Original published in the The Student Life on 20th November 2015.
I visited my Indian-American family last month and we had our first full blown family argument on racism in the US. At first, I couldn't understand how my family could react with such fierce anti-blackness and internalized white supremacy.
Then, this week, when a thousand of us marched across the Claremont Colleges and later, a friend remarked about the tension between the non-black students of color and black students (and I agreed), we discussed how as amateur organizers and newly trained allies, we are not equipping ourselves well enough to understand how white supremacy is structured to pit minorities against each other, how empathy for another minority and standing in solidarity for another minority comes from rigorous anti-racist training and often- an alternative radical history of one's own minority. For example- my own family would never believe that Bengali immigrants played an important role in the founding of the Black Panther party and that there was, and is, a community of radical Asian immigrants in our history constantly complicating the assimilationist model minority myth we've been fed for so long. That even though black and asian students may have the common experience of being racialized, we do not share a common racial experience. The term student of color may encompass us all but it doesn't make room for place- based specificity, for the fact that the black history of enslavement, the native american history of erasure and genocide, and the API histories of colonialism interconnected as they are, all work to complicate and privilege constructions of the 'other' and further perpetuate white supremacy. It's important to recognize that as organizers and allies- our actions are not fully deconstructing these narratives, not pulling them out into the open far enough, and thus, we fall short.
And so, a piece fell into place for me.
When the International Student Mentor Program hosted a discussion and debriefing on racism and the events at CMC, Mizzou and Yale and we talked non-stop for two hours, dredging up our confusion, our often hazy status as newly ordained "people of color', our rapid shift from upper class in our country of origin to student of color in this one, our desire to support anti-racist work but our struggle to catch up on centuries of history. To learn a vocabulary of critical theory that doesn't translate back to our mother tongues, that cracks deeper each time we phone home. The bottom line is not simple- in flying home, we have the privilege to escape racism in the US, to return to systems that do not oppress us in the same way, but may oppress us in others. We have the privilege of not being born as people of color here, but instead becoming people of color only once we're in the throws of an expensive, incredible, hard-to-come-by undergraduate education that will also work bolster our privilege in the outside world.
And so another piece fell into place for me.
When I was pulled over on the freeway last week whilst driving with my boyfriend, and I reacted with terror and panic whilst he reacted with measured reason (I think he even grinned at the officer as we rolled up our window)- I realized that in Mumbai I would have reacted with the same amount of entitlement that my boyfriend does here- that I'd stand up for myself to the police officer in Mumbai in much the same way. That back home, due to my class privilege, I am the equivalent of a white boy in the USA. But also that that switch in entitlement, in upper class authority, crumbles as soon as I hit the immigration line at LAX. That whilst I have such privilege, my white boyfriend's entitlement will never crumble, never be reduced to panic and terror in a foreign country. That's white supremacy, but also that's how my positionality back home makes me complicit in it.
And so, another piece fell into place for me.
My aunt and uncle moved here in the 80's armed with prestigious Indian medical degrees, lived in a small house in the Bronx as medical residents, worked their way up (at a mighty steep incline, despite the privilege that got them here in the first place) to a big house in Long Island, to having stable practices and two refrigerators and warm floors. When the time came- green cards were applied for and gotten for all their extended family members (of which I am one) and now their own two children are following in their successful footsteps to medical school. Their children, nieces and nephews have all attended college, usually without any financial aid involved, and if all goes well, we're destined for the same upper middle class success as our aunt and uncle who first led the way for us almost 30 years ago. We are the flattened, in-comprehensive narrative of Asian immigrants in the US- our story is the functioning stereotype that uplifts the myth of meritocracy and the American Dream. The problem is- we’re still just a wedge in the hands of white supremacy, a script that can be flipped anytime. We don't even begin to encompass the spectrum of wealth and privilege that the Asian-American community is tied to or more often, disenfranchised from. The tired canard of Asian-American exceptionalism is not a culture thing, it is an economics thing- it is comparing the general African American population against the achievements of a select group of (economically and educationally) privileged Asian Americans (like my family) that then also cuts all Asian migrants off from the possibility of generative, progressive alliances with other racial justice movements, isolating us all into upholding the pillars of white supremacy.
And so, when I bring up racism and anti-blackness in this country- I shouldn't be appalled, frustrated, wringing my hands in anger when my family says- "It's just their culture." When they say that black culture has some inherent deficiency, some deep seeded disease that has rendered it incapable of the exceptionalism and morality that we, the Asian-American model minority have attained, I begin trying to explain the historical construction of white supremacy, desperately asking- who do you think created that culture? Who do you think perpetuates the supposed rotting of black culture but white supremacy? Why don't you understand the overarching term white supremacy to begin with? Why have you forgotten the layers of colonial history that brought us here? How much have you willed yourself to forget in order to assimilate to this place, to give us the privilege to follow your lead?
I think it starts and ends with truly understanding the definition of this word I've thrown around so much- white supremacy. Every single one of us, regardless of race or class, was born after the construction of white supremacy, so whilst we're all complicit in and perpetuate a white supremacist society, we didn't create it, we are not personally and entirely responsible for individually being perfect in our attempts to dismantle white supremacy. True allyship amongst minorities, but also across us all, is the only way out. Even if our beginnings are flawed, stumbling, grappling desperately with our own personal racialized oppressed/oppressor experience, we owe it to each other to make the effort. Dismantling white supremacy is about educating ourselves on the systems of domination that are usually airbrushed to a fine blur by the very history we rely on. That prevent us from seeing where we as families, communities, societies began, and prevents us from staying rooted in the truth that the pressure of cultural assimilation often distorts.