Identifying Indivisibility


Unmasking Denialism in the South Asian American Community
Written by
A vigil in Kansas after the killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla (Photo: Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star)

 

Islamophobia in Trump’s America is not a new headline, but in recent weeks it crossed into a new frontier, directly into the homes of Indian—specifically Hindu—families. The shock reverberated through the shooting of two immigrants from Hyderbad, Alok Madasani and Srinivas Kuchibhotia, by a white xenophobe named Adam Purinton, in the town of Olathe, Kansas, outside of Kansas City. Witnesses reported he thought they were Muslim, and that Purinton had initially claimed he’d shot two Iranians.

This was followed days later by two more shootings: Harnish Patel, a Gujarati in South Carolina, and Deep Rai, a Punjabi in Washington State.

While such attacks are uncommon, for Indian-Americans, these events are no longer easy to write-off as an aberration.

The diaspora of South Asians fall under various categories—either by the aforementioned regions, which carry their own ethnic connotations, or by religion—Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, and so on. Though we treat the terms as exclusive, they are rarely so.

In the Hindu-American community, we've historically had the privilege of not being the “true” target of Islamophobia—of staying outside the conversation entirely.

We come from a country with our own anti-Muslim demons, a rivalry born from centuries of Muslim conquerors, leading to the brutal Partition of India and Pakistan after World War II. Seven decades of religious riots, urban ghettoization, and constant threat of war followed, along with debates over whether the responsibility lay with the former British Raj or fundamentalist aggressors, or simply the way things had to be.

These divisions are overlaid by ethnic divides; Madasani, Kuchibhotia, Patel, and Rai have their own distinct regional identities, but are tied to India's Hindu majority, which enables a nationalist government and the wider diaspora to push dangerous disenfranchisement of Muslims out of sight and out of mind – until we don’t realize its crept up behind us in a bar in the American heartland.

 


Many in the Indian diaspora will be able to walk out of their homes tomorrow not feeling the fears and anxieties other brown-skinned Muslim-Americans face. After all, saris are not hijabs. We were the “jewel of the British crown.” We brought you tandoori chicken and yoga and The Beatles’ White Album. There’s a pride to being Hindu-American, and with that, a willful ignorance that makes it easier to brush off curious looks and extra TSA screening.

But then there’s people like me.

I am Indian, but looking at me you wouldn’t think it: my palms are pale white with a blush of red, while the backs of my hands barely edge toward beige.

This is not to say I don’t look “ethnic.”

I have jet-black hair and almond-shaped brown eyes. My head spouts thin straight hairs that some have called “Asian,” which I guess connotes Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc, and not the bushy tufts you’d usually find on the subcontinent.

In a public place in mainstream America, it’s clear I’m not white or black. I can see in people’s eyes a palpable uncertainty. Some venture an educated guess, but more often it’s South American or Mediterranean. My name—Aditya, ancient Sanskrit name for the Sun God—doesn’t help either. Not as common as Raj, Sanjay, and Kumar.

These are all broad, borderline crass, stereotypes admittedly, but the world we live in still forces us to profile a person based on any single one of these features. And Americans—of all backgrounds—remain stubbornly resistant to nuance.

 Indian workers who labored in abusive conditions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina protest in Washington (AP/Lauren Victoria Burke)

When I was growing up in the 1990s outside Baltimore, there was a simplicity to being generically “ethnic” to white peers. When I told someone I was born in India, there were limited follow up responses: I repeated my name several times; explained yes, vegetarianism is a thing; and no, I’m not related to that other Indian guy you know. It was a chore, but it was rote, easy, and I could get about my day.

Beyond turbans and red dots, which I didn’t wear, Indian-Americans weren’t yet prominent enough to warrant any real curiosity in American’s minds. Even today, the most I will get is where’s the best Indian restaurant and when are you going to have a big Indian wedding?

Given the community's relatively late arrival in the US, mostly after the mid-1960s, my ethnicity carried little historical baggage—no civil rights clashes, no discriminatory criminalization, no WWII Japanese American concentration camps, no CNN stories about gang violence or suicide bombers.

We were seen back then as “good immigrants.”

Even now, that model-minority myth, is one we’ve conveniently bought into. And why not? Google, Microsoft, and Pepsi both have Indian CEOs. Aziz Ansari and Priyanka Chopra are all over TV. By and large, Indian immigrants have prospered relatively quickly as an ethnic community.

But this might be at the cost of our own ignorance.

 


As I’ve gotten older, and the mainstream America has shifted from cornbread Anglicized faces to a wide cornucopia of cultures and ethnicities, the sense of “good immigrant” security, a sort of non-White Privilege, lets me float through invisibly through some cultural spaces.

When I walk into a Middle Eastern cafe, I’m greeted marhaba and salaam, “welcome.” I can scan the menu and find a palette akin to the foods I grew up on, and spot the linguistic bonds in words like sabzi and kofte.

When I lived in a Washington DC neighborhood populated by El Salvadorians, taqueria and bodega owners greeted me with Hola, que quieres? I did my best to reply in kind with broken high-school level “menu” Spanish, “Yo no soy Latino.”

When I travel abroad, I melt in my cosmopolitanism. I’ve been called Moroccan in Morocco, Italian in Italy, Greek in Greece.

I’ve flummoxed Iranian customs in Tehran, who fingerprinted me and studied my passport for half an hour, before they noticed my birthplace: “Hind!” they exclaimed, and let me go with welcoming smiles. Later, during a “Down With USA” march, I masqueraded as an Argentinean, just in case.

But then when I go back to India, I stick out in subtle ways, that are unclear to me—maybe my hair, my body language, my style of clothing. Still, I can walk up to a street stall and pop pani-puris and down chai like the rest of them. Again, confusion is abound.

Yet, more often than not I’m given deadly looks and asked if I’m Pakistani. Once, while sharing a midnight rickshaw, my co-rider wasn’t convinced and asked my name.

“Aditya.”

“So you’re not Muslim?” he pegged further.

“No.” As if it mattered.

“Good. We don’t like Muslims.” It’s not surprising, given current Hindu-Nationalist sentiments in Indian politics, piggybacking off of the long, fractious history.

What would’ve happened if I had “played along,” as I did elsewhere? I shrank back, happy to be Hindu, yet happy to be invisible, even to those in my “homeland.”

 


So good are Indian-Americans at being invisible, that Donald Trump's boilerplate condemnation of the “shooting in Kansas City,” with no mention of its xenophobic motivations, was an acceptable opening statement in his over-praised Congressional address. Hindus, as one of the few minority groups he pandered to in the campaign, with his lightsaber-jihadi stage show at a rally for Indian Americans in Edison, New Jersey. He has placed several Indian-American appointments in his administration (including former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a Christian, as UN Ambassador). Paired with his condemnation of anti-Jewish hate crime, his nondescript comment on the Olathe killing reinforced just how little racial sensitivity plays into the politics of the President, or his followers.

The strength of fascism lies in its vagaries. Its leaders can make an enemy out of the abstract: Islam, immigrants, gangs, terrorism. It’s us versus them. But now in Trump’s America, this silencing is a fatal liability. One doesn’t need to be labeled as Arab or Iranian or Islamic, to see the stake in fighting for them.

But what does solidarity look like?

While we can bemoan the sustained response and media coverage as a slight for Indian-Americans, it is, perhaps, something we must accept as an unfortunate bullet point in the larger issue of Islamophobia, and rather than stand “with” the Muslim community in solidarity, Indian-Americans should stand “as part of” the community.

Ideologies are anamorphic and can graft themselves to any personal biases. But Islamophobia doesn’t take sides within our community, so neither should we.

On paper, Madasani and Kuchibhotia were never official targets of Trump’s border wall or travel ban. Or they thought not. But the underlying creep of those policies found them just the same through Purinton’s gunbarrel.

--March 10, 2017

Genre: 

A Message from CultureStrike Executive Director Sham-e-Ali Nayeem

"It is through art and culture that we are able to shift our collective consciousness and transform this grim political climate we find ourselves in. There is a significant cost our communities pay when we are not the ones uplifting our own truths. We have a tremendous opportunity to strengthen our creative alliances and shift cultural narratives that harm us. I invite us all to imagine the kind of world we wish to see and assert the safety and dignity of our communities." Donate Now!