Today South Asian Americans Leading Together is launching a year long narrative campaign ‘America4All.’ The campaign will be collecting and sharing stories from the South Asian community on reflections of the past ten years since September 11th. Cross posted below is my piece launching the campaign on the SAALT Spot blog. Please follow the blog to get the latest from the ‘America4All’ series.
I used to tell this story. It was 2001 and I was living in D.C., 22 yrs old and miles away from my family in Los Angeles. It was just months after September 11th and as a Muslim South Asian woman, though I knew there would be repercussion for looking like the enemy, I was most worried about my family.
Sure enough, on a phone call with my mother she shared a story of how Homeland Security came to our house looking for my male cousin. My family had stopped going to the mosque, wore patriotic flag pins and got followed in unmarked vehicles. My mother said “it doesn’t matter that I’ve lived here for 30 years or that I have my citizenship. I will always be a second class citizen.”
Thus marked my oft told founding story of why I became a South Asian American activist.
Ten years since September 11th, 2001, I wonder, how much has really changed?
This is the story I tell when people ask me about South Asian American Voting Youth, an organization I founded in 2003 to organize young South Asian people around the country. I was young, naÃ¯ve and invincible. I truly believed in the power of electoral politics and civic engagement and, most importantly, I believed we could swing political power in our favor when we vote. If we did that – the racial profiling, hate crimes and marginalization of our community would all just stop.
The organization has since dissolved and the state of the South Asian American community has evolved. For me, it has now gone beyond simply registering South Asian Americans to vote into a world of identity politics and includes documenting our narratives and building community at both the pop and politics level.The community too has changed in the past ten years, dramatically so. Whereas before being Brown or Desi or having a beard or brown skin or wearing a hijab or a sari was an isolating experience, we now have infrastructure in our community to protect ourselves. There are organizations like SAALT that are going to Washington D.C. to make sure our voices are heard by politicians. There are domestic violence multi-lingual hotlines in South Asian languages in almost every metropolitan area. There are blogs and websites like Sepia Mutiny and networks like South Asian Journalism Association that not only give voice to the stories in our South Asian community but also highlight issues relevant to us that we may never have heard of otherwise. In the past few years, over 30 statues of Gandhi are all across this country, funded by local South Asian communities. This past election cycle six South Asian candidates ran for Congress, with the Bangladeshi Hansen Clarke from Detroit being the third Desi ever to serve in D.C.
We have come a long way in such a short amount of time. Just think about. There is a generation of Desi Youth that do not remember what life was like before September 11th.They don’t remember what life was like before South Asians could build virtual online communities or have organizations like SAALT to support them if an issue came up. A life before we were in the mainstream of entertainment, before Slumdog Millionaire,American Idol Sanjaya, or hipster goddess M.I.A. A life before the President was a black man with a best friend from Pakistan.
For their generation, parity and equity take on a new meaning.
In grad school I was taught that for certain public policies to come to fruition, there needs to be a “window of opportunity”. For the South Asian community, the catalyst for this window of opportunity was the Twin Towers falling. As tragic of an event it was for everyone in our nation, that day was a starting point for our community not wanting to get together but NEEDING to get together. We were forced to organize and mobilize.
We still have a long way to go. This past election cycle clearly reflected that with the rampant racist attitudes from the Tea Party and beyond. In some ways, we need to work even harder to counteract the negativity that is running loose in this country. Health disparities, community disenfranchisement, targeted hate crimes and racial profiling are all injustices and are fights that we are still fighting. We can’t let our stories be marginalized, we can’t let ourselves be tokenized, we can’t let our public figures be brown-faced and house-Desi-ed.
I may not be able to make my mother ever feel like a 1st class citizen, but I can do everything in my power to make my family’s life, and my South Asian American community, have better access to equity, fairness, and justice. I challenge you to do the same.