Deepa Iyer discusses race, inclusion in post-9/11 America

Author Deepa Iyer gives a public talk and discusses her book, "We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape our Multiracial Future" in Cohen Auditorium on Oct. 5. (Alonso Nichols / Tufts University)

Activist, writer and lawyer Deepa Iyer gave a public talk in Cohen Auditorium on Oct. 5 about her book, “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future,” and what it means to be living in a post-9/11 United States as a person of color.

Titled “Rising Up: South Asian, Arab, Muslim & Sikh Communities in Post-9/11 America,” the event was sponsored by the Consortium of Studies on Race, Colonialism and Diaspora, Asian American Studies Minor, Department of Sociology, Asian American Center, Africana Center, International Center, Latino Center and LGBT Center, Office of the Chief Diversity Officer, Office of the Dean of Student Affairs, Office of Residential Life and Learning, Peace and Justice Studies program, Department of Religion and University Chaplaincy.

Pawan Dhingra, event coordinator and chair of the Department of Sociology and professor of American studies said that it is fitting that such a wide array of offices was involved in this talk.

Deepa Iyer has a professional history of bringing together different groups, all with a focus toward social justice and racial equality,” Dhingra said.

According to Dhingra, Iyer’s work in activism breaks down barriers by bringing together religious groups, secular communities, generations of immigrants and various minorities.

“That has to happen, hopefully, for change to take place in our society,” Dhingra said. “I think that her coming and the kind of groups on campus that have been involved to bring her here will demonstrate those linkages.” 

Iyer started the talk by describing her struggle with cultural identity as an immigrant from South India growing up in Kentucky and her later discovery of a political identity.

“I made peace with my cultural identity over college and into law school … but it wasn’t really until the days and weeks after September 11th, 2001 that I actually felt that I could claim a very clear political identity and a political orientation as a person of color and as a woman of color,” Iyer said.

The 9/11 attacks caused a surge of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States that many people and communities have been affected by, according to Iyer.

“I remember feeling, and I write about this in my book, a process of double grieving that many people who are South Asian, Arab, Sikh and Muslim felt in the wave of 9/11,” she said. “Grieving for the horrific attacks and losses that had occurred in our country, but also grieving for our own communities whom we knew would be immediately scapegoated in the ensuing war on terror.” 

After witnessing the discrimination and inequality that South Asian Americans and other people of color faced after 9/11, Iyer wanted to work toward building racial justice and unity, she said.

Through her work at South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group, Iyer said she was able to advance toward this goal.

“I really wanted to document the stories of people who I had been fortunate enough to meet while I was working at SAALT and to tell really the untold stories of post-9/11 America,” Iyer said.

As an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, Iyer described how her college students have a sanitized understanding of what it means to live in post-9/11 America and how her book aims to bring minorities’ experiences to light.

“They know of certain benchmarks and milestones but they don’t understand the lived experiences, the everyday lived experiences, so this book seeks to fill in some of those gaps,” Iyer said.

Iyer also explained how she hopes her book is received as a call to action for South Asian, Arab, Hindu and Sikh communities to think about the important roles racial identities and solidarities play in their lives.

“[It’s also a call to action] to engage in more conversations and more dialogues that center race rather than … move away from it or dismiss it as not being something that is important to our communities and the country at large,” she said.

Iyer said she is hopeful that the stories conveyed in her book are representative of what is happening in communities around the nation.

A key question Iyer said she wants to address is how people go about creating equitable, inclusive and welcoming campuses and communities that confront today’s racial and immigrant realities.

Iyer said that these issues are concerns for everyone and that college students in particular have a large part to play in confronting them.

“What happens in the world affects you and college campuses [can often be] ideal incubators for the experiments we need right now on inclusion, access, justice and equity,” Iyer said.

Iyer explained that even though there are larger populations and communities of color in our country, people cannot assume that the country is post-racial, that the nation is color blind or that race is a thing of the past.

“Given the disparities that exist in our nation for people of color on every indicator for success, from wealth to education to healthcare access, we know that people of color or communities of color lag behind, and so understanding and addressing the systemic roots of these disparities [is] absolutely critical,” she said.

Iyer explained three ways in which the post-9/11 backlash has manifested for Asian communities: one-on-one mistreatment and discrimination; systemic and institutional laws in government that target minority communities; and backlash through narrative, whether it’s in culture, media or political discourse.

Iyer mentioned that many steps can be taken to combat these backlashes, but that being racially explicit and actually opening up the conversation to talk about race is a key step.

“In many ways, South Asians are being asked at this moment … to move from being spectators and bystanders to being disrupters and up-standers, and I’m asking all of you to think about how you can do that as well,” she said.

According to Dhingra, a dinner reflection and discussion about experiences in a racialized post-9/11 society, especially for people of color, was held after the event.

Shreya Bhatia, a member of Tufts Association of South Asians, helped to organize the post-event dinner.

Bhatia, a senior, explained that people brought different perspectives to the dinner and that the conversations focused around solidarity.

“Having events like this make us realize a broader sense … about what’s happening in this U.S. system and how we gain language and ability to … talk about race but also how other things are affecting our communities,” Bhatia said.


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