I asked my mother that question almost two years ago, after Mike Brown’s murder. In the long, heavy pause that followed I felt her fear and confusion, palpable yet still hesitant, echo over the phone. My mother’s fear was entangled in the throes of U.S. racial logic. My little brother will often be privileged enough to be safe, read as an upper-middle class South Asian. Yet he is also dark-skinned enough to be seen as a threat. In a country where systems of policing, violence and fear are built on anti-Black racism, dark skin is a reason to be afraid. Like my mother, I worry about a day when my brother’s privilege will not be enough to protect him.
Did my mother believe that my brother’s darker skin could leave him vulnerable to violence? Did she see how Black liberation was tied to our own?
I want to put forth an idea of “selfish solidarity.” We are living in a movement moment, and a serious commitment to collective liberation demands that we dig deeper than the white savior model of “allyship.” Our solidarity should be selfish without becoming self-centered: it should speak deeply to our own self interests, where we are organizing for our own survival too, without taking over the mic. The urgency of #BlackLivesMatter necessitates a real practice of “selfish solidarity ” where we build rooted commitments in the movement as non-Black South Asians and people of color – based in our own lived experiences, not in academic theory or rhetoric. “Selfish solidarity” means actually reaching for the truth that, as Alicia Garza wrote, “when Black people get free, everybody gets free.”
The need for a deep and selfish solidarity of South Asians with #BlackLivesMatter became nationally visible last year. Sureshbhai Patel, an Indian man visiting America to care for his grandson, was mistaken for “a skinny Black man” by a neighbor who called the cops. When the cops could not communicate with him, because Mr. Patel does not speak English, one officer brutally slammed Mr. Patel into the ground, leaving him partially paralyzed. The police were called on Mr. Patel because he was mistaken for “a skinny Black man;” he was brutalized, beaten to the point of literal paralysis but not killed, because he was understood to be Indian and immigrant.
This isn’t an invitation to flatten our experiences, and claim that Black and brown experiences of police brutality are comparable. Nor is this an invitation to take the stage from Black voices, or to co-opt movement momentum to gain wins that benefit non-Black South Asians but leave Black people behind. The statistics around Black death are staggering; non-Black South Asians are not experiencing genocide in the U.S. Despite being brutalized, Mr. Patel was not killed, like so many Black people in their encounters with police – his identity as a non-Black Indian immigrant led to his survival. Moreover, due to the power of the Indian embassy, the officer who attacked him was indicted. Our solidarity cannot ignore these stark differences.
In many ways, Mr. Patel reminds me of my darker-skinned immigrant grandfather. Though he studied English literature in school, he had trouble understanding and communicating with American accents, including my own. He was far less vulnerable than Mr. Patel, and yet his vulnerability informs my own fear, anger, and commitment to collective liberation.
Especially for darker-skinned South Asians, working class people, non-upper caste desis, Muslims and those easily “mistaken for Muslim” – these connections are deeply personal. Many of us have experienced fear, profiling and violence – at the airport, by police, in our schools, at our places of worship. The oppressions that we experience are interconnected: the almost mundane “extra pat-down” at the airport; “stop and frisk” policies that criminalize Black bodies; the paralysis of an Indian grandfather; the murder of Mike Brown. This needs to be the crux of “South Asians for Black Lives;” these experiences should inform the hashtags of #APIs4BlackLives and #ModelMinorityMutiny. We cannot undo the systems of policing that target our bodies without fighting state violence that is built on Black bodies and Black pain. Practicing “selfish solidarity” demands that we understand how fighting for Black liberation has the power to transform our own daily lives, and that standing with the Movement for Black Lives is also standing for our own freedom.
In #APIs4BlackLives spaces, solidarity is often framed as combatting histories of anti-Blackness and recognizing our relative privilege. Though Black freedom struggles lay the foundation for the immigration laws that allowed Asians into this country, Asian Americans benefit from the anti-Black logic of the model minority myth every day – certain Asians are cast as good, hard working immigrants and used as a foil to Black people, cast as lazy and incompetent. As we witnessed this past weekend, with Chinese and Asian Americans rallying around Peter Liang, the cop who killed Akai Gurley, this is too often where our analysis stops. We often talk about our relative privilege without also building deep and personal investments in Black liberation. We need to bring Southeast Asian, South Asian and Pacific Islander stories and experiences into the center of our organizing. We need to work with our people towards an understanding of “selfish solidarity” – one that inspires us to to wield model minority status as a weapon against white supremacy, not against Blackness.
Especially for those of us who use our class privilege to shield us from violence, we do have a real choice: we can choose to ride out the ways that we benefit from white supremacy and from the racial logic of the model minority myth, and call our conditional sense of security enough. We can choose to be half-free, participating in anti-Black racism and pretending that Mr. Patel does not remind us of our own grandfathers. Or we can build our communities’ understanding of and investment in Black liberation. We can decide to use our relative privilege to work for our own true liberation, where we don’t fear for our grandfathers, our brothers, and ourselves.
Building “selfish solidarity” is not easy, but we do have models for moving forward. DRUM: Desis Rising Up and Moving in New York has been building mass movements of working-class South Asian people in deep solidarity with other people of color for 15 years. They are laying the groundwork for our collective liberation from white supremacy; those of us who have believed that class privilege and model minority status will protect us need to learn from their work and get on board. Organizations like East Coast Solidarity Summer, Bay Area Solidarity Summer, and Chicago Desi Youth Rising have been working with South Asian youth to sharpen our communities’ political analysis around organizing, race, and struggle. We need to continue building the capacity of our communities to make these connections.
We can no longer afford to only have these discussions amongst self-proclaimed organizers and activists. Conversations about our shared investments, “selfish solidarity,” and commitment to struggle need to be happening in our community spaces, at our places of worship, around our dinner tables, in our homes. As a few of my South Asian siblings in struggle have pointed out, the goal of our work is developing deep love, building family in and with Black communities and across communities of color. “Selfish solidarity” isn’t a destination – it’s an entry point. “Selfish solidarity” is a tool for shifting momentum away from defending Peter Liang, from debating whether Mike Brown lunged for Darren Wilson’s gun, from claiming that Sureshbhai Patel was brutalized by one bad cop; and moving instead towards building South Asian, Asian, and people of color family and movements fighting for Black liberation. The idea of a solidarity that’s “selfish” might be uncomfortable, and perhaps it should be – as Bernice Johnson Reagan said, you “shouldn’t look for comfort” in coalition work. Coalition isn’t home. We should always be questioning our own work, asking if we are supporting Black-led organizing in ways that are meaningful.
I’m writing this piece from my own experiences, as an upper-middle class Lankan committed to the project of organizing my people for liberation. I’m not claiming to have answers; not pretending that this framework is new; not claiming that these ideas are always useful in the vast diversity of South Asian spaces that exist in this country. I am writing this piece, talking about cultivating a practice of “selfish solidarity,” because this is what I do know: my mother would never call herself an activist or an organizer. She wouldn’t call herself an “ally.” If I’m going to convince my mom to come to a #BlackLivesMatter march with me, to bring her resources to grassroots Black-led organizing, I need to frame this moment “selfishly,” and work with her to find our own stake in this work. If she is going to support #BlackLivesMatter organizing, her support will stem from fear for her family, from imagining her own child’s broken body in the street. A lens of “selfish solidarity” demands that we understand a basic truth: we will either get free together or not at all.
Here’s to getting free.
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*Note: This post is referencing experiences from a few months ago, I just haven’t had the courage to post it until now. That said, I think the experiences, reflections and frustrations of navigating doctors’ offices are still worth sharing.*
Chronic pain. Chronic illness. These are words I’d never considered using about myself until recently. Together, they sound scary. Separately, they make sense.
Pain: when my gut cramps 30 minutes after eating anything on some days, on the worst days after drinking water. When my entire digestive system aches the way lungs do after a bout of coughing. When I drag myself to work with two heat packs, sit at my desk, and tuck them inside my waistband to get through the day.
Chronic: when this has been happening on and off, but certainly getting worse, for 5 years. When what started as a typical travel bug didn’t just go away. When food poisoning, stress, too much food, not enough food, are enough to trigger symptoms. When the symptoms disappear for a while – sometimes for months at a time – but always seem to come back. When I realize that in the three cities I’ve lived and worked in, I’d told few of my friends and fewer of my co-workers, because it was so normal.
Illness: when the doctors can’t or won’t tell you what’s wrong. When I finally have health insurance that’s actually good – not just emergency care! – and the doctor’s only diagnosis is IBS, code for “we believe you’re in pain, but we have no idea what’s wrong.” When I finally get a diagnosis after becoming my own advocate, always insisting on making yet another appointment. When I get antibiotics, realize I’ve been misdiagnosed, and watch as the drugs make everything worse. Much, much worse.
I walked into the doctor’s office in a daze. My stomach was hurting, pain dull and sharp all at once. My head felt foggy, and it was hard to think. I’m fairly certain I had a fever.
“Is your pain livable?”
I’d been on a strict elimination diet for 6 weeks to quell an antibiotics-triggered bout of stomach issues, after taking antibiotics to supposedly fix said stomach issues. The diet had worked some weeks, and made little difference during others. And on top of it all, I now had the flu, or at least a bad cold.
My only response to that question was disbelief. That has to be on the list of questions to never ask a patient. Unless I’m in the ER for an immediately life-threatening issue, then yes – my pain is livable. I’m alive. I’m here.
“Sorry, I meant – is your pain tolerable?”
As I ball my hands into fists, I slowly realize that I haven’t been performing sick correctly. I’m used to hiding trauma the queer Lankan way, the way immigrants of color learn – smile broadly, hold your body in just the right position, don’t let your pain make anyone else uncomfortable. Place a hand where it hurts, but be careful not to grimace too much. If the pain really gets to you, just laugh.
I’m read as a small, brown, South Asian woman. White men often assume that I can’t tolerate much pain; I need to be “visibly” hurting to be taken seriously.
But here’s the thing – after 5 years of chronic stomach issues, pain is often a daily occurrence, a normal part of life. My pain tolerance at this point has reached impressive levels – if I performed pain the way my doctor expects every time my stomach triggered, I wouldn’t be able to get through a week. But that doesn’t make my pain unreal. Am I not allowed to desire a life free from consistent pain?
“Well, you don’t look sick.”
My expectations should be lower by now, but I was expecting some actual medical advice.
I was led into the doctor’s office by a nurse. She weighed me, and I was surprised by the number. I asked her if she could check my weight from my previous visit. I had lost 10% of my body weight in two months, and 6 pounds since my last visit 6 weeks ago. These numbers are written in the file that my doctor is holding open, yet he doesn’t seem concerned.
What, exactly, does looking sick mean, for queer brown people? Are you expecting the smile to come off my face, my body to cave in on itself, to be doubled over or collapsing on your office floor?
Do you not understand that I “look sick” now, holding my pain with shallow breath, carefully placed hands, a slightly fixed smile? What would it take for a queer, brown, woman to “look sick”?
“Were you trying to lose weight? If you keep losing weight, I’ll start to get concerned.”
If I were a tall, broad-shouldered, white man, I bet my symptoms would be taken seriously. Losing 1-2 lbs a week for over two months would be a cause for concern, not merely something that all women secretly desire.
I would be expected to tolerate pain, to calmly articulate the process of my digestive system falling apart. The lack of hysterics would be expected, perhaps even lauded.
Instead, I’m sitting in this office, with growing anger, watching as my symptoms get dismissed. Learning that I’m not presenting as sick enough, in pain enough, for the doctor to believe that my body is in serious crisis.
“If you’re really sick, we’ll know. You’ll have a fever, you’ll be in a lot of pain – we’ll know.”
Except, that’s exactly what’s happening in this office. Right now. I’m sitting there holding my gut to keep it together, with what feels like a low grade hazy fever, calmly describing the symptoms I’m experiencing to a doctor who clearly doubts that I even need his help.
I don’t register or perform pain in the way you expect. I’m used to performing beyond and through the constant ins and outs of being sick. But that doesn’t mean I want this to be my normal.
“Why don’t we wait and see how you’re doing in another month, and see if you need to come back.”
I left the doctor’s office full of rage, with a promise that I would never go back.
I don’t know what it would take for a doctor to recognize and treat pain in my gendered and racialized body. I don’t know how to get taken seriously, as someone read as a queer brown woman.
I don’t know how to explain to the doctor that this isn’t surprising – that almost every queer and trans* person of color that I know has an issue with their body, is fighting to stop their bodies from falling apart. The trauma of family rejection, structural violence, a never-ending cycle of grief that none of us can escape, where we mourn bodies every week, sometimes our own – that pain becomes physical, leaves us broken in ways that we can barely articulate.
It’s been a few months now.
I’m not in this moment of crisis anymore – I stopped listening to my doctor, stopped taking drugs that put me in an endless cycle of treating symptoms. I don’t feel like my gut is trying to eat itself every day. I’m back to “normal,” where my gut is unpredictable and I’m sometimes in pain, but at least I have the skills and the know-how to cope.
Yet I also have a deep distrust of the “healing” that comes from a doctor’s office. After 5 years of failing to get adequate treatment, of consistently having to be my own advocate, of having my pain written off and dismissed, of getting misdiagnoses and the wrong drugs – I’m not quite sure how to “heal.”
I don’t know what it will take for us to get whole, collectively. I don’t know how to support and hold the never-ending cycles of grief and sickness that seem to rock our communities every other week. It won’t happen in this doctor’s office, that’s for sure. But I need to believe that it will happen, can happen, somehow.
It’s been one month since Dylann Roof entered Mother Emanuel AME in South Carolina and gunned down 9 Black people: Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons, Myra Thompson, and Minister DePayne Middleton.
This time, we don’t get to just blame white people.
Asian American responses to the massacre have focused on Dylann Roof’s strange willingness to ally with “Northeast Asians.” But that’s not the only role Asian Americans played in this shooting. Dylann Roof was, unsurprisingly, a white male mass murderer. However, his state, complete with a Confederate flag flying over the state capitol until July 10th, is governed by a South Asian woman. Though she’s not “Northeast Asian” (whatever that means)Nikki Haley plays exactly the role that Dylann Roof glorified – acting as “an ally to the white race” to uphold white supremacy. Despite her claims to whiteness, Nikki Haley is in fact one of us. This time, we can’t just point a finger at white people – we need to grapple with where and how whiteness lives in us, too.
Nikki Haley, from her official website.
Nikki Haley has been vocal about her intensely anti-immigrant, anti-labor, anti-choice, and anti-affirmative action stances. Along with her conservative politics, Haley is best known in South Asian circles for her claims to whiteness: changing her name from ‘Nimrata’ to ‘Nikki’ and filling out ‘W’ for white on a voter registration form. For a while, she was seen as the Republican party’s next shining star – along with Bobby Jindal, another South Asian politician willing to put a brown face onto a white politic.
Apparently, Haley’s claims to whiteness have fooled us, too. In the many statements written from South Asian, Asian American and API organizations, few have claimed Nikki Haley as one of our own. Clearly, we’re in no rush to assign ourselves any portion of blame for yet another act of domestic terrorism. And yet, we’re in a particular moment where the politics of racial identity are being loudly questioned, with whiteness confusingly claiming people of color space. Controversies around racial identity have entered our Facebook feeds and the mainstream news cycle, with Rachel Dolezal’s duplicity exposed and Andrea Smith’s authenticity questioned. As South Asians, especially non-Black South Asians, we must grapple with the opposite problem – how to respond when our people choose whiteness, and identify as such.
Bhagat Singh Thind, from SAADA: South Asian American Digital Archives.
South Asians in the U.S. have attempted to beat Americans at their own racial game since our people first set foot in this country. In the late 1800s, South Asian merchants played up their own ‘exoticism’ – of themselves and their wares, knowing that exotic was safer than threatening, and that mysticism could sell goods. In 1923, Bhagat Singh Thind laid a legal claim to whiteness, claiming that he was a descendant of the ‘Aryan’ and ‘Caucasian’ race, and therefore should be eligible for citizenship. The court ruled that Thind was indeed Caucasian, but was not white – and therefore not fit to be a U.S. citizen.
Almost a century later, Nikki Haley also claims whiteness. Passing has often been about safety and access; this, on the other hand, is about oppression, a willingness to throw people of color – including many South Asians – under the bus in order to gain power. In a world of identity politics that are all about self-identification, there are in fact moments when we get to override. We don’t get to evade responsibility for Nikki Haley because she claims not to be one of us. We don’t get to sigh in relief and say, “See, she’s white. Just let her be white.” In many ways, Nikki Haley – and our other favorite South Asian, Tanned Rested & Ready Bobby Jindal – are the epitome of what it means to be upper middle-class and South Asian.
Image from Jindal’s 2016 presidential fundraising campaign.
The irony, of course, is that Haley grew up in a Sikh family. Just 3 years ago, with eerily similar overtones to the SC shooting, a white supremacist murdered 6 people in a gurudwara in Oak Creek, WI. Haley must have some understanding of the impact of race-based hatred coded as religious violence. This is the racial logic of much of South Asian America – despite the violence, claiming whiteness is understood as more politically expedient.
How do South Asians – especially those of us who are light-skinned, upper middle class, upper caste, colonized – access whiteness without passing? Are we yet again claiming to be ‘Caucasian’ even as we are not white?
Haley doesn’t pass – her ‘ethnic’ Sikh heritage is predictably paraded out every election cycle – but she certainly does utilize whiteness. Her own claimed proximity to whiteness- including her name change and her policies- has created her political career. Our ability to access whiteness is dependent on many factors – skin color, class, caste, education, access, location, and more. And yet even for those of us who are mistaken for Black and experience anti-Black violence – including from within our own communities – there is still always someone below us on the racial hierarchy. South Asians in the U.S. are consistently asked to play the middleman. We are offered a deal: if we appropriately play our role as “allies of the white race,” we will be spared the brunt of anti-Black racism, even as we experience the sometimes devastating aftershocks.
In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, young Black people powerfully responded by saying “I am Trayvon Martin.” Here in Madison, just a few months ago, a teenager named Tony Robinson was shot 7 times by a police officer. When young people take the streets here, they often chant: “I am Tony Robinson. You are Tony Robinson. We are Tony Robinson.” As much as I organize and stand in solidarity with them, and as much as I understand that my liberation is tied with theirs, I can never join this chant.
Tony Robinson’s Casket, from an action in Madison, WI.
Because the truth is – I am not Tony Robinson. I am not Trayvon Martin. But I am also not Darren Wilson, the white officer who shot Mike Brown.
I am Nikki Haley, and my racism too is damaging.
I have believed the racist lies fed to me in this country: that I should fear Black people, blame them for their own poverty. I have made the choice to let anti-Black racism fester, claiming that it’s too hard to challenge now, that I’m exhausted today, that I’ll get to that later. I have succumbed to anti-Blackness even while being directly impacted by racism. By being South Asian in America, anti-Black racism is built into every institution I participate in; and I have the privilege to not always challenge it. As Nikki Haley shows us, this form of violence is just as deadly. She, too, is responsible for the 9 lives lost one month ago.
America is in a state of crisis. Our refusal to claim Haley as our own, to acknowledge that she embodies our own simultaneous engagement with and denial of racism – that refusal has the power to kill. We need to claim Nikki Haley, and Tanned Rested & Ready Bobby Jindal, whether or not they claim us. They are not only part of our community; they exemplify the parts of our communities that we would rather hide.
They, unfortunately, are not an aberration. They show us what being South Asian in America can mean. As early as 2001, before the events of 9/11 showed South Asians that our whiteness was indeed conditional, Vijay Prashad called for “model minority suicide.” South Asians have been mutinying for well over a decade. It’s up to us to have these conversations in our communities, to acknowledge and make visible the deep racism that still exists, and to choose resistance.
We throw around the word solidarity often, especially in QPOC spaces. We talk about standing in solidarity with each other as a necessary sacrifice: of time, resources, energy. We talk about developing an intersectional analysis as a political task that takes away from our daily work but that we understand as essential.
Here’s what I think we miss. Solidarity isn’t actually a sacrifice. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. It’s not something that we should be taking time out of our daily work to do, it shouldn’t feel like an additional burden. If it’s to be effective, solidarity needs to be selfish. Self-serving, self-advancing, and self-interested.
I want to put forward an idea of ‘selfish solidarity.’ This isn’t meant to erase privilege, including within people of color spaces; or to pretend that all our issues are actually the same; or that we have the same investment in every issue. Rather, this is a reframing of how we think and talk about our organizing work, especially in people of color spaces. How we explain our work to our community, how we frame our asks when we want to mobilize. Especially when we are the ones asking others to stand in solidarity, when we are not the most impacted. How would it shift our work if we re-framed our ideas of solidarity as selfish, and really framed standing in solidarity as standing for ourselves?
II. Selfish Solidarity in Political Education: ECSS
I realize this is a little vague so far. Let’s make this concrete with some examples. First, let’s talk about what this idea of ‘selfish solidarity looks like in political education. Then, we’ll move into what this can look like in more on the ground organizing.
I’m going to use an example from work that I’ve been part of for a few years now. Though I’m not helping to organize this year, I was part of a New York collective called East Coast Solidarity Summer and some of its counterparts in other cities for about 4 years.
Youth participants from ECSS 2014.
ECSS, along with BASS in the Bay Area and CDYR in Chicago, is a political education weekend retreat for South Asian youth. In ECSS, youth from all around the East Coast and sometimes the South delve into a politicized understanding of South Asian identity, making visible a history of South Asian resistance to oppression, and creating a distinctly different understanding of what it means to identify as ‘South Asian.’ We spend lots of time talking about the role of South Asians in racial justice movements and in liberatory organizing more broadly.
One of the workshops that has become a standard piece of the ECSS curriculum is Queer & Trans* Liberation. I think that the way we’ve framed this workshop is an example of what it means to educate from a perspective of selfish solidarity.
Queer and trans* South Asian bodies are often seen as ‘too westernized,’ ironically no longer part of the model minority because we have succumbed to the seedier sides of American culture, so we’ve become Americanized in the ‘wrong way,’ and have become tainted. ECSS rejects this narrative, and actively reclaims our South Asian legacies of queerness – both because many of our organizers identify as queer, and because we choose to center queerness in our curriculum.
In the Queer & Trans Liberation workshop, we ask participants to name what is at stake for all of us, not just queer and trans people, in sexual and gender liberation. How do all South Asians benefit when queer and trans South Asians are given the space to live full lives? What histories become visible when centering queer and trans* lives is seen as essential to South Asian liberation and racial justice as a whole?
This is at the base of ‘selfish solidarity’ – instead of framing queer and trans* liberation as an important component of allyship, we ask South Asian youth to locate their own investment in breaking down sexual and gendered oppression in the South Asian diaspora. We ask every young person to understand how they are personally impacted by homophobia, and to find their own stake in queer and trans* liberation. We frame solidarity with queer and trans* communities as something that is deeply personal and that is tied to every South Asian person’s ability to be free, whether or not they identify as queer.
So, what has this looked like in the workshops themselves? First, we highlight the often hidden histories of queerness in our communities in South Asia. We interrogate the history of 377 and laws penalizing sodomy in South Asia and India in particular, reminding participants that those laws are actually a colonial British legacy. We remind participants that queerness has always been part of South Asian histories and communities.
The picture above, from a protest in India, is really interesting, because “Quit India” was originally an anti-colonial campaign. This demystifying of South Asian homophobia is incredibly important. South Asians, along with many people of color communities, are told that our people and our cultures are inherently homophobic and transphobic – a convenient invisibilizing of the role of white colonial sexuality policing. Homophobia, seen as quintessentially South Asian, is then used as a justification for portraying South Asia as backwards, both in South Asia and in the U.S.
Reframing homophobia in South Asia as the result of a white colonial legacy is a rewriting of this script, inscribing queerness into the fabric of South Asia and rejecting imperialist narratives that write off South Asians as inherently backwards. This is a political project that every South Asian person has a deeply personal stake in – being seen as full people, not simply as relics of an exotic and backwards culture, is only possible if we reclaim our histories of queerness, and locate homophobia in imperial and colonial legacies.
The myth of inherently homophobic South Asians migrates to the U.S. as well. In diaspora, we are told that our families are culturally conservative, and that we should be careful about running foul of our community’s homophobia. Painting South Asians as culturally homophobic ignores the role of racism in bolstering South Asian homophobia in the U.S. The pressures put on diasporic families by the spectre, even when unspoken, of American racism is at the heart of homophobia in this country. If you are afraid of your child being called Osama, being stopped by the police, being put into an ESL class because of the color of their skin, of course you more heavily police their gender and sexuality, because identifying as queer is seen as a privilege that we cannot afford to have. As Alok of Darkmatter put it, “homophobia is the diaspora’s response to racism,” not something inherent in South Asian cultures.
That reframing is important – that homophobia is actually a product of the U.S., and in particular a product of American racism. Once more, this is a project that every South Asian person in diaspora in the U.S. should be invested in, in a deeply personal way – by claiming queer legacies of what it means to be South Asian, we can reject portrayals of our communities as backwards and instead locate homophobia as American.
This doesn’t mean that we pretend that straight and gender conforming South Asians have the same investment in queer and trans* liberation, or that straight South Asians should claim queer spaces as their own because this is about them too. Instead, this means that non-queer and trans* South Asians are entering the struggle for queer and trans* liberation as their fight too, even as queer and trans* South Asians are given center stage, and as our voices are prioritized. This means that when we ask straight South Asian youth to join our fight, we speak to their self-interest too.
So again, what makes this ‘selfish solidarity’? We reframe challenging homophobia as challenging imperialism and the remnants of imperial laws, rewriting our own narratives of migration and community. So, standing in solidarity with us isn’t about taking the time to study and center our lives; rather, standing in solidarity with queer and trans* people is the only way to really craft an anti-imperial analysis of South Asia, and South Asians in the U.S. Without a queer and trans* liberation framework, South Asians, whether queer or not, remain seen as homophobic, backward, and colonized.
III. Selfish Solidarity in Organizing: APIs4BlackLives
Now let’s talk about what ‘selfish solidarity’ can look like on the ground, as we organize our movements. I’m going to use as an example the recent APIs4BlackLives movement, that has sprung up in various cities across the U.S. in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement becoming nationally visible.
I’m going to go a little bit off topic and give some context for my own involvement with APIs4BlackLives, because I think it’s important to know. I am currently living in Madison, WI. On March 6th, Tony Robinson, an unarmed Black teenager, was murdered by police officer Matt Kenny, shot 5 times in the chest. If you’ve been following the news, Madison was suddenly on outlets across the country, on CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, and more; pictures of youth taking over the capital spread across social media; videos of protesters taking East Washington Ave. were everywhere.
That was and in many ways still is the moment of the whirlwind there, but it’s important to know that’s not where things began. Starting in November, a group called Young Gifted & Black (YGB) emerged as a coalition of young Black leaders across the city, many of whom identify as queer and/or gender non-conforming. This group emerged from decades of organizing in Black communities in Madison, and claimed that Madison is Ferguson, and in many ways is worse. In mid-January, we began talking about ways for Asians in Madison to visibly stand in solidarity with YGB, since many of us were friends with the organizers and consistently showing up at events. We decided to call ourselves Asians for Black Lives (recognizing that none of us identified as Pacific Islander) and have been working in solidarity in ways both visible – showing up at rallies, writing statements – and invisible – supporting our friends who are organizing, fundraising to create organizer care packages. The picture above is from Hmong youth at a city-wide school walkout.
Similarly, let’s be clear about the history of APIs4BlackLives nationwide. The existence of APIs4BlackLives is the result of years of political education in API and South Asian communities. Years of asking API people how we will leverage our racial privilege in this country to support Black communities, and other communities of color. How we will wield model minority status as a weapon against white supremacy, not against Blackness. Just as the Black Lives Matter movement has been organizing since the murder of Trayvon Martin, back in 2012. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders did not suddenly decide to rise up in solidarity with Black communities and against violence on Black bodies; that legacy has existed and has been intentionally built and bolstered for years.
In APIs4BlackLives spaces, solidarity is often framed as standing up for others. We say that we owe a debt to Black Americans, and that it’s time for us to repay that debt. And it’s true – we do. Our civil rights were earned on Black backs; the immigration laws that allow Asians into this country were passed through Black struggle. The 1965 Immigration Act drastically shifted the demographics and organizing context of Asians in the U.S., as Asians were suddenly allowed into the U.S. in large numbers, after a nearly complete ban in 1924. That act was passed due to the Civil Rights Movement. We do undoubtedly owe a debt.
And yet solidarity can’t stop there. Solidarity, if it is to be long-lasting and effective, can’t be framed as an overdue repayment, or simply the right thing to do. If we want to be in this fight for the long haul, we need to understand our own, personal investment in Black liberation and Black power.
So let’s be clear – I’m not suggesting that we demand to bring our voices to the table, that we stage a takeover of Black Lives Matter movements and spaces. I’m not suggesting that we center our own voices. Rather, I’m saying that we need to understand and frame our investment in Black liberation as deeply personal, and in fact, as life saving. We’re not in this for intellectual reasons; we’re in this because our lives do depend on Black freedom. We need to support because, as Alicia Garza wrote in A Herstory of the Black Lives Matter Movement, “When Black people get free, everybody gets free.”
Again, let’s explain with an example. Two days after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who murdered Mike Brown, the Queer South Asian National Network put out a statement called A Week of Queer South Asian Rage. This was also the week that Obama’s Executive Action on immigration came out, leaving out many of our families and friends, so that’s part of the context here too. I’m going to read a piece of it, that highlights the personal investment South Asians in QSANN articulated in standing for and with Black Lives. From QSANN’s statement:
“Although we are also people of color in the U.S., our South Asian experiences of state violence vary greatly. As race, class and the model minority myth intertwine, many of us cannot understand the deep-seated fear of police shared by so many communities of color. And yet, depending on our access to wealth, immigration status, perceived religion, gender presentation, skin color, and more–many of us also experience state violence and police brutality regularly. We are stopped and frisked, beaten and bloodied, by the police. We continue to be surveilled, apprehended and deported, dealing with the onslaught of overt and covert Islamophobic attacks in a post-9/11 world. We fear for the safety and lives of our brothers, and our siblings, especially those who look darker, bearded and threatening. We fear that they too may be disappeared, beaten, taken. We know that their only crime is their perceived proximity to “terror” and to Blackness. Racism against us as South Asians does not exist in a vacuum; the racism we experience builds on long-standing systems of anti-Black racism and Islamophobia in the U.S. We know that our own liberation is inextricably bound to the struggle for Black lives and immigrant lives to matter in this country.”
In a post-9/11 world, where South Asians are increasingly racialized as brown and often as terrorist, we frame our solidarity as necessarily selfish, as an understanding that our liberations are deeply intertwined.
On February 6th, in Alabama, the need for deep and selfish investment of South Asians in Black Lives Matter movements became even more painfully and nationally clear. Sureshbhai Patel, recently arrived in the U.S. from India to help care for his grandson, was brutally slammed into the ground by a police officer, leaving him partially paralyzed. It is still unclear whether he will fully physically recover. The police were called on Mr. Patel because he was mistaken for “a skinny Black man;” he was brutalized, beaten to the point of literal paralysis but not killed, because he was understood to be Indian and immigrant. For South Asians in the U.S., when we are willing to admit it, this is what’s at stake – we may survive our encounters with the police, which is a real privilege, but ending up alive and brutalized will never be enough.
In response to Mr. Patel’s brutalization by the police, Deepa Iyer and Subhash Kateel wrote an article in India Abroad titled, So that all our grandparents walk freely. They write: “When young African American youth say #Blacklivesmatter, we must say it with them. When Black lives actually matter in America, our lives and our families’ lives will matter as well. And then maybe, all of our grandfathers can take a walk down the street without fear and in peace.”
That’s at the crux of South Asians for Black Lives. This is where our desire for liberation needs to come from. Sure, we’re in this work to support our friends, our fam; to repay our historical debt; but also because we understand that if Black people are able to walk down the street without being afraid, we will be able to do the same. We understand that while Black liberation is not “our” struggle, we will always win when Black people win, and feel safer when Black people feel safer. By framing our solidarity as selfish, and this fight as one that our lives depend on though it’s not ours to lead, hopefully this coalition-building will become more sustainable.
Specifically, this idea of ‘selfish solidarity’ around #BlackLivesMatter is an organizing strategy for South Asian spaces in this example, or non-Black spaces more generally. Again, because it does bear repeating in this political moment, this doesn’t mean that we cry South Asian Lives Matter too, or any other version of [Insert Here] Lives Matter. That’s not solidarity at all.
What “selfish solidarity” does mean is that when I call my mother the day after Darren Wilson’s non-indictment, I ask her if she’s been watching the news, and then I ask her if she worries about my little brother. Who is taller than I am, and just darker-skinned enough for me to worry. She admits that yes, she does worry. And as story after story have captured national attention, we worry more. That’s the entry point for organizing in South Asian communities around Black Lives Matter. That’s how you keep people who are not organizers, have no desire to be activists, will even tell you that they don’t do politics – people like my mom – that’s how we have to frame this movement and this moment, selfishly, to convince our people that this is in fact deeply about them and their loved ones, even as Black lives are the most at stake, and as Black voices need to be centered.
Part of “selfish solidarity” is also understanding and using our own privileges. Asian Americans and South Asians undoubtedly wield racial privilege in this country, in comparison to other communities of color. And that’s why we even need this frame of “selfish solidarity” – because there are plenty of Asian Americans, including South Asians, who would prefer to ride out our racial privilege, instead of locating and acknowledging our lived stake in this struggle. The model minority myth is still real.
In Madison, going back to where I’m currently living, that selfish solidarity and acknowledgement of privilege has looked like a lot of things: corralling financial resources, for those of us who have them or know people who do; writing, because Madison is an academic city and Asian people, faces and names are often seen as more ‘credible’ than Black voices; showing up at rallies and protests and doing whatever’s asked; interfacing with police, knowing that we’re less likely to end up dead for doing so, especially in front of a crowd. We are figuring out how to use our privilege across the country – both because it’s the right thing to do, and also because we know that our lives and our safety depend on it.
This is where I’ve often found the framing of APIs4BlackLives lacking, and where centering South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander voices changes the conversation. If we really talked about the lived investment we have in Black liberation; if we centered the racialized experiences of South Asians, Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders; our call for solidarity would look different. We would show up for ourselves, as much as for an idea of solidarity. This is a strategy of organizing that doesn’t center our own lives, which is what we’re often told organizing is about, but rather builds our deeply personal investment in showing up for struggles and movements led by Black people and ultimately builds our collective strength in deeper and more lasting ways. This is how APIs4BlackLives becomes a sustainable coalition, and not a flash in the pan moment.
To close out, I want to talk a little bit about why I called this ‘selfish’ solidarity. It’s uncomfortable to say and to hear – right? A friend of mine suggested ‘survival solidarity’ instead. And while I like that term more in some ways, it also feels too easy. I kept ‘selfish solidarity’ because it is uncomfortable. And even when solidarity feels deeply personal, and self-interested, and has the commitment of your whole self – it should feel uncomfortable. Solidarity isn’t a destination. You don’t ever happily arrive at solidarity. We should always be asking and questioning if we’re doing the right things, supporting in the right ways.
Bernice Johnson Reagon, who is often credited with being the musical soul of the Civil Rights Movement, argued that we need to recognize the difference between coalition and home. Solidarity and coalition aren’t the same, but the sentiment translates. In her piece Coalition Politics: Turning the Century, she said: “Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort. Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there. They’re not looking for a coalition; they’re looking for a home!”
I think that’s an important thing to remember as we close out – coalition is not home. Even if solidarity is selfish, coalition should be and feel uncomfortable. If solidarity, even ‘selfish solidarity’ starts to feel comfortable, that might be a sign that we’ve moved away from our goals.
Have you seen the horrific video of an Indian grandfather thrown to the ground during an encounter with police in Madison, Alabama?
Despite the beautiful and growing movement of South Asians for Black Lives, there’s a conversation, and an organizing moment, that we’re missing here around criminalization and South Asian communities. Sureshbhai Patel’s assault in Madison, AL is a moment to have this conversation. If we want to organize South Asians in this country, we need to talk about the stake that South Asians have in combating police brutality and violence.
First, I want to make one point clear: I believe in standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter movements, and in centering Black voices and leadership in the conversation around police brutality. Period. I’m also committed to the project of organizing South Asians in the U.S. And as organizers, we need to talk strategy.We need to meet our people where they’re at. We need to take moments like these to talk not just about anti-Black racism, but also about the real stake that we have as South Asians in combating racial profiling and police brutality.
The conversations I’ve been following, largely spurred by Anirvan Chatterjee’s important article, focus on anti-Black racism as the root of Mr. Patel’s assault. That is certainly one of the roots of this violence: as Anirvan points out, the 911 caller is worried about a “skinny black guy” who makes him worried to leave his wife home alone. However, we’re missing an opportunity here if we don’t talk about racism and xenophobia towards South Asians as part of this story—and part of what allowed a police officer to slam an innocent man into the ground.
While the cops were called on Sureshbhai Patel because he was perceived to be Black, he was thrown to the ground and nearly paralyzed because he was read as brown. Once the cops arrived on the scene, I assume they realized Mr. Patel was Indian—Mr. Patel could not speak English, and simply repeated ‘India’ in an attempt to communicate with the police. He marked himself as brown and as immigrant—and the intersection of these identities rendered him worthless enough to be left with two broken vertebrae, for doing nothing at all.
The “War on Terror,” the war on immigrants, are fought on our literal bodies. Some of us, especially working class South Asian organizations such as DRUM or the NYTWA, have been making these connections for years. The rest of us need to get on board, especially wealthy South Asians who have never experienced class-based violence with the police. As South Asians in this country, many of us are afraid—that we might be one shade too dark, or one beard too threatening. Whether we’re becoming part of a growing ‘model minority mutiny,’ or whether we’ve always felt outside the model minority myth, the time to have these conversations is now. We need to validate the fears that our communities face, and use that as an entry point into conversations about race and policing in which we have a real lived stake.
We also need to emphasize that Mr. Patel was Indian in American—not Indian-American. If Mr. Patel had been an American citizen, would the cop who assaulted him have been fired, and potentially charged with a crime? I don’t know. The chances are higher, certainly, than for the many young Black men who have been killed by the police finding any semblance of justice. There have been many African immigrants killed by the police, in cases that have drawn national attention. Those officers were not immediately fired. Most importantly, despite grievous injury, Sureshbhai Patel is still alive and recovering. I doubt that a Black man in America would be able to say the same. Mr. Patel had a foreign embassy—of a rising power, no less—to back him up. Ironically, his foreignness was both what spurred his assault and what catalyzed a response.
Mr. Patel was assaulted because he was Indian, because he was South Asian. There’s an urgency to this framing. This is an entry point to have conversations at multiple levels. I understand the political project of locating the root of racism against South Asians in anti-Black racism; I’ve worked to do the same. Some of us are making the connections to anti-Black racism and to solidarity work. Some of us know that when Black people get free, we all get free.
For others, we need a different entry point—one based in our lived experiences. Solidarity takes work. As South Asian organizers, we need to be prepared to hear, validate and mobilize the fear that this assault brings up. If we are committed to building a mass movement, we need to recognize that Mr. Patel was brutalized because he was brown, and name the reality of violence that so many of us already fear. We need to draw the connections between this case and the Chapel Hill shootings. We need to name the multitude of ways that brown bodies are vulnerable in this country.
This is an organizing moment for South Asians in the U.S. We need to work to mobilize our people where they’re at, and recognize as valid the fear we so rarely discuss. Terrorism, xenophobia, and racism are drawn onto our bodies. These aren’t theories; they’re our lived realities. Now is the time, more than ever, to draw these connections and to organize with our people—both in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and against our own brutalization.
This time last month, as I cobbled together news from thousands of miles and a couple of oceans away, I was elated. Mahinda Rajapakse, the man who ‘won the Civil War’ with brute force, built a seemingly unstoppable political dynasty, eliminated presidential term limits to stay in power, was losing. I imagined that Rajapakse’s clan would rule Sri Lanka for the majority of my lifetime; instead, he was being slowly ousted from office by Maithripala Sirisena, once considered both a cabinet member and a trusted ally, one slow vote at a time.
Halfway around the world, I held my breath with Sri Lanka, felt the collective tension wrap tendrils around my shoulders as we waited for something–gunshots, screams, tears–the sounds of a country breaking. I texted my parents. Are you watching? Is this real? They reflected back my own fragile hope, struggling to breathe beneath overwhelming cynicism. It’s not over. He’s not going to give up. Just wait.
And wait we did. We waited with bated breath as the hours became days, weeks, and now a month. We waited as rumors flew that Rajapakse had ordered a coup, and that the army had refused to comply. We waited and watched in sheer disbelief as he left Temple Trees, as people piled into the street to watch Sirisena be sworn in.
It’s now been one month since the Sri Lankan presidential elections, and I’m finally attempting to explain what this means to me, a 2nd generation American a continent or two away. My relationship to Sri Lanka has always been fraught with the trials and tribulations of a diaspora kid, and a queer one to boot. For most of my childhood, Sri Lanka was a memoryscape–a place where stories, lives, people existed in a living contradiction of the present and the past. As an adult, I’ve made an effort to reconnect, and yet: the longest time I’ve spent on the island is four months; the longest I can imagine living there is a few years. I struggle to speak broken Sinhala, and am generally disconnected from the day to day goings on in Colombo.
Yet somehow, this election felt…intimate. As twitter began to buzz on January 8th, I struggled to explain why I couldn’t pull myself away–from twitter, facebook, Groundviews. I gave up any pretense of doing work and simply endlessly refreshed my twitter feed, and any live updated poll I could find. In an articled titled “It’s Personal, It Should Be To Us All,” Subha Wijesiriwardena explains:
If you think that it couldn’t be just as personal for you as it has been for me, I believe it just means you haven’t thought about it for long enough – if you feel you weren’t personally, directly affected by the Rajapaksas, then I ask you to just look around yourself. Someone you know, perhaps even someone you love, was. They took something from each one of us: freedom, money, courage. We came up against dead-ends trying to build normal, every-day lives. They took our vitality, our identity. They took away our right – and our urge – to think, to speak, to resist, to demand better. For me, Sri Lanka under the Rajapakses was a lie – not a country.
Even worlds away, in the frigid temperatures of Madison, WI, this election felt personal. I couldn’t find the words to explain that I could feel the world breaking. I didn’t know how to translate that the lump in my throat, illegible in American English, meant that I’d waited unknowingly for this moment for years.
It’s taken me years to understand just where Colombo lives in me. My parents left a country so that we wouldn’t grow up in fear, and by and large, their sacrifice succeeded. And yet, fear and trauma find ways to be passed down. I’ve heard the stories of white van assassinations; of bodies floating back from the ocean; of people suddenly lost and never found.
When I left for Sri Lanka in 2010, I remember my dad pulling me aside. He warned me that being politically outspoken in the U.S. was one thing, but that speaking out in Sri Lanka was still dangerous. He warned me that the walls have ears: you never know who is listening, and retaliation is a constant threat. Though I would be in an American program, my brown skin, my brown name, my brown history rendered me unsafe.
I’ve watched Tamils in Sri Lanka continuously treated as less than human, and wondered when the next civil war would begin. Sri Lankans invented suicide bombing, and it worked. The civil war entered the otherwise privileged space of the capital. Though without nearly the level of intensity as the north and east, the whole country became a viable battleground. I’ve waited for that phone call–the bank was bombed again, the phone lines are down, we can’t find so-and-so.
This is what it means to come from the diaspora of war, even from the privileged Sinhalese side.
On the other hand, this is a moment of deep pride. It’s been an exceptionally hard few months in the U.S. As I join students, friends, and fam out in the streets to demand that #BlackLivesMatter, I’ve felt the cynicism in American democracy, often held at bay by my privilege, take hold like never before. I’ve never felt less American, more convinced that we live in a country that wants our labor and our culture, our music and our art, our bodies and our heartbreak–but not our lives.
In a twist of irony, I’m looking to Sri Lanka for hope. This election is a compilation of small acts of unbelievable courage. Courage to cast a vote, knowing that violent repression or retaliation is at stake. Courage to refuse military orders for a coup, despite the ex-President’s brother being the Secretary of Defense. Courage to run against an incumbent with a violent history, knowing that losing an election could cost your freedom or your life.
As America runs herself into the ground, I’m looking South for hope. There’s a long road ahead, and only time will tell if Maithripala Sirisena can be the leader that Sri Lanka needs, if he will actually have the courage to address the rightful grievances of Tamil people before, during, and after the war. But for now, I’m claiming this victory as my own, at least in small part. And I’m taking pride in a place too often seen as backwards, primitive, and undemocratic. I’m going to let my heart swell as I imagine the power of individual acts of incredible courage to reclaim not just an election, but a country.
The Revolution Starts with My Thathi (Dad):
Strategies for South Asians to Bring #BlackLivesMatter Home
It’s getting to that holiday time again, and many of us will be spending time with our families, given and chosen.
If your family is anything like mine: South Asian, upper middle class, and oftentimes conservative, you’re starting to wonder how you will navigate the hard conversations that come up year after year. You’re beginning to feel the dread. You’re gearing up to hold and argue about the enormity of what’s going on in this country right now. How you will argue with racist aunts about Mike Brown’s death, listen in disbelief to your father stand up for the NYPD, and feel the frustration build.
Change starts small, and the revolution starts at home. For those of us who are queer, it’s not always safe to directly confront our families of origin, if we are even still in touch with them. However, I want to challenge us to have the hard conversations when we can. To push our own growing edges, and to sit in the discomfort that comes with challenging our people on our racism. On pushing back on our communities’ anti-Blackness. As non-Black people of color, this is our work. Our work. Nobody else can do this for us. Nobody else should have to.
Ella Baker used to ask “who are your people?” as an entry point into movement work. I know my answer. My people include my family, and I refuse to leave them behind. This year, I want to be ready to engage my family in conversations about Ferguson, about Staten Island, about police brutality, about how and why #BlackLivesMatter should matter to them, too.
This is geared towards informal conversations, for those moments where you’re cooking dinner together, watching TV, or just catching up. If you’re looking for curriculum to run a more formal workshop geared at challenging anti-Black racism in South Asian communities, I encourage you to check out QSANN’s guide here.
These are some of the strategies I’m planning on using to engage in these hard conversations. I invite you to add your own suggestions to the list.
1. Ask about your family’s experiences with the police.
You might be surprised. As people racialized as brown in the U.S., many of our folks have had hard experiences with the police. We haven’t, as communities, experienced nearly the same degree of police violence that Black people have. But there’s a starting point here. Ask if your dad has ever been pulled over unfairly by the police. Ask if you mom has ever been afraid to pass through TSA at the airport. Ask when your family members have experienced discrimination, and how they have responded. And once you ask, listen and learn from what your family has to say. When I got off my social justice high horse and asked my family about their experiences with post-9/11 discrimination, I was surprised. We broke open a conversation about Islamophobia, profiling, and police discrimination, even (or especially) in the white suburbs. Respect the experiences, the knowledge, the brilliance in your own family. You may have some radical aunties and not even know it.
2. Make it personal.
Why do you care about police brutality, about Black lives, about building a multi-racial movement? Not with the jargon of social justice, racial justice, and movement building. Deep in your heart, why do you care? If you can, show your emotions. Let your family see that this affects you. Talk about the story that broke your heart open, the people you call family, the friends who patiently guided you into this work. Let them know that you cried for two hours after hearing your students talk about the fragility of their lives, that you called in sick to work the day after Darren Wilson’s non-indictment. Let them know that you sometimes worry about your dark-skinned brother. Your own story and process may help guide other people through theirs.
3. Center people’s humanity.
Part of widespread, historical, institutional racism in this country is that Black people are seen as less than human. The media certainly isn’t portraying Black victims of police brutality as people; in fact, they’re taking every opportunity to demonize Black victims, and putting them on trial. Shift the narrative. Tell stories about Mike Brown as a person, about Eric Garner’s family. Talk about their parents, their partners, their friends, their kids. If your family doesn’t want to believe you, ask them if they’ve experienced this: Have they been accused of being “terrorists”? Have they been spoken to in mocking, broken english? Have they been denied opportunities because of dehumanizing assumptions made about them? This isn’t the same as the deadly racism that Black people challenge every day, but this is, again, a starting point. Remind your family members that these are real lives at stake, not just statistics. Remind your family that these lives are worth far more than a few cigarillos, or a handful of cigarettes.
4. Know your history.
And do your research ahead of time. Police brutality is hardly a new conversation in America. Know how prisons became the mass industry they are now, how policing and police brutality were developed as forms of control. Know the history of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, and be able to speak to the ways that South Asians have been used as part of a ‘model minority.’ Know your facts, and your history. These histories are hidden because they speak truth. Being able to paint a historical picture may change people’s minds.
5. Ask questions.
For those of us who live and breathe this work and these conversations, we can forget that we all had a learning curve too. Sometimes, we need to start by asking questions: Have you been following the news? What do you think? Are your co-workers talking about this? Our families don’t always have access to the political spaces that we do. They may need the space to start piecing through their own responses, and their own ideas. It can be hard to hear where people are at, and you may not want to listen to your family hash through their racism. But again, this is how we do our part. We ask our white friends to do their work as allies, and to use their white privilege to make waves in white communities. Don’t make Black communities ask the same of us. This is our work, not theirs.
6. Be patient, and listen.
Change takes time. You might not convince your racist cousin to change his mind overnight, but you might get him thinking. Your goal isn’t to make your family agree with you in one conversation; you want to start the gears turning, ask the questions that get people questioning their own beliefs. If we’re serious about being #APIs4BlackLives, South Asians who stand with Ferguson, part of a #ModelMinorityMutiny–we need to be patient. We need to be in this work for the long haul.
These suggestions aren’t one-size-fits all, and they won’t work for everyone. They are ideas that come specifically from my family’s location in the U.S.: as first-generation immigrants, non-Black South Asians, upper-middle class families, living in the suburbs of L.A. These strategies certainly don’t encompass the diversity of our families, our communities, and our strategies. So please, add your ideas to the mix! I’d love to learn from them, too.
What other strategies are you planning on using at your kitchen table?
As an organizer and educator working with students of color, when Dear White People came out I had to watch it. From the various trailers, and the tagline of “being a Black face in a white place,” I was excited to see a film center the often invisible experiences of Black college students at a predominantly white institution. Overall, I enjoyed watching the movie. The trials and tribulations of Black students, ranging from the trivial to the dangerously violent, rang painfully true. I could relate to the struggle of a handful of students of color to respond: the confused passion of Sam, Lionel’s perpetual search for community, the idealistic and pragmatic activist embodied in Reggie.
Despite its redeeming qualities, I left the theater feeling deeply unsettled by the film’s portrayal of AsianAmericans. [Spoiler alert.] Towards the end of the film, Lionel informs the Black Student Union that there is a party being organized on campus based on stereotypes of African-American/Black students. In short, white students are required to perpetuate blackface in all of its forms at this event. After Lionel alerts the BSU, Sungmi, the one Asian American character in the film who has a speaking role, encourages BSU members to join with the Asian American and Latin@ student organizations on campus to charge into the party and shut it down.
In theory, this is great – students of color in the broadest sense should all have a vested interest in protesting campus parties based in dangerous stereotypes. However, in Dear White People‘s portrayal, Asian Americans and Latin@ students are literally rendered voiceless.(1) The viewers don’t see their decision to join BSU members in shutting the party down, and simply see angry Asian faces, and a single Latino face, confronting white partygoers. These angry Asian faces have no names, no history, no context—and literally no voice. Is there a more typical Asian American stereotype than an Asian without a voice?
Scene from “Dear White People.”
Despite Naomi Ko (the actress who plays Sungmi) and other voices celebrating the progressive portrayal of Asian Americans in solidarity with Black folks, I’m not convinced. There is a more nuanced racial politic at play here. Asian Americans often have the racial privilege of being seen as a ‘model minority,’ a stereotype that can be used as a shield against the anti-Blackness that undergirds the most brutal forms of American racism. Asian Americans need to do internal work to build a racial awareness that locates and places ourselves on the racial hierarchy of the U.S. If you aren’t able to speak to the long and arduous process of building solidarity across these racial differences – don’t show a half-baked version. The dark side to the Model Minority Myth is a portrayal of Asian Americans as timid and voiceless, hard-working minions without a mind of our own. If you can’t portray Asian Americans as multi-faceted, don’t portray us at all. Instead, show the equally powerful story of Black students standing up for themselves, and pushing back against a party with a centuries-long history of racism.
If you want to prioritize a demonstration of cross-racial solidarity, including Asian Americans, take the time to build it, on or off screen.It’s not enough to demonstrate Asian Americans standing in solidarity with Black folks; you have to show the internal and cross-community work that leads to that coalition. Solidarity and coalitional politics aren’t achieved overnight (or simply through “having better snacks”). It’s a long, drawn-out, painful process, a constant assessing and re-assessing of our shared struggles, our radical possibilities, and our contradictions. Without that process shown, or even gestured towards, on screen, Asian Americans are reduced once again to racial props, ready to step in when necessary but without names or voices, issues or agendas. If we don’t grapple with the hard questions of how we truly shape our issues as interconnected, and how we arrive at the always tenuous conclusion of solidarity, we risk losing the potential to truly build—while simultaneously reifying age-old Asian American stereotypes.
(1) The role of Latin@s in this film, while in some ways similar to that of Asian Americans, needs another analysis – and one that I will not attempt to undertake here. (I do look forward to reading it, though!)
The Project on Fair Representation, a legal defense fund backed by self-professed “charity” organization Project Liberty, Inc. is running smear web campaigns against the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Harvard University over charges of “racial discrimination.” On the campaigns’ web pages, Asian faces are prominently displayed next to the tagline: “Were you denied admission? It may be because you’re the wrong race.” These campaigns claim that Asian Americans are subjected to racial quotas in college admissions and are unfairly rejected from some of the nation’s top universities. They play off the popular and yet unfounded idea that affirmative action hurts not only white students, but also Asian Americans.
The campaigns are funded primarily by one man: Edward Blum, founder and one-man staff of Project Liberty, Inc. who is determined to end so-called racial discrimination in university admissions. The Project on Fair Representation is not Blum’s first foray into the politics of affirmative action. Blum was also a driving force behind the most well-known challenge thus far to affirmative action in this generation: the notorious Fisher vs. University of Texas case, starring Abigail Fisher, a white woman, as the plaintiff. Though Blum claims that he is not using Asian Americans as a racial wedge, this new campaign relies on the racially charged idea that Asian Americans in the U.S. have attained a “culture of success” that has led to racial discrimination against them in university admissions.
Creating a “Culture of Success”
The argument of discrimination against Asian Americans based upon their perceived “culture of success,” whether that phrase is used or not, relies on a coded form of racism that pits supposed Asian American success against the false trope of a Black “culture of poverty.”
Recently, there has been a surge of media coverage focused on the “success” of Asian Americans spurred by author Amy Chua. By sensationalizing “tiger moms” and a cultural “triple package” of traits, Chua has revived the model minority myth. As Chua would have it, Asian Americans’ “success” is based upon the strong work ethic of Asian migrants, in contrast to Black and Latino “laziness,” allowing Asians to quickly accumulate wealth in this country. Unfortunately, this false idea of an inherently superior Asian work ethic has informed our national conversations around Asian Americans and affirmative action.
The power of racism lies in its ability to shift form; similarly, the enduring power of the model minority myth depends upon its ability to perpetuate itself by ignoring the role of immigration policy in shaping Asian success stories. An Asian American “culture of success,” which fuels Blum’s anti-affirmative action arguments, ignores history and fails to account for the role that the U.S. immigration system has played in creating stratified classes of migrants. Most notably, following decades of Asian immigrant exclusion solidified by the Immigration Act of 1924, US Cold War fears spurred the passage of the 1965 Hart Celler Act. This Act instituted immigration preferences for “highly skilled” or technologically skilled migrants, along with options for family reunification. As a result, a great number of highly skilled, highly educated new Asian immigrants joined the US population, carefully screened for their skills and, often, for their economic status. This influx of Asian immigrants with political, social and educational capital fueled the model minority myth, and resulted in the higher economic status of certain Asian immigrant groups that persists through the present day.
The idea of “success” as a cultural trait erases both the role of immigration legislation and the historical and social struggles of those who did not have the advantage of having economically privileged forebears. In order to perpetuate the false myth of an inherent Asian culture of success, it thus behooves Blum, Chua and their supporters to undermine Asian American battles for affirmative action, along with any Asian American working class struggles.
Strange Bedfellows: Immigration and Affirmative Action
It is hypocritical for those of us who have economically and socially benefited from migration to deny access to others by undermining affirmative action. Even in the U.S. political left, affirmative action is framed as a system designed to increase access and circumvent discrimination, while immigration is understood to exclude and discriminate in the name of “protecting borders.” Upon closer examination, however, these systems are strikingly—and disturbingly—similar.
Both affirmative action and immigration are usually presented to communities of color as points of access: to institutions of higher education and to the “American Dream.” In reality, both these systems grant access only to a select few without challenging broader power systems or creating true structural change. Affirmative action is lauded as a system of access, but is only beneficial for those few allowed past the gates. Immigration provides access and the illusion of “success” for those handpicked by the U.S. government, while leaving the majority of those who wish to migrate, often due to U.S. influence in their countries of origin, without the means or permission. While affirmative action and immigration both allow conditional and limited access, neither of these systems provide any avenue for structural change — in higher education institutions or immigration policy.
Affirmative action and immigration function as band-aid measures, providing temporary and incomplete “solutions” to the racism that pervades education and global inequity. True reform would necessitate a reworking of both higher education and immigration legislation from the ground up, opening classrooms and borders, and allowing for a free flow of knowledge, capital and people. Instead, institutions of higher education remain steeped in whiteness (despite a few brown faces) and immigration policy continues to ignore the power dynamics and policies that so often necessitate migration.
Despite a long history steeped in xenophobia and discrimination, immigration has acted as a form of affirmative action for many Asian Americans, providing an entry point into historically white male fields for a few, while excluding the majority. For certain Asian communities deemed worthy by U.S. immigration laws, the result of migration policy often has been access — to education, to visas, to high-paying jobs in this country that have previously seemed unattainable. While any form of migration is inherently traumatic, this access has set up certain Asian American groups to become a so-called “model minority” credited with a supposed “culture of success.”
Refusing the False Promise of Whiteness
As Asian Americans, we need to reframe our histories and stand in solidarity with all marginalized peoples looking to increase their access — whether through immigration or through affirmative action. It’s time for us to decide where we stand in this latest attack in the war against affirmative action. Asian America: can we please not be the face of the Project on Fair Representation’s new campaign?
We need to raise awareness about how Asian Americans have struggled to institute affirmative action, not to abolish it. We need to acknowledge that we have been part of an immigration strategy designed to create a “culture of success,” providing conditional access on the back of mass exclusion. We need to stand in solidarity with all people looking to increase their access through the flawed systems available, whether affirmative action or immigration. And of course, we need to refuse to be a prop in white America’s plan, used and then discarded when we’ve outlived our racial value.