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Racism and South Asians

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
October 2014
Racism and South Asians

Not a day goes by without stories of racial tension in America hogging the headlines and the social media feeds. For those who have long harbored wishes for a post-racial America, the events in Ferguson, Missouri once again served as an ugly reminder that the goal-post is seemingly unattainable in the current atmosphere of racial strife in pockets of the country.

Closer to home, events such as disclosure of the contents of an email sent by Bruce Levenson, a controlling owner of Atlanta Hawks, reveals that subtle racism seems deeply ingrained in the psyches of many. In that internal office email, Levenson bemoans the fact that their audience is predominantly black, and that hence their sales are weak. He goes on to make several blatantly insensitive racial comments in a manner as if he were simply discussing business strategies.

Another recent incident which may be brushed off by some as a minor slip was also quite revealing. Governor Nathan Deal while addressing a student body at Georgia State University made a gratuitous assumption that a Hispanic student who stood up to ask him a question was undocumented. When the student retorted that she was not, the Governor apologized. But the cat was out the bag…

How can we be remotely close to a post-racial America when even our civic and business leaders are still so steeped in stereotypical perceptions?

And how about racism against South Asians in particular? How do we fare in the racial landscape of America? Well, it doesn’t look much better for us either. From the hate-crime attack on the Oak Creek Gurudwara that killed six in 2012, to the Twitter backlash earlier this year that Miss America Nina Davuluri endured, we have enough high profile incidents periodically reminding us that South Asians are far from immune to racism. What’s more, for every incident that gets national media attention, there are many more that go unnoticed nationally. Last month there were two racially motivated attacks on Sikhs in New York—in a single week. And all of this doesn’t take into account the daily incidents of racial profiling, discrimination, and even harassment that often pass completely under the radar.

Seems bleak, doesn’t it? And it is, most certainly for the victims of hate crime in particular.

And yet, a crucial question that we must ask is this: Does the fact that racism is alive and well mean that South Asians are a racially oppressed people in America?

The answer, of course, is a resounding no!

Racism in America is not institutional as it was before the Civil Rights era; or more recently, as it was in South Africa. Nor is it pervasive as it has been for the Tamils in Malaysia who have been clashing with the native Malays despite being ingrained into the fabric of the nation for generations. Nor is it widespread, as it was for the Indian students in Australia in 2009 when they were widely targeted in racially motivated crimes.

Despite the perception created by a 24/7 media, and notwithstanding the tragedies of those afflicted, the fact is, racist incidents against South Asians are statistically small. It may be considered offensive to try and project our woes about racism at par with those of African Americans who continue to endure the major brunt of racism in America.

Okay, so we may not be considered racially oppressed, but isn’t racism debilitating to South Asians? Doesn’t it hold us back? Let’s see.

The following statistics are, by now, quite clichéd to many of us. Nevertheless, they are facts! i. Close to half of all economy hotels in the U.S. are owned by Indians. ii. Over 6% of physicians in the U.S. are Indians. iii. About a third of Silicon Valley start-ups have Indian executives at the helm.

All of the above seems particularly impressive when you factor in that Indian-Americans make up only about 1% of the total population. And finally, as per the last census, Indians top all other groups including white Americans in both education and household income.

Clearly, these are not the statistics of a community that has been held back on account of racism, or anything else.

I am quite aware that such an appraisal, downplaying the impact of racism, unsettles those who have dedicated their lives to advocacy for South Asian racial equity and justice. From their perspective—from the trenches—it is inconceivable to play down the racism woes of South Asians. To that end, there are two aspects about racism: what we do about it, and our perceptions and attitude about it.

When it comes to doing, I am fully in tune with the advocacy efforts, where it is important to not be lulled by our success into thinking that we, as a community, don’t need to band together among ourselves and with other minority groups such as African Americans and Hispanics in the fight against racism. When it comes right down to it, a racist is an equal opportunity offender. It is crucial for Indian-Americans to be an active part of the activism and advocacy against racism in America. We need to rally behind organizations such as SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together) which has spearheaded such efforts for over a decade. Locally, Raksha, which is mainly a service organization for social issues, also plays an important role in supporting new immigrants who are often tangentially affected by racism.

When it comes to perceptions and attitude, however, it is important to celebrate the egalitarian nature of the nation rather than carry a chip on our shoulder about its racism. Because it is true—in the aggregate, our lives here are defined more by the level playing field we enjoy than by racism.

I am reminded of a parable:

There was a wise old boatman whose job was to ferry passengers across the river to his hometown. One day a passenger asked him, “How are the people in your village across the river?”

Boatman: “Well, how are the people in the village where you come from?”

Passenger: “Oh, they are good-for-nothing lazy cheats!”

Boatman: “I am afraid you will find that the people in my village are also good-for-nothing lazy cheats.”

On another day, another passenger poses the same question to the boatman. Once again, the boatman turns the tables, asking the passenger his opinion of his fellow villagers.

“Why, they are some of the nicest people on the planet!”

To which the boatman replies, “I am happy to inform that you will find that the people in my village are also some of the nicest people on the planet.”

The point is, we are not just passive players in how racism plays out. The attitude with which we interact with our community and society does have an impact. This is not to suggest that our attitude alone will somehow save us from racial profiling or even those nasty incidents of police brutality. There is no cure for the irrationality of others, no matter our attitude. But where it makes a world of difference is in how we react in racially sensitive situations—causing them either to diffuse or to accelerate. Someone who believes we live in a fairly equitable society will respect an officer of the law when pulled over or addressed. On the other hand, someone tainted by a belief that we live in a hyper-racist society is likely to lash out irrationally and get himself into trouble.

The same dynamic carries forward at work and in social situations. Those who see phantoms of racism in every corner are not likely to be forthcoming, thus limiting their success and engagement.

I believe it is possible to do both simultaneously—celebrate the fact that racism is not as debilitating as the gloomy media assault would have us believe and strengthen our activism and advocacy against it.

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