For Indian Girls, Radical Black Feminism or the American Dream?

By Guest Contributor Chaya Babu

When two famous black feminists take the stage to discuss social justice and feminism, or more specifically, how race and class impact African American women’s experiences in the US, why is it that I–an Indian American woman from pretty, affluent Briarcliff Manor, New York–feel at home? How is that this where I feel whole, recognized, and validated?

I don’t actually need the answers to these questions as some sort of navel-gazing exercise. But others seem to. When it comes to our position in social movements, identity is a big deal; it behooves us to acknowledge and take accountability for our inherent role, by default of who we are, in intersectional systems of oppression. So perhaps confusion is founded. As an upper-middle-class, straight, cissexual, conventionally feminine woman, whose ethnic minority status in America is mitigated by being part of the ‘model minority,’ it’s true that I have much going for me. I could ride the tide of my privilege. Easy.

But I started thinking about race at an early age. When we watched a video about MLK and the civil rights movement in second grade, I saw a binary and placed myself on the pigmented side of it. At 11-years-old, I adopted hip and hop and its surrounding culture as my self-expression in a white world. Would things have been different if my parents played Bollywood films in the house? I can’t be sure. Whatever it was, I identified clearly with non-whiteness. This made me an outcast in a way. I grew up around mostly white people, and the other Indians I knew seemed to see themselves on that side of the color line, or at the very least, they were more seduced by the power that came with our proximity to whiteness, as Melissa Harris-Perry put it. I am guilty of this too, but I still felt acutely that my brown skin was creating a vast gulf between my reality and that of my white  friends. If I had to guess, this is where I got my sense of injustice in the world, despite my understanding that I was exceedingly blessed and shrouded in comfort, wealth, and opportunity.

I was more aware of my status as a person of color than as a woman.  (It took me much longer to become aware of the endless benefits of my class position, because, well, that’s how it works). I became interested in anti-racism far before I felt drawn to anti-sexist, anti-patriarchal movements or cared about class dynamics. (Of course, I now get that it’s all connected.) But I think my internalization of my color is very telling for where I stand now when it comes to my personal feminist politics. Regardless of the particulars of the layering, all of this means I stand outside of my own ethnic community in the US–a community that, in my experience, often seems largely (not universally) brainwashed by the promise of ascending in a racist system.

Based on this, who could I have looked to as speaking to me–a little brown girl whose large suburban home had a Ganesha in a kitchen cupboard–about dissent and disruption of the status quo? What, you don’t believe in a white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy, you say? Who put these thoughts in your head?

There was no place for me there. My place was to be a good Indian girl.

A large part of last week’s talk between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks at The New School (see above) was about black women’s voices: the avenues though which they convey their messages, the shift in how they are represented, why some mainstream spaces may be more open to promoting them, even if minimally (Harris-Perry on MSNBC). I had no access to these voices when I was younger. I had some Alice Walker and Toni Morrison in high school, and then college and beyond gave me the nonfiction radical texts of bell hooks and Harris-Perry, Audre Lorde, Dorothy Roberts, and more. However, I couldn’t see that I was allowed to turn their thoughts into action in my own life, no matter how deeply they touched my heart.

Though I’ve become more familiar in the past years with an alternative narrative of the South Asian American experience through learning about the Ghadar Party and South Asian participation in broader grassroots movements for change, the predominant image within and outside of the community is that of the well-educated professional or the media-perpetuated caricature of the immigrant small business owner with an accent. Both of these reflect a desire to assimilate and a profound and loyal belief in the American dream. In many ways, though perhaps not in the ways of academic and economic success, even the Indian taxi driver and Kwik-E mart owner symbolize trust that the US opened its borders to us warmly and will eventually bestow its rewards of prosperity on all of our kind if we work hard. Surely, one day the kids of immigrants will one day go to Harvard or Princeton and then medical school. Except that racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies increasingly target young South Asians in low-income communities, causing absurd drop-out rates and expulsions that are not very ‘model’ student. But we ignore that. Or we say, ‘they are not like us.’

The two sides of the Indian world I was exposed to in my upbringing had many distinctions – the doctor and engineer friends of my parents in Westchester obviously had different lives from the more working-class Indians I’d glimpse if we went to the temple in Queens – but it was clear that across the board, questioning the idea that America was a fair and just meritocracy was a transgressive act. To think about racial or other forms of systemic oppression was ungrateful and meant you were not doing the right amount of distancing from others who were forced to deal with such issues. To wonder whether or not your situation in life was indeed good was bad.

I write for a paper that covers the Indian Diaspora in New York and nationally. I do a lot of profiles of artists, musicians, filmmakers, and the like, and I seem to be telling the same story a lot: how for creative types, there was no one to look up to as a role model and no path already paved. If you were an Indian kid with a talent that outshone your math abilities, you were on your own. And it was a fight. Against you parents and against what you knew to be the entirety of society. In itself, that made you a rebel of sorts. Forget having real rebel thoughts, i.e. ones of mass structural change. No. Def not.

When I interviewed Amrit Singh, who is now a public personality for Revolt TV, he said of trying to talk to his parents as a teenager about pursuing music full-time: “I didn’t have a legacy of brown dudes in American rock bands where it would be an easy thing to point to. Everyone in popular music was white. If I was like, ‘Look at how it worked out for Pearl Jam,’ it meant nothing.”

I know this all too well. Becoming a writer has been a painful, drawn-out battle with my family. But even more than that, our politically engaged activist roots as a community are obscured and largely unknown. Thus it’s seen as not just kind of weird, but fundamentally un-Indian, to want to struggle for progress. Even though, um, Gandhi? Geography is key here.

When I hear bell hooks or Melissa Harris-Perry speak or I read their work or I’m in a safe enclosed space where efforts for justice, particularly around race, are being planned, discussed, or executed, I feel alive. I feel complete. I feel like an authentic me that I never felt when trying to be a good Indian girl, which I only did because it was all I knew. I’m finally here, but it’s been a long road.

I see now that I’m allowed to feel connected to those two black women on stage. Still, I hope that for little brown girls growing up now who want to interrogate and resist and challenge what they are told, they can look at women like Yasmin Nair, Anika Rahman, Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Rinku Sen, Monami Maulik, and others, and it won’t be such a stretch to see themselves in radical spaces.

And oh yeah. I plan to help out with this. Boom.

  • Michelle Kirkwood

    Liked this article—-it’s also always good to read about activism from the perspective of other non-white activists. Like you said—the media would have you believe that South Asian Americans never ever question the status quo and have completely bought into the myth of America being a fair place, because that’s how it usually works out for them. That’s why it’s been heartening to read about the activism South Asian Americans in New York have developed around the stop-and-frisk policies,as well racism itself. And as a African-American activist, I always feel good hearing how other activists of color have and continue to take inspiration from our own struggles,which we tend to get so wrapped up in, I think we forget what an impact our efforts can have on non-black folks learning to fight similar issues in their own ways. I’m definitely watching the public dialogue when I get a chance—thanks for posting that. I’ve been a Bell Hooks fan for years, and I’m also beginning to get into Prof. Harris’s work,too.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Thank you for this wonderfully thoughtful post; as a fellow South Asian American I could relate to alot of your points!