South Asian Allyship is a Debt and Duty

Joy Basu, Truman Security Fellow

I’m asked “where I’m really from” almost every time I enter a Lyft, sit at a bar or meet a senior citizen (when those interactions were still socially acceptable). It is rarely intended offensively — and yet raises my hackles, because it assumes that people who look like me aren’t from the United States. That is because I am not white. The irony isn’t lost on me that Columbus brought Europeans to America with the goal of finding my ancestors; he named the indigenous “Indians” …. and then directed their death with guns, germs, and greed. Thus began our complicated history of immigration, identity and power in America.

I am Indian-American. My parents immigrated from West Bengal to Utah in the early 1970s. I was born in a Midwestern suburb billed as quintessential Americana. Growing up, I was one of few non-white kids in my school, and usually the only brown girl in class. White was the norm, and that shaped my narrative.

It wasn’t until high school that South Asian students were a noticeable subgroup, prominent in honors classes and extracurricular leadership. The stereotypes we had to overcome were of smartness and the smell of spice — threatening little in the subconscious of our paler peers besides class-rank. Many of us smiled smugly crossing the graduation stage toward prestigious four-year colleges — tokens of an allegedly meritocratic and colorblind America. By achieving measures of worth defined in the context of whiteness, we further enabled America to deny its perpetuating racial inequities.[1]

This veneer showed cracks after 9/11, when many White Americans regarded all brown folks as Muslims and condemned all Muslims as terrorists. The hate-shootings of Rais Bhuiyan and Vasudev Patel prickled me with fear, but like James Baldwin’s contemporaries a half-century ago, I convinced myself that the violence was on Mars. I wanted to feel safe, cloaked in my etiquette and achievements.

That illusion was stripped while road-tripping with my brother to move into my freshman dorm. Driving through Wythe County, Virginia, a Sheriff’s Deputy flashed his lights. Pulling onto the shoulder, we innocently wondered if he was confirming the rearview through our Tetris-packed Honda. The officer assessed us, then charged my brother with driving at an impossible three-digit speed, which increased when I asked him to clarify. The magistrate entertained shifting the trumped-offense into a construction zone, and set exorbitant bail — to be accepted in cash. I won’t forget the image of my brother in his University of Chicago T-shirt, handcuffs and leg-cuffs. When I finally secured the bond for his release the next day, I was confused and increasingly angry — but didn’t understand how afraid I should have been. If we were Black, we would have been raised in the fear of this police malfeasance — and my brother may not have walked away from that traffic stop.

This incident not only shattered my trust in law enforcement, it also reminded me of the vulnerability I face in America as someone who isn’t white. I say that recognizing my extreme privilege and good fortune of education, physical ability, and citizenship. I am selected for a “random” TSA screening almost every time I fly, my palms sweat in small towns … and strangers constantly question where I am from. I have learned to own my identity as a woman of color, because I have to own its consequences.

Yet while many ethnicities face discrimination, only African-Americans have inherited the trauma of being dragged to these shores enslaved — and the 401 brutal years of systemic dehumanization and mass-murder that have followed. I do not understand what it is like to be Black in America.

Indian-Americans are held up — not least of all by ourselves — to color the illusion that the American Dream is equally accessible. That generalization is not only racist, it overlooks disparities within our community, selection bias in the visa process, and the insidious trappings of caste. While I am deeply inspired by my parents’ story of coming to this country without money and incredibly grateful for their perseverance, they arrived with advantages (e.g., advanced degrees) that the descendants of slaves still strive to fairly access.

We are told we are a “model minority” because we value discipline and education — as if that distinguishes us from our Black brethren in any way. But where would we be as brown people in America without the access enabled by Brown v. Board of Education?

I owe many of my liberties to the rights bloodily-earned by Black Americans. The examples are extensive. The 14th Amendment, ratified in Reconstruction, eliminated the criterion of whiteness from birthright citizenship and enshrined the concept of equality before the law in our Constitution — laying the foundation for my recognition as “a person” by the US Government. The 1965 Hart–Celler Act, which amended biased country quotas and enabled my parents to immigrate, was an extension of the Civil Rights movement. Without Loving v. Virginia striking-down bans on interracial relationships, many of the lives precious to me today would be illegal.

Instead of allying, though, we’ve created distance. Like Irish and Italian immigrants before us, many Indians have otherized Black-America. This pattern marks both our privilege and persecution. The internalized-colorism is blatant. Stealthier are irrelevant observations that an individual is Black, whether she seems to be proving or disproving a held stereotype. It’s harder to untwine the insinuations veiled as economics that conflate poverty, criminality and the constructs of race. Given our own struggles, we may even fault victims for not “assimilating” — ignoring (or remaining ignorant to) policies that essentially punish Blackness.

Perhaps these prejudices aren’t bugs, but features of a system based on racial capitalism.

I know we are more capable than this moral and intellectual laziness. It isn’t enough to correct that uncle or undergo bias training. We must recognize the tools of white supremacy used to divide and diminish us. We can no longer remain complicit in the anti-Blackness that forced a knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck.

That starts with educating ourselves on the unique injustices Black Americans endure, as well as the stories of our shared solidarity. Role models abound beyond state-sponsored history books, from Kamaladevi’s work with the NAACP to Rahul’s mindset about his Gandhi Mahal restaurant.

The work of antiracism is communal and uncomfortable. It asks that we introspect and unlearn; then show-up civilly but disobediently, deny structures that pit diversity as zero-sum, and offer our privileges to empower Black change-makers.

It involves voting to make racism wrong again, and doing so with the recognition that our ballots have been defended against more than billy clubs by Black citizens. As the Honorable John Lewis exemplified, it is time to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”

I remain wholeheartedly proud to be an American — especially the daughter of immigrants, because those identities are intrinsically integrated for me. I’m hopeful that this summer’s moment of awareness will endure as a movement, inspiring our collective action toward a more perfect union. The idea of America has asked the bravery of every generation of patriots, new and newer, to bring its founding promises into greater reality. That promised land is where I am really from.

Joy Basu is a businesswoman focused on food security and economic development. Ms. Basu holds a JD and MBA from Stanford University. While at Stanford Law School, she worked closely with the Rule of Law Program and the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office. She is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

[1] Yolanda Renteria (@thisisyolandarenteria)

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