From my youngest days, family members’ destructive comments about race and color burn in my memory—like a cousin in India forced to quit swimming lessons because her mother feared she would get too dark, or an aunt stating her daughters are free to marry whomever they want, as long as the husbands are Asian or white. At a recent gathering of my family’s monthly poker party, someone tossed black chips into the betting pile and jokingly said, “Black Lives Matter.”
Feeling like I didn’t have the tools or composure to use my voice in these situations, I often stayed silent on the surface while my blood boiled below. Nowadays, when I speak up, it’s not because I like to argue or enjoy the sound of my own voice. We’ve hit a point in our society where I know my voice, and more importantly my fight, are necessary, especially within my own Indian community, where anti-Blackness and colorism are prevalent.
Music, literature, movies, protest
Growing up as a first-generation Indian American in a racially diverse city in California, believing in equality for all seemed like common sense. My first real introduction to the fight for social justice came in the form of my favorite local band in high school, Rage Against the Machine. Serving as a momentary cure for my teenage angst, the band’s intense sound drew me in, and their loaded lyrics exposed gaps in my education. What were they so angry about? I started reading books by James Baldwin and Noam Chomsky, compelled by Rage to educate myself around issues not thoroughly covered in mainstream curricula.
Moving to San Francisco for college offered the perfect environment to nurture my path toward activism. I took resistance literature classes, attended anti-war protests, and marched against police brutality. In 2012, Trayvon Martin’s murder left intense pain in my heart—more pain than I had ever felt over something that didn’t directly revolve around my own personal experiences or identity. A year later, I dragged my mother with me to watch Fruitvale Station, a film based on the killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland, where I was working at the time. As the final credits were rolling, I sat frozen in the dark theater, fuming and desolate, with tears staining my face. But my mother got up from her seat and muttered, “Well, that was boring.”
What I learned
I slowly began to understand that some of the anti-Blackness in the Indian community is fueled not by vitriol but by apathy. My parents emigrated from India to Oklahoma in the 1980s, and I incorrectly assumed that their experiences with racism in this country would easily translate to empathy for the African American plight. But although Asian Americans face discrimination firsthand, some may not be plugged into the experiences of more marginalized groups in the United States.
My relatives who immigrated to the US came from humble backgrounds, but were well educated and positioned to succeed in fields of engineering, medicine, and tech. Through hard work and perseverance, they found success. But without understanding the complex history of racism that stains the American dream, it’s easy for them to cast judgment on others who find themselves in different circumstances. There’s not much nuance in their belief that a good education and determination are a foolproof recipe for prosperity. African Americans experience roadblocks of systemic oppression that many Asian American households can’t intimately relate to, despite their own difficult path in the American melting pot.
Learning about the “model minority” myth—which depicts Asian Americans as an exemplary, law-abiding minority group who pull themselves up by their bootstraps—helped me understand how it functions to further separate Black and Asian people. This myth, often perpetuated by Asians themselves, is a way for the US to continually dodge its history of racism and ongoing injustice against Black people.
The surprising truth
Often mocked for caring about social justice, I learned to pick my battles with family and conserve energy to challenge cultural norms only every so often. Attempting to undo family members’ cultural upbringing, laced with colonization, colorism, and caste hierarchy felt like a lost cause. An added obstacle to having an open dialogue on contentious issues in the Indian community is the golden rule of respecting your elders, often leading to harmful comments by parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents going unchecked by a younger generation. If I were to call out an uncle for a racist comment, my mom would likely send me the message to behave by kicking me under the table.
But with the Black Lives Matter movement powering protests against ongoing fatal violence, I didn’t want to tiptoe around the subject anymore. I made a point of talking to my parents about why I marched for BLM in Philly during a pandemic—and was shocked to learn that my dad also had attended a BLM protest in California.
"Wow, that is surprising,” I said. “I thought you just didn't care." To which he responded, "I've always cared about injustice." I’m grateful to be raised by Indian, blue-collar working parents who have voted Democrat their entire lives, but they are often the minority in a larger group of peers who vote for Republican leaders for religious or economic reasons.
I was doing my family a disservice by avoiding the hard conversations, because no matter how minute, these conversations hold potential to move the needle on justice, progress, and consciousness. I still choose to bite my tongue more often than not, because it’s hard to prevent emotionally charged responses on issues that I deeply care about. But by reopening the dialogue, my hope is for more collaboration and allyship between Black and Asian communities across the diaspora in America. We share a common struggle of racism and discrimination in this country, and only have more to gain in recognizing each other’s humanity.
Image description: A photo of Indian American writer Christina Anthony when she was about 18. She’s standing in front of a sign that says “Polling place: Vote here” in several languages. She’s grinning excitedly and wearing jeans and a tee-shirt with an American flag pattern.
Image description: A photo of a massive Black Lives Matter protest march in Philadelphia, taken from the top of the Art Museum steps and looking south toward the skyline. Tens of thousands of people pack the tree-lined parkway.