We have an adage in Tamil that goes like this: “Vambulai poi maatikkathae.” It means, don’t get stuck in gossip. Stay out of trouble. Don’t get involved. It’s a phrase I’ve heard from childhood, and one that my mother has heard from her childhood.
Behind that culturally pervasive phrase is a warning to stay away from getting involved in contentious situations. In the current political climate where division rides on rippling waves across the country, these words have become increasingly harmful.
For the South Asian community, these crimes hit home in the past few weeks with the shooting of two South Asian men in Kansas, which killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla and injured Alok Madasani. A week later, a Sikh man in Kent was shot in the arm while working on his car in his own driveway. Hate crimes have spiked throughout the country, many with the same words spoken before the moment of action: “go home, go back to where you come from.”
It’s become clear to me that standing on the sidelines is no longer an option. We must get our head in the game, not alone, not in solitary motion, but as a wave of collaboration, as hate crimes soar and hostility toward anyone seen as “different” becomes rampant.
This was the same message shared at the #WeBelong Peace Vigil in Bellevue earlier this month in honor of Kuchibhotla, the man killed in Kansas. The vigil was organized by Tasveer, and included at least 43 other South Asian organizations and other religious, cultural, and social justice groups. Throughout the vigil, attendees and speakers united in the freezing cold air across religious and racial lines.
The unanimous message was to come together, to no longer sit back and watch in fear as people of varying identities are threatened. A diverse group of speakers called for the South Asian community to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ communities — for all kinds of lives. The message was loud and clear: “it’s not about what color we are, it’s about being human. We are all better off when we can be better off together.”
South Asians have never been an exception to the xenophobia sweeping this country, but many of us have a false sense of security that comes with our so-called “model minority” status.
Lately, that perceived safety net is crumbling with uncertainties around H1-B visa holders and their families, a majority of whom come from India, and with the acute knowledge that South Asians are people of color. But for decades, many of us have bought into the premise that we are safe, because many South Asians are educated and work in sectors that procure wealth, such as medicine, law, and tech. The Pew Research Center says 70 percent of Indian-Americans in the U.S have a “bachelor’s degree or higher.”
South Asians — and Asians more broadly — have been stereotyped as “smart,” excelling in education and highly skilled professional fields by a white racial frame. In turn, many of us internalize that imposed stereotype and begin to define ourselves by a high rate of accomplishment and a certain kind of success.
What happens with this false sense of security is twofold: we become blind to the disparities of income and education within our own community as we subscribe to the model minority stereotype, and those of us who believe the model minority myth distance ourselves from other groups of color and immigrant communities, sidestepping the reality of institutionalized racism and bigotry.
The #WeBelong Vigil was different. I’ve seen the community come together in support of social justice concerns in South Asian countries, raising money for education and development. But #WeBelong signaled a willingness to reject the idea of “vambulai maatikaathai” and get involved in pressing local justice issues. It felt like a kind of awakening, like as a collective we were ready to get involved in the communities within which we physically live.
But as we left the gathering, my family and I wondered why more people did not show up. One speaker who posed a question along the same lines: do we want to own palatial houses and fancy cars, or get involved in social justice?
To me, this question spoke to a community-wide status quo upheld by many South Asian white-collar professionals with whom I’ve spent my childhood. It has been a pattern for those of us in families with professional degrees and highly skilled jobs to prize and focus on pursuing straight As in school, getting into top-notch colleges and universities and bagging six-figure salaries. These are common conversation topics at many Desi dinner parties. They are the same stereotypes that have caught South Asians in the net of the model minority myth, a myth many of us buy into and perpetuate.
Seldom do we incorporate a value for activism and getting involved in a network of local communities for the sake of social justice.
The vigil opened my eyes to the many South Asians who will stand outside in the freezing cold for a greater cause. But where was everyone? While about 350 people had RSVPd to the event on Facebook, that’s only a fraction of the South Asian population in the Seattle area.
Right now, it’s important for everyone to participate in the cause of social justice for all. It’s not about whether you can afford to, it’s about whether you can afford not to. No one is immune: even your role as a tech worker making a decent salary in a suburban neighborhood will not spare you from the bullet, real or symbolic, of someone else blinded by ignorance.
Next time there is a rally, show up in hordes, with peaceful signs of defiance. Talk to your friends and engage in conversation with people who are different from you, both within your own community and outside of it. Write, create – use artistic expression to make your points and take a stance social justice issues. Take a “Know Your Rights” training course. There are many ways to get involved. But do not sit back and think you are immune because of perceived success, or a perceived lack of voice.
After all, South Asia has a rich legacy of protest, a history of nonviolent civil disobedience that led to independence from the British and had a ripple effect all over the world. It is in our cultural history to stand up, and I wonder if now is the time for us to break the silence and rekindle that history into the present, American context.