To be Brown: Hindu Students Taking a Stand

Written by Samir Durvasula and Shivani Parikh

We are writing this column to give a voice to all of the Hindu Americans on campus and elsewhere. Hindus have been living, working, and building families and communities in the US since as early as 1820. As our population swelled, the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 directly targeted Asian communities. The 1923 Supreme Court case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind classified Indians as non-white, which led to Indian migrants who had already been naturalized to be retroactively stripped of their citizenship, after prosecutors argued that they had illegally become citizens. We hereby affirm that our legal status and treatment in the U.S. today is linked to the work of Black activists from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Their protests and civil disobedience removed barriers and burdens and led lawmakers to establish the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 which removed quotas, allowing Hindus to come to the United States much more easily.

We wish for our oppressions to be recognized — post-election, we are reminded of how our brownness defines our experiences as Americans. We are affected by hate by the systems, institutions and policies of white supremacy, misogyny, racism, economic inequality, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia. We are expected to speak perfect, unaccented English, even though for many of us it is not our first language. Our cultures and religions are appropriated and disrespected. Our cultures are considered “exotic” and “exciting,” though we fight to preserve them every day. We thereby reject this commodification, objectification and tokenization of our cultures and our bodies.

We are not all doctors, lawyers or engineers: the myth of the model minority hides the reality of our working-class communities holding menial, minimum wage jobs, especially when they are undocumented. It also erases the very real issues of racial discrimination and poverty, with the outcome holding us to a standardized silence. This myth also unfairly and dangerously pits minority against minority. Many of us are encouraged by our own families to be compliant and apathetic, as silence benefits the holistic appearance of our group nationally and generally when applying for employment opportunities. Our communities are very divided — people come from many different backgrounds and heritages that influence whether or not they speak out. Furthermore, a large population of South Asians are also Muslims, constantly targeted both personally and by the media. Because of the color of our skin and the racialization and criminalization of the Muslim identity, non-Muslim South Asians, such as Sikhs, Jains, Christians and Hindus, are victims of Islamophobia as well.

With a recently revised travel ban, citizens of Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Libya will still face a 90-day suspension of visa processing, and it remains explicitly tied to previous comments that relate Muslims to threats of terrorism. In this vein, we would like to express our deepest sympathies to the families of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, Deep Rai and Harnish Patel. These Hindu men were all murdered, with Srinivas and Deep’s murders being explicitly the results of xenophobia and racism, and the cause of Harnish’s still under investigation. To our fellow Hindus, recognize that Islamophobia is racism that affects all brown bodies indiscriminately. Therefore, standing with Muslims is crucial in this divisive time. Cornell Muslim Educational and Cultural Association’s (or MECA’s) recent Islam Awareness Week was just one example of the many ways in which we can participate in educating ourselves about Islam, our fellow students, and how we can support them.

One of the most unfortunate struggles that we face is how we are often viewed in POC spaces. We are held to unsubstantiated assumptions that unfairly ascribe to us a misattributed apathy, and so our struggles are minimized. This is not, however, to invalidate the very real presence of members of our community who embrace and internalize the model minority myth and other toxic beliefs such as anti-blackness and white supremacy. There are also many who choose to remain neutral, and as a result oppress POCs who are struggling and fighting for their visibility, rights and equal treatment. We hope to improve upon solidarity within our communities, which are divided across religious and national origin lines, contribute to dialogues and educate ourselves about actions and stances we can take to effectively support each other and other POC groups. Conclusively, we are not demanding free labor from other POCs on our behalf, but rather highlighting our frustrations within activism and coalition-building spaces, and instead are hoping to improve upon the relationships and bridges amongst us.

This article was written as a call to action to address the silence that we face. To our Hindu friends, please do not be afraid to speak out when you face discrimination or see others being discriminated against. If we are not loud and vocal, especially given our current political climate, the struggles that we face will never be addressed. It is time to mobilize, organize, and to stand up & fight back, regardless of faith, national origin, or ethnicity. We cannot be divided, especially as we navigate a period in which we are in danger because of how we are perceived, and not because of the identities we may truly hold. We must irrevocably stand up for one another.

In addition, do not be afraid to enter POC spaces and advocate for their causes as well. Many of us are privileged in our assets and cultural and social resources, and must remember how we can use these privileges to engage in transformational solidarity, in which we actively go beyond sympathy, and move towards asking how we can be of help. Fighting for POC rights means fighting for our rights as well, and this includes fighting for issues that we never have and never will face.

However, this call to action is not only to Hindu communities, but to others as well. We ask that other POC leaders on campus begin to view us as members of a community that seeks to be a part of your coalitions. Please do not overlook us or treat us as if we have no empathy for the issues that you face.

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Samir is an Electrical and Computer Engineer and he is the Vice President of the South Asian Council and the President of Cornell Hindu Students Council. Shivani is a sophomore Development Sociology major, and she is the undergraduate representative on the CALS Faculty Senate’s Diversity and Inclusiveness Committee, an undergraduate representative on the Student Diversity Development Initiatives’ funding board, an intern at the Asian and Asian-American Center, and a member of Asian Pacific Americans for Action. Both also serve on the Student Assembly Committee on Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives.