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IC Live: A Vibrant Community of Desi Poets

IC held its third Desi Poetry Reading, in collaboration with Matwaala, on December 3, 2020, which was moderated by Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik. The topic was certainly timely – Uncertainty and Change.

After a quick introduction by Pramila Venkatewaran, the co-founder of Matwaala, the Desi Poetry Reading was kicked off by a prolific and accomplished high school poet.

Sara Garg started the evening with a reading of an experiential poem called 2020, that captured the universal feeling of waiting, waiting for the count to go to zero. Another tender poem was about the mini sparks of light that are the front-line workers who face darkness, terror, and monsters while just having each other while they cope with uncertainty. Blood Questions was hard-hitting, speaking dramatically about BLM and our common humanity as it took on the voice of blood as it poured out of the chest of a Black young man as he is killed by blue and brass. In Sunset Sunrise, she gives eloquent voice to the uncertainty we live with during the pandemic, finally admitting she cannot see if the sun is rising or setting, whether hope is ascendent or not. In an answer to a question, Sara attributed her sense of rhythm to the early influence of Usha Akella (co-founder of Matwaala) when she was in 4th grade, as she learned to write a poem about a banana. This was a story of affection that Sara shared with the listeners, a sweet moment of connection, one that most of us can engage with, and that lifted the weight of uncertainty to one of positive change.

R. Cheran, a poet and professor, writes creatively in Tamil. He shared four parts of a powerful translated piece called On the Street, Anytime. His poem had vivid images, of jackfruits, leaves, and bodies run over by tanks on the street, blood seeping into paddy fields, and leaves being the only witnesses to bodies getting together anytime. Repetitions of Anytime, built into a crescendo as he conjured images of extreme contrast – blood, sperm, and poems written on colored pieces of paper, on the street, anytime. He sets the stage in memories of experiencing and witnessing slices of the genocide in Sri Lanka. The poet shifts to potholes in snowy weather, covered in ice, that refill with the blood of 2 boys who could be his sons, shot by the white policeman. Black brave boys whose blood fills the pothole, not once, but twice. In the final fourth part of the poem, Cheran speaks of poverty of the soul, of being left by a lover, one who takes almost everything away with her, but the poem refuses to go with her, the one whose first line is, On the Street, Anytime.

R. Cheran shared another short poem that was equally evocative of remembered trauma as he sketched out the scene of Indian soldiers, a woman held down, a child thrown into a well, and the well that is now without a voice to even say Aiyyo. Cheran’s poems are certainly not “easy listening” but instead pull the listener into a well of traumatic memories and images, the work of a master story-teller, craftsman, and poet. In response to a question by Srishti Prabha about how he balances violence and beauty, Cheran said that the genocide he witnessed and survived cannot be written in words or taught through a lens of sociology or anthropology, that he has portrayed but the tip of an iceberg and such horror can only be begun to be experienced through an art form such as poetry.

I have to take a break in writing this now, and walk around, as I try to shake off and metabolize the intensity of revisiting and closely listening to this part of the reading.

Kalpna Singh-Chitnis, a poet, writer, and film-maker, continued the evening. In a poem about the pandemic, one of the stark images she drew was of the Faceless One stealing all the faces that have disappeared behind masks, likening it to Kabuki dancers magically stealing faces and tucking them away in their kimonos. In a hard-hitting poem titled E.R., she speaks of holding the ground like a tree in a storm, not collapsing or vomiting, but holding in her internal injuries, and dying inside without being noticed. In The Salt of a Woman, anger and outrage jump off the words, her story older than civilization, questioned, blamed, conquered, gifted, dismissed, shamed. In IF, she writes of the only power a survivor of sexual assault may have, in telling others what not to do if she is killed, do not hang the perpetrators, she says – they will be born again and do it again. Hopelessness permeates the poem but ends with dignity. Tell your sons about me, she asks of women, preach me as a sermon, she asks of the preachers, write me as an epic, she asks of the writer.

I believe the BLM movement’s rise in the summer of 2020, empowered many of us in the desi community to finally speak openly of our own experiences of racial discrimination in the United States. Microaggressions are carried in the body, held on to for years, taken out every now and then, and re-examined through various lenses such as – why did the teacher not speak up, why did I not speak up, as if it would have been easy, as if it would have found validation at the time. I think many will identify with the process, the self-doubt, the worry of being heard, being believed, and the fear of having our experiences being discounted

Singh-Chitnis bravely shares a poem 25 years in the making and birthing. In this final poem, Kalpna addresses these excoriations – I am sitting there like the stump of a tree, still sitting there like the stump of a tree, still sitting there in that classroom. The lectures begin and end, she says, but the question remains. She is still waiting for the professor to speak up for her – she was voiceless and powerless at the time.

As these wounds get more light and air, as more people hear our experiences, as more speak up, as more poetry and art is used to communicate, the more hope there can be. I fully understand how it took 25 years to write that poem.

Indran Amirthanayagam, an author and poet read from his recently published book, Uncivil War, continuing the theme of trauma, displacement, war, and unbelonging. In Fire Department asks displaced refugee peoples from all over the world – Where is your Village Burning even if your home is not in the list. Ready to Move was a poignant ode to those who are witnesses to the only truth worth repeating – ready to move with a toothbrush, a fresh set of clothes. In Father, Indran eloquently mourns his father, moving from speaking of personal loss (watching geese honking on their way to the other side of the sky, poems to survive the fires, he has left us his name we wear it today) to the theme of universal experiences of the death of a father. Indran moved on to poems of upliftment as he hoped that the world would be inspired by the outcome of the American elections, in spite of something rotten in America, life pressed out of George Floyd, there is still hope he said – ordinary decent Joe has my vote – ending by saying he is an American optimist, and that the next war needs to be one that can unite humanity – saving our planet.

Varsha Saraiya-Shah continued the evening with a reading of I Speak from Towers of Silence in which she likens 6 feet of social distancing as a coffin length apart, observing that babies pop out like flowers, and being moved in different ways by the reality of bodies piling up in refrigerated trucks in New York. In Neither Hope nor Miracle, she speaks of science being necessary, that it needs to be unfenced with countless windows, that climate will throw earthly tantrums, warning, exhorting, and pleading with people to heed science. In When the Wind Blows, Varsha goes back to music, drawing inspiration from Miles Davis, saying, listen to what you can leave out. In Headlines, she playfully alludes to hair at different life stages, bound, unbound, and finally to a time to reshape the wildness even if Broadway will be closed till June 2021.

Saleem Peeradina’s poems submitted for this event were read by Pramila Venkateswararan. In The Body in Question Saleem Peeradina examines the world through striking images of different bodies and their symbolizing the various states of humanity, power and inhumanity –the bud of infancy to maternal bloom, migrating bodies washed ashore, body behind bars in solitary, body in whose soil is grown cotton, cane or tobacco, bodies from which coal is mined, in genocide, counted in numbers. In Song of the Makeover, he embodies the split he experiences as someone who never fits in where he is, always travelling, seeking himself or what appears to be himself through vivid phrases like full circle renewing the past, most at ease in a state of passage, two tongues, over there another face goes by my name, and, whose shadow doubles behind me.

In The View from 70, Saleem Peeradina draws playful and delightful images for us of interlopers who take over our bodies and are finally successful. The interloper enters stealthily with unmarked baggage, practice(s) hit and run arts, is the seducer who played for years on the swings slides and seesaws of my heart, a seventh sense, even with a no-vacancy sign. Finally, he concedes that it is best to befriend them, learn about them and co-exist until they (armed and dangerous) eventually win.

I am so glad I made the time for this new (to me) listening experience. It opened my eyes to a whole new vibrant community of poets and lovers of poetry, as well as those who enjoy hearing about the desi experience that we bring to the world of poetry. It seemed generally agreed upon that there has been more poetry written and made available to people all over the world, and that more people turned to poetry during the pandemic. Whether people had more time, needed poetry to make sense of the world, or whether technology brought poetry to more people, the increased interest has been one of the more welcome outcomes of the pandemic.

Desi Poets

Here are all these people

 

Who look like me Sound like me

And they read, and they love

Carry their hearts outside

Like me

speak the same languages

 

Languages

Of love and poetry

Of loss and separation

Of longing and dreams

Old homes and new

Old words renewed

 

Speak the language

Of Jack fruit, mango piquant as

Cilantro and green Chilis

Chai and samosas, sweet as

Jasmine with Thulasi leaves

 

Dusty tropical heat

Musty corner memories

Uncles, aunts, cousins

Clammy hands of first loves

Awkward fumbling kisses

 

Drenching thunderous monsoons

Umbrellas collapse in submission

 

Veins singing 

Gathering with hope

Hearts together 

rising in affection

 

Speaking old tongues in these newer lands

Using our Indlish to praise, protest, love

Finding connection in skin, language, country

 

Are these new cousins I see here?

Watch the Desi Poetry reading below!


Kalpana Asok is the author of ‘Whose Baby Is It, Anyway? Inside the Indian Heart’ and ‘Everyday Flowers’.

Voting in Anger In the Election

Though the high turnout of minority voters gave Joe Biden the edge in this election, exit polls showed that the majority of white voters favored Trump, exposing a ‘race gap’ in election 2020.

While three in five white voters (58%) supported Trump in 2020 like they did in 2016, 42% of white women voted for Trump, alongside Asians (34%), Latinos (32%,) and Black (12%). Among voters of color, over a third of Arab Americans polled preferred Trump because “they felt the Democrat’s support for Arabs was nothing but pandering for votes.” An AAPI survey also found that 48% of Vietnamese Americans and 28% of Asian Indians voted for the president.

But what puzzles the pundits is why white people (74 million) and some minorities voted the way they did. Though some voting patterns remain predictable, why did Trump win 3 out of 10 non-white voters? Why did half the country support a candidate whom the other half finds unacceptable?

The threadbare cliche that none of these groups (white, brown, or black) is monolithic, does not sufficiently explain why some of the electorate voted to support a norm-breaking candidate, whose views hew racist, sexist, xenophobic, disconnected and delusional, and who is responsible for a mangled response to a pandemic that has taken more than 300 thousand lives.

What do we really know about who voted for Trump and why?

Experts at a December 11 Ethnic Media briefing shared insights into voter turnout and the race gap in a contentious election.

The panel agreed that exit polls don’t tell the whole story. Polls only reflect those who voted, not those who did not cast a ballot. Despite a record number of votes in 2020, said  Mindy Romero a professor at USC, what’s significant is that 85 million eligible voters did not turn out  at all.

Trump got 31% vs 33% for Biden of eligible voters, among whom whites are a majority. So the voting electorate is not really representative of the voting population, stated Romero, because “disparities are entrenched in our electoral and prevent people from participating.’ If disparities were eliminated, Biden would have had a stronger mandate.

But there’s more at stake than counting voter turnout urged influential Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild. “It’s in our interest to get into the mindset of the 74 million who voted for Trump” because of the president’s partisan efforts to create divisiveness in the electorate.

Hochschild, the author of Strangers in their Own Land, shared her insights into the rise of conservative American voters. Her research, based on intensive interviews of Tea Party enthusiasts in Louisiana, drills down into the fundamental values and concerns of marginalized white voters that shaped turnout in this election.

Their story, she said, reveals the ‘anger and mourning’ on the right that’s fueling a sizable divide between Republicans and Democrats who don’t really seem to understand each other.

The left cannot assume that right-leaning voters with MAGA hats and pumping fists ‘are sitting pretty’ said Hochschild. That image is an illusion, describing very few who live in the Trump heartland around Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia, which is the focus of her current research.

In interviews, Trump supporters admit that life isn’t better for them after four years, but they are still voting for him.  Why? Because, Hochschild explained, Trump has a way of ‘insinuating himself into the dominant paradigm of evangelical Christians, and reaching into his base using the trifecta of a ‘treasonous press,’ the deep state, and his bout with COVID19, to position himself as a victim ‘suffering for them,’ and that he alone can save them. Many Christians see Trump as a savior, said Hochschild.

On the other hand, Democrats, despite their education and curiosity tend to live in urban enclaves and don’t have a presence in disadvantaged, white strongholds. Such political bubbles leave many in these communities feeling invisible explained Hochschild. Support for Trump is rooted in disillusionment and anger at the system.

White Anger and the Trump supporter

What prompts the right-wing hostility of Trump supporters, argues Hochschild, is “an anguishing loss of honor, alienation and engagement in a hidden social class war,” lying hidden beneath their difficult struggle for the American Dream.

Trump supporters get their picture of reality not just from Fox News but also mainstream media such as CNN and MSNBC. But their impressions of non-white newscasters and black football stars with multimillion dollar deals, have heightened their sense of being left out. To them, people of color appear to be getting ahead and receiving special treatment in what is perceived as a ‘put down of white men,’ said Hochschild, adding that they regarded themselves as ‘poor and dumb,’ and actually felt that life was rigged against them; they felt they were ‘sinking as others are rising.’

Ironically, this sense of victimhood has made  ‘a lot of white people…blue collar, high school educated white (Christian) people’ and pockets of poor folk, “feel like a minority group themselves” that is in decline, explained Hochschild.

One of her respondents had grown up in a trailer park where drug abuse and crime was rampant; he pointed out that communities like his were not dissimilar to those in the Bronx and Detroit, yet the media tended to portray poor whites in a more negative light.

So it was not racism, but economic anxiety, that propelled disenfranchised white voters towards Trump, explained Davin Phoenix, Asst. Professor of  Political Science, (USC Irvine), and author of The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotion in Politics,

Trends show thatwhite people feel the ground shifting under their feet.” Trump has harnessed their fear of a shifting society and losing their dominant status, to fan white anger and normalize the Trumpian viewpoint. “Anger is a palpable force,” said Phoenix.

But anger against an unresponsive society does not drive people of color in a similar way, he countered. While white anger manifested in a 2016 Trump victory, there is a racial anger gap prevents black people from mobilizing their anger.

“Race shapes who gets to be publicly angry over politics’ stated Phoenix. It determines how the polity, the media treats groups inequitably based on how they air their grievances.

Contrary to the stereotype of the angry black man, people of color express less anger at the system than their  white counterparts.

White people express anger over politics by canvassing for candidates, going to the voting booth, donating, or contacting election officials. People of color are less likely to do so, though they may protest or boycott, said Phoenix. His research indicates that  when people of color encounter threats, they are more likely to withdraw from politics or pursue alternative forms of action.

“Anger consistently mobilizes White Americans toward a wide range of political actions more effectively than African Americans,” writes Phoenix 

The Media Narrative has to Change

Trump and his media echo chamber have continued to fuel this white anger in the run up to election 2020, and deepen the divide between Democrats and Republicans. Panelists agreed that the media narrative needs to change.

“There are lots of stories that could be written to reach across this divide,” suggested Hochschild, to frame migrant stories of both people of color and whites – Latino and Appalachian for example – so people can form a common, human connection. While we read about migrant camps on the Mexican border, the mainstream press does not cover out-of-work Appalachians in camped outside Cincinnati.  We need stories that remind us that “there is work that Latinos do, that is not competitive with what whites do.”

We also need to address the idea of ‘displacement’ said Hochschild, because many of these people are not entitled – they’re depressed and a little bit frightened. “Labelling people as racist is going to backfire.”

The media plays a key role in educating the electorate about race and power, democratic norms and how the electoral process works, added Romero. She warned that the media sets up the narrative when they blame certain groups for failure in voter turnout. Instead of playing the ‘blame game’ after every election – young people were apathetic, why did black people vote for Trump, why didn’t more Latinos vote  – Romero suggested the narrative must evolve from handwringing, to understanding the nuances in policy preferences among groups and where people are coming from, especially with historically underrepresented populations.  We need to reach out and honestly address racial bias to begin a positive dialogue and encourage people to get past their differences, urged Romero.

Thinking Ahead

The racial divide is underscored by misconceptions Democrats and Republicans have about each other, said Hochschild. In a survey Dems estimated that 50% of Republicans felt racism is still a problem, when that number was actually 80%. Republicans estimated that half of Democrats felt that police were ‘bad people’ when the actual number was lower (15%). Both sides are unable to predict what each think, and when perception of the other is so skewed, they really need to change tactics.

It won’t be easy, but Americans need to ’abandon party tribalism’, lower their guard, and listen to really understand each other, if they want to forge a less polarized, more inclusive country.


Meera Kymal is the contributing editor at India Currents

image credit: photopin Only in Oregon

Dancing in Plain Sight

“The world is full of paper. I am writing now. I am writing to me. I am writing to myself and others like me,” author Sejal Shah professes in an essay “The World is Full of Paper. Write to Me“, which is featured in her debut collection, This Is One Way to Dance. 

When asked to review this collection, I remembered Shah’s piece in an anthology I’d reviewed fifteen years ago, Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America (IC, April 2005). In that particular piece, “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib”, Shah imagines a childhood in which girls read books about characters who looked like her, and life was perfectly normal, even outside the walls of her home in a predominantly-white neighborhood bordering Rochester, New York.

Like that piece, her collection is an exploration of the sharp corners of the hypervisibility and invisibility she bore—identity, race, acceptance, foreignness in her own country. “Dance” offers twenty-five of Shah’s writings and is chronicled by the year written (1999—2019). The result is an inspiring autobiographical search for identity in her birth country, a country that prides itself on its diversity yet persists in designating “Other” to strip away one’s non-white distinctiveness.

Sejal Shah
Sejal Shah, Author of This Is One Way to Dance.

The daughter of Gujarati immigrants from India and Kenya, Shah is the only person in her immediate family who was born in America and grew up in western New York. She was 19 when she first visited India. Still, travel is an important method of seeing herself as she moves from Rochester to Amherst, Brooklyn, Decorah, the Bay Area, and the desert of Nevada. We follow her as she moves to college, teaching positions, fellowships, residencies, and Burning Man. She travels to France – and reminisces about a dear friend lost to suicide – and to Sicily – and unexpectedly befriends an Indian family of vendors.

Shah guides the reader through skillfully written examinations of dancing and weddings (her brother’s, friends’, hers); her sense of place and belonging (contrasting the contentment of her parents’ circle of friends with living in numerous places where her comfort level varied); her challenges as an American of color (“Where do you come from?” people ask her, expecting an answer different from “Upstate New York”); frictional pop culture (The Simpsons’ Apu character voiced by a white man); microaggressions (encountered too regularly); and food (it means home no matter where she dines).

Shah is a poet, short story writer, and essayist. “Dance” is the canvas upon which she has successfully discarded rules, choosing instead to marry the three in a genre-mixing volume that shows her talents and voice at their best. As a poet, too, she brings a lyricism to her prose, an economy with hard juxtapositions, and an open, welcoming door into her thoughts and life. At times, it reads like a journal, a diary, those most intimate keepers of one’s emotions.

Her introspective, thought-provoking, often-humorous essays laced with frustration and joy, sadness and discovery give rise to seeing life through her eyes, then reflecting on one’s own. Her writing reveals an individual and offers no template for a large group of people. Instead, it is personal, honest, and hopeful.

Shah’s essays are springboards to conversation. They are reminders that under the broad umbrella of race, each person sheds light on as many unique facets of life as there are colors of skin and ways to dance. In a period during which race finally has moved forward in the national spotlight, these essays should be required reading.   


Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is always reading and writing.

At 52 Hz, My Throat is Parched

The 2020 US elections were not just about differing political views. People’s lives were impacted on the basis of their skin color, their gender, their sexuality, or their religion.

It bred uncertainty and fear in people who had been targeted for years.

Human beings should be respected for just that, being human. There is no other clause or addition to that. 

Here is a poem dedicated to those that felt weak. Rather than offer a solution of light in the darkness, I offer a hand to hold in it. 

Oil painting by Swati Ramaswamy (crashed waves/clouds dissolving) 
Oil painting by Author, Swati Ramaswamy (crashed waves/clouds dissolving)

6th November 10:11 pm

I felt it in waves, that dissolve in the sand

Blue and red neon signs holding each hand

“Am I human enough?” 

My skin dipped chocolate and my heart of rainbows

I can’t seem to hide, in the hours that count down— 

I can’t seem to stop.

Maybe if my eyes could close, maybe if my mind switched off—

Maybe if red and blue-dyed into a plethora of purple, 

losing in color and gaining the “other”.

 

“In a world with its eyes closed, a person with their’s open

Isn’t it strange how now they are made blind?” 

Is that victory? 

Effortless rounds that never escape a cycle,

Drugged on more and living less.

If it never starts, it never ends.

People become collateral, waves become loose sand.

A gripping fist, shows an empty hand. 

My throat is parched, lungs need a break—

But I haven’t slept yet:

 

Waking up in this state. 

7th November 5:50 am


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

Have Our Votes Ever Reflected Our Population?

Humans are pattern-seeking – something that doesn’t agree with the nature of reality since it is inherently uncertain and unpredictable. Anything can happen. There is a perfect blend of beauty and terror in the ambiguity, but it’s the reality we live with and keep tucked away in the backs of our minds every day. 

This year has been one of pure uncertainty (in case the advertisements haven’t told you that “these are uncertain times” enough). We joke that 2020 can’t get any worse, so go ahead and add another disaster to the pile forming in the corner in the same way national debt does. It’s not normal to be as numb as we are to the concept of uncertainty. Global pandemic? Economic recession? Protestors getting shot down? The election of a decade? At this point, I could’ve added alien invasion to the list and no one would be phased. 

In the year 2020, the only certainty is uncertainty itself. This year has been a breath we’ve been waiting to let out. When will it be okay to breathe? When will it be okay to feel like the crisis is over? When will we be okay? 

Until then, we hold our breaths, twiddle our thumbs, and try not to hope too much in fear that something worse will roll along in response.

And here it is: this year (of all years this could possibly happen) incidentally is the year of the general elections.

Red vs. Blue

Elephant vs. Donkey

Democrat vs. Republican

We make decisions on who makes decisions for us. One of the cornerstones of democracy is free and fair elections. Take your ballot and drop it in the box as all votes are counted accurately

But not this year. No. Like everything else this year, voting is a bit different. Mail-in ballot voting. The concept itself is not all that foreign and has worked on a smaller scale in the past. But this year (to use an overused phrase) there seems to be some controversy surrounding this. Mail-in ballots are voter fraud. We might not know the results until later. The post office sucks. You’ve heard almost everything on this by now if you’ve tuned into even half an hour of news a week.

It’s hilarious. I’m laughing right now as I write this because of the utter hypocrisy of it. I get it, the post system isn’t always perfect, but neither is our political system right now, and it seems the same people criticizing mail-in ballots seem to be glossing over the faults of our government. We keep talking about how fair it is to have mail-in ballots. Can we trust it? What if everyone’s votes don’t count? It’s not an accurate representation. It won’t make everyone’s voice heard.

Has it ever counted? Think about it. No really. Think. Way back in ye olden days, women couldn’t vote, people of color couldn’t vote, the impoverished found it difficult to vote. Was that accurate? The voice of the people was the voice of straight, rich, property-owning, white males. 

Oh, but we’ve evolved from that.

Have we though?

Remember: just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. That’s the equivalent of saying that starting to think about giving rights to the LGBTQ community can fix homophobia. That’s not how that works. 

We’re not that much better today than we were centuries ago in terms of free and fair elections. Why? Voter suppression exists. Who are we suppressing?

Who are the people who are suppressed in all aspects of the American government? Minority groups.

Type of voter suppression at a polling station in New Hampshire, 2013. (Image by: Mark Buckawicki)

This administration is known to suppress minority groups. Throwing them in cages, threatening deportation, building a literal border wall, shooting protesters, and just sowing hatred. Not to mention how difficult it is to even be able to vote if you have a criminal record. The Shelby County vs. Holder trial didn’t help either. Democracy lost 5-4. 

There are tactics and chess pieces being moved to silence people that we aren’t even aware of. 

The worst kind of uncertainty is the uncertainty in whether or not your voice is heard. Am I represented? Am I equal? Am I cared for? This type of uncertainty is almost existential in nature and deserves a definitive yes. These shouldn’t be things we have to worry about, but such is the state of reality at this point. 

There is a way to change this. Vote. You’ve probably already heard this one, but I’m serious: if you can, then do it. I’m not saying vote for any particular candidate but just vote. The best way to predict the future and eliminate as much of this malicious uncertainty as possible is to vote.

Vote. You can be certain in your own opinions, actions, and decisions. Once you master that, the rest shouldn’t bother you much. You have to voice your opinions and speak out against injustice. It’s hard to pinpoint definitively what is wrong and right, but the important thing is to try. It’s all anyone can do. I can say with complete certainty that trying has more of a chance of succeeding than not trying at all.


Reema Kalidindi is a junior at Lower Bucks High School and a lead volunteer at Bharatiya Temple’s school for children. 

‘Beyonce Sharma Jayegi’ is More Problematic Than it Appears

From Surabhi’s Notepad – A column that brings us personal essays and stories, frivolous and serious, inspired by real-life events and encounters of navigating the world as a young, Indian woman living outside India.

Beyonce does not need an introduction. She is arguably one of the most influential artists in the history of pop music. An inspiration to millions of women, especially women of color, an ally of the LGBTQ community, and a powerhouse of an artistBeyonce is an international icon.

Brown skin girl, ya skin just like pearls

The best thing in all the world

These are the lyrics from her song “Brown Skin Girl” released last year in July. The lyrics bolster Beyoncé’s crusade for cultural pride and female empowerment; the song went on to become the most-streamed female song of the year. In the video, black and brown-skinned women are portrayed beautifully in celebration of their skin color and diversity. For me, the highlight is the part where the video features a dark-skinned South Asian woman in all her glory. 

Enter Bollywood.

Back at home (India), a group of educated, young creatives decided that a song titled Tujhe Dekh K Goriya, Beyonce Sharma Jaegi” (Beyonce will be ashamed when she sees you oh fair lady) is what the world needs. Barely a month or so after the whole #FairAndLovely debacle in India and #BLM campaigns worldwide, women found themselves back to square one with this inappropriate song.

A Sad State of Affairs

Composed by India’s leading music composer duo Vishal-Shekhar, sung by Nakash Aziz and Neeti Mohan, featuring lyrics by Kumaar and Raj Shekhar, this song was released last month with a promotional video on YouTube. Soon after the launch, the video, starring young actors Ananya Pandey and Ishaan Khattar, amassed over a million downvotes and widespread criticism due to its racist undertones, and for unnecessarily dragging singer-actor Beyoncé’s name.

The film director Maqbool and lyricist Kumaar apologized and said that they never intended to offend Beyonce’s fans and that the “lyric in question was never intended racially”. If this is true then the state of affairs is scarier because if in 2020 learned practitioners of art do not even realize that they are being racist or sexist or colorist, then we probably haven’t progressed as much as a society as we’d like to think.

In an interview to an Indian national daily, the film director Maqbool said, “The term ‘Moriya’ has been so often and traditionally used in Indian songs to address a girl, that it didn’t occur to any of us to interpret it in a literal manner.” 

First of all, this statement in itself is a glaring warning sign. If the urban population of educated creatives is so oblivious to the deep-rooted colorist trends in the Indian society, how can we expect things to change at the ground level. The term “goriya”, which means a fair girl has been used synonymously for “girl” in numerous hit songs like “Chura ke dil mera goriya chali”, “Goriya Churana Mera Jeeya”, “Goriya Re Goriya Re” and many more over the years.

Secondly, the very idea of using Beyoncé’s name in the song and reducing the Grammy-winning icon to just her skin color reflects poorly on the mindset of the creators. In a culture where the colonial hangover is still quite relevant and cinema is more than just a form of entertainment but a social agent of influence, it is high time that filmmakers, actors, and songwriters start taking some responsibility. 

From Plato to Aristotle and Kant: Exploring Art and Its Impact

The debate of art as means versus art as an end has been ongoing for centuries and this song brings us back to it. While Plato was completely against artists and poets and wanted to banish them from his Republic because he believed that art was corrupting, Aristotle, on the other hand, saw art as therapeutic and cathartic. Later, Kant came up with the ends and the means theory where he stated that treating anything as a means to an end is problematic. 

I personally believe that the extent of the impact of art and its influence depends on society. In India, art is never welcomed as just an end in itself. Bollywood is big and people (literally) worship actors. Cinema has the power to influence young minds and when it comes to sensitive challenging issues like domestic violence, crime against women, colorism, sexism, and casteism, can India as a society afford to have such “item songs” blaring on loudspeakers?

India accounts for 37 percent of global female suicides. Last year, in October, a 21-year old woman killed herself over dark complexion taunts in Rajasthan. In 2014, a 29-year old girl’s husband drove her to suicide by taunting her over her dark complexion— this was in close proximity to the national capital (Gurgaon). In 2018, a 14-year old girl in Hyderabad burned herself alive and succumbed to death after she was bullied in school for her dark complexion. 

Even today, most, if not all, matrimonial ads say that the groom is looking for a fair bride. We all saw the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking— an embarrassing but sadly, mostly, true tale of the realities of arranged marriages in India.

However, we need to remember that this is not just an issue in India. It is everywhere— it is a universal challenge. As a 30-year old Indian living in Singapore, I get comments like “for an Indian, you have great skin” or “how come you are not that dark” and sometimes a direct “are you Malay or Indian”. I see whitening and skin lightening treatments and cosmetics everywhere I look in a mall. In Korea, I’ve heard people gift cosmetic surgeries to their daughters as soon as they turn 16. In the US, a recent study has revealed that racism is linked to cognitive decline in African American women.

Young girls are fed with a singular idea of beauty and suffer major self-worth issues growing up. Colorism is affecting the mental as well as the physical well-being of women all over the world. It is high time that we realize the gravity of these issues and stop obsessing over fair skin on a global level.


Surabhi Pandey is a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Website | Blog | Instagram

 

Why Facebook Doesn’t Stop Eyeballs On Hate !

White supremacy groups are proliferating, targeting people of all races while social media organizations, like Facebook and Twitter, have been accused of shielding racist posts. In times of COVID when the pandemic has redefined our lives and heightened our exposure to digital content, the danger of online hate is real.

Racist posts are couched in clever ways. Chris Gray, who left Facebook in 2018, said to the New Yorker, that racist or violence engendering posts were “constantly getting reported, but the posts that ended up in my queue never quite went over the line to where I could delete them. The wording would always be just vague enough.”

Additionally, social media companies are reluctant to take action unless forced to by a public media backlash. Content with sizable follower counts, or with significant cultural or political clout – content whose removal might interrupt a meaningful flow of revenue, have been left to multiply.  Former employees say that only public media storms have forced social media organizations to take action. Fear of political repercussions or loss of revenue makes their response to racist posts sluggish.

At the core of the problem is the monetization of attention. Algorithms are trained on augmenting posts that generate eyeballs. The content-moderation priorities won’t change until its algorithms stop amplifying whatever content is most enthralling or emotionally manipulative. This might require a new business model, perhaps even a less profitable one, which is why objectors aren’t hopeful that it will happen voluntarily, the New Yorker reported.

At an Ethnic Media Services briefing on, October 9th, Neil Ruiz, associate director of Global Migration and Demography Research at the Pew Research Center, shared the findings from his new report: “Many Black and Asian Americans Say They Have Experienced Discrimination Amid the COVID-19 Outbreak” 

Panellists discussed how hate is contagious, much like a virus, and that President’s social media posts are not helping. His use of terms words like ‘China virus’ feed the fear of a ‘yellow peril’ stereotype, and incites violence against Asian Americans. And yet the social media companies do nothing.

Donald Trump’s Facebook post in December 2015 calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” insinuated that Muslims – all 1.8 billion of them, presumably – “have no sense of reason or respect for human life.” 

According to the Times, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO was personally “appalled” by Trump’s post. Still, his top officials held a series of meetings to decide, given Trump’s prominence, whether an exception ought to be made. In order to avoid incurring the wrath of Trump and his supporters,Trump’s post stayed up.

Going into the elections, violence against races increases, said Mike German, at the briefing.  German, who served as an FBI agent for 16 years and infiltrated violent white nationalist organizations, spoke of the government’s failure to include racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and xenophobic violence committed by white nationalists within its counterterrorism mandate. The government does not track white supremacist violence, he said. 

“Only 12.6 percent of law enforcement agencies actually acknowledge hate crimes occur within their jurisdiction,” he said. On the other hand victim-reported hate crimes are as high as 230,000 this year.

John Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) said the rise in hate against the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, AAPI community, was fueled by the President’s racially-divisive rhetoric. Stop AAPI Hate, has recorded 2,583 incidents of hate crimes and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Many people of color say they have experienced hate-motivated crime and discrimination amid the COVID pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. 

This year in particular has seen a tectonic shift in the way communities across the world integrate digital and social networks into their daily lives, says ADL’s annual Online Hate and Harassment Report: The American Experience 2020.

“As our world continues to be redefined through digital services and online discourse, the American public has become increasingly aware of and exposed to online hate and harassment. The Asian, Jewish, Muslim, and immigrant communities in particular are experiencing an onslaught of targeted hate, fueled by antisemitic conspiracy theories, anti-Asian bigotry, and Islamophobia surrounding the novel coronavirus. The pandemic has heightened exposure to toxic content and provided new opportunities for exploitation by those seeking to harm others using digital services and tools”, the report said.

We are being invaded by this hatred. It’s everywhere. It’s silent. It’s as deadly as this disease. 

Fear of political backlash or loss of revenue is not a good reason for a sluggish response to racist posts. Social media giants must fight hate speech.

“The white supremacist violence is not going away. The backlash against Arab/ Muslim/Sikh community after 9/11 has lasted over 10 years,” said Manju Kulkarni, executive director of AP3CON.”We are at the 210,000 fatality mark.”


Ritu Marwah is a long term resident of Silicon Valley and has seen the Sun Microsystems campus turn into Facebook HQ.

Images: RituMarwah

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

 

Delhi and San Jose Have the Same Gray Skies

(Featured Image: Delhi, India 2019 Air Pollution (left), San Jose, CA 2020 Air Pollution (right))

Leaving the polluted, smog-filled skies of Delhi, my dad settled for the blue skies and greenery of South San Jose. “I would never live anywhere but California,” he says. 

30 years later, I stare at the smoke-filled skies in San Jose and worry about my parents and their friends. I think about how they should sell their property in light of the wildfires edging closer and closer to their home. A new wave of air pollution and insecurity caused by the climate crisis.

Dr. Anthony LeRoy Westerling, Professor of Management of Complex Systems, UC Merced, who has led climate assessment activities for the state of California, predicted the increasing frequency of wildfires. At the Ethnic Media Services briefing on September 25th, he raised concerns about wildfires becoming a common event within the next 30 years. Santa Clara County, home to a large immigrant population – 39% Asian and 49% minority communities – is facing serious risks.

The loss of a home is the loss of the only generational wealth accumulated in this country and the dream of a better life for immigrant populations. I know it to be true for my quintessential Indian-American Family. If displaced, relocation is not simple. The security of a familial network does not necessarily exist and with COVID lurking, shelters are limited. 

The loss of wealth is layered when addressing air pollution. Proper healthcare for the adverse effects of the climate crisis becomes a necessity, but is it accessible and does it account for race?

My mom coughs and shuffles around the house, tired of being stuck at home. She hasn’t left the house in 2 weeks because of her Asthma, a condition that only took hold after years in America. Since COVID began, she hasn’t gotten the care required for her severe Asthma and has to be particularly cautious. Her quality of life has declined and I don’t want this for her long term. But she is not alone.

Communities of color are disproportionately affected by the double punch combo of health inequity and climate injustice reminds Dr. Robert Bullard, Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. In a study done by the EPA in 2018, it was found that communities of color and, black communities specifically, were exposed to 1.5 times more air particulate matter and its accompanying burden than its counterpart white communities. Adults and children from these sectors were 5-10 times more likely to develop Asthma and potentially lose their life to it.  

“All communities are not created equal,” advocates Dr. Bullard, giving context to the policies that created the disparity. People of color are more likely to live in cities that are in violation of the Clean Air Act. Years of racial redlining and urban heat centers expose minority communities to a worse standard of living. The climate crisis will continue to grow the wealth gap due to governmental organizations like FEMA, that use cost-benefit analysis to allocate resources after a crisis. 

Air pollution and its relationship to health equity and economic stratification is a global phenomenon. I am reminded of that when I think of Delhi’s greying atmosphere. Air pollution so thick, sunlight can’t penetrate it. Hindustan Times reports in 2017 that chronic respiratory illness is one of the leading causes of death in India. It is a cause for concern when I see those same skies in San Jose, California. Chairman of TERRE Policy Centre and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr. Rajendra Shende emphatically states, “The poor are the first line victims.” This statement has a resounding message that connects environmental injustice and inequity.

Dr. Bullard and Dr. Shende both confront the powers which create policies – people with influence and wealth. Those same people shirk their responsibility and tax those with fewer means. As the former director of the United Nations Environmental Program, Dr. Shenda is passionate about the concept of common but differentiated responsibility. “Those who consumed the most and polluted should pay for those who did not consume and did not pollute,” he says. 

In California, the Cap and Trade program is working to lower carbon emissions and places the burden on the companies that rely on carbon. As recently as September 24th, Gavin Newson set the goal to ban all gas-powered vehicles by 2035. Yet, none of these are effective without global consent. Much like when the Montreal Act worked to lower Ozone layer depletion effectively, saving Delhi and San Jose is a collective effort. A developed nation and a developing nation are in the same conundrum. Environmental injustice is within communities and across countries.

Eventually, my dad in San Jose breathes the same air as his brother in Delhi…

Rely on science and vote comprehensively!


Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

Featured Image of Delhi can be found here and license here.

Featured Image of San Jose shot by Jamie Shin. 

Reimagined Communities: Safety For All

(Featured Image: Srishti Prabha at the September 23, 2020 protest at San Jose City Hall)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of India Currents and India Currents does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

Imagine you were sleeping in your house and you heard someone break-in. Would you protect yourself and your family?

Kenneth Walker, Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend, fired his gun in self-defense, in accordance with Kentucky gun laws, which permits the shooting of someone trespassing on your territory. He was immediately arrested with an attempted murder charge and his partner was fatally shot. 

The three white Louisville Metro Police Department officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove, who shot and killed Breonna Taylor, roamed free after the incident. Last week, September 23, 2020, they were cleared of the first-degree murder charge, with only one officer receiving a lighter indictment for wanton endangerment

A protest was in order. In a case so clear, how could these men be let off with a slap on the wrist? I took to the streets of San Jose to show my support for the injustice inflicted upon Breonna Taylor’s memory and her family.

A bright and beautiful black woman, who served her community as an EMT, was taken in her sleep.

“Black women matter!,” we chanted as a group at SJ City Hall. A group much smaller than what I had seen earlier this year. 

Michael German, Fellow, Brennan Center for Justice, Liberty and National Security | former Special Agent, FBI

The protest cycle, gaining and losing traction, is not a new one, neither is the information it is disseminating. Michael German, a Fellow from the Brennan Center for Justice and former Special Agent for the FBI, spoke about the pattern of white supremacy and far-right militant behavior repeating in 1990, 2006, 2015 at the Ethnic Media Services briefing on September 5th.

“White supremacy and far-right violence in the US is a problem that…is poorly understood, partly because the federal government deprioritizes it and the state and local governments don’t want to pick up the slack,” informed German. A consistent issue and a potential threat since the 90s, the ideology of white supremacy cannot be dismantled unless it is understood. 

Why do I bring up white supremacy in relation to Breonna Taylor? It’s this simple. 

The initial act of entering unannounced and shooting an unarmed black woman comes from the fear of her Blackness. The potential cover-up of her murder and the subsequent ruling in favor of the three white cops is the influence and power accrued from fear and oppression of colored communities. 

Data presents a clear distribution. For every 100,000 people, 2306 black people are incarcerated to the 450 white people. A number five times higher. 

There is always some ambiguity in a case or the possibility of nitpicking a story. Here is the question that should be asked…

Did the warrant put out related to a drug offense that was MAYBE loosely linked to the use of Breonna Taylor’s house require an unwarranted attack? 

The fact remains that black people are disproportionately exposed to such encounters or convicted of crimes. Why is that?

Brennan Center for Justice finds that “structural or institutional bias against people of color, shaped by long-standing racial, economic, and social inequities, infects the criminal justice system.” And these systemic inequities are exacerbated and can lead to implicit bias when the law enforcement interacts with the public.

In any ordinary job, negligence would lead to the loss of a job, at the very least. Even insider trading has a consequence. And killing an innocent person has little to no repercussion? 

“Crime in the United States has been a highly politicized issue,” Michael German very succinctly states. Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove did not do their job. A job where their first and foremost duty was to provide safety to the community they served, to the people they served, to Breonna Taylor. 

A study by The Sentencing Project provides some historical basis for the drivers of this disparity. They find three recurrent explanations from a multistudy analysis: policy and practice, the role of implicit bias and stereotyping in decision-making, and structural disadvantages in communities of color which are associated with high rates of offending and arrest.

Dr. Dorothy Johnson-Speight, Founder and National Executive Director of Mothers in Charge Inc.

The structural disadvantage for communities of color permeates through and beyond policing. Societal thought and implicit bias are part of the quotidian. Dr. Dorothy Johnson-Speight and her nonprofit organization, Mothers in Charge, work to understand the violence in their communities. Johnson-Speight didn’t need to be part of the criminal justice system to live through the injustices faced in her community. As a mother who lost her adult son to gun violence, she poignantly said, “You don’t really have a clue, if you haven’t walked in those shoes.” 

During the briefing, she mentions case after case where there is video evidence that speaks contrary to the police narrative. She uses Breonna Taylor’s murder to highlight the multitude of ways that powerful people use untruths to support the violence inflicted in her communities. 

“She has never had any criminal history but to save the face of the corrupt police officers…to get them off [for murder]…they create these untrue stories. These are the kinds of things that have been happening in communities of color for years.”  

What needs to happen for these narratives to be revised? Where do we start?

Raj Jayadev, CoFounder of Silicon Valley De-bug

No one understands this better than community activist and CoFounder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, Raj Jayadev. “Communities have been sacrificed in the name of safety”, advocates Jayadev and very quickly makes the adverse correlation between safety and policing. The premise of law and order has been synonymous with policing, surveillance, prosecution, and incarceration, yet,  evidence proves those two are antithetical. 

Jayadev’s organization runs out of San Jose, a rather progressive city with a low crime rate. Despite this, he points out that San Jose has a relatively high rate of death caused by police violence. White supremacy is not limited to one particular space, it is national. We are all having the same political discourse. 

Jayadev probes, “How do we reimagine safety, safety for all, if law and order isn’t the mechanism to get there?” 

“Defund The Police” reads my sign that I hold up to passing cars at City Hall. I hear a call, “What is her name?!” The group responds, “Breonna Taylor!”

In unison we chant, “Black Lives Matter” to anyone who is willing to hear us. 

Black Lives Matter. Say Their Names. Defund The Police.

The words are different but the message is one. We are hoping and praying for a reimagined world in which safety means communities of color are part of the whole. A world where safety means equal access to mental health services, education, livable wages, rehabilitation, halfway homes, housing, and social services geared towards the benefit of all. 

Deprogramming what we know is difficult and will take time. Together we can reimagine…


Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

South Asian Seniors Get Educated on Black Lives

Growing up as a South Asian girl, society, media and even family had always ingrained in me that light was beautiful. Days in the sun would always be followed by the dreaded moment of evaluating how much I had tanned and then a series of home remedies, skin lightening products like fair and lovely, and even milk baths. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that this experience, one shared by many South Asians, has a name: Colorism

This summer, as our country reeled from the Black Lives Matter movement, I started to think about anti-blackness or colorism in my own community. Inspired and motivated by national activists, I sought to take action in a way that felt authentic to myself. Drawing on my experiences as President of the Palo Alto Youth Council and Co-founder of a Real Talk, where I facilitate conversations between people with different political perspectives, I knew I wanted to start an intergenerational discussion about the role of the South Asian community in the Black Lives Matter movement. So, I reached out to the Bay Area Indian Community Center to take over their weekly Thursday morning virtual yoga class for seniors to lead a seminar on Black Lives Matter. 

Coming into the seminar, I worried about what the response would be to my presentation. Talking about skin color with South Asians has always seemed taboo to me. I knew that starting this conversation would be uncomfortable, especially with individuals much older than me, but also a critical step in the culture shift around beauty and race that needs to happen in our community.

I started off the seminar with a presentation on Black Lives Matter, explaining the parts of the movement, especially on social media, that many seniors lacked information on. I next moved into a lesson about the connection between the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and Indian independence movements, highlighting the influence of Mahatma Gandhi on Martin Luther King Junior. Finally, after presenting some statistics about the booming business of skin-lightening products, the dowry system, and colorism, I opened the floor up to discussion, and to say the least, I was blown away.

My initial fears of silence and anger quickly dissipated as seniors started to share their own experiences. They spoke passionately about housing discrimination they had faced in America, personal insecurities about their skin color, and the beauty standards associated with marriage. I also received pushback – some uncles and aunties highlighted my own lack of knowledge growing up in America and argued that this was just how the system worked. However, overall, the conversation ended on a hopeful note, as seniors reflected on the power of the younger generation to start shifting old beauty standards to reflect our community’s core values of good character, equality, and justice. 

As communities across the country fight for racial justice, I believe we, the South Asian community, not only have an opportunity, but rather a responsibility to look within at how we perpetuate racism. This means educating ourselves, showing up as allies to support other people of color, but also having uncomfortable, even taboo, conversations about race. My call to action for you as a reader is to start and lead these conversations with your parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. That is how we will begin to shift our culture.

Check out the Seminar below!


Divya Ganesan is a senior at Castilleja High School in Palo Alto, CA. She is passionate about connecting different cultures, ages, and political perspectives through leadership, collaboration, and technology.

Racial and Caste Apartheid: Are They Similar?

“No one is free until we are all free.”

Dr. King’s words continue to be a powerful message for South Asians throughout the U.S. 

Over the past month and a half, our country has been jolted by recent acts of violence against black folks. While systemic injustice and racism have existed in this country for centuries, there is renewed political engagement with the entrenched issues of race in our country. 

For the South Asian community, it is more important than ever to be “accomplices” in the fight against white supremacy and racism. Several South Asian activist groups and nonprofits are paving the way to help our community uncover some of its entrenched prejudices. Through education and civic leadership, these groups are helping the community discover how to participate in today’s movement. 

Why does this matter to the South Asian community? 

The human dignity of black folks is something so fundamental that has been repeatedly ignored by our country. South Asians have often ignored their complicity in this reality by hiding behind the bootstrap myth or perpetrating harmful anti-black ideologies

However, our communities are more interdependent than people might initially believe. 

“Our stories are very much interconnected and to deny that it is the doing of white supremacy and colonization that tries to keep our people divided,” says Sabiha Basrai, a member of ASATA, a grassroots South Asian activist organization in San Francisco. 

South Asians and black folks have a long and shared history. Black leaders have long fought for the liberation of South Asian communities. In the 1960s, the activism on the part of the civil rights movement banned national and racial quotas on immigrants, enabling the vast majority of today’s South Asian immigrants to come to America. 

Solidarity with communities of color is more than merely a thought, it’s been exemplified throughout the course of history. 

ASATA protests

“A specific example of that kind of solidarity is demonstrated through Bayard Rustin who was a civil rights leader. He actually committed an act of civil disobedience in support of the free India movement in the forties. He locked himself to a British embassy in the United States to protest the British occupation of India,” says Basrai. 

But over time, the South Asian community has forgotten about that solidarity. In today’s moment, it’s important to hear the call to action, Basrai advises. 

What’s Caste got to do with it? 

Equality Labs 2018 Research on Casteism in U.S.

“We must examine and reflect on our own complicity with hierarchical systems, like caste, which enables so much police violence within our communities and within home regions,” says Mahn, communications director at Equality Labs. Equality Labs is an organization that fights against oppressive systems in South Asian communities through political education and collective organizing. 

Holding complexity is an important part of this conversation, Mahn says. 

“Caste isn’t just a theory. It’s a real experience of hegemony for a lot of people.” Black and South Asian experiences are both tied to hierarchies of power. 

“Racial apartheid and caste apartheid depend on both racial abolition and caste abolition. They’re corollaries, they intersect in a lot of important ways for the South Asian community, but they’re parallel. They’re not the same thing,” Mahn says. 

Caste continues to be crucial to the conversation about the South Asian diaspora. Last month, technology giant Cisco Systems was sued for discrimination against Dalit employees. The employee experienced verbal harassment and fewer workplace opportunities due to caste. These systems of harm are real and have tangible consequences in diaspora communities. 

Progressive organizations like Equality Labs are encouraging South Asians to reflect on different vectors of privilege. While South Asians may be harmed by white supremacy in some respects, the community also benefits from the model minority myth. Similarly, it’s critical for South Asians to understand how they may propagate systems of harm. 

That’s great, but what do I do now? 

Being an “accomplice” to the movement can be framed in multiple ways, says Sree Sinha, cofounder of the South Asian Sexual and Mental Health Alliance (SASMHA). 

“The incredible thing about activism is that there are so many different ways to be involved and each of them matter, each of them are important in terms of what the work is that needs to be done and the change that we need to see happen,” she says. 

Getting involved can range from a variety of different activities, from attending protests, to donating to black non-profits, to starting conversations in one’s own community – the critical piece is personal education. 

“None of us are born with bias against anyone. It is taught to us. And the beautiful thing about that is it means that it can be unlearned as well.” Sinha says. 

Sinha says action is like a ladder. We have the personal-level, targeting biases in our own minds. We have the community-level, where we help people in our communities fight against these injustices. And finally, we have the policy level. It’s important to hold political systems accountable, “whether that’s through calling into different congressional offices and police departments, and being able to use your voice in whatever ways is comfortable to you.”

It’s important for South Asians to mobilize against anti-blackness. 

“Where I really want people to understand that rather than being a source of fear or holding you back or paralysis that in fact, making even those small changes helps buffer us against racism. So if you’re feeling a little helpless or a little stuck pushing yourself to act on any level is a major part of what makes us heal.” 

Today’s moment is different from anything in our recent history. Sinha thinks that shows promise. 

“People are thinking about these issues for many people in a way that they never have before. And that just speaks to the power of the possibility and power of growth and change for humans.”

South Asian history is now inextricably linked to American history. The radical nature of today’s moment is important and will define the way our society functions for generations. We must choose the side of justice, for our collective liberation. 

Swathi Ramprasad is a senior at Duke University. She enjoys learning more about the world through her South Asian heritage.

Students of Color Take a Playground Slide From Schools to Prisons

Public education needs to be at the core of the Revolution.

Understanding the function of hegemony is critical in identifying why public education in the United States is the key factor in revolutionizing ideology and challenging power structures. The concept of hegemony as an enforcer of the oppressive condition is explained best by the metaphor of a ripple effect in the water after a single drop. While moving solitarily, a single drop of liquid into a larger pool creates a succession of rings around it. Liquid large distances away, echo from the agitation of the single drop at the epicenter.

Consider interpersonal racism. One is taught biased and discriminatory ideas (often at young and formidable age) about anti-blackness, which then becomes cemented in ideology through experience, choice of social circles, and participation in the capitalist economy (jobs, buying/selling goods, etc). While beliefs and bias socially may impact the narratives one is exposed to, with the addition of the institution, those beliefs become rooted in power structures of politics, ultimately reinforcing them into tangible and measurable oppressive actions intersecting with gender, sexuality, class, ability, religion, and age. This is how a concept or thought of otherness, or anti-blackness, transposes into a ripple that now is rooted in the environment. This practice, often measured through economic means (part of the problem because we center conversations around capital and not humanity), shows a clear institutional racial bias that has rippled into every industry of our society (military, health care, sports, education, etc).

As someone who has dabbled in many areas of community organizing, I realized my calling was with the youth. I know, without a doubt, that my purpose on this earth is to work with and give space for youth to validate themselves. Working within the system is a concept many have discussed. To fix something within implies you have the power to flip a structure rooted in hundreds of years of oppression. As a 21-year-old, I was naive. I was a public school teacher at a  “low income” school with a majority being students of color, for 10 years. I taught 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade. I know for a fact that I was able to spark ideas, shift thought, and validate hundreds of students over the years. But did I change anything from within? Did I fix the cog in the gears that weren’t working properly?

No. Instead, it broke me, and many others with bodies and minds like mine.

I’d argue too that after gaining all of my experience and this knowledge that there isn’t any validity in attempting to “change” or “fix” something from the inside. Especially when schools are the core of the perpetuated hate. It’s 2020 and several people were hanged from trees in California. Nothing has changed, because the schools haven’t changed. They are functioning exactly as intended, and it’s working. People are dying.

ASHA educating through poetry.

My story is not dissimilar to others. I could reach kids in ways that others couldn’t, and students found safety in my classroom regardless of enrollment. I taught histories that exposed institutional bias, we held space for healing, and students developed agency in a matter of months. Each year the impact of my teaching improved as I focused on my craft, but so did the impact of how the district targeted and abused me.

And without the support and allyship, the mission to “change the system from within” just isn’t sustainable.

My career started by just doing my own thing in my four walls. I would literally close the door, turn the blinds, and talk to the kids with authenticity and honesty. They saw me for that too. Even young students knew I was treating them with more respect than education had ever provided and that felt affirming to them. They knew they could take risks with me. Then I was challenged by a coworker to expand my practice and offer to train others, allow peer observations, and train the staff, because then the impact becomes exponential. I was certified through Teaching Tolerance and did several trainings when admin found it useful for their public relations. Even though there was occasional push back, I felt like I was doing good work.

Slowly the admin write-ups and reprimands began to add up. Essentially the “radical” work I was doing at the elementary level validating students’ identities was “not age appropriate”. I was being pushed out. Because I didn’t want to continue to fight against my admin, I decided to move up to the middle school level in the same district. Since I taught 5th grade at the time, that meant following my students to middle school. I was so excited to continue to do the work and build, and now, I had confidence that I could start on some institutional practices as well.

The first year there was amazing. I facilitated several trainings both at my site and regionally, including one for administrators on restorative practices. I felt validated and affirmed. But with a change of administration brought a change in leadership ideology and now, the new mission of the person in power was to cut off my mic. They immediately let me know that the path I was on was not going to continue. I fought. Hard. Union. Grievance. All of it. I won, too. But I didn’t realize the toll it took on my mental health and that the road was only going to get harder.

The year after, I watched student after student be criminalized, marginalized, suspended and expelled, and some, locked up. The same students who had found refuge with me for a decade. I stopped having anything positive to say to them. How could I tell them it was going to get better? I realized very suddenly, it wasn’t. Then, the district really waged war against me when I spoke out, and sought media attention, because atrocities against students were being ignored. They isolated me, silenced me, and removed me from the one thing that reassured me of my purpose, my time with students.

Speaking out against police abuse on a school campus was like trying to call the cops on the cops. Participation in the public education system requires complicity in causing harm against the most vulnerable. Teachers of color become sacrificial to the cause of supporting youth of color as they navigate the system themselves. It’s just not sustainable.

The concept to describe the relationship between the success of students of color in schools and the prison industrial complex is the school to prison pipeline. However, in 2020, it has undoubtedly turned into a playground slide. The increase of police presence in schools whether as an SRO, community partnership, or some fake notion of safety like with the “Safe Schools” program, has exponentially increased the rate at which students of color are criminalized. The pipeline has been shortened into the slide and even painted a bright color to attract youth. Any teachers that stand in the way are subject to severe injury.

Defund and dismantle the police. Abolish prisons. Abolish ICE. But honestly, without a complete overhaul of teacher staff, redlining, curriculum, anti-racist training, restorative practices, school design, libraries, and community resources, the single drop of racism will continue to ripple throughout society; through friendships all the way to board rooms. If we don’t directly focus on rebuilding public education in the United States, none of this will change.

In Hindi meaning hope and Swahili meaning life, ASHA is an Artist, Educator, and Revolutionary. Through her decade of teaching, performing poetry, and speaking at community events, Asha consistently uses her platform to voice out against injustice and to speak up for those who have been marginalized and silenced for centuries.