The phone rang. It was my daughter. “I can’t talk now, I’m rushing out to join a South Asians for BLM march,” I said hurriedly heading towards the front door. Immediately she asked me, “Are there going to be black people there?” “I don’t know – I think there are only south Asians,” I replied.
It had been two weeks since George Floyd’s death. I sensed her unease and was surprised. Why wasn’t she happy that I was speaking up? “I don’t know if this is a good thing, ma. Do you even understand the problems faced by black people?” she said. My daughter’s parting comment haunted me as I marched along with others near Boston city hall later that day. As a south Asian mother, the last year has been hard in recognizing the rampant anti-blackness and casteism within my community. Harder still is admitting my own silent acquiescence.
When I talked to other family and friends, their responses were often defensive. “We came to this country with nothing and worked our way up,” said a cousin who is now a venture capitalist. What he actually meant was “I worked hard to be here, and I deserve it. If other people worked hard or harder, they’d get what they’d want.”
I realize now that my own responses to my daughters when they first began questioning me was no different from my cousin’s. Like other middle-class immigrants from India, I’d internalized the belief that America is a meritocracy where anything is attainable if you’re prepared to work hard for it. If I was aware of the racism that black people faced it was only in the most abstract sense.
This meant when my children were young and still at home, I never spoke of racism and certainly of anti-blackness. Worse yet, like many in the south Asian community, I was fearful of anyone black. This despite having heard numerous stories from my husband of being racially profiled. Like me, he too had been born and brought up in South India and had come to this country as a graduate student.
“I was stopped when I got out of the flight,” is how he’d start the tale usually to a rapt audience at a party. He made his racial profiling experiences, fodder for post-dinner entertainment at parties. Once when he was finishing his spiel, I caught myself saying, “Oh my husband has a doctorate from Berkeley!” Both my daughters, now young adults, laugh like hyenas when they hear this story. “Ma, how can you be so desperate to join the model minority bandwagon?” When I vehemently protest, they ask me, “How many black friends do you have?”
The week following Floyd’s death, as my daughters began conversations about waking up to the reality of racial identity, my bubble burst. “We’re the white people in India,” my daughters said. I realized how easy I’d had it till now. In India, I was born into privilege, by caste and class and of course was blissfully unaware and therefore never had to acknowledge it.
In the US, I belong to the “model minority myth” where we continue to believe and propagate the ‘hard-working immigrants make good’ tropes. This does not allow for any failures or deviation from the straight and narrow. If there are academic failures, mental health issues, job loss, or queerness we tend to sweep these out of sight as anomalies. They are not to be acknowledged when they happen in our families and grist for the gossip mill when they do in someone else’s family. Social media too reinforces this overachieving minority myth.
Hearing the stories of the black community makes my own travails as a brown person seem silly. Even as I began to speak up, I realized there was so much more I had to educate myself about. My growth arc had taken a long time, something that I’d like to see shortened for others. As South Asians, we need to ask ourselves the following questions. Are we having conversations about anti-blackness within our families? Are we listening to our children and other young people when they point out that personal discomfort is a small price to pay for social change?
Recently I watched a video put out by Northeastern University. In it, for eight minutes forty-six seconds—the time George Floyd was gasping for life as he was held down by a white cop—over a black screen the names of the black lives lost to police brutality appeared.
And what about the many others who have survived the trauma of police brutality like Jacob Blake?
Like many others, I learned that those eight minutes and forty-six seconds is a very long time and we cannot be quiet for even another minute.
As comedian and television host Haasan Minhaj pointed out in his show, South Asians cannot stay silent. It’s time to not just be good listeners but also changemakers as we shout out, “Black lives do matter.” We can begin by asking ourselves “How many black people do I really know?” and follow it up with “Why or why not?”
Chitra Srikrishna is a writer and musician living in Boston