tell my mom about a part of me that I wanted her to know about and understand. Ironically, this was around the same time Ricky came out publicly as a gay. Overall, I am happy with my decision to come out as it allowed me to understand a part of my identity and embrace the other identities and realities of my life.

IMG_0041Throughout YLI, I heard many stories of what it means to be part of the LGBTQ community. Each young leader that I met followed their own way of expressing who they are, even though they all had their doubts and questions when identifying themselves as we all do. They all had a time, or times, in their development where they discovered that there is no one true definition of what it means to be LGBTQ.

From YLI’s phenomenal students, I learned that I am truly living who I am when I embrace the multiple identities that make me who I am. I live life as a gay male, a South Asian, a graduate student, a Hindu, a son, an nephew, a sibling, a friend, a volunteer, and so much more. My roles and who I am develop by many factors in life and the responsibilities I take on. Seeing myself through the lens of only one identity prevents me from honoring my full self and from experiencing all of my qualities and strengths. When I see the intersections within my life, I live my reality and I allow myself to fully experience life’s journey. I have learned that sexual orientation—and exploring the role of “coming out” in my life—are important parts in the development of who I am, but this is not the only determinant.

I thank SAALT, the 2014 YLI students, Trikone Atlanta, Raksha, Inc., my aunt, family, and friends for helping me to understand that the development of “who you are” is not one path, but many paths that lead to this moment and the many more that lie ahead.

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Sumon Ray
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2014

On the Limits of American(a)

People are surprised to find out that I’m not actually from here. The standard conversation after the holidays goes: “You went all the way back to Bangladesh? So, your entire family is there? Oh, you lived there till you were 19?” And then of course: “But you speak English so well!” My brown skin and third world citizenship hide the international school education that I was privileged to receive. A childhood of Scooby Doo and Friends makes my accent familiar enough to go unnoticed. Alas, passing privilege does not an American make. Right?

I was thrilled to learn that a group called South Asian Americans Leading Together DSC_0035(SAALT) was hosting a LGBTQ-themed summer leadership institute. It boggled my mind that I might actually meet other queer and gender variant deshi students interested in creating change. But surely I wouldn’t be eligible—many semesters as a student worker in the career services office had taught me to expect a “U.S. citizens and permanent residents” clause hidden in the eligibility section. Imagine my surprise when the Young Leaders Institute (YLI) explicitly welcomed “diversity in regard to [among other things] immigration status.” As I hurriedly pulled together the application, I asked myself for the first time: Did this put me under the umbrella of South Asian American?

Was it enough to self-identify as American?

Legal papers are a poor measure of identity, but I had only ever considered this line of reasoning in the context of undocumented Americans who have lived here for years. My acceptance into a college (and the financial aid that came with it) gave me the privilege of a legal avenue of entry to the Land of Opportunity not afforded to them. I was not compelled by circumstances at home to risk arrest by ICE, or worse, incur the wrath of my punctilious father. Yet, after five very formative years in the United States, the process of my integration was well under way. I could no longer drive on the left side of the road, I grew an invisible layer of personal space, and I could even sing most of the words to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’. Yet, I knew that I could “hold on to that feelin’” only for so long.

There will come a time when my Duration of Status will come to an end, and I will need to go back. When I share my apprehension about this legal deadline on my stay with friends who have grown up here, they are rightly confused about the logic behind it. As a student of economics, I know that the potential gain to world GDP is much higher from eliminating barriers to immigration than barriers to trade, yet it is my body that is stopped at the border for further screening while iPods and Big Macs hop across with ease. There’s something a little hypocritical about insisting on an impermeable border while cultivating a global consumer IMG_0059base for all things Americana. I know, however, that the way to move forward is not through a battle of wits but by listening to each other’s stories.

Stories are a powerful thing. They allow us to see our shared humanity with those different from us, and to see beauty in diversity. Stories are also a way for those of us living at the margins to claim space for ourselves. It is no surprise to me that many of my fellow YLI participants have chosen to take on projects that celebrate stories of people like us.

My YLI project performance is an effort to share my story. I draw upon my own lived experiences to trace the cracked lines between being a Bangladeshi citizen, a queer deshi, and an American. I have struggled to find a way to tell my story with any degree of honesty, when I know that the lived reality of LGBQ and T* South Asians are invisible, or worse, erased. Yet, that is exactly why it needs to be told. As I toe the line between that beautiful spectacle of exhibitionism that is American performance art, and my deshi impulse to keep skeletons hidden deep inside my closet (pun intended), I remind myself of the comfort I have found in the voices of queer and trans people of colour. In turn, I hope that my story may offer some solace to my younger brothers and sisters and siblings (and cousin-brothers and cousin-sisters and cousin-siblings).

Wherever they are from, I hope that they feel that they belong.

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Shabab Mirza
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2014

So what did you tell your family?

IMG_0015Within minutes of entering the hotel, the question came up: “So what did you tell your family?” We had only just met, but we didn’t need to know each other to know that family was a tender topic. We had come together for SAALT’s Young Leaders Institute (YLI), but our connections ran deeper than a passion for engaging South Asian communities in justice and activism. This was a connection that many LGBQ and transgender South Asians experience when we come together—a shared ache to reconcile what we knew about ourselves and what those around us have been taught. Especially achy is reconciling what our  families have been taught about who they think we are. My roommate and I, exhausted from our travels but exhilarated by this rare opportunity to swap stories of family experiences with another queer desi, stayed up late the night before the first day of YLI sharing stories about what brought us here.

LGBQ and transgender South Asians are taught that our families will never accept or acknowledge us in our entirety. While some of our experiences affirm this, these scare tactics leave us stuck and unable to hope for or envision a different family experience. The idea that we have no future as our whole selves is not only harmful to us, but also to our families. These fears fuel their anxieties and, in turn, widen the gap we feel between us and our families. How do we move toward a future where families have room to grow, learn, and accept us? How do we move toward a reality where being an LGBQ and/or transgender South Asian is not synonymous with a familial disconnect? How do we move toward a truth where we give our families the care we hope they can give us?

One exercise we did during our YLI training really hit home for me. We were asked to make a “queer family tree” tracing the people in our lives who have made room for us to be who we are more freely. At first, this felt impossible—the stereotype of South Asians being homophobic and transphobic runs deep enough to cloud what I know to be true. I remembered confiding in a cousin of mine about my queerness and the lightness I felt when she responded with such kind words. Were there more experiences with family that made me feel free? Maybe if I looked at this another way, I would find more. I thought about all the people in my family who might share my feelings about family—stress, sadness, frustration disappointment, shame, a sense of stuckness. Though they may not be queer, there were others in my family who are negotiating the idea of “family,” family IMG_0042expectations, and family realities in a complex way. And there were those few who supported them. Just by being who they are, these folks are making space for me to be me. They endure gossip, shame, fear, just because they don’t meet an expectation. Our seeming imperfections give hope to others who are also told they are imperfect. Thinking about family in this way really affirmed my shifting approach to family; it reminds me to be gentler and more compassionate. It also reminded me that these stories don’t come to mind easily, that these folks are often written out of family histories. In turn, I wondered where I stood in the future of my family history.

We are all storytellers, from the fictions we devise that allow us to access queer and transgender community, to the way we share the fine balance of our lives—storytelling is inherent to how we live and survive. My YLI project, an anthology entitled “Moving Truth(s): Queer and Transgender Desi Writings on Family,” captures a snapshot of how LGBQ and transgender South Asians relate to family through storytelling and explores how we get to a point where we can move forward. In honor of the vision for building allyship among each other and our families, my team and I developed a community-based publishing plan. Instead of expecting our contributors to write in isolation, we accepted applications of interest rather than submissions. Knowing how complex the topic of family would be, we created a guided writing process, a 10-week online writing workshop that would support writers in focusing which story to write about, to help in providing context, to work on editing and grammar, and, most importantly, to provide emotional support as we processed our experiences with family. Our goal during the writing and drafting process was to create something that felt true to us and our experiences, and to create something we are proud of. Some of our included stories deal with conflicts of belief and action, reconciling identities, and learning more graceful, generous, and gentle ways to relate to ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Our labor of love will be published Spring 2015. To learn more about and support this project, please: http://igg.me/at/movingtruths.

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Sasha Duttchoudhury
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2014