Crucially, the young generation that is unafraid to introspect within and initiate difficult conversations is increasingly putting its weight behind anti-black racism and casteism within.
Black Lives Matter protests refuse to die down as the US remains wrapped up in discussions of structural racism, white supremacy and police abolition. Most importantly, conversations have been sparked even in families without necessarily any progressive or activistic leanings. It isn’t only on Instagram and it isn’t just commentators like Hasan Minhaj talking — South Asian diaspora communities in the US are ringing with multitudes of online and offline conversations to reckon with how to respond and how to address apathy, anti-black racism and casteism within.
It is no secret that South Asians grapple with various measures of anti-blackness that manifest in banal preferences for lighter complexions, prevailing negative associations in pop culture, and languages with all things black. Sometimes it is unleashed as verbal and physical attacks against Africans. Once in the US, immigrant families often continued to mingle within their own caste and regional associations and strongly discouraged children from dating or marrying African- Americans. Even when many of them gained economic and cultural capital, old patterns and prejudices lingered. According to the Pew Research, Indian-Americans have a higher household income than any other ethnic subgroup in the United States.
“For decades, South Asians have been very afraid to rock the boat,” said Shoba Sharad Rajgopal, a media studies professor at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. As outsiders, many felt “their status was so marginal in the first place that they barely got a toehold in the American society.” But awareness, frustrations and activism within the community have simultaneously come together to interrupt decades of bystander syndrome. Crucially, the young generation that is unafraid to introspect within and initiate difficult conversations is increasingly putting its weight behind the cause.
In response to Black Lives Matter, Tarina Ahuja, a college-bound Indian American teen, along with her cousin and two friends in Ashburn, Virginia, is organising an open-to-all, virtual townhall for South Asians for different generations to talk about inherent bias and colourism, the history of institutional oppression against Black Americans, and how to build solidarity with them. According to Ahuja, who joined several demonstrations and protests in recent weeks, their initiative is representative of what she’s seeing in friend circles, in Bhangra teams and across South Asian student associations and organisations in high schools and colleges.
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IF YOU ARE OR KNOW ANY SOUTH ASIANS PLEASE SHARE!! This is an intergenerational ZOOM town hall focused on understanding how the South Asian community can come together to stand up as allies to our black brothers and sisters. PLEASE RSVP: bit.ly/SouthAsiansBLM (in bio). Dialogue leads to empathy and empathy leads to action. Join us ❤️
“What I am noticing now is young people saying that it is uncomfortable but we don’t have the luxury anymore to ignore it,” said racial justice educator-activist and author Simran Jeet Singh, who was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. Lately, he has received a number of grassroots requests from high school and college students to speak on webinars they have been organising for their parents’ communities. “Kids today understand the term [‘structural racism’] in a way that I didn’t when I was growing up,” he said.
“We’ve been coddled by that model minority myth … which encourages us to be apathetic and to not work towards movements for Black lives. I think what we need is a model minority mutiny,” said one of the women behind the initiative, “We need all of us to continue to work together towards the liberation of people of colour, and particularly Black and indigenous communities of colour. And I think that what we’re seeing with our South Asian for Black Lives page is that there are so many young folks who are wanting to do that work and are just looking for the right way that they can plug into it.”
“The increased interest in confronting anti-Blackness among South Asian community members shows some progress. We have gotten more requests than ever before for tools, resources, and discussions on how individuals and organisations can effectively talk about this issue and understand systemic racism,” wrote Sophia Qureshi, who manages communications for South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), in an email. However, she emphasises that solidarity statements are far from enough and the need for South Asians to interrogate their reliance on the police and an inherently racist criminal justice system. Solidarity against racism, she said, also goes hand in hand with confronting other injustices such as oppression and violence against Dalits, Islamophobia and rising Hindu nationalism.
“We have become really good as a society about saying the right things,” said Singh. “I think there is some value in that but there is also frustration when your words aren’t followed up with actions because that doesn’t help anybody.” Activists across the board have encouraged South Asians to attend protests, contribute money, pro bono services, and time and attention to petitions, demands and voting.
Thenmozhi Soundarajan, a Dalit American activist and executive director of Equality Labs, a progressive, Ambedkarite South Asian organisation, said many well-to-do South Asians are guilty of strategically exploiting the ‘Person Of Color’ label to further their own personal careers and positions, without acknowledging their privileged status above other minorities. She cautioned desis against a superficial, performance-only solidarity and called for difficult introspective questions that Black Lives Matter should raise.
“Anti-Dalitness and casteism … informs and feeds South Asian anti-Blackness,” she said in an email, pointing out how the two intersect each other: “From the marginalistion of Afro-Indian groups like the Siddi, to police violence against caste-oppressed people in India and against Black and Indigenous people in the US to the ways South Asians carry casteist practices to their communities in other countries.”
In a recent panel conversation called South Asians in Defence of Black Lives, she called for empathy and outrage for injustice across the board. “Educate yourselves,” she said to the panel audience, “Learn about Ambedkar and learn about caste abolitionist practices.”
She did not mince words while speaking about silences on recent atrocities against Dalits, attacks on Indian Muslims and imprisonment of individuals like Anand Teltumbde and Safoora Zargar. “You only have to look at Kashmir and the north-east to remind yourself of people who are oppressed and wrongfully in prison today,” she said.