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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

"The Indian as 'Black White' and as 'N*gger'"

A very provocative essay on South Asian identity and the perceived identity of South Asians in America appears on INDOLink's website. The author, Francis C. Assisi, argues that "South Asians are mostly perceived in America as being too white to be black, and too black to be white." As evidence, Assisi mentions post-9/11 discrimination and also offers historical accounts by noted South Asians, including famed poet Rabindranath Tagore, who said:
I arrived at Los Angeles, and I felt something in the air - a cultivated air of suspicion and general incivility towards Asiatics… I felt that I should not stay in a country on sufferance. It was not a question of personal grievance or of ill-treatment from some particular officer. I felt the insult was directed towards all Asiatics, and I made up my mind to leave a country where there was no welcome for ourselves… I have great regard for your people. But I have also my responsibility towards those whom you classify as colored people of whom I am one. I am a representative of Asiatic peoples and I could not remain in a country where Asiatics are not wanted.

Tagore's words, while referring to an incident that occurred in 1929, will likely resonate with many South Asians, Sikhs, Arabs, and Muslims today - even in the absense of physical violence and concrete discriminatory conduct, members of these targeted groups can sense palpable feelings of being unwelcome.

According to Assisi, the solution is for South Asians to abandon the notion that they are "Aryan" and therefore "Caucasian" and "white." Assisi states that "this perception prevents the [South Asian] immigrants from making common cause with other people of color who were barred from citizenship on grounds of color or race. " In short, only if "South Asians develop a broader consciousness of themselves as people of color will they be able to participate in a genuine struggle for social justice."

While there is inherent attractiveness to a proposed solution that calls on the target of injustice to assume responsibility and rectify the unfortunate circumstance in which he finds himself, this solution may not be adequate by any means. The suggestion that South Asians are neither white nor black is a very interesting one deserving serious attention, however the very existence of this problem undercuts the idea that South Asians should, in the face of discriminatory or offensive treatment, embrace others of color. That is, if other minority groups are already identifying South Asians as a separate and perhaps inferior group (e.g., "you are not black"), it may be futile for South Asians to assert themselves on the basis of similar -- but not identical and differentiated -- skin-tone (e.g., "we are not white, and even if we are not black, we are colored").

A similarity of experiences with racial injustice may also fail to serve as a common bond that permits mutual understanding and respect. For example, a Muslim human rights activist Jafar Siddiqui remarked, “I did not understand the problems faced by Blacks in this country until 9/11.... And now, I am beginning to get an idea of how the law works against Blacks here.” Sure, South Asians, Sikhs, Arabs, and Muslims may have a better appreciation for how it feels to be racially profiled, to be looked at with suspicion, and to be unwelcome in public places. However, this does not mean that African-Americans or any other "colored" group understands what South Asians, Sikhs, Arabs, and Muslims are going through now; more, even if they do understand, they may not see this similarity of experiences as being a sufficient basis for appreciating and respecting the targeted communities - they may simply dismiss the reactions of South Asians, Sikhs, Arabs, and Muslims as being the product of an overly sensitive nature; they may pragmatically think, 'who cares, so long as it is not us'; and worse, others may state that these feelings are an unfortunate but necessary consequence of the dangerous world of post-9/11 America. In other words, South Asians, Sikhs, Arabs, and Muslims understanding prior civil rights problems does not reliably guarantee that African-Americans will understand or even care that other groups are going through similar experiences.

The concern raised by Assisi is very interesting. His point mainly is to the concept of "us" and "them" after 9/11. Assisi argues that South Asians currently identify themselves with whites (i.e., us = all Aryans, including whites), and he posits that we abandon any perceived association with Aryans and embrace our colored identity (i.e., us = colored people, which is a more common bond). Assisi assumes, perhaps wrongly, that the other "colored" communities are interested in identifying themselves with South Asians, Sikhs, Arabs, and Muslims (i.e., that the "colored" groups see "us" as equaling South Asians, Sikhs, Arabs, Muslims, Asians, Hispanics, African-Americans, etc.).

A more fruitful solution may be for South Asians to assert themselves as South Asians, to educate and promote awareness such that members of all racial and ethnic groups may come to appreciate the rich heritage of these people and realize that not all brown people are deserving of weird looks, heightened security checks, and an unwelcoming attitude. For example, a Sikh man explaining he is Sikh would likely serve as a much more advantageous approach than saying he is no longer Aryan but is just like all other "colored" folk; indeed, the ideal and more likely response from a Caucasian or African-American to a Sikh man would be, "he is Sikh", not "he is like me."

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