On South Asian solidarity

Wednesday, June 24, 2020 - 7:14pm

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Quote card by Opinion SE

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” - Martin Luther King Jr. 

We made it. Our parents immigrated from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and countless other Asian countries to attain a more opportune life in America. They pushed us to be the very best. They sacrificed for us. We worked hard, we got into the country’s top universities and we achieved the so-called American dream. And in the midst of all that, we’ve dangerously given into what is known as the model minority myth. As Vijay Prashad asks in his timely novel “The Karma of Brown Folk,” “How does it feel to be a solution?” How does it feel to be complicit in our success that serves as a vindication for this country’s history of discrimination and oppression? How does it feel to turn a blind eye to systemic injustices taking place not only in the United States, but also to those back home? Because as Hasan Minhaj reveals in his Patriot Act digital exclusive, while the blood of Black lives may not be directly on our hands, we are quite literally at the scene of the crime. 

The unjust death of George Floyd felt like the great awakening people needed to catalyze racial reckonings across the globe. Our Black community has felt this heavy rage for far too long, and we’ve been indifferent to their pain. Instead, we seek validation from white institutions, and we look down on Black people with racial resentment: the unfounded feeling that “blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self reliance.” We praise Black excellence, but we criticize Black failure as laziness, refusing to question the glaring systemic issues at hand. After all, how could a system that we found success in be oppressive? Writer Frank Chin put it perfectly in 1974: “Whites love (Asian Americans) because we’re not black.” While our hard work is valid, it is not the sole reason for our success. Our success is rooted in our political silence and ethnic assimilation, and it exists because we are afforded better opportunities than our Black counterparts. 

In accordance with the model minority myth, it’s easy to believe we’ve been “bestowed with the ‘right’ work ethic and family bonds required to succeed in America.” We have not been historically kidnapped from our country and stripped of our heritage to then be forced into slave labor to build a nation on stolen land — it’s easy to believe when we ignore the mass incarceration of Black people that separate families daily. We crudely justify our own anti-Black sentiments because “we’re minorities too.” But this narrative is not a scapegoat for our silence because while we’ve faced various forms of harsh discrimination in the United States, we have never endured the level of extreme systematic dehumanization that African Americans have experienced. 

Standing in solidarity with the Black community does not invalidate South Asian struggles, and speaking to allyship as such demonstrates heartbreaking apathy and insensitivity. Black people should not have to die for us to do the bare minimum and demand a more equitable ladder of success for all people of color. Our rage for the heinous acts of police violence should go beyond, if not match, that of when we are racially profiled at airport security or when we are told to “go back to our own country.” And the truth of the matter is police brutality and systemic discrimination aren’t new in South Asian countries, namely India. Partly as a result of British colonization, we’ve become complicit to the cultural norms of colorism, casteism, Islamophobia and Hindutva, a modern right-wing political ideology also known as Hindu nationalism. Our harmful compliance towards extreme economic inequality and the growing persecution of Dalits (lower caste members), Adivasis (indigenous tribes people) and Muslims in India have only further ingrained these attitudes within many Desis, and they contribute to anti-Black sentiments brought with us to the States. 

Like many non-Black people of color, our standards of beauty, worth and status in society have been defined by our skin’s level of melanin. We’ve been raised to idealize Eurocentric beauty and to take every precaution to obtain the fairest skin possible. While the goal of South Asian solidarity is not to shift the narrative to colorism, we must recognize that our anti-Black prejudice derives from colorist and casteist attitudes and thus contributes to daily racial microaggressions. While we are shamed for any excessive color, our Black brothers and sisters are systemically and individually dehumanized for it; they are killed for it based on extreme internalized racism that resides in the structure of our police force. And our disdain towards darker skin only advances racial intolerance within our community. That, in addition to our passive submission of this country’s white supremacist ideals and our generation’s notorious appropriation of Black culture, makes our silence speak volumes — especially when we owe the creation of South Asian America to African-American activists. 

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 forced massive immigration reforms that got rid of national-origins quota systems, xenophobic policies and outright bans for Arab, Indian and Muslim immigration. Pressure from the Civil Rights Movement and Black solidarity with Asian Americans pushed for non-discriminatory visa policies that paved the way for our current residing status. South Asian and African-American solidarity, however, existed far before this act was passed, and it goes beyond Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of Gandhian nonviolence. The parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and South Asian liberation movements like Quit India instilled a historical alliance between these two communities that we continuously fail to recognize today as South Asian presence in the States is vastly overlooked prior to 1965. 

Activists such as Swami Vivekananda and Bayard Rustin stood as allies for each others’ community during their respective fight for human rights and independence. During the Jim Crow era, Bengali Muslim migrants were taken in by working-class African-American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods — giving way to Bengali Harlem — while Indian freedom fighters like Ram Manohar Lohia taught activism techniques at historically Black schools and encouraged nonviolent civil disobedience. In the 2014 events of Ferguson, Miss., South Asian Americans organized and spoke out against anti-Black racism, but our alliance cannot end there. We need more leaders like Rahul Dubey, who sheltered Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington, D.C., from arrest, and the Bangladeshi family restaurant in Minneapolis that acted as a staging area for medics and resting place for protesters. In a fight against injustice that we are all too familiar with, South Asian acts of solidarity for Black lives are crucial. 

We do not get to pride ourselves with American excellence without confronting its failures. We do not get to simply indulge in white success while clinging on to Black clout. For those of us privileged by virtue of class, caste or immigration status, we do not get to neglect our duty in dismantling systems of white supremacy. South Asian allyship means understanding that anti-Blackness reinforces systems of oppression that harm us too. It means taking responsibility for indifference and admitting to implicit racial biases within our community and our homes. It means discovering why South Asian allyship is important to you. 

Upon interviewing a group of individuals from South Asians 4 Black Lives, Bhavani Bindiganavile, one of the core volunteers, says she feels “a communal responsibility in dismantling the oppressive systems of white supremacy that we (South Asians) have benefitted from.” Samia Abbasi, another core volunteer, grew up in Silicon Valley where she claims “South Asians generally have a higher income and have embodied this sense of apathy toward taking action against anti-Blackness for a long time.” For her, “it’s important to disrupt that sense of apathy to understand our interconnected histories.” 

Bhavani, Samia and four other women sought out the California-based South Asians 4 Black Lives organization and their mission: “Dismantling anti-Blackness in the South Asian American community through education and awareness.” This organization has reached across the nation and values solidarity, liberation, healing, calling in and educating by ultimately encouraging genuine action and allyship. South Asians 4 Black Lives has a stellar compilation of resources and calls to action on their site, but once again our work does not end there. Self-education is the first step in eradicating your own prejudices, and that begins with unlearning a predominately whitewashed history and amplifying Black voices. Immerse yourself in workshops, books, podcasts and articles similar to MiC’s article, “To our fellow South Asian immigrants and children of immigrants.”

Understand that dialogue within the community is the catalyst for change and it is imperative that we engage in those difficult and uncomfortable conversations. There are a plethora of unattended calls, petitions and material that could use our community’s support, but it is ultimately up to you to seek out information that may not otherwise be handed to you. Solidarity is an active and ongoing practice, and it definitely does not end at a pastel-colored Instagram repost. Like Deepa Iyer explains in her piece for Medium, we must keep in mind the foundations of solidarity practice: “centering those most affected by inequality, understanding that the systems, institutions, and policies of white supremacy target us all, and taking steps to support and co-conspire for shared liberation.” Because injustice to a person of color anywhere is a threat to justice for people of color everywhere.

Easheta Shah can be reached at shaheash@umich.edu.