“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.
“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?
“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.