Issues: Being Brown and Hindu
“There is more awareness and appreciation about Indian culture and Hinduism,” Khyati Joshi says. “But that doesn't translate into equity and justice.” Joshi, who teaches at Fairleigh Dickinson University, talks with Khabar about her latest book, White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America, published recently by NYU Press.
Dr. Khyati Y. Joshi, who grew up in Atlanta. is a scholar and thought leader on the intersecting issues of race, religion, and immigration in the United States. Her research and scholarly work taps the experiences of South Asian Americans and other immigrant communities to illuminate race relations and inform interfaith work in the United States. A professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Dr. Joshi’s writings, speeches, and course work focus on promoting cultural and religious pluralism in the country.
In her book, White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America, she explores how religious freedom for all is really a myth. Even though the U.S. is recognized as the most religiously diverse country in the world, it is Christian beliefs and norms that have come to shape the national identity. Dr. Joshi explores Christian privilege, Christian normativity, and Christian hegemony; and discusses the disadvantages religious minorities contend with. Recounting her own experience growing up, she leaves the reader with a framework for understanding, learning, and effecting change.
You said that one of the reasons you wrote this book is because of your personal experiences as a brown Hindu girl growing up in Atlanta. Could we start with discussing that? I think our readers will be able to relate to that. This may also be the context for them to understand your new book.
This book is both a professional and a personal project. Professional, because as an academic I write books, and I saw the need to address both race and religion in terms of linkages of whiteness and Christianity. Usually only whiteness was being addressed. Many books have come out in the last two decades on the development of whiteness and white privilege. But I am one of the first people to talk about Christian privilege; in fact, I am the only one in the country writing about it for the last twenty years.
The personal aspect for writing this were my own life experiences growing up in Atlanta. As a little brown Hindu girl, I really didn’t fit in anywhere except with my Indian-American community. School was very difficult for me because of the bullying and harassment I faced. Some of it was being made fun of because of different religion. Some of it was for being brown. But some of it was that I didn’t fit in because I didn’t know the secret passwords, the code words, the language – that’s the white privilege and Christian privilege the mainstream society has. My parents didn’t go to church, and so I didn’t understand certain things. Some of it wasn’t discrimination, but it was about the advantages other people had that I didn’t. Growing up I didn’t have language to describe my experiences and talk about privilege until I was in my 20s in graduate school. And when I started learning about white privilege, I realized it was about Christian privilege as well.
I didn’t fit in because of the way society has been constructed; not because of anything somebody individually did to me. For example, I remember a time in high school, when our English teacher was teaching us similes and metaphors, and she gave us the example of the Good Samaritan parable. It was pretty clear that I was supposed to know what that meant. Everyone else in the classroom knew what it meant and I didn’t because I didn’t go to Sunday school or church. So those are the kind of code words, if you will. The secret language that’s part of Christian privilege.
Were your experiences more to do with religion or race, you think? Is it possible to separate and view it like that?
When you're both a racial and religious minority, it's hard to separate. Religion is racialized in our country. So people who don't even know I'm Hindu can attack me for my brown skin; but when they're making fun of Hinduism, for me—since I'm a person of faith—it is also an attack on my religion.
Do you think the situation has changed since then? You start Chapter 1 of your book with an incident in 2004 when Khabar editors asked Georgia’s then Governor Sonny Perdue about his support for displaying the Ten Commandments on government property, and how he would feel about a display of verses from the Bhagavad Gita or the Holy Quran or other religions’ scriptures.
There is more appreciation of cultural differences in our schools now, but that doesn't mean there is equity and justice. So, are our kids still being made fun of for being Hindu? Yes. Are they experiencing racism for being brown skinned? Absolutely. Is there more awareness and appreciation about Indian culture and Hinduism? Yes, also. But that doesn't translate into equity and justice, and it’s important to understand the distinction.
Since that interview in 2004, there have been countless times where people have tried to put up monuments to the Ten Commandments and other public monuments to ‘Christian' beliefs. Sometimes they've succeeded, sometimes they haven’t. And when they haven't, evangelical Christians and conservative Christians feel their religion is being attacked while religious minorities are only asking for religious freedom for all and for the state not to privilege one faith above all others. When you are the group that has benefited for 400+ years and suddenly some of those ‘benefits’ are taken away, it feels like discrimination. That's why the conservative Christian community and the evangelical community has now co-opted the language of religious freedom for their own fights to maintain legal and cultural dominance.
You also write about the optical illusion of there being equal religious freedom for all in the country; that even as we talk about religious neutrality, that neutral is actually Christian. So, what is the lens to employ as a society?
By recognizing all the places where religious freedom for all doesn't exist--where we talk about things being neutral, but they really aren't. That’s the optical illusion. We have the First Amendment, and Jefferson wrote about “separation of church and state,” but those words disguise that our society in the U.S. does not begin from a religiously or racially neutral point. Point zero is a white Christian supremacist society; and when I say that, people think I’m talking about the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazis. That is included, but I'm also talking about the everyday ways that racial and religious minorities have to expend extra energy, just to get through lives, that other white Christian folks don't.
Of course, Christian communities of color have Christian privilege, but they don’t have white privilege. Christian privilege exists, and an Indian Christian has Christian privilege. But at the same time, race is such a major categorizing principle in our country that has affected laws and public policy for 400 years that we can't just talk about Christian privilege. We have to also talk about white Christian privilege.
You write about how Christian privilege and normativity play out, and how intertwined it is with American national identity. Could you talk more about that?
When Indian-Americans run for office, they are often faced with the question “Can they represent me if they are not white and Christian?” Nikki Haley received a lot of questions; people wanted to know if she was Christian or not. As racial and religious minorities, our allegiance and patriotism is questioned in a way that white Christian person isn’t.
Unfortunately, one of the best examples of what it means to be American and how that gets tied up with being a white Christian is when Trump walked from the White House to St. John's Church to hold up the Bible, albeit upside down! That was a huge signal to the white Christian community that “we are America, and I'm standing up for you.” So, we see the entwinement of American with White and Christian in what national leaders say and do. It comes out in how Indian American candidates are looked at. Their legitimacy in terms of representation of all people is questioned.
Which brings me to the next question about the 2020 election and what having Kamala Harris as vice presidential candidate signifies for our society and politics.
Because of who she is, her candidacy will mean more in-depth discussions about what it means to be an American, an immigrant, and a biracial person.
Representation definitely matters, and I think having somebody almost in the White House who is familiar with India is amazing. On a personal level, the fact that she has had some of the same experiences that I've had such as traveling back to India to be with my family and my grandparents, the fact that there are some pieces of my life that she understands without even knowing me is a beautiful feeling.
I think it is also a great chance for the South Asian Community to really look at our own anti-blackness. To people who said Harris doesn't really identify as Indian: I think its important to understand that our community most likely played a role in that decision. Her mother married a Black Jamaican immigrant. It can't have been easy for her family in the 60s because of the anti-Blackness that exists in our communities.
Yes, and I am sure that is a discomfiting thought for a lot of people. In fact, you write that laws, history, and current events are not emotionally neutral topics, and that a lot of people do get uncomfortable. Where does one go from there?
When somebody ask why I insist on only seeing bad things in the United States history, the first thing to understand is that it’s a reaction to the information being presented. The U.S. history I present–Native American history, Black history, etc., and what’s been done to these populations–results in white folks becoming defensive. That is the manifestation of the feeling they are experiencing: the feeling of being uncomfortable. When somebody is feeling uncomfortable, it is important for that person to stop and ask why. They have to notice their reaction and think about where it’s coming from, and as an educator and facilitator, it is my role to help them do that. Then the next step is understanding that learning uncomfortable truths, and re-evaluating the version of history many of us were taught in school, is part of the process of working for a more equitable society. Change is uncomfortable, and that’s when they’re on a learning edge. They need to hang in there and stay with that discomfort. Don't just check out because being uncomfortable is part of the process towards the quest for social justice.
Finally, in order to get to justice, we have to see the injustices that have transpired–not hide them with myths like the “melting pot” and “religious freedom for all.” The U.S. hasn’t been dealing with its real history, and that’s why we are in the pickle we are in as a nation.
If we flip this, then how do you suggest minorities process their discomfort? When faced with religious discrimination whether in job opportunities or everyday life, what are some of the conversations that the religious minorities need to have with themselves?
The first thing I want people to do is to stop minimizing the discrimination or marginalization they experience. There is a tendency especially among immigrants to feel resigned or stoic, like “Ok, we just have to put up with this stuff.” You may have to but don't minimize the feelings that go with that experience. Instead, realize what's happening and be okay with the feelings that are coming up about it. The best thing is to be able to check in with a colleague or another person of your ethnic and religious background. Having a thought partner to discuss things with is really important.
Not everybody is in the position is going to be able to stand up and say that they need to take Diwali off, or need business lunches to include vegetarian or halal options. Your supervisor may not understand, but know that you're not wrong for wanting those things. You may be getting constant questions or facing a negative tone about your faith, and you may feel like it’s a hostile work environment. These are microaggressions—which are like paper cuts—these everyday insults that individually don't amount to that much necessarily but receiving them constantly takes a toll on us. Some of us maybe just stuck, so people in positions of authority and power, we need to speak up not just for ourselves but for other religious minorities.
And it’s true not just of work situations, but even educational institutions and schools…
Yes, that's again where Christian privilege comes into play. Public schools say that they don't want to talk about religion, that they’re not supposed to deal with religion. Well, that's untrue. The government took teacher-led prayer out of school, but it never took religion out of school. Christianity is omnipresent. For example, how is the school calendar structured? “Winter break” is at Christmas time, and “spring break” is usually around Easter. I am not an advocate of “excluding” Christianity from school because that’s unrealistic; instead, we need to bring the other faiths into school life, as well as remembering about students who are humanists/atheists.
You speak about social justice and the Head Heart Hand approach where Head represents knowledge, Heart emotions, and Hands action. Can you talk more about it here for our readers?
It’s really important that when we're talking racism and religious discrimination, we talk about people's personal experiences and opinions. But we also have to know history and laws of this country. By Head, I mean that you need to have the intellectual knowledge, the information. The Heart symbolizes caring, but it is more about understanding the affective component of learning—that when people learn about the systemic racism and historical religious discrimination, it can evoke different kinds of feelings. The Hand symbolizes the action. We have work to do within our communities to create a more just and equitable society.
We have to understand how racism works against us. Nikki Haley said at the Republican National Convention that racism doesn't exist today. That’s not true. I want our Indian American communities to stop denying it. More and more are realizing that racism is real and are willing to name it. It's very common to not want to talk about racism because the dynamics are not understood and it's not something folks are comfortable with. In fact, a lot of times immigrant communities don't want to talk about racism because to talk about racism is to be like Black people, and they don't want to be like Black people. They want to be like white people and white people don't talk about racism. This also means that we need to work on the anti-Blackness in our own families and communities. I want mandirs to have these discussions on how it's been promoted, even in the depiction of Hinduism. I also want Indian churches, gurudwaras, masjids and organizations active in the community to be having these conversations.
Author of Everyday and Some Other Days, Pooja Garg is founder and chief editor of The Woman Inc. (www.thewomaninc.com), a women’s advocacy and literary magazine. She also works with Khabar magazine and Raksha, a nonprofit for survivors of violence. She is a member of Cobb County Domestic Violence Taskforce.
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