Hard conversations: the model minority
South Asians must grapple with anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, too
By Hammad Ali, Contributor
In loving memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who passed away on 7 November, 2020 (20 Heshvan, 5781). May your teachings and your memory be an eternal blessing.
2020 has been a tumultuous year since March, with a global pandemic and the associated physical distancing. After that, in June, the USA and eventually the world exploded in protests against racist policing. George Floyd, an African-American man in the USA, died a victim to police brutality. While neither racism nor police brutality is new in the States (or around the world), Floyd’s death sparked protests and conversations everywhere. Black Lives Matter began trending online, and many countered with the suggestion that “all lives matter.” Many of us had to respond – surprised at the suggestion that we ever implied otherwise, explaining that that Black lives are the ones currently under the knee of a police, being suffocated and silenced. Arguing that all body parts matter, but when it’s your leg that has been shattered in an accident, it might be a good idea to stop worrying about your eyebrows for a while.
Just as Canada has its own anti-Black police violence, there is also similar violence here particularly between the establishment and Indigenous communities. What pains me even more about this is that many immigrants like myself are woefully unaware of the nuances of that fact, and often end up biased against the Indigenous people on this land. Triggered by the protests south of the border, people in Canada also began to have conversations about racist violence. This can only be a good thing, all the more so because many of us were suddenly having to come to terms with the latent, tacit racism in our own circles.
As a person of colour living in Canada, I have to say that my experience has been more positive than others. In the four years I have lived here, I have had just one overt experience of racism. It may thus be hard to explain to my Canadian friends why I still remain apprehensive about issues of race. I have seen, more than once, that subtle standards of treatment are different depending on the person. An indignant white person, for example, is “standing up for their rights,” but if that indignant person is a South Asian like me with an Arabic name, it’s “aggressive and rude.” Taking a walk late at night is also something that most of my friends are not comfortable doing, because when we point to the nearby house we live in, we are often expected to provide “evidence.” And let’s not even get started with trying to walk out of a supermarket without having the receipt ready at hand.
Yet – and this may ruffle feathers – when it comes to overt racism, people like me are the more fortunate ones. South Asians are often presented as a model minority, focusing on education, hard work, and staying out of trouble. Every time I hear these comments, it sounds eerily like the speaker is stopping just shy of “they know their place and we like that.” It bothers me that we as a community buy into this narrative, and use it to discredit the struggles of others. I have witnessed a fair amount of this since June. Claims about how crime/unemployment rates are disproportionately high in Black/Indigenous communities, how they do not exhibit the same “commitment to hard work” as us, and several other claims of the sort were common. All with what seems like one objective: perpetuating the myth of the “deserving” versus the “undeserving” poor.
I do not know that there is a quick fix to this problem. I do feel that this entire perspective is perpetuated by the establishment, because it divides us and makes us easier to handle. I am not some conspiracy nut, but making sure that the people you are oppressing do not get along with each other is good strategy, and one that South Asians have fallen victim to since 1757. I find it hard to blame my peers and elders for having bought into the narrative, but I do believe that proper education on the realities of the situation will help. There is enough evidence to show that despite being this “model minority,” our lives in this system are not exactly smooth sailing. Sure, it could be worse. But if we are content with being a token of how “hard work and good sense” always pays off, we cannot escape the moral burden of how that is then used to justify the oppression and deprivation of other subgroups because they do not meet the establishment’s checklist of character traits. At the end of the day, people do not have to meet character requirements set by the very system that has kept them down for decades, in order to earn the rights to be treated better. Freedom, and the right to self-actualization, is a right for all humans everywhere. It should not have to be earned.
For my own part, I do not avoid these conversations. I am more than happy to debate with friends about how we are overlooking serious differences in socioeconomic circumstances and their lasting impact over generations. We are overlooking how something as simple as not having access to a good public library sets back many immigrant children every summer, while their privileged counterparts get to go to summer camps and join library reading program. We are overlooking how something as small as a broken down car can wipe out all the savings of an Indigenous family, while being no more than a speed bump for others. It is important that we keep talking about this. The field is not level right now, and the last thing I want is for my fellow South Asians to be used as a token gesture of how the field can be made level with unilateral commitment. Reality is far more nuanced. We owe it to ourselves to face it.