Feb 3, 2006

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

It’s easy to be paranoid these days. And I have nothing to complain about - an Indian guy who sort of blends into the crowd and isn’t anything out of the ordinary, especially in urban settings. But there’s still an element of question when people look at me funny. There’s still the lingering feeling that I’m being sized up from the corner of their eyes, and I don’t like that feeling - opting to make myself as unassuming or inconspicuous as I can in most instances, or sometimes, staring back/straight on with a bit of a challenge in my eyes: “if you want to stare, I can too.”

The funny thing is that I don’t know if it’s truly there for me, or if I’m just flipping out. Of course I’ve heard things, and growing up in small-town suburbia, I’ve been told some choice things. But all in all, the harassment, when at all there, was minimal. I can understand how a lot of people can either ignore it, or even be oblivious to the very fact that it exists at all. I’m not surprised when I hear members of South Asian communities - even those that are more often profiled or targeted than others - state with clear conviction that they’ve never run across discrimination, hatred, or animosity. it’s likely that they haven’t, at least face on, because that animus is hard to forget, let alone deny.

But I think that it’s interesting what you start to notice. I’ve sat in the dining car for as long as I can remember in my trips on Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor. it is very unusual for anyone to occupy the other side of the table, across from me. Not that I welcome a slew of neighbors in my personal space - I rather value the ability to stretch my legs - but the point is - why aren’t people sitting here? Even when the trains are very crowded, I hardly ever have a request to sit next to me. I’ve seen white folks pass it up, which I can understand, but people of color just as easily pass it up, willing to forge new understandings with “non-swarthy looking fellows” rather than just overcome whatever may be affecting the split-second decision of where to sit.

It’s hard not to read into things sometimes.

And I have the privileges of class, “perceived non-foreignness” (at least when I open my mouth and my blended mimicry of urban/suburban/midWestern/Southern comes out. Whatever it is, while they can’t always place what part of the country I’m from, at least the country is never in doubt), and non-profiled physical characteristics (generally clean-shaven, no head covering). I stop myself from getting too worked up from a couple of stares or questionable looks when I think about the experiences of practicing Muslim men and women, Sikh men, or anyone who speaks English with a non-American accent, speaks another language in public, wears traditional clothing... it seems so hostile. And I know that they aren’t always facing the gentile racism and mistrust of the middle class/northeast.

So I have little to complain about, but feeling this way - on guard and wary - makes me appreciate the gap between melting pot rhetoric and bubbling cauldron reality that much more. Maybe we’re not on the brink of a riot, but is this really liberty?


flygirl said...

Isn't it such a fine line, the rhetoric of the melting pot and the translation to reality? We keep doing the same thing here, yet when the sh*t hits the fan, we don't deal with it. I felt the same way going home after Cronulla. I wasn't sure if it was just me, or whether I was getting more looks, that there was a strange tension in the air. It jsut seems to be increasing; the hard edge of fear and racism which seems to be picked up more frequently (perhaps we're still a little jittery after Cronulla), still isn't having the edge softened. That's where our leaders have failed so badly.

Reminds me of a Boondocks cartoon where Huey and friend Cesar (?) gloats, somewhat half heartedly, that blacks are the number two most hated after Sept 11 :-( Non coloured solidarity, eh?

Rage said...

Yeah I know that Boondocks (haven't been reading for a long while - has he gotten back on track yet?). It's funny, though - that particular thread cut in a lot of ways. In the U.S., for example, immediately after September 11th, I saw more interviews of African Americans and Latino/as as "New Yorkers" than I can ever recall - even on non-subtle Fox News. The clear message, at least to me, was that these folks have entered the mainstream definition of "American" in the wake of the disaster while the real outsider, the real "enemy" was someone who didn't resemble white, black, or even Latino folks. It was someone who looked like me. Media coverage directly and indirectly affects perceptions, after all, and I remember in that confused and blurry time, distinctly noticing the fact that the community of Americans had suddenly grown more inclusive of certain communities of color while simultaneously shutting my people out.

So for me to feel these things is one thing - I probably over-analyze regularly. But I worry for the kids who are 2nd generation, and soon, third generation, over whom the specter of perpetual foreignness may continue to linger. And what really gets me is the way that our elders play into it. When they say "American," they mean "white." When a child calls herself "American" they recoil, finding it at odds with a desi cultural identity, which we (in spaces cyber and otherwise) have established many times over - continues to develop and thrive in diasporic communities in new and interesting ways. But that fear of losing what they have left behind seems to create an inherent conservatism around cultural and personal identity for these uncles and aunties.

Which I think, can lead to vulnerability to a whole range of radicalism (Hindu, Muslim, whatever) - the "can't let go of the culture" mindset becomes so ingrained in the mindset of the younger folks that they turn to more militant means of "ensuring" that they are holding on. And so - suddenly you have the tri-color waving Hindu Student Association folks breaking off from the mainstream Indian groups, you have the reactionary Islamist movements in diasporic communities, and on and on.

Funny thing is, even our parents' generation has evolved quite a bit from what it was in the (m)otherland. My folks have friends from all over India - they wouldn't have been so close to non-Gujaratis back home. Their lingua franca here is English. My mom is proud when folks can't tell that she's Gujarati. She says often "I learning more about India when I came to the U.S." The students and skilled professionals who came here in the 50s and beyond had it rough - they couldn't swing down and get a dosa whenever they wanted, or even the groceries from back home. Now, well - it's crazy what all you can get here. Still no chickoo though. :)

Anyway - the perceived otherness from within the community is one thing, but I don't subscribe to the point of view that "self-segregation" causes the kind of tension that I feel. I don't think that's true - I think that lack of education, or even curiosity, about one another's customs/cultures/histories is what gets desi communities in the States at odds with other communities in the U.S. The mainstream seldom cares (though urban hip America has taken to yoga in a major way, and many desi communities don't have or take the time to learn about elements of American history that stretch beyond "Lincoln freed the slaves."

There's no people's education here. I believe that it would go a long way towards bringing communities that aren't linked - immigrant and African American, for example, closer together. And I wouldn't feel weird when I get odd stares from people of color, because I could find a better way to bridge that gap, which means more to me than trying to find common ground with mainstream white America.

flygirl said...

Rage, thanks for the great response. It's interesting that blacks kind of finally made it to "maintstream" for a change. Though from later instances it seems it only applied to NY.

Just a quick comment for now - I, along with some friends, are hoping to start a(nother?!) culture/politics/identity blog; we want articles and experiences from all over the world if possible...so...I was wondering if you would be interested? Interested in tracking notions of identity in these strange and wonderful times.

Rage said...

flygirl, thanks - seems like I was typing too fast and have a million typos (and even open parens!). But there's so much to it, I guess.

I think your point is right - this was just at that particular moment, when everyone seemed to be coming together around a shared tragedy, that I was struck by how much media coverage seemed to finally care about non-white opinions/expressions. But it was eerie that this is what it took to get this kind of attention, and what it might have meant for desi/arab american/muslim communities here.

Anyway, would love to learn more about the blog! Thanks for thinking of me. Maybe email is a better way to communicate... you can email me here.

flygirl said...

rage, email sent off.

I think the second gen experience will be much more nuanced than that "self segregate" mentality, and I think that regardless of what it may seem like, next gen non-desi americans will make the adjustment. It will be slow, but it will happen. you are right that it's to do with lack of curiosity, and assumptions of both normality and superiority. that's where we need to initiate our own ideas to engage. then again, there is only so far we can go. after all, all of popular culture and music is born of African American subcultures. they effectively *created* these things, yet still struggle to gain acceptance and, well, normality in representation.

it sounds like an excuse, but really...we are all barely one generation out of white only policies. we've come so far. but, importantly, we've so far to go.

Have you read Howard Winant's The World is a Ghetto?

damn i sound preachy!

Rage said...

Good points. I'm not complaining (too much) but the close-mindedness gets on my nerves. Haven't read Winant's book - any particular reason?

Chai said...

flygirl: there isn't solidarity because South Asian community never gave a rat's ass about Blacks before 9-11 and do we now??

we can't ask for solidarity when we dont solidify with them on major projects (i.e., racial profiling) until it affects us, right?

good luck on your blog and i hope rage writes for it. love his writing.

rage: i'm a little lost in your analysis regarding Blacks/Latinos in the American mainstream. Are you saying that just for that day Blacks/Lations were in the mainstream because, in your opinion, they were interviewed more on television and media cared about their opinion on 9-11? Or are you saying that now they are considered mainstream, period? I'll reserve my analysis on these points once I get an answer.

(damn, i'm so demanding! :) )

Rage said...

Chai - It is a half-baked media analysis, but I think it goes like this: perpetual foreignness in the United States was institutionalized and re/de/fined yet again soon after September 11th.

As folks talk about all the time in reference to the "model minority myth," for a long while in the 80s and 90s, Asians (and to a degree, Arabs) in the United States were the "good immigrants" and Latinos were the "undesirables" - and African Americans were told "why can't you do as well as those Asians?"

During a short window after September 11th, whatever favor certain Asian and Arab groups had curried over the years was dismissed in this sudden fear that the U.S. was under attack. I had the distinct feeling that the lines for "us against them" were drawn out in the media reports, and I felt like for the first time that I can remember, African Americans and to a lesser degree, Latinos, were given prominent media attention, not as members of their own particular groups, but as "Americans."

I normally think that's great - that's what we should be doing. But there was a noticeable, and quite disconcerting gap: they weren't interviewing Asians at all (forget about Arab Americans - that wasn't going to happen). So I saw an interview with students from Stuyvesant High School, an elite public school that had recently opened a brand new building right near the WTC site. Stuy is huge. Stuy is 51% Asian. All the kids they interviewed were not. It was really weird.

And Chinatown is in the immediate vicinity of the WTC area, but there were hardly any Chinese Americans there. I actually think that this really played out in immigrant neighborhoods, because I actually saw a lot more U.S. flags than I'd ever seen in some of these 'hoods - and I feel like they were being put up as a shield more than a sign of support for the U.S. This idea of foreignness is very palpable for immigrant communities - and though they'd prefer to be left alone - if they have to interact with mainstream America, they definitely don't want it to be on negative terms as foreigners.

Does this mean that things improved for the other groups? Not at all. It's just that there was more attention to individuals - not to communities. I feel like the Other was clearly defined, and it excluded Asians and Arabs. That was my feeling, at least. And I think that it's consistent with the history of this country, sadly. The opinion-makers and statesmen have been excruciatingly skilled at drawing and redrawing the lines around who is an "American" and who is not, and increasing the schisms between disempowered people who should be rising up to say "no more!"

Anyway - so I just felt it at that moment. It's not saying that suddenly, the American country club is open for business from any of the marginalized, non-swarthy types. Just that the moment came and offered the guise of inclusion to groups that weren't #1 on the target list for a while.

Of course, the Minutemen and other related crazies have shifted the focus back to Latinos as bad immigrants, but whatever.

Thanks for asking, and thanks for the props, too. I love that you're honest and open on your site.