Scores of people crowded into the back of The Booksmith in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood last week to listen to Deepa Iyer discuss her new book, We Too Sing America.
— Anirvan Chatterjee (@anirvan) January 21, 2016
Iyer, the former executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) and a senior fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion, has long been a leader and outspoken advocate for the South Asian community. We Too Sing America has received praise for tracing the long history of South Asians in the U.S. while at the same time remaining very much a history of the present. It tells the stories of our community in the critical decade following 9/11, and offers hope in the form of profiles of young activists and advocates striving to make a difference.
It was fitting then, that Iyer invited local activists to join her in conversation in San Francisco. She was joined by an impressive panel: Harjit Kaur from The Sikh Coalition, Reem Suleiman from Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), and Sabiha Basrai from the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action (ASATA). The panel was moderated by Anirvan Chatterjee, one of the co-founders of the South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, and the genius behind Black Desi Secret History. The conversation quickly turned to the current climate facing South Asians today. In the last year, our national discourse has been infected by virulent anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric. In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks, backlash against South Asians, Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs has risen sharply, to a level not seen since the months following 9/11.
Amidst this backdrop, Iyer asked each panelist to identify a specific call to action, something tangible the audience could act on. The responses varied, but together they offered a powerful antidote to the hopelessness engendered by the stories of violence and hate we so often see in the media.
Here are four things you can do today:
- Pay attention to your words. This advice came courtesy of Harjit Kaur of the Sikh Coalition. She described how we often contribute to inaccurate or biased portrayals in the media that lead to bullying and hate crimes in our communities:
Vocabulary matters. Every time we say Sikhs aren’t Muslims, we’re saying it’s okay Muslims are attacked. So what I would urge the room to do in terms of a call to action is pay attention to your words. It’s terrorists that are creating these actions. It’s not Muslims; it’s not South Asians; it’s not any specific group. It’s terrorists, and terrorists don’t have any religion. When we don’t push the media in our quotes, when we don’t push our temple leaders to say the right words — we get the backlash.
- Know your rights. Reem Suleiman from AAJC reminded the audience of the growing surveillance of South Asian and Muslim communities through the federal government’s “Suspicious Activities Reports.” As she noted, what qualifies as a “suspicious event” is open to interpretation and bias.
The description of events that can be a cause for concern is at times laughable: “a residence in the neighborhood occupied by a Middle Eastern male adult physician who is very unfriendly,” or “Yemeni brothers applying to be volunteer firefighters in Kings County.” Given this loose standard, Reem used the opportunity to remind us of our right to remain silent and to have an attorney present for any questioning. Her call to action was to get the word out to others in our community who may be targets of profiling that there are protections for them under the law. You can learn more about Suspicious Activities Reports here.
- Confront our own racism. Sabiha Basrai of ASATA called on the audience to confront racism within our own community, and underscored the need to consider the struggles of South Asians through a larger racial justice lens. Doing so is not easy. It requires re-thinking what it means to have model minority status, and acknowledge the ways in which we often re-enforce anti-Black racism. It means starting at home, and having hard conversations with our parents, uncles and aunties that can help bridge the divide between generations. It also calls us to stand in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives. Groups like Asians for Black Lives can serve as an example for what that looks like and how to get involved.
- Keep raising your voice. The final word came from Iyer, who capped an enlightening discussion with a reminder of the times we live in. Particularly in this charged presidential cycle, we cannot afford to sit back. Her call was simple: share the messages from this evening and never forget “to be vigilant, to listen, and to show up.”
* * *
Ashwin Warrior lives in the California Bay Area and works in non-profit communications, promoting social good and supporting progressive causes and organizations. You can follow him on Twitter at @ashwinwarrior and see other things he’s written here.