I have a memory of walking through Yonkers when I moved to the outskirts of New York City a decade ago to attend graduate school. I walked past a car parked street-side that bore one of the most curious bumper stickers I had seen: There was a bald eagle crying a single tear and within that tear was the reflection of the Twin Towers. Flanking that image was text that read, “NEVER FORGET.” I understand solidarity and heartbreak and standing up for all that you believe in and fighting for what you’ve lost; but I am also wary of imbuing jingoism into commemorations.
I am wary of this because I have seen time and time again how politicians across party lines with the cruelest intentions do this to further their personal agendas–agendas which rarely consider the interests of private citizens.
This all happened in a post-9/11 culture where in boarding a 4 train in the Bronx, I would always invariably get selected for the random bag search, which would make me late to an internship I had in the city. In a post-9/11 world, I became very aware of my desi identity — and realized it would be a long road to finding peace with this identity in a world that would never let me forget that I was at once exotic but also, never to be trusted or treated the same as white people, by virtue of my skin, my name, my being. And that this culture of other-ing was to be accepted tacitly.
There are far fewer American flags flying from truck and SUV windows. Less than 5,500 troops are left in Afghanistan and just over 4000 in Iraq. And now, candlelight vigils and other commemorations only take place in early September. For many, 9/11, while only fifteen years ago, is a faint memory with no lasting repercussions. For others of us, it changed our lives in ways we did not expect – Manjusha P. Kulkarni, “Where Are We Fifteen Years After 9/11: A Look at a Decade and a Half of Backlash” (The Huffington Post)
Let me rewind to years before that encounter with sanctimonious jingoism, though. It is the fall of 2001. I had just begun senior year in high school when a substitute teacher in my astronomy class decided to forgo the lesson plan our teacher had left for her — a video about a constellation, I’m sure, but I’m hard pressed to remember what the specifics were — and she decided that as this news was breaking, it was more pressing for all of us, captive in that classroom, to bear witness to the events of 9/11 as CNN was reporting them.
In hindsight, I don’t know if that was a responsible decision on an adult’s part, especially an adult who was not in charge of her own classroom. I remember the look of anger on my teacher’s face the day after. I didn’t quite understand the fury at the time, but in playing his response at the time — he was a portly man and his face turned beet-red, like a cartoon character’s — over and over in my head since, I’ve learned why he was incensed.
I think I would be incensed, too.
It of course wasn’t the substitute teacher’s prerogative to come into his classroom and break the innocence of his students — not that this was her intention.
On 9/11, I was teaching in an elementary school in Brooklyn. Within hours of the attacks, my whole life changed. I was a prisoner in my own home for almost a month; I was afraid to go out in public alone because I wear the hijab.On 9/11, I was teaching in an elementary school in Brooklyn. Within hours of the attacks, my whole life changed. I was a prisoner in my own home for almost a month; I was afraid to go out in public alone because I wear the hijab. – Debbie Almontaser, “In Our Own Words: Reflections on the 15th Anniversary of 9/11” (Colorlines)
At that age, I would still be naïve to the future that awaited me and millions others who were born in this country with skin colors, physical features like mine: A future where the night before flying out of any airport, I would always make an hour to shave my beard off; a future where when speaking to airport officials, I’d always find a way to play up my queer identity to the tune of something GLAAD would approve. It’s a future where when I hear about family members of mine — especially elderly loved ones — traveling alone, my stomach is in knots until I hear that they have landed safely.
The blind patriotism, the way people spoke that made me extremely uncomfortable. Like, you do realize we studied World War II, we studied Vietnam, we know how people behave, the propaganda, the language, and you talk about it in terms of how disgusting it was and now it’s happening again…and we’re blind to it. And we don’t see how we’re re-creating the same kinds of racism that was around then. – Hari Kondabolu, “How 9/11 Politicized Me” (The Aerogram)
Here we are then, 15 years later, and there is a deplorable business man who has sold a deplorable lie to so many. This lie is the latest in a long line of broken products and promises that he has minted his reputation on–a lie of tall walls and Islamophobia.
(I can’t help but chuckle that there are brown people who are planning on voting for this deplorable man, not realizing that he mobilizes his base against brown people indiscriminately.)
He is a man whose entire rise to fame and sustainment hinges on empty jingoism and cashing in on the basest impulses of people who have not taken the steps required to join contemporary society. I cannot help but recall that image of that bumper sticker which cautiously asked me to “NEVER FORGET” and here I am, never forgetting: Never forgetting the dangers of pairing empty jingoism with a hollow, theatrical performance of patriotism. It all feels so wobbly.
The sad reality is that, in many ways, things are even worse now than they were then. Our media continues to present misleading and overly simplistic narratives that guide Americans to vilify those perceived to be the enemy. Our political leaders continue to rely on fear mongering as a tactic to mobilize voters and collect support. Our fellow citizens continue to see, suspect, and treat us as the enemy, not as the neighbors that we are. – Simran Jeet Singh on Facebook
I am sad and I am scared for those of us who have unwillingly been inducted into this broad, absurd brush stroke of a stereotype. Yet, I won’t be defeated.
There is a small routine to my life that I want to share — and it is simply this fact: That fellow The Aerogram editor Pavani Yalamanchili and I will jump on a call every week (well, most weeks, anyway) to talk about what we think we need to cover on the site and how we can support one another in getting things up here. This site, after all, is a labor of love for both of us — and for two individuals who have never met face-to-face, this space is a unique way for us to forge a very deep bond, and manage a safe space for those in our community to share perspectives. This is important to both of us.
The idea that America was ever a safe space for people who are deemed “outsiders” is an aspirational fiction, but it’s impossible to deny the routine and public humiliation of Muslims goes against the grain of what this country was founded on. – Samita Mukhopadhyay, “Islamophobia in America is worse on 9/11/2016 than it was on 9/11/2001” (Mic)
I Am Me
Many of my own experiences with post-9/11 microaggressions, however, are bent through the prism of my own desi identity, an identity that frequently fuses with my queer identity. When I reflect on the strength I’ve found in a culture that has made an open spectacle of other-ing anyone based on their brownness, it’s a reflection on the talented performers, many of whom are desi or desi-adjacent, that I connect with the most. In a post-9/11 culture where so many react out of fear and hate, I find strength in loving their successes and rejoicing in their achievements — in how so many people have found these incredible ways to simply say, “I am me.”
I think of how strong we are that even though there have been policies enacted to pigeonhole us and systematically deprive us of equality, we have risen up and done some beautiful, bold things. These are all acts that have helped us reinforce our community ties to one another in new, if unexpected ways.
My heart swells when I recall how elated I was when I heard Samhita Mukhopadhyay joined the Mic team and Mitra Kalita joined the CNN team. There was similar pride when Zahra Noorbakhsh and Taz Ahmed’s #GOODMUSLIMBADMUSLIM podcast started picking up some serious steam, when Horsepowar dropped another EP earlier this year, and when the first-ever Sikh Captain America began showing up to Donald Trump rallies in the name of justice and love. There’s even love and pride for all that Lilly Singh has accomplished. And I don’t have enough words of praise for someone like Aziz Ansari who decided, “You know what, it’s time for a rom-com series about a brown dude who’s tired of being typecast.”
We have made so much beautiful art — perhaps not necessarily in response to 9/11, but that, in its entirety, is an incredible testament to how we have defined ourselves beyond a dangerously restrictive political and media narrative that is frequently foisted upon us. There is art everywhere. I think about a desi drag queen who made me beam with pride that yes, even with brazen acts of queerness, brown people do it better. I think about other publications like Kajal and Brown Girl — folks who want your eyeballs as badly as we do, and yet, folks we love nonetheless. We are all in this together.
I think about how the Swet Shop Boys are hitting all the right notes; I think about The Fob & I and goddam, I even think of Indira Varma making a decent payday on a prestige drama, even if white people tell her to portray the worst fucking stereotype ever.
Pre-9/11 the predecessor of Islamophobia was called Orientalism. That was the system that mothered Islamophobia; it feeds and provides many of the same stereotypes, systems of fear, and caricatures…[p]eople tend to think about Islamophobia or anti-Muslim hatred or animus as a new phenomenon, but it’s essentially an extension of the fear and vilification of not only Muslims but everyone perceived to be Muslim that’s been taking place for centuries. – Khaled Beyoun, “The way we talk about Islamophobia every 9/11 anniversary is maddeningly oversimplified” (Vox)
So, here we are. A decade-and-a-half later. My throat is hoarse from crowing (or, perhaps, my wrists are weary from typing), from reporting on backlash in the wake of this horrible thing this that happened.
We should never stop bringing these horrible acts to light, but there is a balance we should strive: We should now bring our acts of subversion and strength to light, too. I am feeling stronger because I see what we’re capable of — that, yes, assholes will try to box us in, but we’ve got muscle and we’ll break out and do our own thing.
We persist. We grow stronger; we forge bolder paths ahead through art, through love, through community advocacy. Most importantly, we look ahead to keep building.