Engaging with Empathy

A few weeks ago, a close friend recounted an unsettling encounter she had with a random, middle-aged gentleman on the streets of London. After exchanging pleasantries, the seemingly benign conversation took a rather strange turn:

“I’m from London, but my parents are originally from India. So you said you’re from Switzerland? Do you remember the Swiss referendum against the construction of minarets?”

“Yeah I campaigned against it.”

“Yeah that’s great because minarets are no good for us.”

“No no no, I was against the initiative, so basically in favor of building the minarets.”

She had barely clarified her stance on the controversial referendum when the man launched into a bitter diatribe against Muslims:

“Young people like you are so naïve and completely brainwashed in thinking that Muslims aren’t coming here to kill us all. This is an army- they are coming as an army. My parents suffered under the Muslims and were refugees in their own country. You don’t know what they are coming here to do. Why do you think all the refugees are men between the ages of 18 and 35?”

As she tried to interject and point out that this was likely due to young men having a greater likelihood of surviving the perilous crossing, he became more agitated. “It was good they banned the minarets, because once they build one, they build ten.”

The conversation ended here as they parted ways, but my friend was left disconcerted. In narrating her own experience, she expressed her discomfort at addressing a person of color about his own bigotry- “if he had been from my culture, I would have felt more comfortable telling him off, but I didn’t know how to address him without fully understanding his family’s history and life experiences. I didn’t feel comfortable negating his pain, as uncomfortable as it made me. The roots of racism run so deep- it’s so much more complicated than we think.”

As I mulled over my friend’s dilemma, I couldn’t help but reflect back on all the anti-Muslim rhetoric I had heard over the years from distant relatives, colleagues, and even some people I consider to be friends. Just two weeks ago for example, an otherwise thoughtful colleague posted a status questioning the contributions of Islam and publicly accused all majority Muslim countries of not allowing any other religion to flourish. Such brash, inaccurate and insensitive statements caught me off guard as they were not typical for him.

While confronting him about the status, I was finding it difficult to control my own frustration at reading such words. However, when we finally broached the topic after a few days, I realized he had spent half a day reading about the forced exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley in 1990, amid rising tensions, violence, and forced evictions. Over 60,000 families from the Valley are internally displaced in India to this day, but he feels frustrated that they are neither officially recognized as Internally Displaced People nor highlighted appropriately by the mainstream Indian media. What followed from this realization was a “rushed, emotional response” as he put it, which he immediately regretted.

As flawed and hurtful as his words were, they managed to shed a spotlight on the difficulty of having a productive discussion about racism and bigotry without first understanding where the other side is coming from. In this particular case, the wounds of historic abuses of power in areas of India where Hindus have been a minority still run deep. Even older generations of Indians who have migrated abroad to countries like the United States often carry these sentiments with them. Over the years, many of these wounds have lightly scabbed over with racist stereotypes to make sense of the suffering they have undergone. The hidden bigotry manifested itself in interesting ways in 2016 when the Republican Hindu Coalition vociferously rallied for Donald Trump and aided his electoral victory, despite his racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic sentiments. A particularly disturbing charity concert stoked anti-Muslim sentiments further by featuring a dance performance where dancers were attacked by terrorists shouting in Arabic, before being heroically rescued by Navy Seals.

HRC

Source: Google Images

To be clear, historical wrongs do not excuse modern-day racism: they merely provide an important lens to start a conversation. As my colleague and I sat down to openly discuss the events of 1990 and broader trends throughout Indian history, we came to a shared understanding around the religious tensions between communities in post-independence India as well as the role of power and politics in stoking these sentiments for political gains. One conversation probably did very little to shift the perceptions on either side, but we did manage to engage in civil discourse because it was easier to appreciate where the other side was coming from.

Many of us have struggled with the occasional, blatantly racist stranger or the casually bigoted uncle, but how do we begin a dialogue without having the complete context? The impatient, social justice oriented, millennial impulse within me urges a hardline stance: we can have fruitful debates over politics or economics, but we do not have any obligation to entertain or empathize with racist beliefs.

But this also leaves me unsettled.

In a world with increasingly polarizing views and divisive rhetoric, what other avenues exist for hearing and challenging the views of the other side? I come from a generation that has little patience for arguments lauding how far we have come as humanity, because we recognize that the historical evils we celebrate overcoming should never have existed to begin with. But change has rarely happened in punctuated bursts—it has happened over generations, through the persistent efforts of activists and the incremental shifts in policies. As the pendulum of politics swings back and forth from one administration to the next, we must engage with empathy even where none is possible, while continuing to fight for justice and equity at every turn in order to ensure that the arc of the moral universe bends in the right direction. The two are not mutually exclusive.

There will always be those for whom empathy will not work, individuals who are far too entrenched in age-old beliefs. However, we must recognize that racism operates on a spectrum from systemic to individual and blatant to subtle. If we take a hardline stance and refuse to engage in discourse where possible, we risk a more divided society where vulnerable groups are pit against one another without any space to discover common ground. While it isn’t our responsibility to engage racist attitudes, it is only through an empathetic understanding of the roots of racism that we can begin to push back against long-standing beliefs that have passed down from generation to generation.

 

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Requiem for the model minority myth

“We built our dream home, which he painted, and installed the garage door…this was the home that he had built…for us and any kids we would have. (It was) our first step to starting our family. It’s so unfortunate that this dream of ours is now shattered.” These powerful words were spoken by Sunayana Dumala, the widow of Srinivas Kuchibhotla who recently succumbed to his injuries from the racially motivated attack in a Kansas bar. Beyond serving as a heart breaking reminder of the trying times we live in, Ms. Dumala’s words also hammer the final nail in the coffin of the model minority myth.

To be sure, Indians, along with other Asian Americans, are thriving economically, with higher average incomes than Americans of other racial groups. Most of us do not have to fear for our lives during routine interactions with law enforcement either. This is a privilege we do not deny. However, this simplistic comparison between historically marginalized minorities creates a favorable and false stereotype that prevents members of these groups from seeking help when it is needed. It forces them to underreport harassment or abuse when it occurs and it forges a false hierarchy of oppression, which has no basis in reality.

Source: Google Images

It is time to put this myth behind us once and for all. The only purpose it serves is to divide minorities and their allies further within the confines of a White supremacist paradigm. As an Indian, I have frequently had to come to terms with the racism within our own communities. I have seen my fellow brothers and sisters co-opt faulty stereotypes of the Black experience in America. I have heard implicit (and occasionally explicit) expressions of gratitude for our place in American society. “At least we’re more accepted than the Blacks.” Taking solace in such a hierarchy tacitly accepts the very presence of such a system in the first place. Our brutal history of colonial oppression should not be forgotten. A common tactic back then was to identify a third party that could distract from organizing and resistance. We faced it in India, and poor, disenfranchised Whites faced it here in America when they were pit against poor Black Americans organizing for their rights. Let us remember that we have far more in common with other oppressed groups than we like to believe. Let us recognize the ways in which we have internalized this model minority myth ourselves.

The brutal hate crimes against three Indians in the past three weeks alone have been a chilling reminder of the vulnerability “safe” and “model” minorities continue to face. If there is any silver lining to the hateful rhetoric and conniving policies plaguing our political climate today however, it is the fertile ground for new relationships between historically oppressed groups that have been structured to clash with one another for decades. Edmund Burke once said that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men (and women) to do nothing. Power can only be consolidated until the resistance to it is divided and distracted. No more.

 

Unraveling the mystery around interracial relationships

I recently watched Barry, a biographical film about Barack Obama’s early life at Columbia that depicts his struggle with coming to terms with his own identity as a Black man raised by a White mother. The film focuses rather heavily on Obama’s interracial relationship in college, taking the viewers on a journey from the initial attraction to meeting the parents to the ultimate unraveling of the relationship in the face of his growing uncertainty around his own identity. As a friend and I discussed the film, we wondered whether it essentially puts the nail in the coffin on the long term prognosis for interracial relationships.

Source: Google Images

There are certainly a LOT of opinions on interracial relationships. If you simply google the term, you can find countless articles with little pearls of wisdom highlighting 7 things everyone should understand about interracial relationships or the 12 best things about being in an interracial relationship. On one end of the spectrum, you have people who argue that interracial relationships can never work, while on the opposite extreme, you have those who passionately call for interracial relationships as the solution to systemic racism.

As an Indian man dating a Japanese American woman, I feel blessed to experience the joys and the troubles associated with interracial relationships firsthand. Unfortunately, I can quickly dispel at least one common myth: despite our adorable relationship goals, we have had zero impact on institutional racism, and little to no control over quizzical stares in our direction or comical questions over our identities. There are, however, a few areas where I do hope we can promote change. As my better half finishes her Peace Corps term on a remote island in the Western Pacific and arrives in India, we will inevitably force all previous generations of Nairs to come to terms with welcoming a non-Indian into their family. The family is going to have to adopt its very own “Look East” or “Asia Pivot” policy. My extended family is used to change and to modernizing influences, but this will still be a paradigm shift for them. You see, my father and mother are from South India and North India respectively, and their love story resembles a Bollywood love saga: boy and girl meet at work, fall in love, boy and girl marry against parents’ wishes, but parents eventually come around when the first child comes into the picture. This was the drama around what was then a scandalous, inter-caste, inter-regional marriage. I have no idea what to expect in our case, but thanks to changing times, at least the parents seem to be cautiously on board with the idea. This gives me some solace as we unravel the stitches on old wounds.

I have more than a little fear at what lies ahead with the potential experiment of living together in India, even assuming things go very smoothly in family matters. There is the subtle and occasionally blatant racism experienced by individuals who look like they are from Northeast India, the curious and occasionally hostile staring, and, of course, the safety concerns that apply to any and all women navigating an unknown territory. After having been long distance for over 2.5 years though, I can safely say the excitement overpowers the anxiety.

My partner once showed me an article that anecdotally mentioned how interracial couples have to put in twice as much effort to make the relationship work. Otherwise, the judgment, both internalized and external, begins to unravel the relationship. I think back to Barry and ask myself what went wrong and what lessons we can learn from this romanticized story (assuming the depiction is at least somewhat accurate). The one lesson that jumps out is that when two consenting individuals enter into a relationship based on different cultural backgrounds or identities, it becomes difficult to isolate yourself and start questioning your own identity without involving the partner in the process. The hostile stares, the uncomfortable family probes, and the quizzical questions from strangers start piercing deeper and deeper the minute you isolate your partner from the equation.

In the end, interracial, and, in my case, intercontinental, relationships have the power to bridge cultural gaps and combine the best of both communities into one harmonious union. And yet, attitudes and systems are both sticky and vulnerable to internalized racism. While I have neither the qualifications nor the foresight to offer advice for other couples navigating this tenuous yet rewarding space, I look forward to seeing where our own process takes us and hesitantly remind myself that circumstances vary and Barry isn’t an automatic death sentence for all interracial couples.

Disrupting our discomfort with Blackness

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the fairness cream industry in India and how it exploits pre-existing caste, class, and skin color norms. The causes prove elusive. Perhaps, as a country and people, we Indians suffer from some twisted form of post-colonial separation anxiety, having been taught to value White as being superior. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that we are far from transcending stereotypes and perceptions based on nothing more than the color of one’s skin.

I was recently having chai with an Indian American family friend of ours in Mumbai. As we talked and sipped, the conversation drifted to her experiences with her friends in the U.S. She was telling us how she is an anomaly in her family, because the vast majority of her friends in the U.S. happen to be Black. When her extended family and Indian friends heard about this, they warned her repeatedly to be “careful of the Blacks” and that “it’s best to avoid them altogether.” What feeds these perceptions? Among my admittedly limited sample size of Indian American friends, there seems to be a noticeable preference for immersing ourselves in the company and culture of White or Asian friends. Sometimes, this manifests in actively avoiding Black culture. Is it simply a cultural difference based on what we are familiar with? Or is it mixed in with our preconceived notions of what is considered worthy, safe and desirable company? 

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Source: Google Images

Back in the motherland, these pre-conceived notions can often play out in dark ways. In 2016 alone, there have been five arrests over assaults on African citizens in India. In response to the justified anger and caution by African ambassadors, some officials have responded by claiming that there is “no element of racism in these attacks” and that these are “isolated incidents.” When similar heinous crimes are committed abroad where Indians are the minority (such as in Australia in 2010 and against Sikhs in America in 2014), we are quick to identify racism as the culprit, demand justice, and ask for a national level conversation around racism. Why get defensive and turn a blind eye when Indians end up in the driver’s seat? When we write off such behavior as isolated or unavoidable, we create an atmosphere of tolerance toward intolerance. I commonly hear peers reflecting on how racism towards Black citizens is rampant in the United States, but the same level of insight and introspection is not applied to our own country. If we demand and advocate for the protection of our citizens abroad as we should, we have an equal responsibility to protect minorities on our home turf.

Beyond protection, the larger question remains of how we shift cultural perceptions of our discomfort with Blackness. The first step is recognition: recognition of our biases and our shortcomings, rather than defending our thought processes on auto-pilot. Shun those fairness creams and demand that people value you for who you are rather than the color of your skin on a picture on some matrimonial site. If you are Indian American, learn about Black history and Black culture in the United States and make an effort to get to know people you might consider alien to your own culture- as my friend said, you’d be surprised at how similar some of our cultural norms and practices are! It is only by actively recognizing and calling out our society’s discomfort with Blackness that we can begin to address the racism embedded within our own caste and class norms. 

Gandhi, despite all his greatness, used to hold strong convictions about Indians being superior to native Africans in this mythical hierarchy among the oppressed. Even the mahatma had his flaws, and there is no shame in admitting them along with his redeeming qualities. There is shame, however, in reverting back to these outmoded notions of racial superiority in the 21st century. We can and we must do better.

Not Fair, Yet Lovely?

“Kitna kaala ho gaya hai! [You’ve become so dark!]” As a kid coming home for the holidays every year, I frequently heard these exclamations of simultaneous pity and surprise from friends and family alike, followed by sagacious advice to avoid walking directly in sunlight. Fortunately, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) offered an easy alternative to avoiding sunlight forever: Fair & Lovely. “Fair & Lovely’s skin-lightening technology is known to be the best in the world! However, this hasn’t stopped the brand from innovating further to pioneer the development of cutting-edge fairness solutions.” The television and internet advertisements were ubiquitous- women with before and after pictures showing staggering progress and visibly lighter skin. Unhappy, unattractive faces seamlessly transformed into beautiful, smiling, white ones. All in a matter of weeks. Needless to say, I owned a tube or two of these magic lotions, but they always had to be applied in secret, because they were marketed for women even though the desire for lighter skin transcended gender boundaries.

F&L
Source: Google Images

Of course, we did not have to wait long for the markets to deliver a product oriented to men’s needs. In 2005, Emami introduced Fair & Handsome, “a handsome way to fight oil, sweat and dirt,” which obviously meant that men sneaking Fair & Lovely creams could come out of the shadows and purchase these products with confidence. The stigma was over! What I failed to understand at the time was that ‘oil, sweat and dirt’ were also couched synonyms for blackness, and the conversation we needed to have was being overshadowed by successful marketing.

To be fair, the criticism leveled against the relentless marketing of fairness creams and the exploitation of age old class and caste norms is not new. We all know fairness is equated with beauty and confidence in India, and HUL and Emami have simply profited off our desire for a lighter complexion. The proliferation of fairness creams is only a symptom of the larger problem- our discomfort with blackness, which has a much longer history. Some blame the British for leaving behind a legacy of favoring whiteness and equating it with power, but preference for lighter complexions predates even the British. In the 15th century for instance, Russian merchant Afanasy Nikitin traveled to modern-day Maharashtra and observed that:

“In the land of India, it is the custom for foreign traders to stop at inns; there the food is cooked for the guests by the landlady, who also makes the bed and sleeps with the stranger. Women that know you willingly concede their favours, for they like white men.” (Source: Voyage to India)

Historically, India has been home to a series of dynasties and considerable foreign influence. It is difficult to ascertain precisely when lighter skin became preferable, and the confluence of skin color, caste and class is difficult to disentangle. References to ancient Hindu religion and mythology however, indicate a different reverence and norm for beauty. Lord Krishna and Draupadi, for instance, are both depicted with dark skin, and yet they epitomize beauty and attraction in ancient Hindu culture.

Modern-day culture, on the other hand, is rife with fair skinned role models and celebrities which indicate an altered aesthetic preference. Age-old caste, class and beauty norms ingrained in our psyche will not be overcome easily. However, if more actors, sports celebrities, and other role models actively follow in Kangana Ranaut’s footsteps and speak out against the discriminatory and exploitative nature of the fairness cream industry, perhaps we can make some headway in prompting a national conversation about this issue. Men, in particular, need to stand with women who have boldly spoken out against this social evil, because most of the advocacy against these creams comes from women who are quickly written off as angry feminists. #MalePrivilege. If we can use social media and television in a savvy manner to portray dark skin as a symbol of beauty and pride, we may be able to shift the social consciousness around this ingrained norm that we take for granted. We have gone from a time when select creams would target consumers with their skin-lightening potential to an era where you would be hard pressed to find beauty products without some kind of skin-whitening agent.  As my roommate once observed, more households had access to brand name fairness creams than medications in the underserved area where he worked. Whether it be avoiding sunlight or applying fairness creams in copious amounts, perhaps it is finally time to shed these short-term and superficial attempts to escape our entrenched class and caste norms and embrace our bodies as they are.  

 

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The Evolving Consciousness of the American Mind

“Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” This was the opening phrase in a very popular piece featured in The Atlantic last year called “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Lukianoff and Haidt argue that students are increasingly developing a habit to catastrophize and they would be better served if they learned to question their own emotional reactions rather than view everything as a micro aggression and engage in what the authors term “vindictive protectiveness.”

The claim that colleges have become hyper sensitive hubs for political correctness is not a new one, and is espoused by everyone from actors to politicians to my own college classmates. However, the rapid dismissal of any form of reprehension as an exercise of political correctness is misguided. While the need for dialogue on college campuses is important, the need to promote broader understanding of the experiences of the historically silenced is equally paramount.

 

Source: Google Images

The term “microaggression” was coined by Chester Pierce in 1970 to call out the dismissals non-black Americans inflict on African Americans, and was later extended to other marginalized groups. As a recent graduate myself, I wish the term did not need to be used, but it is unfortunately all too appropriate as these transgressions are far too commonplace by students and faculty at institutions of higher learning. While the examples provided in the article are extreme, they do not adequately represent the experiences of students who live it on a daily basis. By focusing on the most extreme examples, the authors label this movement to be more cognizant of the ways in which we, unintentionally or intentionally, minimize the contributions and experiences of historically silenced students as “simpleminded demonizing.” They fail to acknowledge the stark daily realities of some students: 1) the experience of raising a point in a class discussion, only to be ignored and have the same point validated by someone else, 2) the experience of receiving an A on a paper with the words “Is this your work or is it borrowed from somewhere else? Either way, great work!” inscribed next to the grade, as if to temper the experience of a surprising success, or 3) the experience of having a guest speaker come into a class and ask for a round of introductions (with a joking request to mention names and IDs without discussing past felonies), while making eye contact with the lone black male student in the class. These are real examples that serve as a daily reminder that some students do not belong. They may stem from genuine ignorance or an attempt at “lighthearted” humor, but they leave an indelible mark.

These transgressions are a symbol of the power exercised by some groups over others, both historically and at present. When we discuss the harmful impacts of structural power, be it racism, sexism, ableism, or the like, we often discuss examples of blatant transgressions. Examples of this rhetoric abound in Republican front runner Donald Trump’s speeches. Systemic racism however, can be less obvious, more pervasive, and even more damaging. Micro aggressions are one small attempt at acknowledging this exercise of power, which is pervasive, insidiously permeating every aspect of one’s life.

Students are not looking to be coddled. They are looking for an appropriate forum to openly name and discuss these experiences- one would think an institution of higher learning would be the natural place for such a discussion. Universities cannot simply focus on increasing enrollment of underrepresented minorities and other disadvantaged groups- that is simply half the battle. When a student does make it through the gates of the ivory tower, they often do not receive the necessary support they need. Instead, they navigate the foreign space themselves, exposed to symbolic reminders and intentional or unintentional slights by peers or faculty that perpetuate the notion that they do not belong. It is not enough to simply get them through the door- we must do more. The authors claim that student peers and teachers at colleges are increasingly feeling more vulnerable and reticent to voice their opinions. They use this as a justification to belittle the importance of calling out micro aggressions or issuing trigger warnings where appropriate. Such an argument comes from a position of immense privilege and lack of understanding. In reality, the practice of choosing our words more wisely and being more attentive to which groups of people we are addressing is representative of an evolution of consciousness, more than an exercise in political correctness or a form of coddling. Your free speech rights are not being curtailed by any individual or institution- rather, the social mores are changing. When we prioritize the discomfort of the students who feel their speech is being policed by social norms, we cast aside the repeated experiences of students who bear the brunt of structural systems that are racist, sexist, or ableist every single day.

No doubt, the solution is not as simple as disqualifying a person from speaking on campus purely due to their past record. However, if we reiterate the importance of having conversations, we must also ensure that the burden of discussing and educating others on these issues does not fall solely on those who experience it every single day. We must ensure that they are adequately supported and that their experiences are acknowledged and validated. We must ensure that there are indeed anonymous portals to report these transgressions and have well-trained staff or faculty members to lead a conversation around these issues. We must recognize that refusing to call out micro aggressions explicitly in the spirit of developing thicker skin is not an exercise in neutrality or a form of cognitive therapy, but a choice in itself to further entrench deep-seated attitudes in structural systems of power. We must remember that for every Donald Trump at the helm of a ship, there are ten others willing to perpetuate institutions of power, including in higher education, and remind marginalized students of their rightful place in society.

 

Source: Google Images

Let us be clear: there is no question that individuals have the right to express themselves freely, without fear of any retribution. Free speech is a core tenet of American democracy. However, the argument that we need to protect professors and students who increasingly feel uncomfortable expressing themselves due to a hyper sensitive college culture is highly problematic and flawed. It prioritizes the discomfort of some in privileged positions of power over the daily marginalization of others. Let us strive to be better. Let us openly acknowledge the damaging transgressions against historically silenced students (as well as staff or faculty members) that constantly echo the fact that some voices are more deserving than others. Let us follow the tide of an evolving consciousness in students across universities and move toward a more meaningful definition of inclusion.