YLI Reflections: Combating Islamophobia with Rupa Palanki

My high school his­to­ry teacher, quot­ing Mark Twain, often said, “His­to­ry doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” For cen­turies in the Unit­ed States, minor­i­ty groups, rang­ing from East­ern Euro­pean immi­grants to Japan­ese Amer­i­cans, have faced dis­crim­i­na­tion from more estab­lished pop­u­la­tions due to a sense of “oth­er­ness” that they are invari­ably per­ceived to dis­sem­i­nate. This has result­ed in dark chap­ters of his­to­ry in a nation that prides itself as “the home of the free and the brave.” The recent rise in hatred against Mus­lims is just anoth­er iter­a­tion of the same sto­ry.

With the 9/11 attacks hap­pen­ing only three years after I was born, life, as I know it, has includ­ed a con­stant under­cur­rent of back­lash in the Unit­ed States against Mus­lims. At present, the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion con­tin­ues to relent­less­ly engage in anti-Mus­lim rhetoric and news head­lines con­tin­ue to blame Islam for select acts of vio­lence per­pet­u­at­ing false, neg­a­tive per­cep­tions of the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty. At school and in my city, I have per­son­al­ly wit­nessed how lack of a nuanced under­stand­ing breeds big­otry and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Many peo­ple in my home­town in Alaba­ma have nev­er left the state or inter­act­ed with Mus­lims before, and their bias towards Mus­lims stems from stereo­types that have been per­pe­trat­ed over gen­er­a­tions. And often at col­lege, I am the first South Asian Amer­i­can that my peers have con­versed with for an extend­ed peri­od of time, lead­ing them to ask ques­tions about my cul­ture, reli­gion, and lan­guage or mis­tak­en­ly iden­ti­fy­ing me as Mus­lim instead of Hin­du.

Because of this per­son­al expo­sure to islam­o­pho­bia, I devel­oped a desire to bet­ter under­stand the phe­nom­e­non and to equip myself to com­bat it with­in my com­mu­ni­ty. This, in part, was what moti­vat­ed me to apply for SAALT’s Young Lead­ers’ Insti­tute last sum­mer. Dur­ing the train­ing in Wash­ing­ton D.C., I devel­oped the orga­ni­za­tion­al and lead­er­ship tools nec­es­sary to car­ry out effec­tive change. Speak­ers like Noor Mir and Deepa Iyer shared fas­ci­nat­ing insights on dif­fer­ent aspects of islam­o­pho­bia that rein­forced the impor­tance of under­stand­ing it in the con­text of insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism like anti-black­ness and colo­nial­ism, as well as pro­vid­ed mean­ing­ful insights on the resilience and sol­i­dar­i­ty nec­es­sary to work in the social jus­tice field. I appre­ci­at­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet activists and stu­dent lead­ers from oth­er col­leges and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss the speci­fici­ty of our expe­ri­ences as South Asian Amer­i­cans. I had nev­er real­ly had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore my iden­ti­ty as a South Asian Amer­i­can so exten­sive­ly before.

This pro­pelled me to begin to shape my own project that I car­ried out over the course of the aca­d­e­m­ic year to work against bias­es with­in my col­lege com­mu­ni­ty. This spring, I worked in con­junc­tion with oth­er South Asia Soci­ety mem­bers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia to plan a Sym­po­sium for Aware­ness of South Asian Issues (SASAI), a week-long inter­col­le­giate con­fer­ence to cre­ate aware­ness for social jus­tice issues and to encour­age activism in its many facets. The week’s events includ­ed a keynote address from 2014 Miss Amer­i­ca Nina Davu­luri, a fundrais­er for a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion fight­ing mal­nu­tri­tion in South Asia, and a series of dis­cus­sions cov­er­ing social issues like islam­o­pho­bia. With a mix of both fun cul­tur­al pro­gram­ming and deep polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions, SASAI encour­aged par­tic­i­pa­tion not only from a diverse range of South Asians but through­out the minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty at Penn. By the end of the week, we found it inspir­ing to see that our efforts to make our cam­pus a more inclu­sive space for all were reward­ed.

Pho­tos from the aware­ness sym­po­sium Rupa helped orga­nize in the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia.

As the incred­i­bly pas­sion­ate, intel­li­gent, and social­ly con­scious indi­vid­u­als that made up my Young Lead­ers’ Insti­tute cohort car­ry out their projects over the course of this year, I hope to see vis­i­ble change with­in the com­mu­ni­ties that they tar­get, just as I hope that my actions have spurred. How­ev­er, our work can­not be done alone. As Pres­i­dent Oba­ma notably wrote in his final mes­sage to the Amer­i­can peo­ple as Com­man­der in Chief, “Amer­i­ca is not the project of any one per­son. The sin­gle most pow­er­ful word in our democ­ra­cy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We the Peo­ple.’ ‘We shall over­come.’” Together, we must push forward the fight against islamophobia, for this is not a matter of one culture or religion or language or social class; it is a struggle for achieving equality for all people.

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The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author and do not nec­es­sar­i­ly reflect the offi­cial pol­i­cy or posi­tion of South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er (SAALT). South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er (SAALT) is a nation­al, non­par­ti­san, non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion that fights for racial jus­tice and advo­cates for the civ­il rights of all South Asians in the Unit­ed States. Our ulti­mate vision is dig­ni­ty and full inclu­sion for all.