Moving forward

I’m guilty. Of tokenism. I thought I understood but do I really? I’ve made flippant comments saying every rapper looks alike. Or called someone David, Richard, John interchangeably. I struggle with different Asian nationalities. And I have labeled. Africans move so well. Asians are industrious. Germans are efficient. Americans are philanthropists. Latinos are passionate. Indians are clever. Danes are stunning. The list goes on and on. That’s also discrimination.

When I first moved into my apartment, my millennial niece visited. I was proud of my new place but she was scathing of the gentrification in my neighbourhood. At that time I dismissed her comments. I had nothing to do with it and was just happy with my lovely new space. Later I found out, in my rent stabilized building, people of lower income get different flooring and white goods. Mine is a classic case of what I don’t know doesn’t hurt me. Shows reveal how entire neighbourhoods are decimated and less privileged people are squeezed into unsavoury neighbourhoods. And become slotted. Some time back, a black activist I met was equally scathing of gentrification and questioned the cloning of neighbourhoods such as Hudson Yards.

I have black friends and always believed I empathize with them. How little I knew. Since Memorial Day, I’ve done a deep dive and been reading as well as watching documentaries and movies. How many of us even know about Thuglife? This screen time has got me realizing the extent of systemic injustice. Something I had never truly recognized. Even now, despite the George Floyd murder, more incidents have been reported across the country.

Even in the wake of this outburst. Even in the midst of this media blitz. Even when this is a hot topic.

Hot topic. That’s what it is now. But I hope we remember. Because this has occurred over and over and over again. Yes #enoughisenough #nojusticenopeace but we should no longer forget. It’s heartening to see, twenty days later, the protests continue; peacefully. The sporadic violence has been curtailed and people are now showing true solidarity.

Many companies hastened to distance themselves from the furore. Executives in the C suite began toppling. Ads are being aired in line with the new politically correct terminology. But will this practice continue? Will companies reimagine their modus operandi or is it to placate disgruntled employees? The current mood seems different so hopefully systems will be put in place to make amends. We need to keep up the pressure. And laws need to be made to effect this change.

Meanwhile statues are being toppled. Movies are being pulled. New black shows are being announced. White police chiefs are being replaced by black. This scares me. Because knee jerk reaction can backfire. In the desire to do good, we are going to the other extreme and painting everything contrary as bad. It’s necessary to tread carefully and not be guided by anger.

As an Indian, I don’t need to look very far to understand discrimination. Humans have been racist since time immemorial. Most Indian women are familiar with the need to be ‘fair and lovely’. Our celebrities endorse fairness products. A friend reached out to tell me even today, her family looks for ‘fair brides’. Pregnant women are asked to eat food to ensure their babies are born white. Our scriptures are rapturous about dark, voluptuous women. Somewhere along the line, possibly under British rule, the Indian attitude to beauty changed.

“Arrey kallu!” That comment is heard time and again in India. People are called out for being dark. Even black cricketers have been subjected to taunts. How can Indians even begin to adopt the cause of #blacklivesmatter when it is rampant at their own doorstep? India is implicit in the anti-black culture. Many African students are harassed by police and citizens. Will brown people now stand up for their fellow humans of colour? People make light of these remarks but this casual attitude can no longer be tolerated.

As South Asians in the US, there is much we can do by way of helping. But, first we need to look in our own homes. George Floyd’s death led to vigorous debate in my extended family. Hard truths were challenged. Suppressed grief was raised. Honest conversation followed. Thanks to WhatsApp, the old, middle-aged and young members engaged in cathartic revelation. My family is actually quite evolved. What is unavoidable are that attitudes are a product of our time, upbringing, environment and experiences. My grandparents had a ‘broad-minded’ outlook for their generation. They adapted as their family grew but each generation brings newer challenges. I now know, we as a family unit, are ready to face them together. Honestly. Openly.

Beyond the family unit, South Asians in the US are coming together too. There are organizations and Indian Americans who have proclaimed their support. But can we speak about white privilege when we represent brown privilege? Being representatives of a model minority is detrimental in many ways. To some extent, we basked in that praise and closed our eyes to other atrocities. Let’s not bring attention to ourselves. We are prospering, let’s keep that status quo. But South Asians are in the US thanks to the civil rights act. Lip service is no longer acceptable. Many companies have South Asian CEO’s who have expressed support but they need to do more. How many black people are in the top echelons of any industry other than entertainment? Will they change this in their companies?

Meanwhile, another aspect to note is how South Asians discriminate against South Asians? I know many talented South Asian musicians who struggle to find support. There are sopranos, conductors, violinist, performers who want to produce operas, Broadway shows but none of the billionaires in their community are willing to fund them? That’s also discrimination. Can we help our own too? I won’t even begin on how Indians marginalize Muslims. That is just too deeply ingrained. But this barrier can be broken too. The migrant labour issue during this Covid crisis is a fantastic example of Indians showing humanity.

This brings me to the crux of my rant. The simple solution is taking a hard look in the mirror and recognizing who we are. We have to begin introspecting because there is only one definite way to bring change. By changing ourselves. By being human. By forgetting about colour, caste, gender, class and actually looking at a person. We all have red blood. We all feel pain. We all feel joy. We have to look beyond the barriers and embrace the religion of humanity. For this we need to read more. Get involved. Understand issues. Take action.Know our candidates and what they stand for. Let’s start by voting out those who sow injustice.

Once we open our hearts and minds. Once we release ourselves from the bondage of ingrained racism. Once we discard apathy. Once we are mindful of how our actions impact others. Only then can we, as a human race, move forward.

Reflect on these gems from Gandhi. ‘You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean. If a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.’



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