Juneteenth: Examining Our Own Bias

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This Juneteenth, I reflect on the state of our nation. I’m heartened to see many South Asians protesting in solidarity with the Black community, but saddened that some in our community remain indifferent. I worry about deep-rooted biases that remain unaddressed within our community. 

Even as we speak out, we must also look inward. We need to change the ways we think and speak and act in the privacy of our homes and families. 

Growing up in India, I was, unfortunately, no stranger to racist biases. Some of my aunts believed fair skin was more beautiful. Villains in books I read were usually portrayed with darker skin (some written by and for Indians). A South Indian friend who moved to Bombay was teased and called “Kaalu” (black) at school. We might try to pass off these examples as “small things” but they aren’t. At the very least, this sort of insidious prejudice damages our self-confidence and instills self-hatred. Worse, even subtle bias against dark skin can build a wall between South Asians and other communities of color.  

Unfortunately, I noticed that immigrants continued to harbor insidious (and overt) prejudices.  I’ve rarely seen art by Black artists adorning the walls of South Asian American homes or books by Black authors on shelves. We rarely question the history our children are taught. We buy into the model minority myth; few of us question where it came from. Some of us deny the cruelty our own communities suffered as a result of colonial oppression. And when we experience racism, we often try to explain it away or excuse it or pretend it didn’t happen, as though we fear that admitting it might lead to our expulsion from America. 

When I came to Southern Virginia, I saw a noose hung in a yard; I was pulled over by a policeman whose hand went to his gun holster when I reached for the identification he demanded; I was told, by a well-meaning neighbor, how pleased she was that I, a “colored girl”, hadn’t created any trouble in their neighborhood.

Whenever I speak to young people, I work up the courage to mention these incidents, because to pretend they never happened would, I believe, do a greater disservice to their generation than any discomfort that I – or they – may feel if I share these difficult memories. I also acknowledge the privilege I have despite all that I’ve experienced because my skin isn’t Black (which is why I live to tell the tale about my frightening encounter with the police).

In addition to speaking honestly to our children, raising our voices on social media, and supporting organizations that seek change, there are a few other simple steps we can all easily take. We can actively seek to support black-owned businesses.

We can read books by authors like Dunbar-Ortiz and Kozol that speak about aspects of history or our nation today that are too-often overlooked. We can take pride in well-researched and documented achievements by South-Asians and people of color and distinguish these from unproven or exaggerated claims.

We can add books by diverse authors (African-American, South-Asian, indigenous, Latinx etc.) to our children’s shelves. We can educate ourselves about anti-racism. We can listen to music and comedy and watch current films and TV  created by and for people of color.

We can examine and eradicate racist expressions from the language we use. And we must celebrate joy and beauty in communities of color, too – because it is by embracing other people of color today that we move toward a more equitable tomorrow.

It’s hard enough to alter our own behavior and admit and accept our mistakes; it’s harder still to counter racist assertions when they’re made by family or friends. Especially when these members of the community are older than us. We uphold the notion that elders are to be respected. It’s an important, fundamental and undeniably compassionate aspect of our culture, which should be maintained. That doesn’t mean we ignore racist rhetoric; it means we devote time to cultivating individual ways to persuasively and persistently call attention to racism when we encounter it. A commitment to creating permanent and fundamental change sometimes involves engaging in uncomfortable conversations with those we love. Speaking up may be perceived as disrespectful, but remaining silent is worse – it is not only disrespectful to humanity but also a form of violence that aids the oppressor. 

If we ignore injustice, we set an example of cowardice to our youth and we endanger their futures by allowing oppression against people of color to continue. We also dishonor the thirty-five million South Asians who lost their lives because of white colonial oppression and forget how many of us – or our parents or grandparents – were driven here in part because of the floundering economy left behind in their countries of origin after years of white rule. Participation in protests is a wonderful beginning; we must continue by creating lasting cultural change.

Padma Venkatraman at a protest.

Black Lives Matter to our South Asian Community for two reasons. The first and far more important reason, which has been explored already in India Currents, is that we owe the Black community our gratitude because if it weren’t for the battles they fought, we wouldn’t be in this country today. The second and more self-centered reason to speak up and stand up is the one expressed in this article: we owe it to ourselves, our elders, and our children. 

Happy Juneteenth!

Dr. Padma Venkatraman is the author of The Bridge Home (a 2019 Global Read Aloud selection and winner of the Walters, Golden Kite, Crystal Kite, and South Asia Book awards), A Time to Dance, Island’s End (winner of the Paterson Prize) and Climbing the Stairs (a Julia Ward Howe young readers award winner).

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