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Guest Editorial: A Message to Our Community

By Sonjui Lal Kumar Email By Sonjui Lal Kumar
December 2016
Guest Editorial: A Message to Our Community

An introspection on being a little less Indian, a lot more American.

As I try to wrap my head (and heart) around the results of the 2016 election, I see some disturbing patterns and words emerging from our community, both from the right and the left. Now more than ever we need to avoid falling into the same old patterns of hunkering down into our enclaves rather than accepting our role in the country that we have chosen. To be clearer, I will use an analogy that we are all familiar with. Why is it that when most of us are permanent residents or citizens, we live and act like we are here on a visitor’s visa?

I have heard from so many of you that the results of this election don’t affect you, your business, your family, that life goes on. That attitude perpetuates the stereotype that we as a community don’t care about anyone or anything outside of our own comfort zone as long as we can maintain our standard of living. Stereotype or not, the premise is a dangerous one. Firstly, nothing affects your life, till it does. And even if it never affects your life, don’t we each have an obligation as beneficiaries of this society that we live in to watch over it, protect it, and speak out for the most marginalized of its occupants?

As Asian Americans, we have reaped the benefits of so many programs that were fought for and won by the black community, without much of the sacrifice. We shamelessly cash in on minority supplier programs and happily ask our children to check the “minority” box on applications without fully appreciating what the African American community did to pave the way for us or acknowledging that we are probably its greatest beneficiaries. What have we in turn done for that African American community? How many of you have turned your head away, or worse, derided the Black Lives Matter movement, without at least trying to hear their message? Sikhs and Muslims have already found themselves on the firing line of bullying and hate crimes. Do the rest of us have to wait for our own sons and daughters, immigrants of color, to be unfairly profiled before we begin to care about the criminal justice system? How can we continue to raise millions of dollars for our temples and mosques and for children an ocean away, without once thinking about the underprivileged kids in our cities and towns? Don’t they deserve our compassion and our generosity just as much?

I am not suggesting that you choose one over the other, but we must step up to our roles as full and active members of the larger society, not just the comfortable enclaves that we have created for ourselves in Johns Creek and East Cobb. How can we expect our neighbors to accept us and treat us fairly, if we don’t do the same in return? There are too many examples of countries and societies that rejected whole immigrant groups when they felt threatened or taken advantage of. Fiji and Uganda come immediately to mind. I don’t think that would happen in the United States, because Americans are temperamentally different, they want to be fair and may well be the most tolerant people in the world, but there are lessons to be learned from those places.

It is also, at the end of the day, the right thing to do. When my family migrated to the USA in the 1970s, we didn’t have a choice. We had to assimilate, there was no South Asian community to fall back on. We became Americans—yes, still immigrants, but first and foremost Americans and we were and are proud of it. I don’t see much of that anymore. I see us sticking together. Many of us don’t have any friends or even acquaintances outside of our community. The “brown towns” at universities and the all-South-Asian prom groups make me fear that this is not a generational phenomenon but an attitude that we have passed on to our children.

We need to step up and step out, invite our neighbors over, join an organization where we don’t know anyone, give some of our time and money to a local cause, volunteer to do something for our town or city. Go into an Atlanta public school and see what challenges our city leaders are faced with daily. Our faces need to be seen not just as business owners and doctors, but as teachers and policemen and school board members, as helpers and scout leaders. I know you are busy, I know you have companies to run, I know you have incredible children to raise, but you also have a duty, a civic duty to contribute to the country and the state and towns that give your family safety and comfort.

Sonjui Kumar, a founding member of the firm KPPB Law, is also a past president of SABA (South Asian Bar Association) and Board Chair of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta (formerly Asian American Legal Advocacy Center).

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