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South Asian American activism must go beyond viral stories, advocates say

“We have been walking in the footsteps of the civil rights movement, but many of us don’t seem to recognize what it is that made us prosper in this country."

Since the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death began, several stories of South Asian Americans speaking out in support of the protests have gone viral on social media.

After their business was damaged by fire during the unrest in Minneapolis on May 29, the owners of the Indian-Bangladeshi restaurant Gandhi Mahal spoke out against police brutality in a widely shared Facebook post written by owner Ruhel Islam’s 18-year-old daughter, Hafsa. “As I am sitting next to my dad watching the news, I hear him say on the phone; ‘let my building burn,’” Hafsa wrote. “‘Justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.’”

Just a few days later, videos circulated online of Washington, D.C.-based entrepreneur Rahul Dubey, who opened his home to dozens of protestors as they faced police tear gas and rubber bullets. "I don't think there was even a choice in what I did, to be honest," Dubey told NBC Washington. “It’s the same that you would if it's a storm, and you would have let anyone into your home, I know that."

While Dubey and Islam made for sharable stories, many South Asian American activists say that the roots of activism in the community go much deeper and that community members should be doing more to embrace those connections.

Thahitun Mariam, 29, has been a community organizer in New York City’s Bangladeshi American community since she was a teen. She noted that in interviews, Ruhel Islam often alluded to the long history of protests and activism in Bangladesh as the country fought for independence in the 1960s and ’70s.

Thahitun Mariam co-founded the Bronx Mutual Aid Network amid the coronavirus pandemic and has recently been encouraging volunteers to protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.Courtesy Thahitun Mariam / Bronx Mutual Aid Network

“There is solidarity in activism,” Mariam, who recently co-founded the Bronx Mutual Aid Network as a way to support her neighbors during the pandemic, told NBC Asian America. “Building solidarity also means being aware of the societal and institutional issues that exist and examining how we work to uplift one another.”

While the Bronx Mutual Aid Network was specifically created to address food insecurity in the borough, Mariam said it was also important for them to join Black Lives Matter protesters in the Bronx two weeks ago.

“I think when it comes to activism and solidarity — especially in the context of liberation — I think that my parents and our elderly generation of folks in our diaspora grew up knowing that we need to be fighting for something,” she said.

Artist and educator Prinita Thevarajah was thinking of ways she could foster conversations in the South Asian community about the current protests against police brutality and racism when she decided to call her mother to talk about what was happening.

Artist and educator Prinita Thevarajah is translating words about racism and injustice into South Asian languages, such as Tamil, Telugu, Bengali and Urdu, so that the South Asian American community can better discuss these issues in their communities.Prinita Thevarajah

Thevarajah’s friend, artist Steph Lau, had recently launched a project that translated critical civil rights terms into Cantonese, which led her to wonder if a similar list of words in Tamil would be useful. “Me and my amma just sort of listed all of the words we struggle to find language for but that we needed to communicate the issues,” said Thevarajah, a Brooklyn resident originally from Australia.

As she and her mother began discussing how to translate phrases like Black Lives Matter, segregation and privilege into their native Tamil, Thevarajah realized how necessary such a list was for the South Asian community. After recruiting friends and fellow artists to help, the South Asian Language Translations project was born.

Thevarajah realized that focusing on language and translation was a reasonable way to begin those conversations.Her translation project consists of a series of cards featuring civil rights-related terms in eight South Asian languages that are meant to spark conversation about the history of racism and segregation in the United States. While discussing what to put on the cards, Thevarajah also realized just how ingrained concepts like colorism are woven into everyday vocabulary.

“It has been interesting to see how embedded it is and to think of language as something that is fluid and something that can be reshaped and recreated,” said Thevarajah. Each set of cards went through several rounds of edits to ensure that all of the translations were inclusive.

In addition to the vocabulary limits is also the fact that many South Asians do not realize how closely African American history is linked to their own, said Raju Rajagopal, co-founder of the advocacy group Hindus for Human Rights. In particular, Rajagopal said he wished more Hindu Americans, the majority of whom came to the United States after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, realized how instrumental African Americans were in changing U.S. immigration policy .

“We have been walking in the footsteps of the civil rights movement, but many of us don’t seem to recognize what it is that made us prosper in this country,” Rajagopal said. “What is happening today is a clear reminder that we need to speak up for those who paved the way for us in many ways.”

That is why Rajagopal is currently working on ways for Hindus for Human Rights, which was originally founded as a way for Hindu Americans to speak out against human rights abuses in India, to do the same in the United States.

“In some ways talking about what is happening in India is obvious. We all grew up in India and we all owe a great deal to our home country,” Rajagopal said of the group’s members. “I think we owe the same thing to our country here in the United States.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Sikh Coalition executive director Satjeet Kaur, who said that she has been thinking of the protests from the perspective of both an activist and a new mother. Kaur recently took her daughter to her first protest on her eight-month birthday.

Sikh Americans join a recent Black Lives Matter rally in Easton, Pa., on June 7, 2020.Michael Kubel Photography

“We’ve seen South Asians out protesting and asking how they can get involved,” Kaur said. “There have been conversations about how to mobilize resources.”

For many Sikhs in particular, supporting protesters and those in need is an integral part of their faith. The concept of seva, or “selfless service” is one of the central parts of the faith, Kaur added, so Sikhs across the country have been seen at protests and gatherings feeding people and offering support.

“Community members across the country are finding ways not just to participate in the protests, but to also find ways to do what they do best, which is the service angle that is so inherent in Sikhism,” she said.

Many Sikh Americans are also having conversations about their experiences as immigrants in relation to American history.

“We owe a lot to the Black community and that is part of the education process that we need to have, as well as recognizing the civil rights that we are continuing to fight for,” Kaur said. “It is all part of a larger fight that the Black community has absolutely paved the way for.”

Thevarajah recalled having similar talks growing up with her family, who moved to Australia in the 1980s as refugees during the Sri Lankan civil war.

“My parents have always been advocates for Tamil liberation and we have our own social justice fight that we are fighting daily,” she said. “They are always encouraging me to learn how our struggles are connected and how our struggles are parallel.”

But despite those ties, Thevarajah acknowledges that breaking the ice and ultimately having these conversations can still be difficult. That’s why she hopes tools like her translation cards will help.

“I think the most important thing is to be patient and be loving with it. It is easy to shame our families for feeling bad,” she said. “But I would bring it up in a very casual, informal way around the dinner table or if you are watching the news together. This kind of work doesn’t happen overnight.”

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