Challenging Anti-Blackness in the South Asian Community: A Conversation

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Houston, Texas 2017

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Houston, Texas 2017

Eesha Pandit and Rachel Afi Quinn are two of the co-founders of South Asian Youth in Houston Unite (SAYHU), a transnational feminist collective that works with young South Asian Houstonians to learn about and respond to the social issues that impact our diverse communities. SAYHU’s approach to this work makes space for diverse South Asian stories and experiences. We work hard to ensure that our programming is sensitive to race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, caste, ethnicity, and more. One of the issues we discuss in our Summer Institute for young South Asians as well as in community conversations is anti-blackness in the South Asian community. Below we share some reflections on how and why we address this issue [First published on the Desis for Progress Blog, April 2019]

RAQ: You have been part of the Crunk Feminist Collective now for almost 10 years. How do you see that engagement with Black feminism, particularly that of the Southern U.S., as shaping your efforts in teaching about anti-blackness in the South Asian community here in Houston? I mean, how do you think Black feminism is shaping your work as part of SAYHU?

EP: Black feminism has been a transformational force in my life. It has offered me a way of seeing and understanding the world and to connect the personal and political. It was through Black feminist thinkers like Audre Lorde, bell hooks that I finally saw my own life and realities reflected in political theory. The Crunk Feminist Collective (CFC) has been a home for me as well, where I get to think alongside contemporary Black feminist thinkers. Beyond the analysis and writing that we have done on the CFC blog and in the book (which includes collected writings from the blog plus new essays), being in the collective itself, has taught me so much about collectivity and collaboration. One of the most valuable things it’s taught me is that we are the work. 

In SAYHU this means we focus on the events we host, the projects we develop, yes -- but we also always make time to know each other’s stories. We know each other’s migration stories, we know each other’s family stories, we spend time with each other as full human beings, not just as a group of folks running an organization. I often think of this line from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem about Paul Robeson, “We are each other's harvest; we are each other's business; we are each other's magnitude and bond.” Our lives, our personal stories, our friendship and relationship with each other are just as, if not more important, than the work we produce. That’s the kind of collectivity we are building.

EP: SAYHU is a South Asian-centered feminist collective. As a Black queer woman, what has motivated your participation in this collective? How is your work informed by the intersections of Black and South Asian feminisms and solidarities?

In SAYHU, one of the things we’ve been able to unite around is a regional experience in Houston, as people of color in the global South, as well as our commitments to social justice here. Our work as Southern feminists certainly includes paying attention to how anti-blackness comes up within our communities and in our daily experiences. 

We’ve brought together a very diverse group of South Asian Houstonians and allies--because that is who we are. But it doesn’t mean that we are always having the harder conversations about race and racism, colorism, sexism, identity, white supremacy, sexuality and anti-blackness. I think you and I have been able to do this work well because of our different backgrounds. For example, you and I have both experienced the ways that you are not faced with the silencing stereotype of the “angry black woman” when you express your rage, yet because of my blackness I am often perceived as a threat and often must temper my communication style to be heard. I am grateful for your allyship. 

SAYHU is a space full of people shaped by their transnational identities who are seeking inclusive community in which they can be all parts of themselves. I have felt this kind of space and inclusion among among South Asian transnational feminist scholars in academia as well. Early on in my academic career feminist scholars Chandra Mohanty and Beverly Guy-Sheftall modeled for me black and South Asian solidarities and collaborations. They also taught me about the importance of having difficult dialogues. I have also witnessed and learned from Chandra’s collaborative work and friendships with black feminists such as Linda Carty (see their Feminist Freedom Warriors webpage), and Angela Davis. 

Most recently, I have been fortunate to be mentored by Elora Chowdhury. She and I share many values in common, including valuing black feminism--and we both teach Crunk Feminist Collection in our classrooms. Just as I have found mentorship and meaningful collaboration among South Asian feminist scholars, I have been moved by the ways that my South Asian mentees have found a role model and mentor in me as a queer black woman. Some of the young people who have found their way to us have expressed that the space has been life-saving, because we are able to see them and help them name their experiences of racism, sexism, homophobia and trauma and connect them with other people who see them and recognize all of who they are.

RAQ: You and I have been working together to teach about anti-Blackness in our community, designing workshops that are now an integral part of our Summer Institute for South Asian youth in Houston, and also as part of our SAYHU Summit which took place last September. We even had your family members with us for the workshop we led. What strategies have you found most effective in our teaching about anti-Blackness in the South Asian community? 

EP: Honestly, this is one of the most challenging pieces of my work in SAYHU, and beyond. In many ways, it is easier to talk about racial justice with my peers, and much, much harder to have those conversations in my own family and community of origin. That’s largely because I find myself having to search for the right words, and seek out the right moments. I worry about offending or hurting my family and friends by accusing them of racism. I worry about bringing things up in a way that makes it seem like I’m talking down to others. I have many years of social justice advocacy experience, and a robust vocabulary and analysis that comes with all that time spent working and thinking on these things. Most folks in my family, for example, though smart and engaged, don’t do this work for a living and so my biggest challenge is to show up with an open heart and open ears, and not rush to judgement. I’m still learning how to do this, but one of the strategies that I’ve found most helpful is to start by asking questions about what people know and understand of the issue of anti-Blackness. In SAYHU, I think we’ve had good success by linking the issues of colorism and anti-Blackness. 

We talk about the anti-black basis of colorism that impacts so many of us. But also about some important structural elements that uphold racist stereotypes. People know that, stereotypes directly impact members of the South Asian community as well -- whether it’s harassment and bullying based on our accents, clothing, or religion. And we remind ourselves and each other that sometimes, anti-Black racism has direct consequences for us as well. In 2015, Sureshbhai Patel was taking a walk outside his grandson’s home in Alabama when a white neighbor called 911 and reported a suspicious “skinny Black guy” on the street. The police arrived and assaulted Mr. Patel, who spoke little English. He was left partially paralyzed after spending months in the hospital. None of the police officers were convicted of any wrongdoing, even though the entire incident was captured on video. When we connect incidents like these with the fact that Black Americans face this kind of violence and discrimination on a daily basis it can open the door to discussions about solidarity, and challenge the model-minority mythology that can be so pervasive in our communities. 

On a practical level, it’s also been helpful to share readings and discuss them together. We use our Facebook group to share articles articles about a range of issues, including anti-blackness. Starting from a place where folks feel comfortable, and moving from there is an effective strategy. This conversation is not a one-time event - we need to consistently make space for it, so we have it several times a year.

EP: As an educator and professor of gender studies and globalization, you have lots of experience engaging students on issues of race in the classroom. How does your experience inform the way you and I teach together and model the importance of understanding anti-blackness in the South Asian community?

RAQ: Generally, I teach students to be curious about the things that they have been taught in a society and an educational system that has a long history of promoting racial hierarchies and divisiveness. We’ve been able to bring that culture of curiosity, openness, feminist thought--in particular black feminist thought--radical community and a culture of learning to our SAYHU spaces. I think it is important that it is not only me as sole black member of the collective teaching about and speaking on anti-blackness in our community. We have our friend professor Shreerekha Subramanian teaching expertly about colorism and black and South Asian alliances at the institute and one of our community members, activist Naushaba Patel also is also finding ways to teach about and initiate discussions on anti-blackness in the queer of color community in Houston.

One of the challenges we have faced in teaching anti-blackness is that the cultural appropriation of blackness is so common and youth aren’t aware of how they might be perpetuating anti-blackness through memes or images that promote stereotypes or humor at the expense of black people. The South Asian youth we work with who grow up with black peers and consume black popular culture may feel authentically connected to black culture while their parents have communicated to them that there is something wrong with black people, and that they should not have black friends or want to date black peers. Some of our work has been about offering a space to talk about and think through where these messages are coming from and what impact they might have. Also, it’s important that we help youth recognize the ways a model-minority stereotype might offer South Asian youth racial privilege in a US globalized urban society, so much so that they can appropriate blackness without being burdened by the stigma of blackness. 

In the classroom, I have a lot of success using documentary film to teaching about race and anti-blackness. In our workshop, Marlon Riggs’ film Ethnic Notions(1986) provided a history of the ways African Americans people have been dehumanized through popular imagery. It can be difficult to understand what we mean by anti-blackness without an awareness of the long history of anti-black racism and structural racism in the US. Often Houston’s youth are using Black popular culture for their own enjoyment but have little historical knowledge of Black life in the US which can translate into a lack of respect for Black people. SAYHU has been working to change that.

Evan ONeil