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Awakening: Racial Equality Advocates Urge South Asians to Dismantle Racial Biases

Awakening: Racial Equality Advocates Urge South Asians to Dismantle Racial Biases

  • A cross-section of organizations call to ally with the Black Lives Matter movement.

The South Asian American community has been coming out in significant numbers to attend nation-wide protests and express their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Since George Floyd’s murder by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on April 25, the country has come together like never before, demanding an end to systemic racism and police brutality.

Standing in support of their black brothers and sisters are South Asian Americans of all age groups. They are seen holding placards and shouting slogans like “No Justice, No Peace,” and making their voices heard. Along with Floyd, they remember Breonna Taylor, who was killed in January by police officers in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, and  Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by a white police officer in Atlanta, Georgia, in February, as well as all the lives lost to police brutality. 

Indian American and South Asian groups are not left behind either. Advocacy, civic and community organizations representing several sections of the society have condemned the attacks and police brutality. Some have demanded police reforms, while others have implored the Indian American community to do a little self introspection. 

South Asian Allyship

A recent panel hosted by Kalalars, a community of South Asian artists and filmmakers, highlighted ways in which South Asians can become better allies to the black community. South Asians are known for their biases against African Americans, as well as within their own communities.

The panel, moderated by Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive director of Teen Vogue, included some prominent racial justice advocates and activists. Anurima Bhargava, a civil rights lawyer and commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF); filmmaker Geeta Gandbhir, political and civil rights activist Linda Sarsour and Sharmin Hossain, political director of Equality Labs, discussed ways in which South Asian can get rid of their own biases and work in tandem with the African Americans. 

Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive director of Teen Vogue.

The panelists spoke about how the community needs to engage with themselves, their families, friends and the larger community to have conversations which will lead to dismantling racism. They urged the community to work toward eradicating racism and colorism and move away from the ‘model minority’ myth. 

While advocates and activists do not discount  racial discrimination and hate-crimes perpetrated against the South Asian community, especially post Sept. 11, 2001, they observe that it has not faced the kind of oppression and dehumanization that the blacks have been enduring for generations. And most importantly, they are asking that the community remembers and credits the black Americans for the Civil Rights Movement, which paved the road for immigrants to come to the U.S., become citizens and live the ‘American Dream.’

Dismantling Anti-blackness 

The Indian American Impact Fund (IAFP), in a statement, noted that “many people of Indian- and South Asian-origin have been, at best, silent and at worst, complicit for too long and this must change.” South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), in a statement, highlighted how, despite being in the midst of a pandemic, “the violence targeting black communities has continued unabated.” 

Executive Director Lakshmi Sridaran appealed the South Asian and Asian American community to “acknowledge, confront, and dismantle anti-blackness in our own communities.” “SAALT is reinvigorating its commitment to combating anti-blackness within and across our communities by working with existing and new allies in black and brown communities,” she said.

Lakshmi Sridaran, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT).

In a think piece in Wear Your Voice, Dalit American activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan wrote that South Asians “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.” She said she hoped 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.”

Racial justice advocate Deepa Iyer, wrote in Medium that although the conversations about racial equality could be hard, “we must continue to amplify the importance of solidarity with Black communities and undo anti-Blackness within our own people.” Iyer is a senior advisor at Building Movement Project where she works on the SolidarityIs project. She’s also the author of “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future.” 

In her article, Iyer wrote about the importance of explaining how “white supremacy and racism are devastating to all people of color including South Asians. It means acknowledging that the full liberation of black communities leads to the freedom of all people. It means explaining that when we perpetuate anti-Blackness, that we are being complicit ourselves in reinforcing systems of oppression that harm our own people too. And it means coming from a place of love and compassion.”

Dalit American activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan.

Professional and Religious Groups Express Outrage

Also expressing solidarity with the black Americans and condemning the attacks were several religious and community organizations, including the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), American Association of Physicians of Indian origin (AAPI), Hindu American Foundation, Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, and DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving). 

The IAMC, an advocacy group dedicated to safeguarding India’s pluralist and tolerant ethos, in a statement condemned the police brutality and said it’s “shocked and outraged at the ruthless murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man.”

AAPI condemned the racial discrimination and violence. “As American physicians of Indian-origin, we are unanimously outraged by George Floyd’s death and the long history of racial discrimination that lives in this country,” AAPI President Dr. Suresh Reddy said. “We are aware that these are difficult and distressing times for everyone,” he said.

Hindu American groups like the Hindu American Foundation and Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America also issued statements against the police brutality. 

While advocates and activists do not discount  racial discrimination and hate-crimes perpetrated against the South Asian community, they observe that it has not faced the kind of oppression and dehumanization that the blacks have been enduring for generations.

“The Hindu American Foundation stands in solidarity with peaceful protestors across the nation condemning the horrific killing of George Floyd and calling out systemic racism and excessive violence against African Americans by our nation’s police,” the statement issued by the group said. The group emphasized their belief that ahimsa (non-harming) and satya (truth) “are the most powerful tools for bringing about much needed change.”

The HAF also announced a coalition of more than 75 organizations and individuals representing Hindu, Jain, and Sikh communities to stand in solidarity with calls from across the nation to end systemic racism and police brutality. 

“This coalition statement amplifies our community’s collective call for ending systemic racism and police brutality at this critical juncture in our nation’s history and shares a message that we care deeply about the well-being of African Americans and stand in solidarity with them,” said HAF executive director, Suhag Shukla. “We believe that Indian Americans can be powerful agents of change and ambassadors of peace and pluralism to help ensure that the promise of America – equality, freedom, and dignity – is fulfilled for all Americans.”

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Similarly, Ajay Shah, executive vice president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America said the organization stands for racial justice, equality, and civil rights. “A true Vaishnava (Hindu) is the one who feels the pain of others.” However, “we are unambiguously against riots and looting, and the attacks on those entrusted to protect us,” Shah said.

Strongly condemning the act of violence and racism, the Indian Overseas Congress said it “believes in the ideals of the founding father of India — Mahatma Gandhi, who taught the world that discrimination of any sort (based in religion caste, color) is unacceptable.” IOC president Mohinder Singh Gilzian said that the recent turmoil “is one of the biggest tragedies in American history.” He said “the IOC has always stood for equality in race relations where all human beings are respected  irrespective of race, religion and country of origin.”

Prominent Indian American voices including lawmakers — Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, Ami Bera, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, as well as Sen. Kamal Harris — and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Google’s Sunder Pichai, took to social media to express solidarity with the African-American community. 

Reasons to be Hopeful

Although there is enough work to be done within the South Asian communities to be allies in the true sense with black Americans, activists and advocacy groups cite a few incidents since May 25, which they says “give reasons to be hopeful.” 

In Minneapolis, Ruhel Islam, owner of the Gandhi Mahal restaurant offered space to medics and protestors and also prepared dal, rice and naan for them. The New York Times reported that when his restaurant was burned during the protests, Ruhel supporters the protestors and was more focused on justice. “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served,” the report quoted him as saying. 

In Washington, D.C., Rahul Dubey, 44, came to the rescue of several Black Lives Matter protestors at a June 1 rally in the northwestern part of the nation’s capital, after he opened up his home to protect them from the police.

South Asians for Biden, a volunteer organization supporting Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, lauded South Asian business owners like Islam for showing solidarity with civil rights demonstrators. 

A press release issued by the national, grassroots organization that is mobilizing the South Asian community to support the former vice president, also congratulated Shivam Patel and his family, who own PostalAnnex+ in San Jose, California. Patel, 19, serves on the Social Media Team for South Asians for Biden. “But instead of simply repairing the damage to the store and going on as usual, the Patel family decided to pay tribute to individuals who lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement by painting their storefront with images of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Eric Garner, as well as the names of countless victims of police brutality,” communications co-chair Deepa Sharma said. 

Similarly, Sankaran, a rising high school senior in Chantilly, Va., is raising funds to help African American-owned businesses affected by the ongoing protests across the country. “Several African American owned businesses have been affected by the many riots across the country.,” the teen says on the GoFundMe page. “It truly hurt to see that the people fighting for the injustices they face on a day to day basis have to see their own hard-earned businesses in flames. This is why I have decided to create this go fund me. I will be donating all of the funds raised from this to black-owned businesses that have been affected by the riots.” As of June 13, Sankaran had raised $6,337 of  her goal of $10,000.

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