I walk to the mailbox in a small town about an hour outside New York City: Slowly, I make my way down our cracked driveway. I marvel at the blades of grass; so soft and fragile yet they’ve managed to disrupt the concrete and find their sun. I fancy myself this strong when I observe the blades, my nine years of life have not taught me better, yet. In the mailbox is a letter. “To the Indians,” it says on the front in a child’s scrawl. No envelope, no return address. Just a hastily folded piece of wide-ruled notebook paper. Inside, a drawing in brown crayon, of a teepee, and stick-figures with feathers on their heads and spears in their hands. Underneath the drawing the words: “GO HOME.”
More than a matter of simple enfranchisement, citizenship for the non-white immigrant is often a matter of existential importance, belonging, and security. Not that having papers inoculates brown and black bodies against unfair treatment. This complicated relationship to citizenship is particularly relevant in this moment when city streets and small town squares are pulsing with marchers raging and staging die-ins. Protestors against police brutality are asserting that Black Lives Matter. On social media, a conversation started many months ago, using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, continues on in earnest with no sign of abating. Where do I locate my brown body in this mix? My South Asian American community? What do we have at stake if we choose not to stand up in the face of institutionalized anti-black racism?
Our very humanity is tied up in our ability to be seen as human beings, first and foremost. As we know, this is a country founded and sustained by the logic of slavery. This logic, infused in all American institutions from judicial to economic, creates a world in which black people are seen as property, capitalism thrives, colonization is civilization, the prisons boom and teem with black bodies at once disenfranchised and working for free. This logic allows us to create a racialized social structure in which black people are dehumanized and treated like property, and the Native and First Nations people of North America are erased, facing an ongoing genocide. This logic foments a history that tells us that Europeans are the true owners of this land. Asserting that ‘Black Lives Matter’ disrupts this logic. And for those of us non-black people of color, asserting it out loud in public spaces and in private ones means that we must see our place in that structure and challenge it, consciously and willingly.
Also at stake here, is our ability to be seen as human beings worthy of agency in the form of citizenship. This, of course, is a hot topic for a country in the throes of a demographic shift, and a subsequent resurgence of white nationalism. For many of us, the lure of the model minority myth is strong. But let’s not forget the history of this myth: it arose as direct backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, designed to isolate our communities from each other. As social programs and affirmative action policies made their way through Congress, many Asian Americans went from being depicted in the media as conniving foreigners to sparkling model minorities, they kind who didn’t need government handouts to succeed. The myth is rooted in racist logic aimed at isolating Black people and allowing an attack on social programs that purportedly encourage them to stay dependent on the state, when facts show us a much more complicated picture about who uses social programs, why and how often. To this day, conservatives cite this myth as reason to dismantle security net structures, social programs for low-income people and civil rights policies. See, if some people of color can “make it” in America, then the American Dream cannot be a lie.
The myth of the model minority is strong. It enraptures many of us with pats on the back, encourages us with social mobility, and seduces us with the promise of an unquestioned right to belong. It offers us a pathway to citizenship, literal and psychic. It makes these promises in secret, like a whisper, and if we believe them we can close our eyes for a moment and forget what it took to get here.
Just a few weeks before my senior year of college, I’m 21 and living in a hostel in New York, the summer after September 11th: Working at the organization of my dreams, having landed the internship of my dreams. I pinch myself daily and muster quiet affirmations that yes, this really is my life. Having made, and re-made, the case to my South Asian immigrant parents to allow me to live in the city alone, I have conquered the world to be here. One day, it’s rush hour in Manhattan, and I’m shuffling quickly, trying not to lose my balance in the crowd – still new to the pace of this particular borough. I turn on my heel and begin to descend onto the subway platform. I hear the train coming below, the precarious Uptown 1. I hurry. I bump into a man with a thin blond ponytail. He looks at me and squints a bit. Grabbing the arm of the woman who is with him, he chortles and says, “Fucking terrorist.”
In the wake of the ruling in Ferguson, MO, in which a white police officer was not indicted for killing a young, unarmed black teen, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests across the country, we saw Latina/o, Asian American, and Arab-American organizations release statements of solidarity citing similar experiences with discriminatory law enforcement practices, and expressing an unmitigated urgency for finding collective solutions. Since those days, these statements have been coming in from all around the country. In Ferguson itself, in the wake of tear gas canisters launched into peaceful protests, non-Black communities of color saw themselves reflected in this struggle, from the shopkeepers in town all the way to the rubble-strewn streets of Palestine. The immovable center of the conversation: that Black lives matter.
Like African Americans, Latina/os, Arab Americans, and Asian/Pacific Islanders are disproportionately subject to police violence and racially profiled based on our skin color, religion/visible markers of faith, accent, language, and immigration status. Though I balk at a case made for human rights in which one group is asked to support the rights of another because of their own interest in the matter, since some are swayed by this kind of metric, here it is: in the matter of police brutality and racism there’s no denying that all people of color might assert that Black lives matter, because their own are at stake as well.
The evidence mounts daily: Exacerbated after September 11, 2001 and conflated with issues of national security, Muslim, South Asian, and Arab American communities experience racial profiling and ongoing surveillance. Latina/os and African Americans are targeted by the New York Police Department’s practice called “stop-and-frisk” in staggeringly disproportionate numbers. As we move toward a country in which white Americans are no longer the majority, we find ourselves in a war on undocumented immigrants specifically, and immigrants of color, generally. We see unchecked profiling of Latina/os and South Asian and Arab American communities by both federal and state law enforcement institutions. At the federal level we see the programs such as the recently ended Secure Communities and the “Show me your papers” laws. In communities across the country this has meant an increase in stops and detentions of people based on their accents or skin color, and rooting and deepening fear of engaging with law enforcement by both documented and undocumented immigrants.
We must not forget that African Americans are the primary targets of racial profiling and police violence. We see this in painful clarity as we learn name after name of Black men and women, boys and girls gunned down by the police. Solidarity is a standing beside and amplifying, not a sidling up and usurping. Non-black people of color are inarguably impacted by these structural inequities and racist policies, but this is not ground for re-centering the conversation around non-black people of color. In fact, these data are meant to serve as a reminder about what we all have at stake in dismantling our harmful institutions, practices, policies and beliefs. It is not license to change the conversation, or dictate the terms of the movement righteously and rightfully led by Black folks, and started by Black women. This information is just what we need to take this work back into our homes and families to fight against the myth of the model minority and uproot the anti-black racism on which it thrives.
Now that we’ve explored it a bit, let’s return for a moment to the matter of the metric of self-interest. It is an anemic standard of solidarity to stand with and for the rights of Black people because you yourself have a stake. Yes, if they come for you today and I say nothing, they will surely come for me tomorrow. But that’s not why non-Black people of color should challenge anti-black racism in their homes, communities, and workplaces. That’s not why we should rise up against our social structures rooted in an anti-Black ideology. It might be a motivating factor for many, but a politic of self-interest is not a politic of solidarity. We should challenge, rise up and join the Black Lives Matter Movement because Black lives matter. Not because we are also somewhere on a diffuse and damaging hierarchy of racism. Not because they matter in relation to other lives. But because even if we had no self-interest in the matter, if our non-Black communities of color had nothing at all to gain, from asserting it, Black lives still matter.
Take the self-interest argument and use it as you see fit, I say. We must begin conversations where we can. Open up dialogues with the argument, if we think it will spark. Tie our struggles to our shared realities and experience of race and racism in America. But let us not end there. Let us not elide an assertion of Black humanity. Let us be sure to end with an affirmation rooted in unequivocal solidarity. Black lives matter because they do.
Just a few months over 31, in a lovely dress at a dinner party with social justice minded friends of a friend: I’m visiting a new city and so am along for the ride this evening, knowing only 2 other people in the room of about 20, at a small, though well-appointed apartment in a big city. It’s been a hell of a year with a lot of change and loss, but here I am, feeling, for the first time in months, a bit more myself. The night before this party was the first night in months I didn’t wake in tears after dreaming about the deaths of several recently-passed family and friends. I’m chatting with a new acquaintance about my work. She’s standing in a doorway, in spindly heels. She listens to me for a few moments, pauses, swills something, leans a little too close and says, “Ah it’s so good that you do that work. Anti-violence stuff. I mean, especially given your background. You must have had to deal with so much violence in the home. I mean, just from what I read, your culture can be so violent toward women. A real tragedy. Good for you, though.”
There are so many stories of what it is like to be a suspect-class citizen in American. Some truly terrifying, having to do with experiences with law-enforcement, torture, isolation, and a hundred state-sanctioned sufferings. For some, all it took was getting up and talking with someone new. I have so many of my own, yet unspoken. Unwritten.
The violence perpetrated by the police secures the American racial order, protects and preserves white supremacy and incites both resistance and silence. The resistance I’ve recounted a bit here, so far. The silence still lurks. Violence is functional. Gender-based violence, racist violence, colonial violence, homophobic violence, transphobic violence– are all the stalwarts of white supremacy and patriarchy. Some of us speak up and speak out, riot and rise. Others of us recoil, quiet our rage and lower our heads and our eyes. This silence is also functional – our stories die in our throats.
When we join together to resist, to assert that Black lives matter. When do not qualify or quantify the assertion with “because.” When we name the women and girls, and host rallies, marches and die-ins in their name. When we challenge our families with the same commitment with which we challenge people we’ve only just met. When we locate our silence, confront it, hold it close, and wrestle it with compassion and ferocity. That is when the silence slinks. That is how we make space for our stories. One at a time, all at once, unapologetic, and true.