Before leaving the law to write, I was a civil litigator for eight years, though I did criminal appellate work during my first year of practice. Like most lawyers, when I read the grand jury transcript related to Darren Wilson, I was horrified at the lack of cross-examination, the help and leading questions that were given to Darren Wilson just so that an indictment — not a verdict, mind you, but an indictment — could be avoided. Both the indictment process and the trial process only work if they are adversarial — the state v. the accused — but it’s clear that the prosecutor in this case was strongly biased in favor of a killer, Wilson, only because he was a white police officer.
I’ve read tons of transcripts of legal proceedings, both civil and criminal, involving people from many different walks of life. Most witnesses differ in their accounts of what happened; sometimes this difference is dramatic and sometimes it’s trivial. Rarely, however, does all the witness testimony add up to one clear perfect narrative. Neuroscience and numerous psychological experiments confirm that most people’s memories are unreliable, a process of fictionalizing and confirming bias as much as “remembering”. Differing accounts during the grand jury proceedings are exactly why we need trials, why we needed an indictment in Darren Wilson’s case — to test credibility, to see where there were holes, to question characterizations of the victim by the accused as a “demon” and “Hulk Hogan”.
What happened in Ferguson reflects the kind of unfairness born into a culture that has normalized discrimination and prejudice.
Broken Identification System
Anyone who understands the criminal justice system in America knows that it is a completely different system for black people than it is for white people. The issue at hand is not a question of whether Mike Brown was a good kid or a bad kid — although by everyone’s account, except Darren Wilson’s, he seems to have been a good kid. The real issue is that the values of fairness and equality — values that so many South Asian Americans romanticize and love about America — are fundamental rights too often not afforded to black people in this country.
I understand that this structural inequality could be difficult for some South Asians Americans to accept, especially if they come from privileged backgrounds. Most of us have experienced xenophobia and some of us have experienced hate crimes, but unlike black Americans, we don’t have family histories dating back centuries that involve white American police brutality and disenfranchisement by American racists.
In some ways, our success as a group in America appears to hinge on identification with the powerful, with predominantly white institutions.
That kind of identification may seem We are too forgiving of the expense at which such inclusion comes.innocuous, but it has a dark side. For example — a mild example — our actresses and actors are primarily sidekicks on television, playing roles for brown people whether or not those roles are specifically South Asian characters. After years of Apu, those of us of a certain generation are so thrilled to see people like us on-screen, we’ll watch shows to which we’re otherwise indifferent just to see people like us. As desis, we are so excited to be included in Hollywood that we are too forgiving of the expense at which such inclusion comes.
By putting minor Indian characters on T.V. and movies — even when they have no lines (hello Kal Penn in Superman Returns!) or simply fulfill stupid stereotypes — the industry gets to imagine an America that is post-racial. In this way and in other ways, by staying silent and accepting roles that demean us and others, Indian Americans become a convenient tool used by the powerful to obscure racism: Hollywood can’t be racist because NBC dared to air Outsourced. We forget how poorly-written Outsourced and its desi characters were because we hope our stars will graduate to better, more challenging roles.
This forgetfulness is harmful. It allows lazier thinkers to conflate the roles played by Indian actors and actresses with the treatment of other minority groups. It allows the powerful to whitewash a bloody American history of racial segregation. It only reorients us towards a more sophisticated system of biases, prejudices, and discrimination.
An American Caste System
As desis, we should see what happened in Ferguson as proof of the kind of dangerous bias that any kind of caste system can breed. As desis, we should not be so quick to forget the ways in which we, too, have felt prejudiced upon our arrival into this country. We should, as a collective, be identifying differently.
South Asian Americans experienced the hate crimes of the ’80s and ’90s; they faced a resurgence of hate in the aftermath of 9/11. We are also complicit in perpetuating segregation and hate in our own ranks. We continue to reap the consequences of the caste system, an ugly system of structural inequality older than anything that’s existed in America.
We observe that while the rape of Jyoti Pandey Singh made international headlines — becoming It’s the caste system to which the structural inequality in America can be likened.a way for America to ignore its own serious rape culture problems — the rape made headlines because she was an upper caste girl. She wasn’t the type of girl that sort of thing was supposed to happen to. We do not see the rapes of Dalit or other lower caste women in the news. There is no condemnation or outrage around those real, daily crises. South Asian Americans — Indian-Americans, specifically — rarely talk about the caste system, but it’s the caste system to which the structural inequality in America can be likened.
We need only look back to the Devyani Khobragade nanny scandal to see that caste politics play out within desi ranks — and in that scandal, we start seeing the contours of something more familiar, something that plays out across America.
My first memory of my grandmother on my mother’s side is of her folding laundry in our tiny apartment in Pittsburgh when I was four or five. It was the ’70s and she was visiting from India. After a stream of Tamil invective, she told me my father was a “bad man.” Why? He wasn’t Brahmin and he’s a brilliant contrarian with a sharp tongue and temper. He didn’t possess the traits that are stereotypically associated with Brahmins. On that side of my family, I was supposed to be impure, though most of the estrangement and unease subsided by the time I was old enough to engaged with it. On the other side, there was a wary distance — I simply didn’t fit.
Many visits to India and an oral history project later, I came to understand my grandmother. I love her because she’s my grandmother, and as an adult, I understand that her statements have been the result of a lack of education, rather than direct hate. But I never got over how upsetting it was to see the absolute comfort with which a privileged person, an otherwise sweet person — my grandmother — had when she denigrated someone who wasn’t privileged. I never stopped seeing bigotry as something to fight against no matter my relationship to the person espousing such statements.
I feel the same alienation I felt as a child when I hear about Ferguson and see the uneducated and ugly remarks made by people of all races. When I see that major South Asian American organizations and personalities have not rallied to support black people in connection with Ferguson, I immediately remember the caste bigotry and racism I’ve seen and read about in India.
Stand Up, Hands Up
Most Indian-Americans — especially those of us under the age of 50 — see the caste system as unjust. It is an ugly thing about Indian history that nobody likes talking about or that privileged Indian Americans assume doesn’t exist anymore — except in the form of affirmative action policies. Yet prejudices deeply conditioned into Indian people still thrive today. It’s troubling to think that when Dharun Ravi bullied Tyler Clementi, scores of Indian Americans offered their support to Ravi, offering that in spite of his choices to bully Clementi, Ravi was “a good boy.”
Those of us who experienced or read about the horrific New Jersey Dotbusters that attacked South Asians in 1987, those of us who know about the Hindu man in New York pushed onto the train tracks because some ignorant woman blamed him for 9/11, those of us who know about the wrongful accusations against Sunil Tripathi in connection with the Boston Marathon should be protesting, with words or actions, the Ferguson decision not to indict.
There is no excuse for why social justice organizations are mostly silent now.
There’s a distinction to be made between calling upon our own experiences in India or America in order to empathize and help, and “centering” our own experiences. And sometimes it is not about what matters to us, because we are desis, but rather, what matters to us, because we are human beings.
By staying mostly silent on structural inequalities, by supporting only the “good boys” — usually, in fact, the privileged and powerful rather than the actually morally good — we help perpetuate the grotesque equivalent of a caste system in the United States.
Our ability to achieve the American Dream as people of color has depended not only on white institutions, but also — and crucially — on black leaders, black artists and thinkers, and black laborers. We need to honor our debt to black America by speaking out.If we’ve been largely successful as a group, it’s not solely due to our individual hard work as immigrants and children of immigrants, but also to the hard work done by black people during the Civil Rights Movement, and the hard work black people have done for centuries to build up American industries that allow us to have jobs today. We need to honor our debt to black America by speaking out against the systematic injustices before us. We need to honor black lives in America as though our own children’s futures depend upon good people upholding principles of equality and fairness — in fact, they do.
Anita Felicelli is the author of a children’s book Izzy and Poe, the novel Sparks Off You and Letters to an Albatross, a book of poetry. She is looking for representation for a novel or two. She can be found on Twitter @anitafelicelli.