President Obama delivered his last ever State of the Union in January. As we count down to the next election, we connected with activist and writer Deepa Iyer to get her take on the future of American politics and this maddening election cycle. Iyer is the author of one of the most important books in recent history, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (The New Press). Read an excerpt from the book on The Aerogram after you read what she has to say.
Rohin Guha: In Obama’s last SOTU, where do you think he delivered and where do you think he may have fallen short?
Deepa Iyer: What was good: Standing strong against anti-Muslim bias, attacks and rhetoric; calling for Americans to reject the politics of fear and rancor.
What was missing: Immigration policy (especially given that the speech coincided with a surge of raids and deportations), acknowledgment of police brutality, and the movement for Black lives. Other oversights also included ways to combat racial inequities, disparities in education, income, job attainment, health access, and housing.
RG: In 2016, Americans will elect a new president. In 2015, we got just a slight taste of how brutal this electoral climate will be, especially to people of color. How are you feeling about it? How would you compare it to the electoral climate of previous election cycles?
DI: This election cycle is being defined by the politics of fear, division, and hate. The result is a clear delineation of the “us” versus the “other.” The “others” include immigrants and refugees, people of color, and Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim.
Unfortunately, when there is unfettered and unrestrained political rhetoric that is xenophobic or anti-Muslim, it is not surprising that acts of discrimination and violence occur against immigrants and Muslims. What we need is for political parties and political candidates to take pledges that they will not engage in such hateful rhetoric, and that they will hold anyone breaking the pledge accountable.
RG: Without necessarily favoring one candidate for another, how are you feeling about our options?
DI: To be honest, I’m still in a listen-and-learn mode. I’m especially interested in how candidates are talking about racial justice, immigration, reproductive rights, and national security issues.
This election cycle is being defined by the politics of fear, division, and hate. The result is a clear delineation of the “us” versus the “other.”
RG: While each of us has our own criteria for what we look for in a President, do you think any of our options seem to speak a great deal to the needs of the South Asian community — or even communities of color?
DI: This is the first presidential election cycle in which we are seeing candidates actually being pressed to articulate their viewpoints and solutions on issues related to police violence in particular — and that is because of Black Lives Matter, which has made it impossible for those running for political office to ignore the realities about how Black life continues to be devalued in this country.
What we need to see next is how candidates are going to respond to the systemic disparities that marginalize Black people and other communities of color, beyond simply saying, “Black lives matter.” All of us need to push the candidates to be clear about their policy solutions related to racial justice and immigration, just to name a few.
RG: For the casual desi citizen who might not have a clue/might be afraid to get directly involved in making sure their voices are heard, how might you recommend they get involved in helping to make sure their voice is heard in our government?
DI: I think that before we raise our voices, we have to go through a process: Arriving at our own political consciousness and also understanding why and how systems and institutions — including government — often replicate actions and policies that disadvantage the poor, people of color, undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ communities, and women.
Then, we can take actions to influence shifts in these institutions and policies, and these actions run the gamut — from civil disobedience to voting to contacting your political representative to ask their stance on the issue that matters to you to participating in an organizational rally or forum to writing a letter to the editor.
What we need to see next is how candidates are going to respond to the systemic disparities that marginalize Black people and other communities of color, beyond simply saying, “Black lives matter.”
RG: In We Too Sing America, you talk a great deal about the role many of us may play in the model minority myth — and how our participation in such a damaging stereotype enables white supremacy. Can you explain this idea in layman’s terms? How exactly does participating in it contribute to such a system of disempowerment?
DI: In the book, I talk specifically about how some South Asians perpetuate narratives to imply that our communities are culturally better, more successful, and more advanced than others.
For example, South Asians are often characterized as the “model minority,” as Spelling Bee champions and Silicon Valley CEOs. But this narrative is harmful because it erases the experiences of many South Asians who do not fit these molds, from undocumented Indians to Nepali domestic workers to Muslim LGBTQ communities.
And, moreover, when we “exceptionalize” South Asians, we create divisions between ourselves and other communities of color. This leads some to ask harmful questions about why other minorities cannot be as successful as South Asians. What we have to keep in mind is that many South Asians achieve success because they already have a range of privileges — a few including English language proficiency, the ability to afford extra classes and academic resources — it’s not a special South Asian gene or plain old hard work that leads to the success of some South Asians, but rather the structural advantages that some enjoy.
That is why I argue in We Too Sing America that South Asians must actively participate in dismantling these narratives of the model minority and cultural exceptionalism. This can happen in conversations with our own family members where we bring up stories of people not usually heard about (such as Sangeeta Richard, the domestic worker exploited by her Indian employer in 2014) or data points (such as how Indians are the fourth largest undocumented population in the U.S. as of 2015).
Once these conversation starters give us a point of entry, we can then move into discussing why we must reject harmful and incomplete narratives to describe our communities.
RG: Above all, I ended my reading of We Too Sing America on the note that it is a book meant to inspire hope — and meant to mobilize even those of us who don’t call ourselves activists into action. What is the singular hope you have for anyone who reads this book?
DI: That they see themselves in a story or in an activist. That they use that empathy and connection to become involved however they can in movements for justice.
Deepa Iyer is a South Asian American activist, writer, and lawyer. Currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion, she previously served as executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) for nearly a decade. We Too Sing America is her first book, and it was selected by the American Librarians Association’s Booklist magazine to be one of the top 10 multicultural non-fiction books of 2015. Scholar Vijay Prashad has written that she “brings the head of a lawyer and the heart of a community activist to bear on her remarkable book.” Her op-eds on issues ranging from post 9/11 backlash to immigration reform to anti-Black racism have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Al-Jazeera America, and The Nation. Follow her @dviyer and visit her blog.