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.

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:


14 Years Later: Still Under Suspicion, Under Attack

Today, the 14th anniver­sary of the trag­ic events of Sep­tem­ber 11th, South Asians are the most rapid­ly grow­ing demo­graph­ic group in the coun­try num­ber­ing over 4.3 mil­lion. Yet, as our com­mu­ni­ties con­tin­ue to grow in new, unex­pect­ed, and long­time des­ti­na­tions, we are increas­ing­ly the tar­gets of hate vio­lence, sus­pi­cion, and sur­veil­lance. Mus­lims, Arabs, South Asians, and those per­ceived as Mus­lim have borne the brunt of a con­tin­ued post‑9/11 back­lash, reflect­ed in poli­cies that cast our com­mu­ni­ties as un-Amer­i­can, dis­loy­al, and sus­pect. Mus­lim, Arab, and South Asian com­mu­ni­ties were swift­ly tar­get­ed for “spe­cial reg­is­tra­tion” through the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Entry-Exit Reg­is­tra­tion Sys­tem (NSEERS) pro­gram just months after the events of Sep­tem­ber 11th. Through NSEERS, more than 80,000 men were required to reg­is­ter with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment; thou­sands more were sub­ject­ed to addi­tion­al inter­ro­ga­tion, deten­tion, and depor­ta­tion. Nev­er­the­less, this exten­sive and mis­guid­ed pro­gram did not result in a sin­gle known ter­ror­ism-relat­ed con­vic­tion. A sur­veil­lance sys­tem first deployed against the Black Free­dom Strug­gle, adapt­ed for NSEERS, and then evolved to spy on Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties through FBI map­ping pro­grams is now in the third stage of its evo­lu­tion through the cur­rent Coun­ter­ing Vio­lent Extrem­ism (CVE) pro­gram, which sin­gle-mind­ed­ly focus­es on Mus­lims to iden­ti­fy and crack down on vio­lent extrem­ism.  The same sys­tem con­tin­ues full cir­cle today to sur­veil  Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment lead­ers.
The cur­rent polit­i­cal debate con­tin­ues to poi­son and inform the nation­al dis­course about our com­mu­ni­ties and immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties at large. SAALT cap­tured this trou­bling dynam­ic in our Sep­tem­ber 2014 report, Under Sus­pi­cion, Under Attack,which tracked a near­ly 40% increase in xeno­pho­bic polit­i­cal rhetoric from our pre­vi­ous 2010 report. Fur­ther­more, over 90% of these com­ments were moti­vat­ed by anti-Mus­lim sen­ti­ment.  Some of the most egre­gious polit­i­cal rhetoric from pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates Don­ald Trump and Jeb Bush, among oth­ers has cur­rent­ly labeled immi­grants as “ille­gals” and “anchor babies.”  This whole­sale and unac­cept­able lan­guage implies some do not have the right to be in the Unit­ed States, the quin­tes­sen­tial nation of immi­grants.
Four­teen years after increas­ing­ly xeno­pho­bic polit­i­cal rhetoric and mis­guid­ed fed­er­al poli­cies paint­ed our com­mu­ni­ties as dis­loy­al, mono­lith­ic, and sus­pi­cious with no results, Mus­lim, Arab, and South Asian com­mu­ni­ties appear to increas­ing­ly be the tar­gets of hate vio­lence. SAALT’s report, Under Sus­pi­cion, Under Attack, also doc­u­ment­ed 76 inci­dents of hate vio­lence against our com­mu­ni­ties from Jan­u­ary 2011 through April 2014. Over 80% of these inci­dents were moti­vat­ed by anti-Mus­lim sen­ti­ment. In fact, the most recent FBI hate crime sta­tis­tics released last year show that anti-Islam­ic hate crimes are at their high­est since 2001. 2015 has seen a wave of vio­lent inci­dents aimed at Mus­lim, Arab, and South Asian com­mu­ni­ties. In Feb­ru­ary,three Arab Mus­lim stu­dents at Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na-Chapel Hill were gunned down exe­cu­tion-style, appar­ent­ly due to their reli­gion. Lat­er that month, a  Pak­istani Mus­lim man and father of three in Ken­tucky was shot and killed in his car after drop­ping his daugh­ter off at school. This week a Sikh man in Chica­go was approached by anoth­er dri­ver who yelled “ter­ror­ist go back to your coun­try” and vio­lent­ly beat him in his own car, requir­ing hos­pi­tal­iza­tion. And we can­not for­get when a known white suprema­cist walked into a Sikh house of wor­ship, or gur­d­wara, and shot and killed six Sikh com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers in Oak Creek, Wis­con­sin in 2012. Ear­li­er this year a vicious and dead­ly attack by a white suprema­cist in Moth­er Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Car­oli­na, left nine Black com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers dead. We join oth­er com­mu­ni­ties of col­or to address the grow­ing threat of white suprema­cy that has bur­geoned nation­wide. Accord­ing to the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter, the num­ber of white suprema­cist groups in the Unit­ed States has grown over 54% from 2000 to 2014.
Now more than ever, South Asian com­mu­ni­ties need and deserve trust with law enforce­ment at mul­ti­ple lev­els as we grow in num­ber and con­tin­ue to be tar­gets of vio­lence. In response, SAALT devel­oped a pro­pos­al and suc­cess­ful­ly advo­cat­ed for the cre­ation of the White House Inter­a­gency Task Force on Hate Vio­lence last year. We are work­ing to ensure the task force focus­es on the unique bar­ri­ers our com­mu­ni­ties face with law enforce­ment to report and pre­vent hate crimes, par­tic­u­lar­ly after the revised Depart­ment of Jus­tice Pro­fil­ing Guid­ance was released last year, includ­ing exemp­tions for nation­al secu­ri­ty, bor­der secu­ri­ty, and state and local law enforce­ment. We have seen what hap­pens when our com­mu­ni­ties are vic­tim­ized rather than pro­tect­ed by law enforce­ment: ear­li­er this year Sureshb­hai Patel, an Indi­an grand­fa­ther in Madi­son, Alaba­ma, was beat­en to the point of par­tial paral­y­sis by a local police offi­cer in his son’s neigh­bor­hood. He was mis­tak­en for Black, rec­og­nized lat­er as a South Asian immi­grant with lim­it­ed Eng­lish abil­i­ty, and ulti­mate­ly bru­tal­ized by law enforce­ment.
To tru­ly real­ize our val­ues as a nation, every­one is enti­tled to equal pro­tec­tion under the law. Our com­mu­ni­ties deserve to know their rights, feel empow­ered to report hate vio­lence, address xeno­pho­bic polit­i­cal rhetoric that will cer­tain­ly surge fur­ther in this elec­tion cycle, and build mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships with gov­ern­ment and law enforce­ment. In order for our com­mu­ni­ties to flour­ish as we grow, we must advance poli­cies that uphold our core Amer­i­can val­ues of diver­si­ty, inclu­sion, equal rights, and pro­tec­tion for all.