In my post on the tensions of the term ‘person of color’, I started to get at how my (diasporic South Asian-American) community has benefited from systemic racism. I also started to get at how we use racism as a strategy of assimilation into structures of White supremacy. A few weeks ago, the South Asian cultural organization at my school hosted a party with our campus Israel Alliance with no mention or regard for the Palestinian struggle against the colonial Israeli state. That shit is unacceptable—if we’re able to engage with our cultures or anyone else’s with no mention of politics it’s symptomatic of gross levels of privilege. Seems it’s time to be more direct.
There are a lot of us doing the work of trying to de-assimilate our diaspora. There are even more trying to silence this work. The first lot of us are going to keep making noise. It’s fucking sad and disappointing to see our own people acting in the service of White supremacy and imperialism. The following are some of the conversations, from my experience, more of our diaspora need to be having:
1. Basically, let’s talk about race and class. Let’s stop buying into this narrative that our families all got here because we ‘worked hard and made it to the America’. Especially since those of us who came to the US in that first wave of professional South Asian (largely Indian) immigrants largely benefited from our caste and class positions in South Asia. Our families had access to the education and capital it took to enter those professional spheres. This is not to erase the struggle and pain of immigration, but to recognize that our experience of ‘desi-ness’ is often very, very different from that of working-class, Dalit, and indigenous peoples.
Can we also stop pretending that the relative ‘success’ (read: class ascension) South Asians have enjoyed in the US comes from some sort of racial superiority? A recent article on n+1 described well how this ‘model minority’ myth reinforces other structures of (often antiblack) racism:
[A]s Vijay Prashad has argued in two penetrating books about the diaspora, The Karma of Brown Folk and Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, South Asians have contributed to and benefited from the vibrant American tradition of antiblack racism. South Asians routinely are held up by elites (especially, self-servingly, newly crowned desi elites) as examples of how to succeed in America — in contrast to (the comparison is sometimes implied, but often explicit) blacks’ stagnation in their own insoluble pathologies. One doesn’t become the very model of a modern model minority simply by being good in the gaze of whites; one also has to be visibly bad to the “unmodel” minorities below… No one lives in a postracial America, but we desis have mostly enjoyed a postbrown existence that looks like one; “brown” solidarity has often amounted to desi professionals forming business associations to better exploit workers.
Not all of us come from caste or class privilege (either here or in our countries of origin), but those of us who do need to be talking about it and owning it, rather than hiding behind our brownness or the relative poverty of South Asia. Let’s talk about the conservatism (fiscal and otherwise) that class privileges in our communities facilitate. Let’s talk about the ways we continue to operate around and have benefited from caste, even if we pretend that’s something that doesn’t exist, or only exists ‘back in the villages’. Let’s dismantle this model minority business and recognize how White supremacy profits from it.
2. Let’s quit talking about our homelands like we know everything there is to know. It’s easy isn’t it? White people in particular will take our word as native informants. (‘Oh tell me more, what’s it like there?’). Our goal here is not to enable White gurls who want to do unpaid internships in Kolkatta or write the next Eat Pray Love. We have strange privileges as diasporic peoples to speak for countries we do not live in—cut it out.
We each need to do the work of recognizing for ourselves what we do or do not know about our countries of origin. The more distance we get (in geography, class, Western socialization), the less we probably get it–‘it’ being conditions on the ground for working-class and other oppressed peoples. We also need to do the work of reading and listening to the experiences of the very same, and understanding that our knowledge will always be incomplete and secondhand.
It’s also on us to learn and resist the ways the governments of our countries of origin are creating violence domestically and abroad. This is particularly on you Indian-Americans, since we’re from the wealthiest and most militarily powerful state in the region—one engaged in occupations and arms trade with other imperial powers globally, including Israel.
3. Let’s actually learn the resistive aspects of our histories too. This includes everything from contemporary and historical social movements (labor struggles, women’s movements, organizing by gender and sexual minorities, all of it). Our peoples now are not all about assimilation into White supremacy. Our peoples have not always been about assimilation into White supremacy. Let’s build from those moments, mobilize with the knowledge of powerful histories and ancestry.
4. Let’s quit Orientalizing our cultures and performing them in some way divorced from their political contexts. We’ve got a whole lot more than Bollywood and chai and henna going for us. I get it—that’s the aesthetics-only version of our subcontinent that’s more palatable to the White gaze. It’s also the version many of us were taught to perform so that we would also be more palatable to the White gaze. The West doesn’t want the South Asia rife with colonialism, sectarian violence, poverty, and resistance movements. Or if they do, I guess they want the Slumdog Millionaire version.
In short, we need to recognize the ways we are currently accepting or resisting dominant narratives about ourselves and our peoples that benefit white supremacy—and to acknowledge that a brown body is not a free pass to contribute to systemic racism.
Janani is a South Asian electron spinning around the Bay Area making art and scholarship. They’re newly the Assistant Editor of Black Girl Dangerous! You can read more of their work atqueerdarkenergy.sqsp.com, and catch their poetry tour through New England atbit.ly/queerdarkmatter.
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