Musings on Racism and Indians in America
Somewhere between 2016 and 2017, there were these incidents reported in the news, and they stuck with me:
A grandfather from India, was visiting his son in the States. While walking in his neighborhood, someone reported him, and the police arrived and tackled him to the ground for not knowing English – or at least, that was my summarization of the whole event.
Then, in 2017, an Indian technology professional was shot in a bar. His attacker mistook him for someone of Middle Eastern descent.
After the murder of the technology professional, a friend posted on Facebook, asking, why it didn’t matter to us that Indians were being racially targeted. She asked why we were all silent. She asked why the Indians in America weren’t out protesting on the streets.
And in my reply to her post, I said something that added up to:
- An acknowledgement that I was experiencing racism in the States, and that my way of handling it was to walk away and focus, instead, on those who were kind to us: Since the recent presidential campaign gained momentum, as an Indian woman living in the States, I had experienced roughly one racist encounter a week, and people had been getting more brazen. Initially, I would get upset. But now, I focus on those who are nice to us, and the feelings that come with being racially abused wear off after a few days. Mostly, we avoid places and people who aren’t good to us.
- The counter-argument that Indians complaining about racism and bigotry can be likened to the pot calling the kettle black: I cited how, growing up in India as a religious minority, I’d had practice avoiding people and places who were unwelcoming and aggressive and bigoted towards my religious heritage, and focusing on those who showed us kindness. My experiences started in primary school. And they continued through high school, where I encountered bigotry on account of my ethnic heritage – a fellow student and a teacher felt that because of where my grandparents were born, I was likely to be a “cheap woman” who shouldn’t have issues with men molesting me, grabbing at me through my school uniform, at the crowded bus-stop near our school. And while I had so many kind friends who did not shame me or discriminate against me for the religion I followed, or the place my grandparents came from, there were just as many incidents of bigotry that I walked away from.
- The empathy I felt for the Americans who were being racist: I understand that in a harsh economic environment, people are desperate and struggling. And someone trying to score political points told them that Indians and immigrants are the reason for their struggle. So, of course, the Americans who listened to this lie are really mad at us.
- The measures we were taking to ensure that our child didn’t experience racism or danger: We enrolled our children in a school with a zero bullying policy that goes beyond punishing the bully – it promotes dialog and healing. The school promotes respect for diversity. And I volunteer a lot at school to help my children build positive relationships with their peers and their parents, and with their teachers. By showing up in school as a volunteer, I call attention to my children as little people who come from a family that loves them; I attempt to make them more human to the people they interact with; I model for others that this is how I respect and love these little children of mine – that they are meant to be loved and respected. I attempt to reinforce to the school community that we are real feeling human beings. I endeavor to ensure that my children will not grow up seeing their brown-ness as a stigma.
- The measures we were taking to ensure our own safety: Along with placing our American children of Indian origin in an environment of acceptance, we also have basic safety rules: No going to grocery stores and their parking lots after dark, eat at restaurants in areas (mostly downtown and expensive) where we are less likely to encounter racism, and so on. The only time racism disturbs us now is when educated, well-to-do people come out in the open with their racism, because that racism is coming from a place of hatred, not desperation or misinformation. And these educated racist people with nothing to lose, are the ones fueling hatred in the Americans who are suffering and desperate, diverting the fact that their support of politics and policies of discrimination and hatred are the real cause of their fellow-Americans’ suffering.
- And, finally, I spoke to why I believed Indians were not out protesting on the streets: Our women are busy struggling without a support system – struggling to complete their domestic chores, struggling with depression from losing their identities and being unemployed. Our husbands have only enough time for dinner, before they have to go off and log into offshore work calls. Those of us not in this situation are busy being model employees and students or constructive members of American society. We are busy volunteering, fundraising, and doing so much more. Those of us Indians who made it to America – we come from a certain social class of people who put our heads down and study and excel professionally, and fulfill our parents’ dreams and goals for us. We never protested all the inequities and atrocities and bigotry back home in our own country. We are the model minority, and we all keep on working to be the good little boys and girls that our parents raised, who believe that, “Getting out on the street is for the rabble-rousers who have nothing better to do.”
Now, shortly after I wrote my response, my friend asked if I would write a blog post about it. I decided to write a well-researched and balanced article that offered a hypothesis about why Indians don’t strongly protest racism on the streets of America. And for the past entire year, I have failed to do so, until today.
And here’s why:
- Not all Indians: When researching for my article, I began to look outside my little pond of Indian immigrants. And I found that I did have friends from school and college, former colleagues, and friends of my husband – people in my own social circle – who protested racism on the streets of America. These people not only led successful professional lives here, but they were active and vocal about injustice. They went to all the rallies and marches. Yes, they had their green cards and citizenship, which kept them immune from deportation, unlike the H1Bs and students who might be at risk due to their immigration status. But there are Indians who actively protest. And that reality made it hard for me to write an article about “why Indians are not out in the streets protesting” – because the decent human beings among us are out there.
- Indians can be racist – reinforced: Some time after I had processed that fact, I was contemplating an angle on why the rest of us can’t find it in ourselves to come out and protest. It would be a sort of call to action, I had decided. Which is when I hit another roadblock. The same news channels that told me of racism in America, also reported some ugly and shameful incidents from back home in India. My countrymen were busy lynching students from the continent of Africa, who had paid honest fees and come to India to realize their hopes and dreams of higher education. The very universities that had lured these students to India were failing miserably to protect them and provide them security. We were beating up black people and calling ourselves upholders of the law and vigilantes against drugs and prostitution. We were falsely accusing students of being criminals, solely based on their skin color – black!
When I tapped in to my social circles back home, middle-class educated elderly aunts and uncles and parents (not just mine, everyone’s!) were upset at the media for painting Indians in a bad light – after all, these black people did drugs, and everyone knew that, so their lynching was justified!
I felt like we had lost the moral ground to get on the streets and protest racism against Indians. So I sat and processed that collective guilt of my people, for a while, and became more aware of my own unconscious biases that were based on color – I didn’t ever think I had any, but I did. I smiled at strange white people in Walmart, but I instantly clenched at a smiling black man. I consciously worked on those biases of mine, and I am still working on them.
Oh my countrypeople! Why? Some more of the year passed, and I was nowhere close to writing something I could ethically stand by. In the months that followed, more things happened, and not necessarily in the chronological order listed below:
Indians travelled and stood outside the White House in support of the president’s immigration reform. To me, while they supported this umbrella of reform, here is what they supported:
- They were out here on the streets outside the White House supporting the very president whose rhetoric had triggered the insecurity of the gunman who shot the Indian technology professional, whose death had prompted my friend’s outpouring on Facebook.
- They were supporting very policies that threatened to build a wall and displace children known as dreamers – they called Indian children “legal dreamers”. Yes, Indian children who will age out while their fathers are in the green card queue face a pretty rotten deal – deportation to a country they have never known, being booted out of the only life they have known. But supporting an umbrella of policies that will destroy another’s child, in an effort to guarantee safety for your child – that cannot possibly be right.
- They were supporting the very policies that threaten to snatch away the Obama-era employment permits that had finally come through for Indian wives (these work permits were finally rescuing educated Indian women, who were on H4 visas and in the green card queue, from a lifetime, or another decade, at least of hopelessness and depression and abuse).
- They were supporting merit-based immigration – which is a policy black-hole that is said to potentially offer cover for racism and for self-deportation by Indians and skilled immigrants who came here on the H1B visa.
Most of us hung our heads in shame, and spoke in hushed groups on social media. Some of us were proud of this action by our countrypeople. I realized, through an immigration forum, that Indian green card holders, and former Indians who had become American citizens, and Indians in the green card queue – ALL of them didn’t want any more H1B visa workers from India to enter America. They aligned with the same rhetoric that is employed by white Americans who detest the presence of Indians in America – most of whom came here on the H1B visa, or as foreign students who were then sponsored for the H1B visa. So, essentially, some Indians are in favor of racism against some other Indians. The sinking hopelessness I felt at learning this piece of information is something I cannot shake off.
The caste wars in India continue.
We – especially those of us who immigrated to the States for higher education, because caste-based reservations take up most of the seats in India – we continue to deny that people belonging to the lower castes in rural India are being treated horribly and their human rights are being violated.
We are so hurt about how we city folk missed our opportunity to study, that instead of fighting for better policy, we are content to call low-caste Indians freeloaders. We are turning a blind eye to people of our own color (well, several shades darker in skin than us, if we must be honest, and their blood not as pure as ours) who are suffering in our own country.
As a young engineering college applicant, even I was against the reservation system. But as I grew and worked professionally with organizations who helped these downtrodden people in rural India, I realized how unfair life continues to be for them, and how their free education seat reserved for them offers at least some of them a chance out of their hell holes. If a blog post could record and play back a scream of anguish, I would place it in here.
I cannot find the moral high ground to protest an act of bigotry against Indians in America by the citizens of America – when we are bigots against our own people. More so, given how some Indians in America feel about other Indians in America, I don’t know that we will ever come out in united numbers to protest racism against our people –no, we will first analyze which category the person belongs to first.
We buy into the white privileged concepts of “white-trash” and “kalle log” (black people). As does Kelly Clarkson’s song about the girl who scratches her cheating boyfriend’s pretty little souped-up four wheel drive. Most of us here are from privileged backgrounds in India. So of course we buy into those concepts and everything they reflect.
One of Indian cultural associations here celebrated Holi a second time on Easter Sunday, and they put out a post saying, “Let us use this as an opportunity to teach our children about real Indian culture.” I remember saying that Good Friday and Easter are religious holidays in India. That we didn’t have to have egg hunts, but we could have brought the local Indian Christians in to celebrate Easter the way it is celebrated in India. That would have been an opportunity to teach our kids about “real Indian culture.” Even in India, our Hindu friends don’t celebrate Holi again a second time on Easter to teach their kids about “real Indian culture.” We, now, have Indians in America who share the thought that Christian Indians and Muslim Indians are not real Indians. We have friends who agreed with the Muslim ban. We have friends who think Christians in India are foreign agents, and their festivals are foreign festivals. If a white American shoots at an Indian Christian or an Indian Muslim, will my fellow Indians go out protesting in the streets for their lives?
Quite a few of us support the current president and all his ideologies – most of us do. Remember the Indians who supported the candidacy? If we support him, we cannot possibly go marching out when one of his fellow-followers shoots at one of us. When Indians offered those prayers for this candidacy and came out in support of these policies, many of our countrymen in India posted on social media saying, “NRIs – non-resident Indians – have officially declared themselves to be the opportunist lot they are. They can no longer claim ideological or educational high ground or even better sense over any of us here at home.” Ironically, the murdered Indian technologist’s wife, in a New York Times article, spoke highly of the current American administration and how they helped her stay on and offered to speed up her green card process. Our own government back in India has “assured us that Indians in America are under no threat.”
I could go on. But this post would become an immigrant-Indian-bashing post. And that is not what I intend it to be. I intend it to be a record of my reflections and self-awareness as I explored why my countrypeople are not out in large numbers on the streets protesting violence against our kind.
In conclusion, I think we do not protest violence against Indians in the same way other people of color protest, because:
- Some of it is due to our need to be part of the model minority.
- Part of it has to do with how restricted we are by the terms imposed by our immigration and visa statuses. Those on immigrant visas are advised NOT to engage in protests.
- Some of us are struggling to get from one day to the next. Our struggles may not be obvious or typical, but they are our struggles. Our struggles leave no time for us to get on the streets without compromising some aspect of our immigrant journey. And we don’t share the same toughness as our ancestors who kicked the British out. It probably has something to do with the fact that if we are kicked out of America, we will still have our safety nets in India to fall into.
- Part of it is due to the fact that we are such a fractured community – carrying the baggage of our caste-based society, translating it into a new feudal and hierarchical system here.
But here’s what I am going to do. Remember those Indians I mentioned up earlier in this post – the ones who do protest injustice? I will raise my children to be like them! My children will grow up and work for progress and justice in this country, in the country their parents came from, and in the world. And the day I get my immigrant status sorted out and stable, I will join my friends in protesting and working for the rights of Americans of every color, even as I continue to contribute towards the helpless ones in my own country. I will protest the racism against Indians, Latinos, Asians, Black people, immigrants, women, and citizens – for people of every race and religion who live in this land. And I will also be economically productive and be the model immigrant. That is what I will do, and I will be hopeful that my actions contribute towards a better America, a better India, and a better world.