I spent my time at the Willard Straight sit-in eavesdropping on a discussion about students of color that didn’t care about it. I didn’t pull a muscle to realize they were referencing Asian-American students. Honestly, I was there for only half of the sit-in, so I am part of the problem. Part of this column is to offer an excuse (there are none) but also challenge the Asian-American identity in terms of racial justice.
My dad emailed me a Washington Post article and said we needed to talk. “If some of these idiots ever say stupid things like this to you, don’t confront them.” I had always believed this sentiment was out of my parents’ blindness to oppression and an inability to confront it. I was half-wrong. My parents aren’t blind. They’ve not only seen oppression, they’ve felt it. Even I’m not comfortable sharing those experiences. The common thread is their choice not to speak up and, by doing so, set an example. It’s not that they’re soft-spoken. In the house, we don’t stop yelling at each other.
It’s because they’re American. They dreamt the American Dream for themselves and their children on the exhausting plane rides here and left the baggage of history and community in India. The onus to gloriously recreate both was placed on their children. I was never really a member of the Asian-American community, or the Indian-American community for that matter. My real community is my parents. I learned at an early age that I could and should use my life to right every historical injustice my entire community has faced.
This dynamic sheds light on the fact that Asian-Americans have the highest median income of all racial groups in America, with Indian-Americans boasting the highest among Asian-Americans. My parents came here to live on “streets paved with gold.” Even though this ideal is shattered upon landing, it’s not hard to see that white neighborhoods live up to it the most. Unfortunately, brown people aren’t white. To most closely live up to whiteness, we work through the systems in place. Questioning it will falter our “progress.”
I don’t judge those choosing to honor their parents. I honestly have deep respect for them. I, myself, lack the discipline, aptitude and orientation for it. I do, however, think my deficiencies are valuable because I can say that when we accept that our lives don’t matter, we imply that the only ones that really do are rich, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, Christian white male lives.
Asian-American student activism illustrates this well. First off, a minority of Asian-American students engage with social justice, but among those that do, their activism centers around exclusively systematized dissent (rèsumè), homeland discourse and performative allyship. This entails physically doing things to show support for a number of communities, but never making space to deeply reflect on our own. Some may justify this mode by citing their economic privilege, but to do so implies the disparity in income between non-Asian and Asian people of color in America is natural and not also due to white supremacy.
Jawaharlal Nehru pushed a national initiative on science in India after independence. A few decades later, America discounted the “American Dream” and stockpiled cheap, technical Indian labor to compete with the Soviets’ advancement. The image of the “model minority” was solidified during this time and subsequently exploited to show Asian countries vulnerable to communism that democratic America loves Asians (what internment?).
This system still oppresses Asian-Americans today. We make the most of it as opposed to resistance, but by doing this, we are complicit in its overarching violence against all marginalized peoples, especially our own.
It’s problematic if you say brown Americans make too much bank to be oppressed, but forget to disaggregate New York City taxi drivers. If you call out sexism in Greek life, but don’t comment on all the aunties in the kitchen. If you celebrate pride, but get uncomfortable when I channel Amy Winehouse. If you witness the beautiful struggle, but end a real love with a black person for a rishta.
Asian American Studies would be the hardest major for Asian American students. Engaging with the material is personally destabilizing. Those that do, however, would be able to articulate how white supremacy has and continues to affect us and partake in meaningful dialogue with Asian, non-Asian people of color and white people about it. They could write a robust Asian-American political platform and in the process build a community to advocate for it.
I took a year off, in part, to tell my parents that my life isn’t theirs. I did it because I had nothing to lose. In that time I managed to scratch the surface, but they now know I need to be free. The misfit in me initiated the ongoing conversation. It’s the same one that had me flashing Easter blue nail polish, rocking a gold chain emblazoning a Hindu god over the shirt and donning a big-ass diamond earing in the middle of a Senate internship. It still has me put a lot on the line to confront personal injustices outside and within the brown “community.” Being a messy brown boy is seriously underrated. If I wasn’t, I would have never been able to get lifted on real freedom.
I didn’t go to the organizational meeting after the University Assembly protest for the same reason I stayed for only half the sit-in. It might be ego, insecurity or a mixture of both, but I feel that my exterior isn’t representative of my truth in the slightest. This feeling is particularly overwhelming in social justice spaces. I hope to use my education to make it so and do better going forward.
Narayan Reddy is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Reddy, Set, Go! appears alternate Mondays this semester.