It was Super Bowl Sunday, and the plan was simple: roll our eyes at the commercials, argue over the teams, and sleep in the fetal position after eating too much dip.
I was in high school then, and excited to do something other than worry about classes or what my friends were doing. I was almost done carrying all the groceries into our home in East Brunswick, New Jersey, a suburb like any other, with rows of houses that looked the same and people who liked to stay indoors on sunny days.
Just as I placed the last bag in the hallway, I heard yelling from outside. Despite my mom warning me not to, I walked onto the driveway, and witnessed one of our neighbors yelling at my dad.
“You Paki!” he screamed, veins pulsing in his neck. “You’re the source of all the problems in the world!”
It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced such anger directed at us. However, at that moment, seeing that man pointing his finger at my dad, yelling at the top of his lungs, like he was a teacher and we were children who did something wrong, made me realize a truth that further solidified when hearing what happened in the case of Sureshbhai Patel: our bodies are always under threat.
Our Bodies Are Always Under Threat
Sureshbhai Patel is a 57-year-old grandfather, visiting his son living in the suburb of Madison, Alabama. On February 6, 2015, Patel was stopped by the police as he was walking outside his son’s home.
The police, responding to a call from a neighbor who described Patel as a “skinny black guy”, approached Patel. Patel tried to show them the house he lived in with his son. In the dashcam video of what happened that day, officer Eric Parker slams Patel to the ground. Patel ended up in the hospital, partially paralyzed.
When I first heard about the incident, I immediately showed the video to my parents. We watched it while in the living room, on my laptop. My mom began to ask questions, about who was Patel, and why he was being tackled to the ground. I explained that Patel was minding his own business, and that someone somehow considered him a threat.
My dad’s eyebrows were narrowed, and without saying a word, leaned toward the screen, and clicked, watching the video from the beginning once more. That evening, he watched the video a few more times before ending up on the couch, and staring at our own TV, silent.
I’m a different person than I was in high school (fortunately). Since graduating, my mind has been on social justice. I became a journalist, and now, I am trying to earn a Ph.D. in political science. My goal remains: to focus on race and identity in the U.S., and to use my skills to make a qualitative impact on people’s lives.
Currently, I’m buried in my books, reading material that I need, but also trying, desperately to share what I know with others beyond the Ivory Tower. But at times, I can lose who I am in these spaces. After all, there aren’t many people of color in academia, let alone social sciences. The discussions can often feel distant from me.
Sometimes, I think about concepts such as linked-fate or revolutionary potential, like it’s even possible. But there are ideas/theories that seem tangible to me, especially when hearing the latest news about the judge throwing out the case against the officer who violently arrested Patel, after two mistrials as well. And with this sense of anger and hopelessness filling my chest like cement, connecting the dots and finding lessons from this is essential.
Connecting The Dots And Finding Lessons
One concept in social sciences that was brought to mind is the “body.” Now, when I say “body”, I am partially referring to our anatomy, what constitutes us from our head to our toes. But this “body” is more than what is seen by a doctor or even by us when looking in the mirror. It is a “body” that is created by the power structure we all live under. For example, Patel might describe himself as an Indian national. Perhaps might consider his gender as important too.
Yet, to the person who called the police, Patel was “black” and therefore, a threat. Patel’s body was constructed without his consent. Even though he tried to explain the best he could who he was, the police assumed he was up to no good, a body that did not belong in that suburban space.
This discussion of the body is often at the center of feminist and political theory. Great thinkers and academics such as Kimberlé Crenshaw understood that there is no one body, and that often, bodies are victimized by perceptions and unjust laws. Intersectionality teaches us that we are all nuanced, that someone like Patel isn’t just a male Indian national, but could be a fan of Star Wars for all we know, or that he didn’t want to be seen just as an Indian but of his ethnicity and religion too (i.e. Hindu).
Still, we are not in control of how we are perceived. As Crenshaw and others have shown, people of color and women generally, are subjected to a system that wants to simplify bodies and lived experiences. We can be Other-ed and therefore, left defenseless.
Patel was attacked, not because of what he was doing, but because of what his body represented. At the heart of the issue was the fact that Patel was considered “black.” It is true that many more South Asians face threats from Islamophobia than anti-black racism, but some of us are misread as black fairly routinely in certain areas. This country, founded on the enslavement of black bodies, has always decried blackness as dangerous, outside-the-norm.
The norm is: whiteness, and what can be grouped as tokens of whiteness such as having a nice home in suburbia. But Patel, despite living in such a place, was immediately condemned as “black,” and therefore, didn’t fit that mode of whiteness. He was instantly at-risk because as “black,” he had no real rights. In fact, he had no feelings, no concerns, and certainly, no humanity. He was just an Other that needed to be controlled.
Again, to be safe from police harm and the injustices of the U.S political system, one has to harness “whiteness,” or at least, stop oneself from being Other. For example, as South Asian Americans, much of the discrimination we have been facing comes from Islamophobes. Those of us who are Muslim or perceived as Muslim are harassed, intimidated, and even killed. Our houses of worship are vandalized. Our identities under attack. Yet, there are ways to avoid this curse, and the solution lies in how we orient ourselves (a.k.a. our bodies) to the ways in which the power structure wants.
As mentioned, the power structure puts pressure on us to produce a body that they want or see. If someone wants to be seen as a “man,” he must not wear heels, or have his wrists dangle. He must sit with his back straight, and be able to come up with big decisions no matter what. From a young age, we are told, as men, how to act as “men.” Eventually, we are disciplined by the power structure and those around us, like friends and family, into behaving a certain way that produces that kind of male body.
Similarly, to be seen as “American,” and to be accepted by society, as a non-threat, it’s important not to act like a “Muslim.” Which means, do not talk about anything that can set you apart from your non-Muslim friends and colleagues, such as food, your own brand of American culture, and even politics. A Sikh-American, although not Muslim, can still exhibit what’s deemed as “Muslim” qualities: a beard, or a turban. To “correct” themselves by the standards of American mainstream public life and society, that Sikh-American might have to shave their beard, take off their turban, and depending on what part of the country they live (e.g. majority white population like in upstate New York), he could also flip to an Anglo name. We see some of this in the case of certain South Asian politicians, like a Bobby Jindal or Nikki Haley, who instead of challenging the norms, abide by them, and adopt them in order to “fit in.”
Ultimately, in order to feel safe, we adapt to what is defined as “whiteness.” So, for anyone who is black, brown, immigrant or first-generation, cis or otherwise, they have a choice to make: either conform to a degree (especially in spaces that are white-dominated) or risk being singled-out and harmed, physically or mentally as well.
Anti-Blackness & American Life
Most importantly, what we as Desis should realize is that deeply woven into American life is anti-blackness and the ill-treatment of black bodies. Tamir Rice. John Crawford. Rekia Boyd. These are innocent people, who were judged based on being “black,” and punished severely for it. Rice himself was only 12 years old when shot twice in the chest and left to die. The fact that the police officer responsible for this crime wasn’t indicted only proves the high-level of anti-blackness in our social and political climate. Plus, Rice was perceived as something other than just an average boy playing with a toy gun. He was suddenly an older man, since blackness, once pinned to a person’s body, heightens that individual’s age, and what he is physically capable of.
Basically, what harmed Patel wasn’t his Desi identity alone (although his lack of English was used against him in the case), but the fact that his skin, his body represented blackness in a country that’s been built on black death and pain. As South Asians and South Asian Americans, we cannot lose sight of that. After all, as South Asian Americans, we are usually more privileged, compared to other POC, especially black Americans.
A black American teen living in the same neighborhood as me, will still face more problems than I ever will. Yes, I’ve been stopped by the cops too based on how I looked. But, the limit is, as long as I’m “seen” as something other than black, I will be harassed, but never beaten or shot.
That’s lesson number one: Blackness is vilified and serves to continue oppression of blackness and traits associated with that blackness. It bleeds like a corrosive into our bodies and body politic. When we ignore this, we perpetuate it. When we consider ourselves the source of the problem (i.e. “I should’ve been more compliant with the officer”, “The officer should’ve known I wasn’t a black or Muslim” (for those of us who are Hindu)), we are harming our black neighbors, and increasing the level of white supremacy against them too.
Connecting Our Experiences And Struggles
The second lesson is that black Americans and South Asians are linked. Our experiences may not be the same, but especially since the paranoia of 9/11, our struggles can be connected. It wasn’t even too long ago when South Asians and black Americans did see themselves as part of a common struggle against oppression, abroad or domestic.
In Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India, historian Nico Slate writes of the relationship Indian revolutionaries had with black American freedom fighters in the United Sates. W.E.B. Du Bois saw this “colored cosmopolitanism” as a global battle against imperialism, racism, and greed waged by POC against the oppressors. Great American thinkers like Du Bois and Langston Hughes would include the Indian fight for independence in their own works and consider it a part of their world too.
Also, for those South Asians who did start to build lives in the U.S., some found partners and deep-lasting bonds among the black American population as well. Vivek Bald‘s Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, which chronicled the history of Bengali men marrying into and becoming a part of black American culture in Harlem, shows that black and brown people understood one another easier than those outside that circle.
That while the white American made it illegal for brown and black bodies to exist as full citizens, those same bodies found meaning in each other instead. Fast-forward to the present, and during the mistrials that took place, it was two black women on the jury who felt that Patel was wronged, which is a fact that cannot be left out and shouldn’t be ignored.
“You Paki! You’re the source of all the problems in the world!”
Back to that afternoon. The man looming over us. His whiteness condemning us.
I still remember the anger I felt at that moment, to see him treating my dad as dirt. Now looking back, I assume the perfect response that the man was expecting was for my dad to acquiesce, to allow his body to be redefined before our eyes.
Instead, my dad smirked at the man.
“You have a small dick!” the man also yelled, which prompted my dad to chuckle.
“And your penis touches the sky,” my dad responded.
The man paused. Of course, the argument continued, until another neighbor of ours joined us in yelling back at the man and humiliating him. For years to come, we’d still face acts of prejudice, ranging from people throwing insults at us to literal bricks (which was done to my grandparents home in Queens). Along the way, my parents did seek to portray themselves to the world around us as “good Americans” to a certain extent by plastering the American flag on our car, to even planting an American flag on our lawn as well.
And I did feel depressed some days, thinking that I was always going to experience the lump of cement in my chest, weighing me down. On days like when Tamir Rice was murdered, that frustration and pain grew. Seeing that cop car roll up to him in the video, the triggers pulled, the body crashing onto the ground. That child soon lifeless, expunged of any hopes and dreams he had, replaced with grief and the seemingly unalterable truth that his life was meaningless to the U.S. and what the U.S. believed in. There was nothing else I felt I could do but cry.
I am a South Asian American. I am also ethnically Bengali, although I don’t speak the language. I love books by Junot Diaz. I enjoy writing poems and stories, combining themes of love and aspirations. I think Mos Def’s The Ecstatic is vastly underrated, and my favorite type of food is chicken parmesan. That’s who I know I am. And I want to be that person wherever I go. We all deserve that. Tamir Rice. Sureshbhai Patel. Eric Garner. Sarah Circle Bear.
We all deserve to control our own bodies and its image, and we have to join that fight, whether that means participating in protests against police brutality or pursuing ways to ally ourselves with Black Lives Matter. It is up to us whether the streets will continue to be scattered with the blood and guts of black and brown bodies. Or whether, we will learn that if we want to live, we can and should be uniting, or experience a fate worse than death: invisibility.
* * *
Sudip Bhattacharya lives in Monroe Township, New Jersey. He is currently a fellow and working on his Ph.D. in political science at Rutgers University. Before that, he worked as a journalist.