My Red-Hot Race Moment (Or, “Why South Asians Must, Too, Care About Ferguson”)

This essay is a repost from Common Grind, an amazing blog written by Anupam Chakravarty. It is presented here as a part of our series on police brutality and race.

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There’s an awkward feeling that many people of color in America experience when someone within their cultural identity group publicly does something embarrassing. I’m not talking about respectability politics here exactly (though there’s plenty of that to go around, especially among “model minority” groups). I’m talking more about the feeling that comes to (most) Indians’ minds when they think of Dinesh D’Souza, conservative-hack-filmaker and convicted felon, or Rajat Gupta and Mathew Martoma, Wall St. gluttons busted for insider-trading. Despite many having found success in Republican-voting fields like medicine or finance, Indians and South Asians overwhelmingly vote Democrat and support policies that positively impact American minority populations. But seeing televised images of the D’Souza-types leads to a special kind of discomfort because, with rather few representations of Asian Indian Americans out there, we are acutely aware of the damage a few bad apples in the eyes of our progressive friends in other backgrounds. Appearing racist, selfish or greedy is the last thing a post-colonial people would want to be associated with, I would imagine.

It was this uncomfortable feeling that came over me when I saw that one of the most viral, and soundly rejected, opinion pieces about the situation in Ferguson, Missouri that aimed to rationalize police abuse of power was written by a man of Indian descent. Sunil Dutta, a professor of homeland security at Colorado Tech University and former LAPD officer, laid out his case for giving law enforcement a blank check to escalate tension in his aggressively-titled Washington Post op-ed, ”I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.” I was also a bit irritated to read Times of India story on Ferguson that focused in on the Indian convenience store owner who was threatened by Michael Brown in a security video that we never should have seen to begin with. As someone who has been deeply engaged in understanding the racial dimension in Ferguson and who feels passionate about the need to address our police problem, I was frustrated that these Indians, with their unprecedented opportunity to educate and influence readers, chose to fan the embers of anti-Black racism within the South Asian community instead of expressing much-needed solidarity.

Of course, it’s not fair for me to say that all Indians and South Asians should think and feel a certain way, as our diverse communities are entitled to come to their own conclusions on race matters. I can instead only share some of my experiences as a way to explain how my perspectives on the disturbing trend of lethal violence—against Trayvon Martin, against Eric Gardner, against Michael Brown—were shaped and sharpened.

* * *

I grew up in Edison, New Jersey, a town name that usually brings a smirk to most the faces of most Indian people I talk to when they realize that an aunt or cousin had lived there at one point or another. As the namesake of the lightbulb’s creator and inventor that hipsters will liken to Steve Jobs, Edison has become better known for its very visible South Asian population, many of whom emigrated to work in engineering and IT fields. Soon Edison would have full business districts packed with Indian restaurants and Gujurati-owned enterprises to serve this growing community.

“In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if “dot heads” was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.”

Joel Stein in “My Own Private India”
TIME Magazine, July 1, 2010

Of course, not everyone took Edison’s transformation into a South Asian-heavy community very well. Anger and resentment was quietly building up among Edison’s white denizens over the affordances given to Edison’s new creative class, who were now not only doctors and tech engineers but were also creating small businesses that primarily serve the Indian community. Stores that sold samosas were replacing Pizza Huts, and soon it appeared that brownness was everywhere, from the gas station attendant to the actress in the Bollywood poster at the train station. TIME Magazine writer and “humorist” Joel Stein had gone to my high school in the eighties and, upon returning to Edison, was shocked to see this turnaround. In the context of controversies over Arizona’s immigration policy and a weak economy that exacerbated racial tensions in towns like mine, Stein penned a column about Edison called, “My Own Private India.” In it, he lamented about the drastic changes to the town he grew up in, emphasizing that the landmark locations where he and his friends had created memories in their youth were now adorned in foreign symbols and exuded funny smells. His thesis seemed to be that change was scary, but in the process he made offensive remarks about Indian culture and the community that had overtaken his new home.

Reading the column when it appeared in a July 2010 issue made my blood boil and sparked an outcry from the Indian community (and a half-hearted, “sorry you were offended” non-apology from Stein shortly after). We wondered: had TIME Magazine not considered that such a piece, with national reach, would not only embarrass and humiliate our cultural community in Edison but lend credence to the xenophobes and bigots around the country? I saw the link circulate on social media, and the divisions over reactions to the article emerged along racial lines. My white friends wondered why Indians could not appreciate the humor of the article: one Jewish friend posted that this was a rite of passage for many racial groups, and that oversensitivity would overshadow an important opportunity to laugh at ourselves. I was not sure how to react to the article, and felt my DC and Edison identities wrestling within me when I tried to land somewhere in the middle: Stein was right, after all, that Edison had changed dramatically, but South Asians were not ready to feel the heated rhetoric that the Hispanic community was enduring in Arizona. We were not ready to be singled out, on a national scale, to become part of America’s increasingly destructive debate on immigration policy.

But I did not have to wait long before the damaging effects of the article became apparent. A week after the TIME piece had come out, I was with some Indian friends standing outside a convenience store in Edison while we decided on our plan for the night. We saw an SUV pull up slowly at the traffic light nearby. When the light turned green, one of its three white passengers rolled down the window to yell out to us:

“Joel Stein says, ‘Get a job!’”

And they sped off.

I remember how my ears burned as I thought through what we had just been told. I knew what it was to feel racial prejudice, but this was different: Joel Stein had lent this drive-by insult some weird academic credibility. I wondered if he would have been proud to know that bigots were invoking his name to harass a group of Indian kids who were just picking up some Gatorade. Shame on Joel Stein and TIME Magazine, I thought and have thought many times since, for giving legitimacy to these racist sentiments, let alone with an insult that did not make a whole lot of sense when “taking American jobs” seemed to be a major source of the prejudice. Despite this logical fallacy, their racist joke still landed, though not quite as well as the one I had heard the year prior.

* * *

I take pride in having a multifaceted personality and adopting multiple perspectives, but in the face of a traumatic experience, frequent, near constant code-switching can make one feel unhinged and unanchored. Such a trauma took place a few months prior to the previous story, when I was visiting New Jersey for the Christmas holiday in December of 2009. We had finished our final exams at Georgetown and were now ready to celebrate with our friends at Rutgers University. We chose a nearby New Brunswick bar called Marita’s, and a degree of racial tension was apparent from the minute we walked in: half of the patrons were Black and the other half were South Asian, with demarcations between the two groups all but physically visible. None of this should have mattered, of course, but for some reason that night, it did: tense interactions between “us” and “them,” exacerbated by alcohol, would result in small shoving matches and verbal altercations whenever one person was in another’s “territory” or was looking at the other in a suspicious way.

“Come on, you people like spicy food, right?”

Unidentified police officer
December 2009

The tension eventually escalated into a large brawl outside of the bar: I watched in horror as my friend fell to the ground with blood dripping from his mouth and we dragged him out of the chaotic scene to wait for an ambulance. The block was soon swarmed by police who appeared to take satisfaction in throwing these warring minorities into the snow to break up the brawl.

The crowd soon dispersed, and my group of friends began to walk in the direction of the hospital where our friend was getting treated for his mouth injury. Tempers flared and tears were shed as we all tried to make sense of the situation and how a night of celebration had ended so violently. The police officers urged that we move out of the scene faster, and were not satisfied with our pace.

Suddenly I felt a mist on the side of my face, which was protected by my shoulder-length hair, and my nostrils felt like they were being set on fire when I breathed in. In front of me, my friends fell to the ground, screaming in pain with their hands over their eyes. I turned around quickly to see two officers spraying the rest of my group with mace, and I will never forget what one of them yelled out with a laugh as he continued to coat a group of Indian boys in pepper spray:

“Come on, you people like spicy food, right?”

I turned my head briefly to look back as the (white) officer repeated his joke and cackled, before quickly fixing my eyes to the road ahead. There was no chance to get the officer’s badge number, or to yell back, nor would I have had the guts to do either. A quasi-survival instinct fueled by adrenaline took over as I and the other few whose eyes were spared led the rest of the group to the hospital waiting room, waiting as our friend got stitches while we washed our faces and processed the whole scene we had just left behind.

Honestly, I was most flabbergasted by how well-delivered this officer’s racist punchline was. I mean, coming up with that kind of comedic gold had to have been rehearsed, right? Did smelling the remnants of the pepper mist that splashed off of our bodies remind the officer of the pungent odor that came from these Indian business districts he hated as he drove by them? Or had he been workshopping the line, knowing that all he needed was an opportunity to use some riot gear to give the perfect one-liner to impress his buddies on the force?

As days and weeks passed, the shock turned into a sense of helplessness. There was nothing to be done here, I felt, as the law enforcement in this country had the authority and the power to do what they wished. I had no photographic evidence of what had happened, and I had never reported the situation to anyone out of fear of the repercussions. Soon enough, my friends and I tried to blunt the edges of that night’s memory by making our own “spicy food” jokes, helping us file that night away as just another crazy New Jersey story.

But the experience in New Brunswick left me with a wound that gets aggravated often, and I find myself coming back to that story and re-telling it with great detail each time. An unfortunate immediate aftereffect was that, for at least another year, I would feel uneasy in bar settings where the majority of patrons were Black and would avoid them so as to not recreate the racial dynamics of that night. While that (totally racist) feeling has left me since, my simultaneous fear and contempt of law enforcement, the kind that takes such pleasure in having unchecked power, remains stronger than ever.

* * *

I share these race stories—anchored by two short jokes told in central New Jersey that dug deep under this brown skin of mine—because this moment in Ferguson demands that we do. While minority communities experience varied, unique, complex challenges in the United States and must work on improving our perceptions of each other, expressing solidarity with Ferguson strengthens our resolve and our support network in fighting the prejudices and injustices we all face. I am therefore optimistic that through sustained dialogue, history can remember Ferguson not only as the beginning of the end to militarizing our law enforcement, but as a starting point for substantial cross-cultural conversation that confronts systemic racism in America. I can only hope that I’m not wrong.

– Anupam