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)

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

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.

  • Arafat

    The following are quotes from a Gatestone Institute article.

    “Intersectionality” is the idea that all oppressed peoples and categories of people share a position, and by virtue of that fact are potential allies in the struggle against their oppressors.

    “Intersectionality” is a concept used to describe the ways in which “oppressive institutions” (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. The concept is credited to the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, writing in 1989, but it is only in recent years that it has escaped academia and swarmed into the streets.

    How well does “intersectionality” stand up to critical scrutiny? According to the journalist, James Kirchick,

    “intersectionality compels one to adopt agendas that have nothing to do with his or her own. Worse, in the name of ‘solidarity’ with other supposedly ‘oppressed’ groups, it leads to alliances with those actively hostile to one’s cause. This is how a gay rights organization led by well-meaning progressives can be duped into disinviting private citizens of the one country in the Middle East respecting the humanity of gays, all at the behest of people who use cultural relativism to excuse Muslim societies that throw homosexuals from the tops of buildings.”

    Here are some of its other problems, weaknesses, and errors:

    For a start, “intersectionality” urges us to view the world as divided into a conspiracy of oppressors and an agony of oppressed: Victimizers and victims. Two classes, one relationship: oppression. This is the model offered to understand, explain and reform the world. It could not be more simplistic.

    Consider “class oppression” by capitalists of workers. Why have tens of millions of rural people in China flooded the cities to take jobs offered by capitalists? Because by so doing they improve their standard of living, their life chances, and the opportunities that they can offer their kinsmen back home. This “capitalist oppression,” which replaced communist political atrocities and economic disasters, has raised China from a backward agrarian society to a modern, developing society.

    If we look at the “hot spots” of the world, who are the oppressors and who the oppressed, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria, in Nigeria? If only simple-minded ideas such as “intersectionality” could help us clarify the destructive disasters and human tragedies — drought, corruption, intolerance, civil war — but unfortunately they are useless.

    Further, “intersectionality” focuses on people’s victimhood. People are “oppressed” and disadvantaged, and that becomes the most important thing about them. Reducing people to victims takes away their ability to understand, their ability to act, their motivation, tenacity, resourcefulness, force of character, and everything that enables people to engage the world.

    Young women in the West and increasingly the Far East, for example, may not feel oppressed by “patriarchy,” but are confident in their abilities, not as a result of ideology, but as a result of their experience in the world. They know that their fair participation is supported by their societies. Reports making claims such as “women make 70% pay that men receive” have been demolished. Single women working the same hours in the same industries make the same as men; women who choose motherhood work less and make less than men.

    Moreover, “intersectionality” reduces people to a number of categories, such as gender, sexuality, race, nationality, religion, capability, etc. Differences, such as sexism, racism, nationalism and ability — as opposed to what we have in common — are reinforced.

    In addition, “intersectionality,” in identifying all the oppressed as one, united and with common interests, is incoherent and oblivious to the facts (often, it seems, unpopular in radical social movements). The idea, for example, that victims of Islamophobia and homophobia are natural allies flies in the face of the fact that Islamic law and many Muslims are strongly opposed to homosexuals, and that Iran, for instance, executes homosexuals (even teenagers) by hanging them from cranes in public squares. The Islamic State does not require large machinery; it throws homosexuals off buildings.

    There is also a lack of affinity between victims of Islamophobia and victims of racial prejudice. The Arab world — the heart of Islam — has for many centuries, up to today, carried on an extensive black slave trade in Africa, sending Arab expeditions to captures slaves. There has been much observation in recent decades of slaves taken from the south by the Arabs of northern Sudan. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in her autobiography, Infidel, reports her experiences in Saudi Arabia, where the term for blacks is abid, “slave,” and blacks are denigrated in the street.

    • Monk

      There is quite a lot of manufactured or contrived victimhood being sold on campus. It’s better to “know thyself” and feel comfortable in one’s own skin rather than to join a herd of perpetual victims, stampeding this way, then that way, destroying lots of things but building nothing.

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