On Being The Right Kind of Brown

On Being the Right Kind of Brown

(This piece was published in CounterPunch on March 21, 2017)

A racist man shot Srinivas Kuchibhotla on February 22, 2017. He wanted to kill a Muslim. He thought Srinivas and his friend Alok Madasani were Iranians. A week later, Harnish Patel was shot and killed in his driveway by another racist man. Sheriff Barry Faile, investigating Patel’s case said, “I don’t have any reason to believe that this was racially motivated.” Sheriff Faile’s words are not convincing. Instead, the Indian community have concluded that these two brown men were gunned down by two racist Americans who couldn’t care less if these men belonged to the “model minority”class, or were U.S. born citizens or not. All that mattered to them was that these two men were “brown” or “Muslims” and hence they must be deleted. Permanantly. America First.

For the Indian community, however, these men were not just “brown” men. One man was an Aviation engineer working for Garmin in Kansas, while the other, an owner of a Speed Mart convenience store in South Carolina. For one, the Indian community raised $670, 000 for his funeral. There was no such GoFundMe campaign for the other. For one, the Indian Americans mourned in the Silicon Valley and all over America. For the other there was a hand made sign that was stuck on the window of his convenience store: “Store Close for few days because of a family emergency. Sorry for inconvenience.”

Kochibhotla’s funeral took place in Hyderabad, India. Patel’s funeral was in Lancaster, South Carolina. Paul Oommen, an India-based journalist with The Associated Press tweeted that Kuchibhotla’s granduncle said that Kuchibhotla and his siblings were all bright students, “but Srinivas was the brightest of the three.” For Patel, there was a post on the guestbook of the funeral home saying, “He will always have a special place in our hearts.”

The funeral for Kochibhotla was a public event in India with hundreds of family and friends and even politicians. Images of his body with flowers, grief stricken relatives, the funeral procession, and even the lit funeral pyre were made public. The heartbreaking photo of his young widowed wife, Sunayana Dumala made the pages of both The Hindu and The New York Times.

Patel did have a funeral too. A more private funeral. A small post by the Burgress Funeral Home read, “The service will be overseen by priest Ashok Trivedi.” That’s all.

In the wake of Kochibhotla’s murder Sushil Rao, another Indian journalist tweeted that the Indian government should “institute awards for those who protect Indians abroad.” For the other, no such protections have been announced yet.

Two brown men killed by two racists Americans, yet for the Indian community these brown bodies belong to two very different Americas, two very different kinds of Indians in America. They belong to the America that still believes in “exceptionalism,” and one that doesn’t. They belong to a belief of what Kuchibholta’s grieve stricken wife said in her press conference: “he always assured me that ‘only good things happen to good people. Always think good, always be good. And good will happen to you’.

I am finding these articles about the murder of the Indian Kansas man incredible sad, and this growing worry about “our” safety amongst Indians frustrating. Who exactly is this “our” in this collective call for “our community,” “our safety,” “our protection,” “our dignity?” Who according to the Indians are “the good?”

If anything these two hate crimes have highlighted is that there are two kinds of Indians, two kinds of “browns.” The “right” kind of brown versus the “wrong” kind of brown, and we urgently need to have a conversation about this divide. And this divide is not new. It has existed long before Trump’s America. Lyndon B. Johnson’s “The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965” put an end to the exclusionary and racist quotas of the 1920’s, and gave birth to the class of people we now call the “model minorities.” While the demographics of the right kind of brown have gradually risen in American since 1965, “the wrong kind of browns” have been playing in their shadows. Forever.

If the first casualty for the Indian American community in Trump’s America is Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the first casualty in Bush’s America, referred to as “The First 9/11 Backlash Fatality,” was a man named Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh- American the gas station owner in Mesa Arizona. I do not remember this level of anxiety within the Indian-American community when Sodhi was killed after 9/11. He too was mistaken as an Arab-Muslim and shot and killed by a man called Frank Silva Roque. Rogue had told his friends that he was “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads.”

Neither did Sodhi nor did Patel have any large fund raising campaigns by their fellow Indians across the country to cover the cost of their respective funerals. What, however, did happen in Sodhi’s case was that many Arizona state representatives and citizens of all backgrounds rallied around the Sodhi family and the Sikh American community in support of this hate crime. Over 3,000 people attended Mr. Sodhi’s memorial service.

Yet, just a few months before the tenth anniversary of Sodhi’s death and the attack on America, the Arizona legislature decided to remove Mr. Sodhi’s name from the state 9/11 memorial because he was not deemed “a victim of 9/11″. Adding insult to injury, along with stripping the late Mr. Sodhi’s name from the memorial, the legislation even enumerated that the removed plaque to be sold to a scrap metal dealer. Ten years after 9/11, the original sponsor of the bill to remove Sodhi’s name from the memorial John Kavanaugh, a Republican member of the Arizona senate stated, “It’s part of a myth that, following 9/11, Americans went into a xenophobic rage against foreigners. That’s not true. America’s reaction towards foreigners was commendable.”

I cannot recall any outrage by “the right kind of brown folks” against Sodhi’s murder, or the subsequent negation of his “victim” status after 9/11. While other communities of color repeatedly expressed their anxiety over their safety after 9/11, and Brooklyn New York’s “Little Pakistan” became a ghost town (as 20,000 Pakistanis left Brooklyn out of fear and many landed in detention facilities), I do not recall, then, any call for safety, or awards for keeping all people “brown” safe?

But Srinivas was the “right kind of brown,” the right kind of foreigner, the “good” immigrant. Yet his wife was not so sure about their safety, as she said in her press conference, “we’ve read many times in newspapers of some kind of shooting happening everywhere. And we always wondered, how safe, or I especially, I was always concerned: ‘Are we doing the right thing of staying in [the] United States of America?

The night of Kuchibhotla’s murder, hundreds of “the right kind of brown folks” who continue to take their safety for granted have posted on various social media sites. asking, “why did this happen to him?”

I continue to be frustrated that there is still such dismay amongst the “right” kind of the Indian brown community that Srinivas’s killing was one of a mistaken identity. “He was not a Muslim” as hundreds of Tweets have said. Srinivas was “mistaken” to be a Muslim. So, if Srinivas was a Muslim and Adam Purinton killed him, would his death be more justified?

I find it even ironic that these “right” kind of brown folks who are so shocked about the rise of racism against the Indians in this post-Trump’s America, have continued to turn a blind eye to the racism that has plagued Africans/African Americans and Hispanics in this country on a daily basis, much before Trump’s arrival. Mass incarcerations are not a concept that the “right kind of brown” has to witness, let alone imagine. Such things do not happen to them or “good people.”

Oh well, the “right kind of brown folks” (I forget) are here to advance professionally, to dream, to contribute to America’s exceptionalism and demand safety that “the wrong kind of brown” cannot even fathom.

The “right kind of brown” also never thought that the Muslim ban, or the rise of anti-immigrant xenophobia was going to impact any of them. After all they are the “the right kind of brown,” “the right kind of immigrants,” “good people” –– well educated Hindu professional. They have conveniently forgotten the “Muslim ban” in India. They have conveniently forgotten that India has her own anti-Muslim “Purinton.”

While it deeply saddens me that both Srinivas and Harnish are dead, (and both were vicious racist hate crime along with the shooting of Deep Rai in Kent, Washington), I am even more sad that the right kind of brown folks continue to believe that somehow their life is more valuable than the “wrong” kind of brown –– those that are not a part of the group that constitute “the highest per capita income” earners amongst the minority groups. Are the lives of the right kind of brown folks really more valuable than the Muslims, the refugees, the Speedy Marts and gas station owners, the Hispanics, the Blacks, the Native Americans? Are the lives of their children more valuable than Michael Brown or Tamir Rice?

Let’s face it. Until the right kind of brown folks can begin to acknowledge their complicity, their willful naiveté and their turning of their blind eyes against the wrong kind of brown –– the Indian community will be forever fragmented and even isolated in their discourse on racism in America. A conversation about “our safety” until then should best remain suspended.

Trump may have given the Indian community an opportunity to grapple with this contradiction both here and in India.

 

 

 

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On Being on Hiring Committees

I have been reading and thinking of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen lately. It has been a while since I read those lines. But they keep coming back. May be because it is the hiring season again, and I am anxious.

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.

At the end of Rankine’s prose-poem I learned a new term. A new medical term. John Henryism. It is used for people who are “exposed to stresses stemming from racism.” Rankine tells us that this term was coined by Sherman James. James said that the “psychological costs were high.”

So I keep asking, what are these psychological costs of institutional racism that many faculty of color and marginalized faculty experience when they are asked to be, or have to be on hiring committees? Do we/they have any adequate responses to the kinds of negations and erasures that we witness? Or like Rankine, do we confront the perpetrators of such violence directly? Or do we keep saying in our heads loudly, “Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?” as Rankine did, deep within her self.

Instead, we leave these meetings being outraged at the audacity of our white colleagues to assume that a colleague to be is somewhat lesser than the one they have already chosen. You are appalled.

So you ask. You probe. You ask again. You probe again.

“Where is the deficit? You ask.

Did you just raise the bar?” You ask again.

“Well, you see, our top choice has the potential for receiving that enviable prize one day. That letter from their advisor at [some Ivy league] ah, that letter was brilliant! Imagine the name, the fame that this candidate’s dissertation, “The Ode to the Oak Tree” would bring!”

You compose yourself from that imminent rupture you feel coming over you. You breathe deeply and then blurt out:

“Well, I am afraid I am not on the same page with you. That Ivy league still have buildings named after slave owners. Besides, how many more faculty do we need who can contribute to the various oak trees?”

And then you drop the bomb.

“The point is, I am done with oak trees. They have lost their relevance. What we need are fresh and clear voices that will expose our students to The New Jim Crow, The Post 9/11 cultures of racializations, the rewritings of the Vietnam war, the literatures of the Dalits, the refugees, Palestine.”

There is dead silence in the room. You know you have made your colleagues angry. But they do not show it. You give them space. You watch them act very strangely around you the next couple days. You see their quick steps if they see you coming from the other direction. The algebra of avoidance.

And this is where the psychological costs begin to pile up. You realize that one day you were on the other end. You wonder what these same colleagues thought of you, or still may think of you. While you have never thought of yourself as being inferior (as an intellectual, as a writer, as a thinker, as a teacher) –– you are suddenly wondering, if you really are!

You have gone down that path before and you remind yourself that you are tenured. Even full. You fought the last gate-keepers that wanted to keep you on the other side of the fence. But you won.

So once again, you ignore their racist bullshit of needing more books written on oak trees and you make your case. They are unwilling. But they heard you. The oak has lost its relevance.

You just saved yourself from John Henryism. Now you need to begin to think how you can save your new colleague to be from not being infected by the same condition.