July (2016)

Khushbu Patel

If you are my friend and white, I am writing to you. If you are South Asian, raised primarily in white America, I am writing also to you. Don’t mistake my intent – there is no desire to divide for the sake of division. I was taught to write with an audience in mind; right now, I need to speak to you specifically. For even as millennials, one of the most progressive groups leading social shifts in our country, we vote differently along racial lines.

I write because I love you. Because I have shared parts of my life with you, and you have loved me back. I write because I love my black and brown students, friends, colleagues, teachers, writers, neighbors, and community members just as much.

I have been told that I can be dismissive and/or hurtful, in the process of talking about seeking justice. For that, I genuinely apologize because it brings me no joy or pride in doing so. What I do not apologize for, though, is making you feel uncomfortable while you read this, for bringing up something that bums you out, for being repetitive, relentless, for making you reflect in ways you did not ask for.

I was born into a brown body and I’m not sure why. I did not ask for this, either. I love this body. But it took many years of despising it, of ignoring it, of erasing it, to begin the journey of embracing it. There is an inarticulable complexity to Asian American acculturation. This is so deeply rooted that we would rather acculturate into whiteness, or adopt blackness than live in our own identities We are known to bleach our skin, to erase our accents, to integrate our children without teaching their history.

In not learning our history, we are deprived of the opportunity for self love. My friend told me an anecdote of being at a department store in the city and seeing this young white child running like mad through the clothing racks. This child, she imagined, will grow up never thinking twice about the consequences of that, and will enjoy the freedom of their body’s movement in a way she dreamed of for her own future black child. My dream is that my child will grow up loving themselves, their existence, in a way that wasn’t inherent for me. For any group that finds itself a minority in white America, even the act of self-love is radical. It certainly was for me. For being exemplars in this, I am grateful to the black women in my life, in my literature and media.

I have digressed, so let me get back to you. I regret my delay in speaking directly to you. I, too, have been moving through my own awareness-building, and so I can understand that what is being asked for in rectifying this country’s racial politics may run counter to your upbringing, your environment, the teachings of your skin.

That may make this process uncomfortable, but it is not valid grounds for turning away. Most of my life experiences have formed in the shadow of a blanketing white privilege – the one that comes from being upper-middle class South Asian, living in a white northeast suburb, attending a wealthy school district, going to bed with the certainty of college in my future. Our ascension in financial wealth – class – was a gateway to white America in a way that afforded me safety, stability, access.

And what was the cost?

I withstood being called the “little brown friend.” I laughed at racist remarks made by friends’ parents, biting my tongue at the expense of my parent’s dignity. I wore pants in the summer to hide my thick black hair; I wore bikinis to the beach when I never felt comfortable. I unlearned my religion, knowing far more about the origin of Easter than I did about the Mahabharata. I sat for meals at friends’ houses where they repeatedly forgot my vegetarianism; I’d go so far as to offer my own apology. I adopted die hard Beatles-fandom when I’d grown up only on my mom’s lullabies and my uncle singing Kishore Kumar. I allowed others to wear their shoes in my home, while my parents left theirs at the door.

I forgot my place in this world.

I shied away from sharing my father’s profession because even though our socioeconomic status brought us into the safety of manicured lawns, there is a special kind of fear reserved for colored bodies that makes you duck, not bow when you see an American flag waving above your neighbor’s door.

I sat as a token, the kind you could get on board with and invite to your Christmas parties. Until, of course, I learned to openly love myself and my fellow people of color. Until I demanded more of my peers, I demanded reflection and pressing into our humanity to overturn the injustices built into our structures, our socialization.

Then, I remembered who I was. I was never white. It was only a matter of time until I was found, my cloak of invisibility pulled off of a body it never belonged to. Perhaps I’ll learn at the end of my life that this skin was an opportunity to bring shared space between white and black. If that’s the case, I do not want to take my last breath knowing I sat on this satya.

So, in addition to bringing more depth to my breath, I am trying to understand the silence of yours. Even my soft voice feels loud in this part of town. Mine feels loud because it makes others uncomfortable, it makes friends, family members, acquaintences ask me to change the conversation. They hear me as the immigrant’s child who hangs on too deeply to her parent’s story, as a woman who has been overly educated on social issues, as a 20-something with too little experience of the real world.

So, I ask my peers in this letter – why, when your voice is met with so much more respect in this world than is mine, do you choose to retreat? Why, when you access spaces of immense impact that do not see you through a lens of fear, pity, or discomfort do you not bend the light toward us?

Now, because it is easy to be mistaken here, I want to explicitly aknowledge that there is no universality in the experience of privilege. Of course we have intersectional identities – you are more than your skin color, the same way I am. Your story deserves to be nuanced, to have its struggles genuinely acknowledged, and to be heard in the context of your life circumstance. But you are your skin color, also, the same way I am. When it comes to skin color, and the cultures threaded around it, whiteness comes with a beach tag of belongingness on the U.S. shores in a way no one else’s money can buy.

There are particular spectator sections reserved for white audiences that allow for the freedom of enjoying black basketball legends, moving your body to black beats, marathoning hit shows crafted by black visionaries, reading literature written by black geniuses, all while turning the television off when a black body pleads mercy on the asphalt. This is the privilege I speak of. The privilege of turning away, of not taking it as an attack on one’s own life, of being able to whisper “what a shame,” but not go to bed thinking “that could be me tomorrow.”

There lies the privilege of waking up and CHOOSING to speak of these “issues.” It is one I also share. But let us be honest with ourselves. These are not “issues” that plague us – they are our collective, historical demons that we either choose to confront and exorcise, or allow to live on in the language and values and silences we pass onto our children. Systemic racism is a reality, and it’s not going away if we aren’t educated about it. And when communities of color call it out, exposing a legacy of white empowerment that has kept it alive, they are not being “racist against whites.” To point out a historical reality is not racism, it is advocating for change.

We have an issue of class just as we do of race. We have washed our hands of slavery by sewing it into history books and big budget films, but the same hands still turn those pages. We have remained content letting vast pockets of deep, deep poverty persist in the country. The kind that can make one desperate to fund their family, the kind that determines a child’s safety based on neighborhood lines, those determined by manipulative housing policy. The kind that has a white, Catholic priest fighting unapologetically for justice in Chicago.

But I hope we do not overlook this as just a “black issue.” Our big, friendly NRA is just as silent on the 3,000 Hispanic individuals who are lost to gun violence each year. This is especially important for my South Asian brothers and sisters, the ones I hold so dear. Those of us who bought too-big houses on luscious green property and forgot that we had to demand the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 to be allowed entry here. And that our visa is conditional upon our compliance, our assimilation, our fulfilling of stereotypes, and our not being Sikh or Muslim. And, most painful to me is that despite how this country inhumanely mass-imprisoned Asian Americans, our model minority nomenclature was earned at the cost of leveraging anti-black sentiment.

We distance ourselves because the one-shade lighter skin buys us enough leverage to access better schools and stability. We continue the pattern of racism and exceptionalism that built America by demarcating ourselves from other minorities. If we could do it, why not them, after-all? Do we forget how India lives, despite 1947 and despite the abolition of caste? But there, also, we use class as a cushion to buffer against the gut wrenching poverty that claims our beautiful children. There, also, our much needed independence came at the cost of yet another border and millions of lives. So, there is little to validate our exceptionalism.

I have yet to hear a viable justification for the condition of the average black family in “post-racial” United States. I have listened to claims of this being an issue of welfare-dependency, of black-on-black crime, of over-sensitivity, of laziness, of drug habits, of broken family systems, of inherent violence, and so-on goes this painful list. I’ve listened and cannot find any way of rationally, realistically, with a decent conscience, believing it. In fact, according to THE Albert Einstein…

Many a sincere person will answer: “Our attitude towards Negroes is the result of unfavorable experiences which we have had by living side by side with Negroes in this country. They are not our equals in intelligence, sense of responsibility, reliability.”

I am firmly convinced that whoever believes this suffers from a fatal misconception. Your ancestors dragged these black people from their homes by force; and in the white man’s quest for wealth and an easy life they have been ruthlessly suppressed and exploited, degraded into slavery. The modern prejudice against Negroes is the result of the desire to maintain this unworthy condition (see here).”

These are the racialized politics we craft out of our own fear, or explanations we accept from governing bodies that help some of us sleep better at night. Because the truth is, we built entire economic systems from the labor of enslaved black families, and then offered abolition without rectifying our institutions. Without repaying stolen land and life. Without reckoning with our deepest spiritual transgressions.

Every time I write about a loss, I think, “I don’t have the words. What do I even say?” And still, I write. Because I think of my brothers and sisters who experience these losses more intimately, attend these funerals more regularly – in person or in their hearts – and they still write, still speak, still burn for our attention. So, if that is what stops you, I reveal to you: none of us have the words. We write out of our humanity, and ask you to access that same place that exists within yourself. Your language can be off, your education on the matters limited. Once you find in yourself the room to fight injustice, you grow your tools over time.

Let us think: how can we rearrange our lives, our consciousness, to encompass doing right by our peers? How can we press deeper into our own worlds, our individual trajectories, in a way that contributes also to a collective action? I’m not yearning for everyone to drop their life and take on social work. That’s quite misguided, I know better. I ask that we all be more reflective about the paths we’ve chosen, or have been chosen for, and use them consciously to right our collective wrongs. That we reflect on how our comforts, joys, safety have come at the expense of particular groups over and over and over again in history.

This does not imply that we have not earned our livelihoods and right to fantastic living. Remember, self love! However, this does mean that we stop thinking that life is handed out equitably, or that earning your way out of poverty is fair or possible. This also means that we hold an even greater responsibility to advocate for justice because we have the means, the resources, and stability to do so without serious risk to our lives.

I use this letter as an extension of my own hand, offering an invitation into deeper self-reflection and engagement with ourselves as active arbiters of the present and future. Each day that passes transitions another moment from present into history, and it’s incredible that we get to contribute to it. I offer my hand because my peers – from all around the world – have been gracious enough to offer me theirs. If you see it from that lens, it becomes apparent that infinite acts of grace have been offered by those repeatedly oppressed. These come in the form of their writing, their voices, their rage, their art, their resistance, their policy suggestions, their fellowship, their forgiveness. Each of these reminds me that there is more we can demand from ourselves in how we tolerate the conditions of others’ lives. Make no mistake – there is no enjoyment inherent in the act of fighting to prove your right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is work that exhausts already expended beings. There is no comfort at the end of a day except your community and the knowledge that you fought on the right side of humanity. And even those are hard to hold onto some days.

However, we did not evolve into sophisticated social beings with moral consciousness without good reason. It is imperative we access that purpose now.

The unstoppable rise of an openly racist, Islamophobic, sexist, homophobic, authoritarian presidential nominee did not happen as an anomaly, and if all we are doing is expressing our surprise about this, it is not enough. This candidacy is the long overdue outcome of a national consciousness that has disguised fear and prejudice as patriotic values. The American values I’d like to see us embody instead are those that force us to confront and self-educate on what it means to live as an “other” in this country. In doing so, our education may liberate us from the fear that allows us to misrepresent, misunderstand, or turn our backs from others’ humanity.

One of my earliest favorite books was Walk Two Moons, titled after an American Indian proverb that loosely translates to, “don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins.” At the time, I was a little South Asian girl in an all-white school trying to figure out how the hell to put that into practice. I’m still the same South Asian girl in mostly white institutions continually trying to figure out how the hell to put this into practice. I invite you to do this with me –to enact the wisdom of this land’s indigenous forefathers and mothers – but please, do remember, we take off our shoes in this house.

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