Deepa Iyer: Multiracial work can dismantle racism, Islamophobia

Deepa Iyer will be speaking at Town Hall on Dec. 1. (Photo by Les Talusan Photography)
Deepa Iyer will be speaking at Town Hall on Dec. 1. (Photo by Les Talusan Photography)

Four days after interviewing Deepa Iyer,  a longtime activist and writer scheduled to speak at Town Hall Seattle next week, I heard the news of the horrid attacks in Beirut and Paris. The post 9/11 “racial anxiety, Islamophobia, and xenophobia” referenced in her book released earlier this month couldn’t be more timely.

In “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future,” Iyer provides ideas on changing the “climate of hostility and suspicion” by centering what she’s learned from young activists: Sikh youth impacted by the Oak Creek Massacre, Muslim young people marching in Ferguson, undocumented South Asians fighting for their right to call America home and more.

Liberation is linked, Iyer shows in her book. If you read it, you’ll find that a vital aspect of challenging this hostile climate is through multiracial organizing. For South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants, that means being in solidarity with movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Dreamers.  

“There are commonalities in how these [prison-industrial complex, surveillance of Muslims, War on Drugs] mechanisms mistreat Black and Brown people,” states Dante Berry, executive director of Million Hoodies Movement, in Iyer’s book. “But the challenge before us is this: How do we talk about anti-Black racism and anti-Brown racism as similar — but different? How can we leave room for these communities to build on their own — and together?”

Iyer believes that answers to these questions would be explored in honest conversations between activists and that “solidarity practices between South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Black communities can be effective only to the extent that notions of anti-Blackness and the system of white supremacy that reinforces them can be disrupted.”

Deep Iyer's latest book was published this month.
Deep Iyer’s latest book was published this month.

And you can’t disrupt things if you don’t know how they work. Iyer doesn’t see her book as one that sits on a shelf after a single read, but an active dialogue, meant to spark action through “Race Talks,” which are conversation points in her book about oppression, injustice and race intended for people of different backgrounds working together. The idea is that common ground and racial awareness can stem from sharing our histories and present realities.

In her “Race Talk” discussion points, Iyer challenges the popular phenomenon of “taking racial bribes” as well as cultural exceptionalism. The former, which the author believes that some South Asians are especially vulnerable to, involves distancing yourself from black communities in order “to secure a high status for your own group within existing hierarchies,” she writes.

For example,  Iyer points out that when South Asians see success (e.g. spelling bee winners) as rooted in culture as opposed to being the result of privilege — like being able to pay for classes to prepare — they are taking a racial bribe. Cultural exceptionalism is the idea that someone is exceptionally high-performing based on their “innate cultural” characteristics, which in this case, serves to make class invisible.

Iyer believes taking these bribes “builds wedges between communities of color.”

A new Seattle-area group, currently called Seattle South Asians for Black Lives, is confronting this head-on by challenging the the “model minority” myth and anti-black sentiment.  At a recent meeting of theirs, members discussed what solidarity with BLM might look like, and drafted a group statement. 

“We as South Asians and West Asians must understand that our own liberation is tied to embracing the nuance of our positions as both oppressed and privileged, actively working to reject the model minority myth, war tactics against our communities and black communities here in the U.S.,” member Saara Ahmed read the statement aloud.

Solidarity involves having conversations that challenge embedded anti-black racism within our own diverse communities as well as bringing their collective support to BLM marches and actions.

For Ahmed, it has been inspiring to see on a global level “a movement for valuing life that isn’t historically valued,” she says. 

Like Dante Barry, she wonders how to bridge struggles together, noting one example of Palestinians connecting the struggles of resisting excessive police force with those marching in Ferguson.  

In my phone interview with her, Iyer acknowledged that while she and others “were building their homes” — organizations created in response to post-9/11 hostility — something was overlooked. She feels that “perhaps not being more aggressive about talking about these issues as civil rights issues and connecting specifically with black communities” immediately after 9/11 was a missed opportunityGovernment surveillance of mosques post-9/11 hearkens back to black Muslims in the U.S. being watched during the ’50s and ’60s. 

But as Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), puts it in Iyer’s book:

“South Asians and Arabs got racialized after 9/11. But Black Muslims have been racialized since day one. We never stopped being Black.

Iyer argues that our nation needs to talk about targeted communities as communities of color and immigrants whose rights are being violated, which are erased when people are seen as threats to security. Now, many politicians — and more than half our nation’s governors — have spread a similarly problematic narrative profiling Syrians based on their religion and country of origin. 

“We are concerned about reactions by some States to end the programs being put in place, backtracking from commitments made to manage the refugee crisis (i.e. relocation), or proposing the erection of more barriers,” said UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) spokesperson Melissa Fleming in a prepared statement last week in response to states’ reactions to the Syrian refugee crisis post-Paris attacks. “This is dangerous as it will contribute to xenophobia and fear. … Refugees should not be turned into scapegoats and must not become the secondary victims of these most tragic events.

Four days before the attacks on Beirut and Paris when I spoke to Iyer, she saw new horizons for activists.

“… the movement for black lives has opened up all this new space for how we engage as people who care about justice issues, who want to be part of civil disobedience issue efforts,” says Iyer, “and I think there is a lot to learn from how they are making sure that this moment is not just a moment, but it’s a much larger movement.”  

Perhaps the momentum of movements like Black Lives Matter, Dreamers, and recent college student protests will lead to new multiracial responses against recent backlash and Syrian refugees in a way that doesn’t diminish — but strengthens — the demands of each.

Catch Deepa Iyer speaking at Town Hall Seattle on Tuesday, Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Buy tickets. 

Check out her “Race Talk” resources and her book tour dates at deepaiyer.com. To convene a “Race Talk” on-campus, in your community or at the workplace, contact Deepa at deepa@deepaiyer.com  

This story has been updated since it original publication. 

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