South Asian Americans have to go beyond performative activism and embrace solidarity, empathy, and reparations.
By Thenmozhi Soundararajan
TW/CW: This article mentions anti-Blackness, state-sanctioned murder, and casteism.
It’s 2020, but this has not stopped American law enforcement’s incessant killing of Black folks, even in the middle of an ongoing global pandemic that disproportionately affects Black people. Whether it is George Floyd in Minneapolis, Tony McDade in Florida, Monika Diamond in North Carolina, or Breonna Taylor and David McAtee in Kentucky, police violence is not only an ongoing violation of human rights but a genocide. As Black communities and their allies across the country resist in the streets, we must grapple with the urgent questions: How did we get here? What is our role in challenging anti-Blackness? And how can we commit to defending Black lives?
I write this piece specifically for South Asian Americans. We are part of an ecosystem of complicity that allows for our individual privileges as non-Black people of color to be weaponized for further criminalization of Black people. I am hoping that these thoughts move our communities beyond performative activism to lived values that inform difficult and uncomfortable acts of solidarity rooted in co-liberation, accountability, and shifting structural power.
Take Action in Defense of Black Lives
This struggle does not end by simply addressing single acts of police brutality. It is about a larger project to divest from law enforcement authorities, prisons, and the military, as well as working collectively to create safer communities, with greater resources and stronger social safety nets.
To join this movement, find out about the Black-led organizations in your city or state and get into formation, and learn about the Movement for Black Lives policy platform. From signing petitions to making calls to action, Black organizers have compiled a list of how to get involved. Below are some essential actions that you can start today.
1. Start talking to your families about why Black Lives Matter, you can download and share these letters that have been translated to Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, and other South Asian languages.
2. If you are not sick, join socially distanced protests and caravans in your city. People in more than 35 cities have taken the streets and the momentum is growing. Don’t forget to dress comfortably in nondescript clothing, bring some water, follow the guidance of Black organizers, wear a mask, and use hand sanitizer often. For more safe protest tips here’s a link to protest guidelines.
3. Donate to a bail fund. Here’s a list of national bail funds to help release protestors.
4. Continue mutual aid work. The pandemic still impacts the 33 million people who are unemployed, with millions more hanging in the balance. Here’s a list of COVID-19 mutual aid and advocacy resources.
5. Are you a South Asian technologist who works at an anti-Black, islamophobic, and casteist tech firm like Facebook and Twitter? Then join virtual protests, pressure management, and refuse to stay silent.
6. Unable to go out to protest? There are over 26 ways to be involved in the struggle beyond the streets.
Additionally, we need to deepen our analysis as South Asian Americans to also be more ambitious about how we stop police killings. We need to follow the direction of Black communities and not temper their ask with reforms that are no solution to ending the devastation of mass incarceration and white supremacist fascist policing. The loss of one Black life is one life too many.
That is why the Movement for Black Lives stresses the urgent need to divest from policing across the country and invest in the needs of Black communities through public schools, housing, and education. This benefits all of us. Like Minnesota’s MPD_150, we must support campaigns and organizations working to analyze police department budgets and the power of police unions, in order to advocate for budget cuts that ultimately dismantle police and military forces. As South Asian progressives, we need to research the campaign finance data of our elected officials and demand they refuse money from police unions; pressure politicians to stop building new jails, and invest in anti-violence community intervention programs. All of these tactics chip away at the $100 billion we invest as a nation in the police, as well as the $80 billion on incarceration.
The only way we’re going to stop an endless cycle of police violence is to create alternatives to policing. As Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris of the Movement for Black Lives write, “We need to reimagine public safety in ways that shrink and eventually abolish police and prisons while prioritizing education, housing, economic security, mental health and alternatives to conflict and violence.” As in the case of Cup Foods—the Arab-owned bodega that called the police on George Floyd and has now vowed to not call the police in nonviolent situations—it should not take direct complicity in a murder to become accountable to your anti-Blackness.
There are over a dozen things you can do besides calling the police, and it’s time for South Asians to learn alternatives to ensure community safety that do not rely on racist policing. To build intra-racial solidarity, start talking to South Asians across associations, businesses, organizations, temples, and schools, or facilitate training sessions on conflict resolution and de-escalation. Learn community intervention and de-escalation skills, and study the work of anti-carceral organizers like Angela Davis and Mariame Kaba to build your understanding of harm reduction and transformative justice. De-escalation saves lives.
Protesting violence against Black people should not be the sole responsibility of Black people. Some of our families own businesses and run community associations that perpetuate and benefit from anti-Black racism by operating in places that are underfunded and overpoliced. We have to go beyond performative activism and embrace solidarity, empathy, and reparations.
Roksanna Mun of Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM) laid out a challenge to members of the community in clear and stark terms, “Own your shit. Drop the racial justice cosplay so that you can start to join the work necessary to undo the harm of your actions.”
Many upper-caste led groups, including the Hindu nationalist network of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS or the American arm of India’s right-wing nationalist organization, the RSS) and South Asian domestic violence service organizations, routinely host events with the police, and many of their donors are connected to politicians and business associations that promote more policing in our communities. The image above is from a 2019 HSS campaign to celebrate Raksha Bandhan, building kinship between Hindu communities and the police.
This is a horrifying demonstration of nationalist carceral logic. In saying “carceral,” we mean the laws, policies, ideologies, representatives, and institutions that uphold mass criminalization and the Prison Industrial Complex.
We need to consider how we enforce carceral politics when claiming kinship with an institution that is systematically killing Black people. It also forces us to ask: do we break the cycle of gender-based violence in our community when we only invest and commit to carceral feminist practices? Many Black feminist scholars like Beth Ritchie and Angela Davis say no, pointing out that the feminist anti-violence movement has shifted away from its original focus on social transformation to rely instead on law and law enforcement. We need to push our radical imaginations to take their calls to action into account for our strategies of solidarity and begin the much-needed search for alternative models of community safety and power.
Community safety is not and cannot be dependent on anti-Black institutions. If we are committed to a practical solidarity rooted in co-liberation, we need to divest far from the proximity of these institutions politically, economically, and socially. If we want to address gender-based physical and sexual violence in our communities, we must get skilled up on how to do so without relying on police and prisons. As Mariame Kaba writes, “we can take a number of intermediate steps to shrink the police force and to restructure our relationships with each other.”
It is not an easy move and will require a re-organization of our communities, plus a deep investment in trust-building. If we are not committed to this divestment, we continue to perpetuate a culture in which South Asian and white-adjacent politics is normalized, without acknowledging the brown-washing we do through community collaborations with the state. If you are a staff member or a volunteer with an organization that has these relationships, the time to stand up and be in alignment is now. And it’s been done before. There are rich histories of South Asian organizers collaborating to end policing and imprisonment through solidarity with Black and South Asian survivors.
Engage in Introspection
South Asians must also confront the historical influences of anti-Blackness in our community and the ways in which we apply those politics to race in the United States. While Asian American and Black solidarity work has taken shape over the past few decades, in this time our community has emerged as one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in this country. That is why it is urgent that our challenges to anti-Blackness include an examination of casteism and anti-indigenousness in our own communities.
In the case of caste, although caste and race are distinct social categories, there are overlaps between casteist and racists mindsets. Caste has served to divide South Asian society into units of “graded inequality.” People belonging to a particular caste can belong to various ethnic and racial groups across South Asia. However, the tendency to racialize caste is a long-standing reality. Oppressed caste and indigenous people are framed as darker, whereas the ruling castes are classified as light-skinned, as well as racially and spiritually “pure”.
Through such perceptions, there is an active othering of caste-oppressed people to “darkness/Blackness/impurity” and in turn, Black people are ultimately subjected to those binaries as well. By examining caste privilege, South Asians can interrogate one of the crucial underlying justifications for anti-Blackness and find new language to raise the consciousness of our communities.
We must remember that before a single South Asian person interacted with Europeans, we were already participating in colorism, segregation, and religiously informed caste slavery through caste apartheid. This violent anti-Dalitness and casteism is what informs and feeds South Asian anti-Blackness. The fact that this has occurred for centuries and that upper-caste networks aid and abet the Indian state in its harm to hundreds of millions of people every day, is a serious contribution to the learned silence and complicity of our communities to the dehumanization and exploitation of millions of people
A casteist mindset then easily becomes a racist mindset, as the learned behaviors of a graded inequality, focus on “merit” over structural realities, and criminalization of the “other” have already been normalized and are continuously reinforced in the South Asian psyche. You can see this everywhere there are South Asians interacting with Black folks. Direct anti-Black racism thrives within the South Asian subcontinent. Witness the way Black communities are treated there. Whether it is indigenous Black people like Siddi, Jarawa, Sentinelese of India and Pakistan, or contemporary African immigrant communities; they all experience rampant anti-Black violence and discrimination.
So to, everywhere South Asians have migrated, they have continued to maintain caste and casteist practices; Desi communities can easily justify their own systemic racism and discrimination against Black people because they are eager to secure their position in racial hierarchies at the expense of all other communities. Thus brown folks are weaponized by colonizers against Black communities around the world. We have learned and been socialized to lean into white adjacency, as well as adopt the more convenient path of self-orientalization so that we prioritize racial power, privilege, and positionality in the same way we pursue our caste privileges in our own communities.
Although we might want to celebrate instances of South Asian and Black unity, we need to confront our role in upholding and participating in violent racist settler-colonial systems. Hindu South Asian Americans continue to push exceptionalist narratives against Black folks and other immigrants, especially those from working-class backgrounds and marginalized communities. Our model minority narrative insists that we are here by our merit and deserve privilege, unlike members of other communities, yet our ability to migrate to the United States is due largely to the Civil Rights movement.
If we do not confront these legacies, we simply engage in empty virtue-signaling that satisfies only the algorithm of social media platforms. Justice demands more than performative posts with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
To discuss South Asian casteism and anti-Dalitness is not meant to move the conversation away from the urgent focus on Black lives. Instead, we hope to inspire individuals to think more critically about why South Asian solidarity has so often failed.
We cannot understand the present if we are misinformed about our past. We must address the legacies of violence that inform our relationships with other communities. To release and destroy our bondage to these violent practices is to invite freedom and real solidarity.
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We need to do better. If we are still at this critical stage, years after the first #BlackLivesMatter protest, we need to ask the question of what must be done differently. Every decision we make is crucial in breaking this cycle.
We need fewer “influencers” and more organizers. Only through building power and confronting white and Brahminical supremacy can we find in this volatile movement something better.
We must take the time to intervene aggressively with our families and friends. Where are the opportunities, the openings, to move community and academic institutions towards abolition and emancipation?
Hindu networks in the United States are making dangerous structural moves to reify white nationalist political power. Upper-caste Hindu networks have aligned with Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. Thus, in addition to advocating for police abolition, we must disrupt alliances between upper-caste Hindu networks and campaigns to re-elect Trump. Right wing actors operate in an ecosystem: mayors, governors, senators, city councilmembers, and district attorneys who can all be part of an expanded authoritarian power. The fact that this is happening in our communities means that we must prevent our relatives from voting for Trump and organize progressive slates across the country to vote out harmful actors. Hindu nationalist networks not only carry the water of white nationalists, but also unify a global trend of racist nationalist strongmen–from Bolsanaro, Modi, Johnson, to Trump–who will all continue to propagate anti-Blackness, anti-immigration policies, and Islamophobia around the world.
Upper-caste folks have a direct responsibility to take this on in 2020. They must disrupt white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and casteism in their religious institutions, family gatherings, and WhatsApp chats; otherwise, we fail as allies.
Caste-oppressed communities too are not to be absolved of accountability in their anti-Blackness. Our practice of anti-Blackness must be addressed in our families and communities.
Is this a difficult undertaking? Absolutely. But we need to lean into this discomfort. While we might have to grapple with ongoing family and community tensions, refusing to upset these networks allows for the never-ending deaths of Black people. Build alliances with other South Asians who are doing work in the spaces of anti-Blackness and anti-Dalitness and share best practices, build a strong community framework, and commit to change.
Make no mistake, we must act. This is the moment to stand without compromise. We have a white nationalist in the White House, with more white nationalists trying to accelerate a race war, all in the midst of a global pandemic. The time to unite to defend Black lives is now.
With contributions from Maari Zwick-Maitreyi, Sharmin Hossain, Praveen Sinha and Equality Labs Dalit Staff.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan is a Dalit transmedia artist, technologist, and the Executive Director of Equality Labs. Follow her at @dalitdiva and the work of Equality Labs at @equalitylabs on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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