Wenasak: Reflections on the Sri Lankan Election from a Diaspora Kid

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: Strategies for South Asians to Bring #BlackLivesMatter Home

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.

South Asians stand with Ferguson

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?