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|September 11, 2002|
The Rediff Special/Hari Sreenivasan
The discrimination a year ago was overt, now it is subtler. Brown-skinned men aren't being yanked off planes with the regularity that they were in the days after the attack but the stares from other passengers haven't stopped. There are still incidents like the recent one in Orange County where two Cal State Fullerton students were kicked out of a movie theatre for speaking Pashtun but they are fewer and less frequent. The problem now is that most of the fear and uncertainty lying inches below the surface of your American neighbour or co-worker are not crimes; they cannot be assuaged merely with more information. It will take time for these suspicions to subside and there is a chance that they might not.
For those who have seen Mississippi Masala (1991); a movie depicting racial tension between Indians and African-Americans, one can perhaps see a positive by-product of 9/11. There is now, in some circles, an unspoken understanding between brown and black because brown-skinned folks are no longer immune from racial profiling and can no longer hide behind safe stereotypes as hoteliers, programmers, engineers, and doctors. The nod is unspoken but understood between any African American who has ever been pulled over while driving and a brown person being frisked a second and or even a third time at the airport.
Our communities united and divided in the chaotic past 12 months. To our credit I must point to organizations like the South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow and its comprehensive documentation of hate crimes, which serves as a strong example of grassroots watchdog activism. Indians also sat up and took notice of whether their politicians stood behind them or not. Some credit the Indian American community with the unseating of an incumbent congresswoman in Georgia.
At least four South Asians are running for public office in the San Francisco Bay Area, some probably motivated by last year's events and a national Political Action Committee has become more active in order to support more candidates.
I also witnessed some of the ways in which we carefully kept ourselves apart. Cowardly segments of Indian American society sent out emails and other unofficial communications highlighting that Indians and Hindus were unfairly being targeted though the horrible acts were Muslim ones. For such narrow-minded people, the political importance of the strand that divided us was more important than the ties that bound as all as humans and as victims of misunderstanding and backlash.
At the public hearings in San Francisco city hall, people of Middle Eastern descent were at the microphone, without any Indian community leaders speaking forcefully at their side and against the religious and geographically blind harassment and discrimination that took place in the months following the attacks. While India and Pakistan grew to be more than blips on the international media radar screen, the American audience also began noticing the deep seeded ideological hostilities Indians and Pakistani immigrants have carried over from the old country.
There are government systems in place now to report "suspicious activity". In the long run, these federally blessed surveillance tactics urging neighbours to turn on one another might perhaps prevent a future terrorist attack. In the short run, however, the possibility of FBI agents forcefully knocking on an innocent person's door due to a case of mistaken identity or spurious hearsay by a disgruntled neighbour is terror enough. Systems like TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) enable ignorant individuals to assume the worst of people, but more important, they give these misguided individuals the ear of an authority figure, whether it is an operator at America's Most Wanted or an answering machine.
This brings me to the most interesting conundrum facing South Asians in the US today: a collective questioning of our identities. What makes an Indian a patriot to the United States? I'm sure there were similar feelings of angst facing Japanese Americans in the US before they were hauled off to internment camps, or perhaps even Indians and Pakistanis of our parent's generation caught on the wrong side of the partition but the cycle is unusual and new for most of us. What happens when a brown-skinned person sees another one acting suspiciously? Do they call the authorities in an act of patriotism for what may be the good of the country they live in, or do they do nothing in order to avoid paranoia, for the cost could be the dignity of someone from a country they left.
Hari Sreenivasan is a freelance reporter and anchor. He is also the founder of Ompower Media Inc.
Design: Uday Kuckian
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