On Diversity and Being South Asian American

Oh, you have a friend back home who’s Indian? That’s nice — I really am happy for you. But I just don’t see what that has to do with me.

(Yes, I’ve had this said to me at Amherst several times.)

Despite the fact that I was born in the United States, I will be a foreigner to many people in this country until the day I die. Like many other Asian Americans, I have accepted that reality and learned to live within it. I did not expect Amherst to be the same, however. I expected Amherst students to be more aware, and I hoped that it would be a place where diversity was truly and deeply valued. It is clear to me now that this is not the case. Yet, if I were to conduct a poll asking Amherst students if they value diversity and difference, I am certain that every single one would say yes. I want you to think about what diversity means, and what it means to value it. You probably think you do value it — but I know that for many Amherst students this is an empty claim.

Allow me to illustrate with what is, in my opinion, an extreme example. On several occasions, I’ve had classmates inquire about my identity and how it affects my feelings toward certain political questions. That in itself, I don’t really mind— if such questions are asked respectfully, then I am happy to offer my thoughts. Somehow, though, I’ve had several Amherst students assume that I come from a Muslim or Buddhist background on account of my being Indian (or just having brown skin). “As someone who comes from a Muslim country,” someone said to me once, “how do you feel about Donald Trump?” Each time this happens, I find myself appalled and in disbelief.

How can anyone at Amherst not know that the religious majority of India is Hinduism, which has about one billion adherents in that country alone? If you’re going to try and assume my religious background, which you shouldn’t be doing anyway, you should at least know that much. If you’re reading this right now and didn’t already know that most Indians call themselves Hindus and that Hinduism is a major world religion, we have a problem. That’s over a billion people you have no elementary knowledge of. Do you still claim to value diversity?

This sort of ignorance has real political impact. With regards to the politics of South Asia, those who assume I’m Muslim or come from a Muslim country are not going to have the slightest clue of what’s at stake in the region. Animosity between Hindus and Muslims has, for many decades, been a major source of conflict and violence. Though I am oversimplifying somewhat, that animosity is the very reason why India and Pakistan exist as distinct national identities. If you assume that I’m a Muslim because I’m brown, then you need to educate yourself.

I don’t think I’m overreacting, either; this is just one extreme example. Even among those who know enough to be aware of Hinduism, complete ignorance about South Asia is widespread — just ask any South Asian student or professor. If you didn’t know, South Asia is the most populous region in the world. One-fourth of all human beings live there. I’d be afraid to know how many Amherst students couldn’t tell me anything about India or South Asia beyond spicy food, yoga, Bollywood and maybe Gandhi. On this campus my identity means basically nothing. All I seem to get for it are racist jokes, assumptions and stereotypes.

I do not feel like most identities are valued in any meaningful way on this campus. Unless you care enough to learn about the social, political and cultural differences between people of various backgrounds, then you shouldn’t pretend to care about diversity. For you, diversity is skin-deep. If you never seek exposure to the various subjective experiences of students of color, then you do not care about diversity. Diversity serves only to satisfy your conscience at the expense of mine. Paradoxically, I find that somehow, I am valued only because I have brown skin. Diversity is a statistic to be paraded around, published on our website and included in press releases. It is not lived, loved and cherished by a surprisingly large contingent of students on this campus.

At “Amherst Uprising” last year, an event supposedly dedicated to treasuring diversity, I watched in horror as the entirety of Frost Library held a moment of silence for the victims of the Paris attacks. Why was I so horrified? Not a moment was given to those who were killed in an attack in Lebanon just the day before. Not a moment was given to those who are killed every day in ongoing, armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria. In Syria alone, over 50,000 lives were lost due to armed conflict in 2015. Where was their moment of silence, Amherst? How many French flags did I have to see on Facebook while hundreds were violently murdered every day in one of its former colonies? Was it all some sort of cruel joke? It was disgusting and hypocritical.

I write this article because I believe that we as a community can and must live up to the standards we set for ourselves. If diversity is to have real purpose and significance, we need to represent that in our actions. We need to approach the unimaginable breadth of subjective experience, including our past histories and our present realities, with the same sort of humility and respect that we deserve from one another. We need to treasure the willingness to explore the incredible difference we see in our world and on our campus. In order to do that, we must also expect one another to have a basic understanding of global history and politics. We must listen to and learn from the narratives of all people, especially the poor and systemically oppressed.

You do need to learn about the complex and brutal history of black people in the Americas, including but not limited to the institution of chattel slavery. You do need to learn about how the state of Israel was established and what it’s like to live there as a Palestinian today. You do need to learn about how national borders in Africa were drawn by late 19th century European imperialists. You do need to learn about the international division of labor and how harsh working conditions in countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam directly contribute to your cheap and fashionable wardrobe. You do need to learn about what it’s like to be a black woman in this country and you need to be prepared to recognize and disavow your privilege.
These things matter, assuming you care about the ongoing suffering of people everywhere and want to make a real difference in the world. Because many of us will become the political, financial and intellectual leaders of our generation, this imperative is of serious consequence to the future of humanity. We all have a lot to learn, and there are a lot of reasons why it’s important that we do learn. (Of course, I am no exception.)

At the end of the day, it has to start with us, on this campus. If we can’t even care about each other, I have little hope that we can be a force for positive change in the world. I want my identity, and that of every single Amherst student, to be valued and treasured. I want our community to prove that it values all human life, a task it has failed time and time again.
Do you value diversity? If your answer is yes, then prove it.