Tag Archives: racism

A Legacy That Belongs to All of Us

For years, Asian-Americans donned a cultural Invisibility cloak before Western audiences. And although undiscovered, their stories have unfolded silently and beautifully from generation to generation. That’s why the five-part documentary series, Asian Americans, created by an all-Asian American team of filmmakers, plays such a critical role in chronicling the immigrant experience. 

Narrated by Daniel Dae Kim and Tamlyn Tomita, Asian Americans strings together the stories of the many struggles for freedom – from the Japanese incarcerations during World War II to anti-Asian immigration laws. The storytelling, accompanied by the power of the documentary’s visual component, delivers a poignant narrative about what it means to belong to a country unconditionally, in the face of both adversity and animosity. Asian Americans features interviews with some of our community’s most celebrated individuals, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, Chinese-American journalist Helen Zia, academic expert Erika Lee,  and Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu. Their stories highlight the difficulty in navigating identity between two dichotomous cultures. 

The trailer for Asian Americans ends with the words, “and their legacy belongs to all of us!” As I reflect on my own experience as Indian-American, I realize how much I identify with these words. So many trailblazers have carved out a voice for our community — and PBS’s Asian Americans gives them the credit they rightfully deserve. 

While the documentary is impactful on its own, its content becomes more topical against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The current coronavirus outbreak marks an alarming rise in anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobic paranoia. According to a poll conducted in New York, residents have reported roughly 248 cases of racial prejudice since January. 1600 hundred attacks have been reported nationwide — a number which can only be an undercount, due to the shame and fear that contributes to such attacks. Divisive language surrounding this situation, such as calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus” turn Asian-Americans into a convenient scapegoat for unprecedented circumstances. Social media platforms document shocking tales of bigoted attacks against law-abiding Asian Americans, such as a video of two girls at Garden Grove’s Bolsda Grande High “screaming ‘coronavirus’ at Asian American students”. COVID-19’s impact on race relations is not making national headlines because of its novelty. Rather, it’s only chillingly familiar for the Asian American community.

Virtual Town Hall hosted by the Center for Asian American Media.

In a virtual Town Hall hosted by the Center for Asian American Media, producers and members of this documentary discussed what it means to be of Asian descent during an international crisis. Some of the panelists included Viet Thanh Nguyen, Amna Nawaz, Hari Kondabolu, and more. And in a critical segment of this Town Hall, the panelists pointed out how coronavirus fears play into America’s history of race-based discrimination. It was only one generation ago, for instance, that Chinese-American draftsman Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two white men in Wayne County, Detroit. While Chin’s assailants were originally charged with second-degree murder, their only punishment was $3,000 dollars and no jail time. “It reminded Asian-Americans that progress hadn’t really been made.” 

Today, every voice in the United States has the opportunity to change our country’s cycle of systematic abuse. Rather than using a national tragedy to fuel dangerous and divisive rhetoric, we have the chance to truly move forward. And Asian Americans represent that effort towards a liberated future for the next generation of immigrants. “As much as tragedy is a part of our heritage here, so is possibility.”

The documentary premieres Money and Tuesday, May 11 & 12, 2020 at 8pm on PBS. To watch the trailer, click here! 

To find out more about the Digital Town Hall, watch a recording of the panel here.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being a Youth Editor for India Currents, she is the Editor-in-Chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.

Chinese-Indians Recall Life in Internment Camp in “Deoliwallahs”

How do you write a book about loss—a loss that’s so propulsive as to ravage the notion of home, country and identity? What do you put in it, and what do you leave out? What message will this work deliver and how does it answer the questions of the moment?

In “The Deoliwallahs—The True story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment,” co-authors Dilip D’Souza and Joy Ma unpack these questions while chronicling the disturbing and fragmentary experiences of Camp Deoli survivors—people of Chinese-Indian heritage who were interned in a desert prison camp in Deoli, Rajasthan after relations between India and China deteriorated. 

The book is brilliantly braided together with analyses, personal stories and commentaries, with journalist D’Souza providing the political backdrop and events leading up to the Chinese-Indian incarceration, and Bay Area writer Ma—who was born in the camp—delivering the human stories.

The term “deoliwallah” then becomes a reflexive term enveloping remembrance, endurance and an indictment against the prevailing perspectives of the time. 

It began with a dispute over the border between the two countries, as it inevitably does. D’Souza’s research revealed that in 1958, a Chinese map appropriated 1,00,000 square kilometers (38,000 square miles) that India thought of as its own. China claimed that India had “gradually extend[ed] its control over territory in the east.” The Indian view, on the contrary, was that “the border has been in existence and observed for 3,000 years,” with several treaties and conferences affirming its existence. 

This finger-pointing rapidly escalated to border skirmishes. Then the tenor of the dispute changed on October 12, 1962, when India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the press that he had given instructions to “free the country,” and the press reported this as “Nehru’s famous call to ‘throw out the Chinese.’” 

Jawaharlal Nehru being led to the Banquet Hall by Mao Tse-tung.

Chairman Mao Zedong framed his response to this rhetoric with “a massive, pre-planned Chinese attack” against India on October 20, 1962. “Within two days, an entire Chinese division, having crossed the border and torn the Indian defense to shreds,” continued to advance aggressively, wrote D’Souza. Indian soldiers, ill-prepared for the weather and poorly equipped with weapons, lost handily to the Chinese. In a month and a day, the war was won by China, and China made the decision to withdraw its troops to “their original pre-war positions,” leaving India to “lick its wounds.”

This bruising defeat, however, needed some reprisal and India found it in the passing of the Foreigners Law Act and the Foreigner’s (Restricted Areas) Order in India, which targeted people of Chinese ethnicity in India. D’Souza wrote that “taken together, these acts formed the legal fig leaf for the Deoli incarceration.”

“When you have war situations, odd things happen, perverse things happen,” remarked D’Souza, explaining the ways that we tend to simplify the rationale behind sweeping actions taken when countries are in conflict, drawing a comparison to the US detention of people of Japanese origin in 1942, an event that occurred twenty years before Deoli, at an even bigger scale.

And as we have seen in America and Germany, memories of detention and confinement doggedly pursue survivors serving as signposts of trauma and loss.

Joy Ma excavated personal accounts of this trauma and its aftermath, tracing the journeys of Chinese-Indians who were rounded up and detained “by peeling away the layers of repressed memories,” and tracking the legacy of injustice. 

An inflection point in this terrain of recollections occurred when Ma interviewed Yeeva Cheng, the daughter of Michael Cheng, who was a teenager when he was incarcerated in Deoli. With eloquence and insight Cheng described how she absorbed the emotional ordeals of her father. One particular incident stood out in her mind. Cheng’s high school class was reading a book about a group of girls going to a foster home. For the school assignment, the students were asked to come up with five things they would pack if they had to leave suddenly. When Cheng told her father about the assignment, she said that she might want to pack a book. Her father laughed and said, “We didn’t even have a knife to cut our meat or to cook our food.”

It’s perhaps interesting to note that every Deoli survivor interviewed by Ma remembered what he or she carried to the camp, even six decades later.

Ying Sheng Wong recalled how a group of soldiers knocked on his house in Shillong on 20 November in 1962, when he was 16 years old, and told the family to take “only a few belongings.”

Andy Hsieh, also a teenager, was pulled out of his boarding school in Shillong, and “packed everything they thought they needed for a journey with no certain duration,” including his football shoes.

When Stephen Wan’s family was picked up, they were told to take “a few clothes,” with them. 

Effa and Jack Ma, Joy Ma’s parents, were allowed to carry Rs. 500 and one bag of personal belongings per person as well as some New Year cookies.

Keiw Pow Chen, on the other hand, remembers how the guards “rushed them out of their home in such a hurry that they ‘didn’t carry anything.’”

Many others, too, were not given time to pack, and some were still in their nightclothes when they were picked up, ill prepared for what was to come.

The meager belongings of the detainees were testimony to how confused, surprised and hopeful most of them were, tending to believe that the situation was temporary at best, since many of them had been born in India and for generations had considered India as their nation and home. They were of Chinese origin but nationally and culturally Indian. That’s why the internment became an unfathomable betrayal to many.

When I sat down with the authors, I probed the question of who has the right to tell this story. D’Souza said that when they decided that the book required talking to the survivors, it was clear that Ma, who was born in Deoli, had a personal connection to the narrative. She had that right. So, while D’Souza worked on the political details leading up to the Chinese-Indian detention, even traveling to Deoli to record his observations, Ma approached community members. People from the camp remembered her as “that little girl,” the baby in the camp, Ma said, so it was easier for her to ask the tough, often painful questions of others from the camp. 

In addition to Joy Ma, there were four others born in the camp. Ma said that their stories are not included in the book, as also the stories of several others who were not yet ready to share what they have spent a lifetime trying to forget. It’s taken a long time for Deoli survivors to be willing to tell their stories, Ma disclosed. As a result, the events surrounding the detention assumed an “epic, iconic status in their minds,” she said. When Ma first started conducting interviews, she described an outpouring of “despair and hopelessness” from having kept the stories to themselves for such a long time. 

At a packed book reading at the India Community Center recently, the authors asked the audience to raise their hands if they’d heard of the internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, and a mere handful had their hands up. In “The Deoliwallahs,” D’Souza describes how astonished he himself was in March 2012 when he was first told about ordinary people, “totally innocent people,” being sent to a prison camp in India. 

Why is the Chinese-Indian incarceration not well known, I asked Ma and D’Souza? Fear of retaliation against family members in India has kept the story under wraps for years, the authors explained, leading to a conspiracy of secrecy around the event. 

Both Ma and D’Souza hope that this book will lead to better awareness of the Chinese-Indian internment, and like the United States, the Indian government will come to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and begin the dialog necessary to evolving into a more compassionate and responsible nation. 

Jaya Padmanabhan is a journalist, essayist, and fiction writer. She writes an immigration column for the San Francisco Examiner and her columns and articles can be found in Forbes, Next AvenueThe Bold Italic/MediumElemental and India Currents


THE DEOLIWALLAHS—The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment by Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza. MacMillan, 2020. Amazon: 198 pages. Hard Copy: $12.41. EBook: $9.99 License to image in the article can be found here.

The Problem isn’t Simply Apu

News that actor Hank Azaria will no longer voice the character of Apu on The Simpsons has been received as something of a shocker. Typically, online reactions have run the gamut from blaming cancel culture to reception of the announcement by Azaria on Slashfilm as a sea-change brought on by wokeness. No doubt, Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu (2017) had much to do with intensified scrutiny of the controversial character. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an Indian immigrant who holds a PhD and manages the Kwik-E-Mart, a convenience store, first appeared on the long-running animated show in 1990, soon after The Simpsons’ debut on American television the previous year. All along, he has been voiced by Azaria, a white actor, who affected a fake accent. After Azaria’s revelation on January 17, the character’s future on the program is unclear.

Hari Kondabolu at the Museum Theatre in Chennai

In Kondabolu’s documentary, he and other (mostly male) South Asian American actors speak about the grief Apu has caused them. Some mention the racial taunts they received when they were younger, Apu being the inspiration for those jibes. The actors also explain how the popularity of The Simpsons and its resident brown store-clerk may have affected their careers as many of the roles they were offered were of a stereotypical nature and required an accent. Given the dearth of South Asian representation on US television and in cinema while they were growing up, these actors note the comparative hypervisibility of Apu who left a lasting impression with his sing-song accent which was not even provided by someone of the same racial origins as the character. Further, the actors muse, in standing in for South Asians in America, the character also skewed how that ethnic community has been perceived by mainstream society.  

But for Kondabolu the problem isn’t simply Apu. It’s that Apu just doesn’t do enough. He could be a business tycoon. Lauding the show, Kondabolu says of The Simpsons that its Apu problem could be sorted not by killing off the character, which would be “very lazy writing for such a brilliant show … [G]ive him some upward mobility. If you’re saying satire is built in reality, there’s a lot of South Asians who run convenience stores … However, they often end up owning the place … They become like little moguls.” In other words, Kondabolu believes that the Apu controversy can be taken care of by portraying the character as not working class and as a successful model minority.

It is true that most representations of South Asian clerks in American media have been lacking. Where are the stories of South Asian laborers who are undocumented in the United States? Are there TV shows about convenience store clerks who deal with armed robberies? What of these clerks’ family lives or of South Asian women who are also employed in such professions? While makers of televised and cinematic entertainment have relegated the South Asian clerk to a spectacle of buffoonery that may often employ aspects of brown-faced minstrelsy, those critical of such depictions have taken the view that they do not illustrate the South Asian American community as being respectably well placed economically. Kondabolu’s documentary would be very different if it took stock of the actuality of the lives of South Asian clerks rather than only obsess about the kind of media representation that makes the South Asian American community not look like moguls.

Apu has been on television for as long as I have lived in the United States. I sometimes thought about how that character might be who customers had in mind when they interacted with my dad and his colleagues at the 7-11 he worked at. And while where that store was located was relatively safe, I worried about my father returning home on his bicycle after he’d completed the graveyard shift. On the days when he didn’t have much to say, I knew that things at the store hadn’t gone well. Sometimes he’d reveal that he’d had words with a customer or that it had been an exhausting night. I was glad when he quit his job.

Azaria may no longer voice Apu and that stereotypical character’s presence on The Simpsons may well cease, but US media still has a long way to go in giving voice to those that make up its working class. 

R. Benedito Ferrão is an Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at The College of William and Mary as well as a Fulbright-Nehru Fellow


This article was originally published here.

Image licence here.

“As a Small Brown Woman With an Arabic Name” – Ramiza Koya

The Royal Abduls depicts the cost of the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, through the lens of an Indian-American family in post 9/11 America. The novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Omar and his aunt Amina, an evolutionary biologist who moves near her brother’s family in Washington, D.C.after years of working on the West Coast. As Omar tries on an exaggerated Indian accent to impress his schoolmates, Amina struggles to focus on her study of hybrid zones while working in a male-dominated lab. Omar cycles through outlets for his vast curiosity and gets in trouble at school. His parents’ disintegrating relationship leaves only independent, career-minded Amina to look out for him. The Royal Abduls engages with the struggles of women in the workplace and the difficulties of maintaining relationships in a fragmented America.

Ramiza Shamoun Koya tackles subjects such as racism, misogyny and being other in America, having faced some of that herself. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of this wonderful novel, and it really resonated with me. My debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, addressed similar topics and I felt equipped for our dialogue. Her book is set to publish on May 12, 2020 and can be pre-ordered online. Here I am in conversation with the talented Ramiza Shamoun Koya. 

Devi: What led you to start this book? Did it start out as a short story?

Ramiza: It started out as a short story called “The Hybrid Zone”; I intended for it to be the lead story in a story collection. But then I was blessed with a two-week residency at MacDowell Colony.  The first day I sat in Wood Studio, looking out a huge window into the forest, I typed the words “Omar was happy” almost without thinking. And then I knew I had a novel on my hands.

Devi: As I read your book, I was struck by its realism. I felt there was an autobiography in this book. And yet it is a novel and not a memoir. 

Ramiza: I never intended for this to be autobiographical per se.  There is autobiographical feeling in the search for identity, in some of the experiences that Amina and Omar and their family have. But my own personal autobiography is much more complicated than anyone in The Royal Abduls!  And to be honest, I had never been interested in writing memoir until very recently – I see myself as a fiction writer and always did.   

Devi: I loved that Amina had her say and that at times Omar had his say in the book. I was particularly struck by the child’s POV in the post-9/11 world and the contrast to Amina’s and Mo’s experience. Can you discuss your choices there? 

Ramiza: Omar became very important to me. I think young Muslims were real victims of this shift towards anti-Muslim sentiment. And Omar is very much second-generation; that interested me as well.  There is so much writing on the immigrant experience. I wanted to focus on someone who was born here and feels it’s natural that they should be treated as other Americans are. When he is denied that, it’s not just confusing; it’s nonsensical.  His struggle is so very common among brown people in America, and facing up to that means facing up the essentially racist structures we live under. As I wrote the initial short story, I did not foresee that Omar would become a major character in a novel; but his voice, once I started writing in it, became so absorbing, so easy to slip into, and each new reader told me that they had fallen in love with him. So he earned his place!

Devi: I felt as though your novel was in conversation with my novel, especially as it addresses the immigrant experience one generation removed, and also by having children who were mixed-race. 

Ramiza: As I’ve gotten older, I am convinced that if we write about women, we have to write about misogyny.  To leave it out is to leave out something essential to all female experience. I wanted to have Amina face that and struggle with that and live it down.  I wanted her to find her way in spite of it. When we underplay this essential difference between male and female experience, we’re enabling it to continue.  I wanted to write authentically about sexual politics in the workplace, but I also wanted to connect some of that misogyny to Amina’s brown skin. As a small brown woman with an Arabic name, I have felt how connected misogyny and racism are.

Devi:What books have influenced you, make you want to write? What books propelled you to finish The Royal Abduls? What books have you read recently that have excited you? 

Ramiza: Books that influenced me when I was younger were by Richard Wright, Malcolm X, James Baldwin: coming of age stories by African-American writers moved me deeply.  I related to them; they made me feel like I had a story too. Then I was all about Indian literature: Midnight’s Children and Sacred Games and books by Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh; these helped me understand my own identity, my origins a bit more, and inspired me to travel in India.  More recently, I have loved Elena Ferrante, Min Jin Lee, Jesmyn Ward, Ruth Ozeki, Julie Otsuka, William Dalrymple, Hillary Mantel. The poets Ocean Vuong and Ilya Kaminsky have deeply influenced me this year. 

Devi: Did you find your book cathartic to write? I personally don’t believe in catharsis. I think I changed as a writer in the intervening years, and what I felt was relief it was to be able to write at all.

Ramiza: Yeah, no catharsis!  It’s hard work and then you never know if it’s good or bad or if it will ever be read.   

Devi:And tell me about your next book, a short story collection. Right? How has the experience of putting that together differed from writing a novel?

Ramiza:The short story collection includes my very first publication (“Night Duty” in Washington Square Review) to my latest attempts, many of which are unpublished. I’ve been building it over many years, and it’s nice because unlike a novel you can play with the order easily.  It does need an editor, however.

Devi:What is the one thing you want readers to take away after finishing The Royal Abduls?

Ramiza: I think the change in perspective, the ability to imagine life in someone else’s shoes, is one of the greatest gifts of fiction; I hope that any reader feels like they lived along with this family and gained insight into their experiences.

Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and holds an MFA from Columbia University. The Atlas of Reds and Blueswinner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the Crook’s Corner Book Prize—is her first novel. A former newspaper reporter, Laskar is now a poet, photographer, essayist, and novelist. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.


KOYA, RAMIZA SHAMOUN. ROYAL ABDULS. FOREST AVENUE PR, 2020.

Black and White Are Not Colors

The second-generation Bengali woman known as Mother in Devi S. Laskar’s emotionally raw debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, is forty-three years, six months, twenty-five days old when an unexpected, swift, and tragic chain of events transpires. Upon returning home from dropping her three young daughters at school, agents storm her house, she refuses to remain silent, then she finds herself lying on her driveway in an Atlanta suburb, bleeding from gunshot wounds. On the concrete, Mother zigzags through a montage of memories, leaping between present and past, recalling a lifetime of slights, taunts, comments, and snubs by society, wondering what in her life led her to this point. Now police, neighbors, and news crews work around her as if she weren’t there, solidifying the invisibility Mother has felt all her life. 

A woman of color, a wife, and a mom, Mother also is a former crime reporter, demoted to part-time obituary writer, and a novelist-in-waiting, her dreams never quite holding strong enough against those ubiquitous slights and snubs. Her husband, known as her Hero, the Man of the Hour, or Daddy—an American blonde with blue eyes—loves her but travels internationally for work and is rarely home long enough to notice her extreme isolation. Only Greta, the family’s late dog, offers Mother unconditional love and protects her.

To protect her children, Mother teaches them “the quiet game,” one in which one’s thoughts and feelings are kept to oneself. Mother is the master of the game, and she teaches her daughters to keep their heads down and stay completely still and silent in the face of discrimination, to take the abuse, to not cause trouble. Concurrently, the people in her neighborhood are seen and heard from a distance, her colleagues are mostly passersby, and only Mr. Patel, a shopkeeper, speaks to her without criticizing, asking why she is there, or suggesting she go back to where she came from. Ironically, like the author, Mother was born and raised in North Carolina. 

“Atlas” is a powerful story of the unacceptable, unforgivable treatment persons of color—especially women—are forced to endure even now in the twenty-first century. Vivid and honest in her pain during which she sees the blue sky and as voices laugh and joke about her, she is every woman in her desire to have a good life and one in which she is an equal; however, the equality to which she aspires carries a weightier load because her skin color—one so disparate from the neighborhood’s whiteness—prevents fulfillment of that simple, common wish. 

Despite not unfolding the offending incident linearly or in detail, it is disturbing, nonetheless. Laskar’s poetic precision gives us enough to be shocked, angered, left with much to consider and contemplate. Her writing’s beautiful lyricism juxtaposes the compactness of language with the prevailing ugliness of the world in which Mother and we live. The book, based on an incident that occurred at Laskar’s own home, never discusses racism, but the incidents in Mother’s short life offer abundant fuel for discussions that society must undertake. The Atlas of Reds and Blues is simply a must-read.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North and South Carolina 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 working on an assortment of fiction projects.


THE ATLAS OF REDS AND BLUES by Devi S. Laskar. Counterpoint Press. 269 Pages.

 

Go Back to Your Country!

Lunchtime at the intersection of Third and Geary in downtown San Francisco is a concerto of movement. Cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, strollers, bags, carts, pets perform a score as they make their way through narrow passageways that open and snap to shapes and bodies. Generally, all things great and small keep to the rhythm of the red, green and yellow lights.

We broke that rhythm one day.

It was 1993. I had been living in America since 1988 and the newness of my American skin had just about begun to recede. I no longer looked around curiously. I no longer answered hesitantly. The country I grew up in, India, was no longer dominantly inhabiting my thoughts. I was now a citizen of the world. What I saw others seeing in me was a person from another land, different in many ways, and alike in many too. What I saw in others were people like me who’d grown up unlike me.

So, it didn’t register that people were looking at me curiously, hesitantly.

My husband and I were meeting friends for lunch, and my husband was driving. It might have been Whitney Houston or Kishore Kumar who was crooning over the car speakers as we both hummed along. The light turned yellow and he distractedly kept the forward momentum going. And then the light turned red. We were caught with the nose of our car a foot or so into the pedestrian walkway.

Trapped, we looked out as folks converged on us from both sides of the walkway. One or two people glared at us as they made their way across. Most ignored us. But as we watched, a man on roller blades stopped directly in front of us. He pressed his hands down on the hood of the car and banged once, twice, three times, hard and then harder with his fist, shaking the car, and then, looking directly at us, he yelled, “Go back to your country.” He paused, waiting for it to register before he turned and continued on.

Whitney Houston or Kishore Kumar continued singing, but we had stopped humming. The lights changed and we drove on.

1993 was the first time I was told to “go back to my country.” Since then I’ve received the words in a Target Health and Beauty aisle; while leisurely walking into Le Boulanger cafe with my nine year-old twin daughters chattering away beside me; and on several occasions in response to articles I’ve written. It was only the time with my twins that it scored painfully, for the deliverer of the message could hear my children babbling in their American accents, wearing their American clothes, and carrying their American books.

Those words should not really hurt, though. The strangers who uttered the words were angry, yes, but it was a careless, vaguely defined anger at their loss of momentum. They didn’t know enough about me, what I stood for, how long I’d been sharing their country, or for that matter, which country I came from for their anger to have much depth.

Their anger was not directed at me, but the idea of me—a non-white, non-native, un-American looking person competing for scant resources. For them, the words “going back …” were neither compensable nor redemptive. It merely seized the inconvenience of the moment and illuminated a shallow-seated aggravation, rooted in history and circumstance.

The notion of going back, it seems to me, demands a commitment to turn back time and space, both emotional and geographical; to return what is gained and to prevent further acquisition. It doesn’t matter that what I have gained has not come from someone else’s immediate loss.

Being told to go back gave me pause, each time, then and now. The words reflect how people place a value on me, my body, and my ideas. This value is inherently transient, for all three can be devalued instantly if I, my body or my ideas are not congruent with them, their bodies or their ideas.

My children and I never talked about the incident that occurred eleven years ago at Le Boulanger. At the time, it could be that they brushed it away as a rant, or they buried it because they could see that it disturbed me, or that they couldn’t understand what was said for they had never known any country other than the one they lived in.

I didn’t address the subject even in the years since because I wanted my children to process the words “going back to your country” without my own aspirational interpretations. Their belief in their belonging to America is something that they own. This ownership shouldn’t need affirmation or confirmation. They were born into this relationship between personhood and citizenship.

Yet I believe that they must prepare for the questions and comments. And if they lose some of their agency because of these questions or comments, it is only because they doubt who they are and where they’ve lived. Yes, we do own our spaces, though often we cannot choose our neighbors. We cannot control what others say, how they say it, or where they say it, so we must learn to regulate how much we allow it to affect us.

Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.

Sudha Raghunathan’s Daughter’s Marriage Being Trolled

Carnatic musician Sudha Raghunathan is facing criticism online for her daughter’s decision to marry an African-American. When I first read the email in my Inbox earlier today, I could not believe that there were Twitter users who were imploring organizations to stop giving her opportunities based on unfounded rumors that the wedding was going to be solemnized in a church. But, here is a message that says exactly that.

Nandagopal.K.M.@nandaji1958

Finally the Cat jumped on the wall. Famous Carnatic singer Sudha Ragunathan daughter’s marriage reception card. Sure wedding may solamaniosed in a church. Hope In feature all the music Shabas dump her for season, churchs may offer chance for Kachery. @shakkuiyer @ShefVaidya

Replying to   and 

S. Sudha Raghunathan‘s daughter marrying a Christian( African American), sad girls leaving their roots

Here is one tweet that supports the decision and tries to confront the trolls.

Sudha Raghunathan daughter seems to be marrying a foreigner.. She is not converted to Christianity.. Don’t understand where these rumours start.. Many in my family too have married foreigners..outrage factory is in full outrage mode

https://twitter.com/search?q=sudha%20raghunathan&src=typd&lang=en
Reading Twitter messages on this topic was enough to make me realize how tribalism is alive and well –  racism, colorism, Brahmanism – along with high-minded attitudes justifying these hateful opinions.
IC condemns this set of attitudes most forcefully, and the only reason that I am writing this story is to convey my shock while reaching out to Indians and Indian-Americans to examine our personal attitudes and behaviors in fighting these deeply held prejudices.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing editor of India Currents.

Drawn Together: an interview with Harleen Singh

Sikh filmmaker Harleen Singh talks about her film Drawn Together: Comics, Diversity and Stereotypes with IC Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain. Harleen talks about her motivation to make the film, her influences, and what it means to be brown in America.

 

Harleen Singh’s film brings together three artists who confront stereotypes and racism in modern America. Against a backdrop of superheroes and comic books, the film follows “Sikh Captain America” Vishavjit Singh, “Knight Life” cartoonist Keith Knight, and “Super Sikh” co-creator Eileen Kaur Alden.

Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents.

Racism Of The Every Day Kind

Racism Of The Every Day Kind

A couple of weeks ago, we witnessed a racially charged demonstration on the grounds of a premier American University at Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists, Klansmen and Neo-Nazis marched with torches spewing hatred. To most Americans, the march was an abomination to the ideals this country holds dear. Charlottesville was but a flash point that drew national attention. If you were surprised by what you saw and heard at Charlottesville, then you have not been paying attention to the systemic racism that undergirds American democracy at many levels.

White supremacy simmers brightest in the uneven hand of justice. “People of color are disproportionately represented at every stage of the criminal justice system,” says Edwin Grimsley, Innocence Project Case Analyst. An analysis on 297 exonerations where DNA evidence helped in overthrowing convictions found that 70% of those proven innocent belonged to minority groups, with African Americans forming 63% of those exonerated.

When justice is unevenly applied, lives are lost. You probably have not have heard of Kalief Browder (1993-2015) profiled in a New Yorker article for having spent three years in Riker’s Island prison without being convicted of a crime. Jennifer Gonnerman wrote, “He had been arrested in the spring of 2010, at age sixteen, for a robbery he insisted he had not committed. Then he spent more than one thousand days on Rikers waiting for a trial that never happened. During that time, he endured about two years in solitary confinement, where he attempted to end his life several times.” When he got out, he tried to turn his life around but committed suicide in 2015. And, the initial crime that he was accused of? The theft of a backpack. A backpack.

How many minority men and women are being incarcerated in our country’s prisons for crimes they never committed? All the studies in the world can never pinpoint the exact number. In that number you can see white supremacy.

White supremacy is alive and well elsewhere in our school system. Schools today are more segregated now compared to a few decades ago. In 2016, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigators found that from the 2000-2001 to the 2013-2014 school years, both the percentage of K-12 public schools in high-poverty and the percentage comprised of mostly African-American or Hispanic students grew significantly, more than doubling, from 7,009 schools to 15,089 schools.The percentage of all schools with so-called racial or socio-economic isolation grew from 9% to 16%. Researchers define “isolated schools” as those in which 75% or more of students are of the same race or class. Such schools, investigators found, offered disproportionately fewer math, science and college-prep courses and had higher rates of students who are held back in ninth grade, suspended or expelled. Overall, investigators found, Hispanic students tended to be “triple segregated” by race, economics and language.

This is what we have to pay attention to—the systemic undercurrents of racism in society which have a debilitating chokehold on our country. When we rob a generation of students of hope, based on their skin color, we are setting ourselves up for flash points big and small years hence. When justice is denied or delayed based on skin color, we are going against the principle of equality under the law.

By focusing our collective energies in only thinking about Charlottesville without addressing racism in our schools, criminal justice system and healthcare delivery, we risk confronting yet another moment of racial insanity.

Our thoughts should be filled with combating the far more sinister, everyday pernicious racism that exists and flourishes around us.  

A Fake White World

On November 9th, I was overwhelmed with despair, and I know I was not alone. Social media reflected the weight of our collective grief with bitter, gloomy, and disbelieving updates. Opinion editorials were thick-throated with humiliation.

The idea that Donald Trump, a man with few morals, little integrity, and a frightening propensity for hate speech now has the potential to decide the fate of my community, my neighborhood, my city, my state, my country, and my world is nothing short of terrifying. But I must accept forthwith that this is what our democracy has yielded. What I told my beautiful, “brown” twenty-year-old twins after the elections was to be vigilant, be aware, and be engaged. For now, more than ever, our country needs people like us, women of color, who are not afraid to speak up and speak out.

This is not the first time, and nor will it be the last, that the American populace has voted in a heedlessly racist man to power. For before Donald J. Trump there was James D. Phelan. America carries the scars of previously ill-thought elections and this will be just one more to add to our injuries.

Late September 2016, I watched an experimental short film, Far East of Eden, presented by two artists Bruce Yonemoto and Karen Finley at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California.

The film was performance theater. It anatomized and drew parallels between the anti-immigrant speeches of President-elect Donald Trump and Senator James Duval Phelan—a democrat and three-time mayor of San Francisco who also served in the United States Senate from 1915 to 1921.

Phelan is the man who built Villa Montalvo, a historic arts center in the Bay Area, which he bequeathed, after his death in 1930, to be used for the development of art, literature, music, and architecture. Montalvo Arts commissioned Yonemoto and Finley’s startling film, Far East of Eden, as part of its Artists’ Residency program, which brought to light the darker shades within the moral imagination of two men.

Like Donald Trump, Phelan commanded an uncomfortable appeal despite, and because of, the numerous slap-downs of people of other races and colors. He was the first to be popularly elected to the Senate from California.

Phelan wrote an essay in 1901 describing the Chinese as “patronizing neither school, library, church nor theatre; lawbreakers, addicted to vicious habits; indifferent to sanitary regulations and breeding disease; taking no holidays, respecting no traditional anniversaries, but laboring incessantly, and subsisting on practically nothing for food and clothes.”

Fast forward 115 years later as Trump asserts that “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

As infantile as Trump sounds, the intent of what he says, and what Phelan once said, are disconcertingly similar. The existential threat that they felt and feel is palpable. Both Phelan and Trump are provocateurs who couched their racism in terms of economic currency. They explain away the rabidity of racism with the idea of self-preservation.

In an essay titled “The Japanese Evil in California,” Phelan extended his anti-immigrant stance to the Japanese railing against their presence in California, calling them “a masterful people, of great industry and ingenuity. They have no disposition in California to work for wages, but seek control of the soil by purchase, leasehold or a share of the crops, and, under these circumstances, become impossible competitors.” For these reasons he called for “Congress to pass an exclusion law at once.”

Phelan’s words ring remarkably similar to Trump’s call to exclude Muslims. Trump called for the litmus test of religion to be the basis for exclusion. In a speech in Phoenix he claimed that Mexicans are “taking away our jobs” and “killing us.” His choice of words instantly criminalized a community while agitating public opinion to exclude and deny a race.

Trump now, and Phelan then, give the impression that one race has a bigger stake in our economy than others. They believe that whites have more of a moral right to opportunity.

Trump has had no qualms in dismissing diversity and advancing numerous fringe ideas about minorities. Trump wants America to look and sound like him. And, appallingly, too many have bought his line of logic. The New Yorker describes this as the “Resentment of the ‘browning of America’ in the era of the first African American President.”

Early in Yonemoto and Finley’s movie, a group of white men and women put on Asian masks and costumes and slither silently at a party while a young non-white boy cuts through the party guests with a bemused look on his face. The scene is a metaphor for a fake white world.

Phelan launched a Senate re-election campaign in 1920 with the slogan “Keep California White”—a blatantly corrosive sentiment. But the people of California finally realized the illusory benefits of bigotry and bias and he was voted out of office. Let’s hope that day comes soon for our white man elected to the top.

Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.