Bhaiya, this letter is a little late, but its contents have been on my mind for a while. Much like you, I’m a child of South Asian blood living in a Western country. We’ve never met, nor spoken to each other, but consider me your bhain. I read that your biological one denied knowing about the incident I’ll refer to here — the incident for which you’re somewhat infamous. Perhaps she felt as nauseous and revolted as I did upon hearing about it.
Bhaiya, we need to have a talk about racism.
Anti-blackness is an issue in our communities. You donned blackface over your entire identity to gain entry into medical school, thinking you’d exposed a discriminatory, anti-Indian conspiracy of sorts lurking under the skin of the education system. Weren’t you aware that 64 percent of Indian-Americans have at least a Bachelor’s degree, and 60 percent hold professional jobs? Bhaiya, do you not know that Indian-Americans comprise only 1 percent of the United States’ population, yet 7 percent of the country’s IT workers, 3 percent of its engineers, and 8 percent of its physicians and surgeons?
“I wanted to be a doctor. Yes, it’s kind of a cultural thing.”
But of course you’re aware, as so many of us are. You cited this as one of the reasons you were so eager to gain entry into medical school in the first place — “I wanted to be a doctor. Yes, it’s kind of a cultural thing.” And bhaiya, I get it. The success of so many of our brothers and sisters puts immense pressure on us; expectations from both within the community and outside it can harm those of us who aren’t achieving at the same level, or in the same way. But honestly… does it occur to you how lucky we are as a group, how great it is, that becoming a doctor can be considered “a cultural thing”?
Under white supremacy, we are pitted against each other more than ever. I know the desi stereotypes: we are just as expected to be working in taxi cabs, petrol stations, call centers and supermarket counters as we are in hospitals and office blocks. I know how each of the former is portrayed negatively — stigmatized and turned into the butt of cheap and worn jokes as we, ourselves, are. I know how Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims are racialized, shunned and abused. I know the suspicion and the slurs — terrorist, coolie — while the same people othering us are the ones co-opting our cultural ornaments, traditions and food. I know that we are marginalized. But bhaiya, you are heavily misguided in thinking that pro-black and Hispanic work is anti-Indian racism.
You see, brown people are able to use anti-blackness to align ourselves with whiteness. More of us (including your sister, Mindy) are guilty of this than our communities would care to discuss. Why? The usual benefits — power and privilege. This is often done through wealth and class status — something far easier for us to attain than many other minority groups. And our anti-blackness has weight. It has impact. It is a legitimate force in continuing the oppression of black lives — something that further necessitates affirmative action.
Our anti-blackness has weight. It has impact.
Bhaiya, anti-blackness can exist without white supremacy; it has in the past, and it has sadly but truthfully given us a leg-up in the modern Western world. Surely you know this — you described it yourself:
What I wasn’t prepared for was the startling change in the way people treated the “black” me. People became suspicious, even hostile. Walking to class one morning, a lone female student ran into a snowy field to avoid me…
One morning I went to the grocery store I’d frequented for three years to buy some junk food to tamp down a hellacious frat-party hangover. I made my purchase and headed to the door when suddenly their security guard stepped in my way and accused me of shoplifting. I protested so he threw me to the floor and rifled through my bag.
Nothing remotely like this had ever happened when I was just another Indian doctor’s son.
What did you learn from that? Because it seems like you’re still confused about what truly constitutes racism, describing affirmative action as “legalized racism.” I struggle, bhaiya, to understand how you don’t see that affirmative action is the very antithesis to it — affirmative action seeks to remedy some of the ills symptomatic of violent, structural, pervasive and state-perpetuated racism.
The reality of the United States is a system that devalues and dehumanizes black people.
Do you not see that the United States has built itself on the backs of black people; that it continues to demean and exploit black and Latino people? Do you not see, bhaiya, that most seats in medical schools are taken by white and Indian people because other groups are not afforded the same opportunities? Why is it that you think we, in the desi diaspora, are more deserving of education than others?
The reality of the United States — of many countries — is a system that devalues and dehumanizes black people and continually tries to suppress them, while our community is complicit; the children of so many desi migrants can climb their way up social and professional ladders with relative ease.
Affirmative action is not intended to be a system of oppression targeting “model minorities,” it is a system of inclusion for those downtrodden by self-proclaimed “campus rich kids” like yourself. Bhaiya, the truth is, and I hoped you would learn this with time — the few positive programs allowing people with less power than you access to better lives don’t owe you a damn thing. Black people owe you nothing. Latino people owe you nothing. They owe us nothing.
And bhaiya, I’m not sure how you identify. Do you call yourself a Person of Color as I do? To some, this term implies homogeneity; it’s sometimes used as an excuse to lump all minority ethnic and racial groups together, to downplay our differences and paint us all with the same brush. People of Color. But to me, this term is meant for solidarity between the various groups that constitute it. Right now, you’re a long way from that; you’re a long way from even understanding. Let’s not sugar-coat it — what you did was f*cked up.
I recently read an article that quoted you as saying “I don’t apologize for what I did”. Did you say that, bhaiya? Because I certainly hope you’ll reconsider.
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Indian by blood, Burmese by ethnicity, Muslim by faith and Australian by nationality, Somayra Ismailjee is a Perth-born writer and artist. Her work explores issues of racism, misogyny, classism, queerphobia, Islamophobia and the arts. Hobbies include listening religiously to Das Racist and being a feminist killjoy. Find her on Twitter @somayra_.