Complacent Model Minorities: South Asians, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and Ferguson

“But we do make a contribution towards structural racism, since our weak bad faith ‘expresses itself in systems of beliefs manifested by people in their everyday activities, their folkways and mores, and because such a system’s maintenance and perpetuation depend on a collectivity of choices that may or may not be efforts to hide from responsibility.’ Desis are faced with a situation, as ‘latecomers’ (in the language of Irving Kristol) wherein ‘reality’ and ‘the way things are’ are held up as guide toward how they must act. ‘You cannot change anything’ desis are told in effect, ‘since you are a foreigner, and besides can you show that you have not benefited from the system (you in your fancy car and your college degree)?’ Faced with these congealed values, ‘reality’ takes on cosmological significance and migrants are tempted not to touch it lest they trigger a debacle of enormous proportions” – p. 179 Karma of Brown Folk, Vijay Prashad (2000)

If you ignore the mainstream media, one of the [very] few relieving (?) byproducts of Michael Brown’s death earlier this month, has been the incendiary response from Ferguson community members, writers, activists, and otherwise unaffiliated Americans who acknowledge that Brown’s shooting is not anomalous, but part and parcel of a larger racial and socioeconomic picture in this country. Indeed, the variety of liberal/radical/progressive media that turns up on my Facebook wall is not likely to be a representative barometer of national/popular sentiment, but while I sit at my desk in suburban North Carolina, I feel that such media—such as (to name only a few) Black Girl Dangerous’ Things To Stop Being Distracted By When A Black Person Gets Murdered By Police; John Oliver’s recent segment on Last Week Tonight; or The Onion’s Tips for Being an Unarmed Black Teen—are the only solace I can find.

The most recent piece to make the rounds on my news feed is a blog post by a mother under the penname Manic Pixie Dream Mama, who writes about a white mother’s “burden of white privilege.” A cursory glance at the title left me skeptical of this mother’s message, but if you read the piece all the way to the end, her conclusion is surprising. Rather victimizing herself, or being an apologist for white male privilege, Manic Pixie Dream Mama writes, “My boys will carry a burden of privilege with them always. They will be golden boys, inoculated by a lack of melanin and all its social trapping against the problems faced by Black America. For a mother, white privilege means your heart doesn’t hit your throat when your kids walk out the door. It means you don’t worry that the cops will shoot your sons. It carries another burden instead. White privilege means that if you don’t school your sons about it, if you don’t insist on its reality and call out oppression, your sons may become something terrifying. Your sons may become the shooters.” However small of a gesture it might be–and it is a small one, indeed, because three days ago I met a white girl who had no idea about Michael Brown’s death, much less the subsequent uprising—I find hope in Manic Pixie Dream Mama’s (and others’) recognition of the fact that as long we are complacent we are complicit.

In all of these blog posts, satirical news segments, articles, and thought pieces what was already clear becomes clearer: that the responsibility to curtail the persecution of Black youth by [majority] white police forces, and to improve the plight of our country’s Black citizens lies does not lie within the Black community, but with the majority of white [mostly male] legislators, criminal justice professionals, businessmen, etc. who [effectively] continue to run our country after centuries of civil rights battles.

But what is missing from this narrative is a substantive conversation from other minority communities about what our responsibilities are in the aftermath of recent instances of police brutality. It shouldn’t be taken lightly that the Washington Post op-ed piece, “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me” was written, not by a white police officer, but by a man named Sunil Dutta, a professor at Colorado Technical University, and a cop with the Los Angeles Police Department, who is of South Asian descent. Of course, nowhere does Dutta mention race. Rather, he takes a rather objectivist approach, when he requests community members not to “make our job more difficult than it already is.” Indeed, in an ideal world, community members and cops would treat each other with mutual respect. The reporting that has emerged from Ferguson does not deny that the people who live in that community could benefit from more policeman, but it also acknowledges the fact that black communities across the country are in desperate want of cops they can trust, and who, reciprocally, trust them.

I included the excerpt from Vijay Prashad’s book The Karma of Brown Folk (2002) because I think it begins to capture the myths South Asians—and other “model minorities”—are told, and tell themselves, about race, culture, and class in America. I’m not saying anything new here, but what is missing in Dutta’s [too brief] op-ed is an explicit recognition of the historical relationship between white cops and black community members. And, I would argue that such a basic acknowledgement—recognized by so many—remains absent in the South Asian community at-large. While my own activism is dismal at best, one of the most infuriating aspects of being Indian-American is that the hubristic discourse of cultural superiority is paired with pervasive apathy about social/political/civic issues unrelated to economic concerns about taxation that might affect business owners, medical practioners with private clinics, or corporate professionals. In my own community, I have noticed that while most Indians attribute their success in the United States to a better work ethic and superior moral compass in comparison to other minority communities, they are unable to empathize with the systemic structural oppression faced by blacks, Hispanics, and other “less privileged” minority groups.

While the “model minority” narrative is not new, what I have noticed in the confluence of the ALS Ice Bucket phenomenon, Michael Brown’s death, and subsequent events in Ferguson is that it seems as if South Asian Americans seem increasingly less likely to see themselves as minorities in this country. Indeed, I too have been privy to this fallacy. During a conversation with a classmate last semester, I claimed that I had not participated in minority student organizations like the South Asian Students Organization in college because I did not identify with the experience of being a minority; and on more than one occasion friends have all but jokingly subsumed me into their jokes about “white people.” What I am realizing, and should have realized much sooner, as lists like 12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson or 10 Things White People Can Do About Ferguson Besides Tweet flourish, is that the “we are basically white” mentality is dangerous. And, that it takes the “model minority” myth and transforms it into a “we have made it” complacency.

Still, I am left without a conclusion. I cannot, and do not want to, enumerate a list of “things South Asian Americans can do about Ferguson.” In addition to protesting the “listification” phenomena spurred on by websites like Buzzfeed and Thought Catalog, I do not want to advocate for the notion that we can fight these pervasive injustices insularly. Today, I only have one small hope, and that is for my South Asian American peers to take as much interest in Ferguson, and perhaps the history of civil rights in America, as they in the ALS ice bucket challenge. You don’t have to give money to make a difference.

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