Indian Americans like myself who care about social justice need to encourage our families and friends to confront reality.
The reality is that the recent series of hate crimes against us are part of a larger history of racism in America. We need have to have tough conversations with our families and friends about our own prejudices and anti-blackness within our communities. We need to decide that we will not be held up as “model minorities” at the expense of others. White supremacists do not hate Indian Americans for what we are, but what we are not.
Regardless of the privileges that Indian Americans have in education and income, our skin will never be white. Hatred is not discerning and it does not check your resume first.
These conversations are particularly challenging in immigrant families like my own. I know how hard my parents worked to provide my sister and me with opportunities and freedoms that they did not have.
Still, I believe we need to do more with those privileges than simply advance ourselves.
We need to work to ensure that everyone has equitable access to opportunities. I believe this must start with tough conversations within our own communities about the privileges we have and don’t have. We have access to our communities in a way that no one else does and can help the people we love become thoughtful about racial realities in America and its historical contexts.
I do not believe that we can form meaningful, non-transactional coalitions without doing this work in our own communities first.
It’s challenging and uncomfortable work to engage in.
I, for example, grew up insulated from fears about racial violence due to the privileges of education and socioeconomic status. I grew up in a community that wasn’t over-policed and I wasn’t taught to fear the police. When I started driving, my parents were more worried about me being able to change a tire than interactions that I might have with the police.
My parents have learned to be thoughtful about police brutality from me. I have warned my parents about the dangers of driving while brown in a predominantly white neighborhood. It hadn’t occurred to them before that some of the challenges they faced may be about the color of their skin. These are conversations that have happened over years and on a sustained basis.
For me, it was not about looking for moments to have these conversations, but rather, diving into the uncomfortable conversation when the moment presented itself.
Early on, when my family discussed racism and bigotry, my parents did not identify those problems as ones that apply to them.
They realized that anti-blackness was wrong, systemic and epidemic. They remembered being warned about “criminals” when they came to the United States in the early 1990s and being told that those criminals were black. However, they did not understand how the white supremacist ideologies that perpetuate those narratives extended to their own experiences. They could not identify incidents where they were discriminated against based on their race.
They believed that in America if you worked hard that anyone can succeed.
That type of meritocracy is ideal, but not real in America.
Not everyone has access to the same opportunities. I have personally experienced how people’s discomfort with you, because of your race, can limit opportunities to advance. It took me time to appreciate that actions that have the impact of creating racial hierarchies are just as damaging as actions that intend to discriminate based on race.
My parents are also starting to identify the difference between racial equity and racial equality and recognize moments where their opportunities may have been limited because of race.
The children of immigrants often serve a unique role in their families, translating for their parents and helping them navigate an unfamiliar place. I did not enjoy teaching my parents quotes like, “When people are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression,” to help them contextualize experiences they’ve had at work. Sharing that knowledge with the people closest to me is, however, necessary.
How can I do the work of creating a more just and equitable society if I’m unwilling to start with the people closest to me and most likely to listen to me?
This past election showed us that we all live in echo chambers of media, but also of our social circles. There have been endless articles about the polarization of the American public. Those of us who care about justice have to step outside of the comfortable work of attending meetings of like-minded individuals and find the opportunities where we have privilege and access to help more people understand the truths that we hold so dear.
We have to risk shattering our loved ones’ idealized views of this country in order to change it.