By Mosarrap H. Khan
Author’s note: This piece was written in 2014 as a response to Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson from the perspective of an international student in the US. Now it’s George Floyd in Minnesota. However, the piece appears as relevant as it was in 2014, for understanding the framework of racism in America.
You approach the immigration counter at the JFK airport. The black immigration officer looks at your passports and starts talking about smelly Koreans, Indians, and Mexicans. He seems repulsed with the fish that the Koreans supposedly carry when they try to clear immigration formalities. You and your partner look puzzled and try to smile as politely as possible. After all, you don’t want to bungle up this last hurdle before entering “the land of milk and honey,” as the immigration officer alludes to your aspirations.
You start tentatively and look to make friends among your cohorts, who attend one common course in the first year. This is to build ‘collegiality’ among members of the cohort. You get close to a few male and female cohort members. One day before the class starts, you speak to XXX, a white American female student from the Midwest. She tells you that as many as five Indian men proposed marriage to her because they wanted a Green Card. You are stunned and wonder if you should have mentioned you are already married.
You take a consortium class at Columbia. One day you feel like grabbing a coffee before entering the class. The Starbucks right opposite is packed, as always. You wait in line for your turn. A middle-aged white man pulls close and tells you, “Go back to the fu**ing place you came from.” He leaves abruptly before you can regain your composure. The white elderly woman standing behind you asks gently, “Are you alright?” You wonder if she would have asked you the same if you had decided to punch the man on his face…
At the end of the term, a faculty member invites your entire class to his house for dinner. You are one of the token international students present on the occasion. The conversation turns to China and India. You join in enthusiastically and talk of development, progress, and sweeping changes taking place in these countries. One white friend cuts you short and tersely reminds you of kidney-selling rackets in India. The argument has been lost and won. What value development if it’s bartered with kidneys?
You are part of a group in literary studies that deals with literatures from the non-Western parts of the world. You attend the group’s meetings, hoping to make some innovative suggestions, which could be executed collectively. There is this one white American guy, who just can’t seem to stop talking. He yaps and yaps. You and others are forced to listen and nod. Then the same guy talks of democracy glibly.
You have a very fine evening with a white American friend whom you meet after a long time. You decide to go grab a beer, followed by a dinner. You talk of your respective doctoral programs. During the course of an argument, she reminds you that you should be grateful to America and your university for giving you a fellowship. You try to reason that the paltry tax-deducted sum of money that your university provides you as a fellowship is more than compensated by the millions of dollars that the international students bring in from your country. Your white American friend draws on corporate logic and reminds you that the students are spending money to get a good education. They spend money in exchange of a service they have been receiving from the university. You wonder if the work you do as a humanities researcher has any value at all and if the university is spending money on you unprofitably. You don’t ask if her logic renders her own research meaningless in another humanities department.
What has all this to do with Ferguson? Nothing and Everything.
These are two kinds of racism that one could face in this country: white and black. How are they produced? Could one equate these two?
White racism is engendered out of a sense of superiority, aggregated over years of privilege and couched in languages of competence, civility, fairness, and collegiality. Black racism is born out of a sense of want, aggravated by years of non-privilege.
As someone who has seen Muslims, lower-castes, and North-Easterners at the receiving end of discrimination in India, you can’t be blind to the fundamentals. Ferguson is about poverty and structural inequity, carefully cultivated by white racism and camouflaged in languages of law and order.
I still have the Ikea wall-lamp that my landlord gave me when he threw out a young school-going black tenant who couldn’t pay her rent. The lamps have fused. But I still keep it in my apartment. Why? As I work and survive on an hourly wage this year, it reminds me what could happen if I can’t pay up.
Another elderly black tenant asks me to go back to India because I ask her not to make hash-induced ruckus in the apartment next to mine. One day I look down on the sidewalk from my window and see her sitting among a pile of her belongings. I sense what might have happened and don’t look for long, lest she becomes uncomfortable. I learn she has been evicted for not being able to pay rent.
My apartment gets new tenants – mostly whites. Whites who can’t afford to live in Manhattan. Black folks make way for white folks.
You see white folks love counter culture. White folks are enamored of symbolic resistance. Over five years that I have been living in this poor Bed-Sty neighborhood, the space has changed. More and more white folks have displaced black folks. I roam around the neighborhood. I spot a new Counter Culture coffee shop where mostly white folks enjoy a quiet coffee while surfing on their laptops.
I tweet about this. After a couple of days, Ferguson happens. Does it surprise me? Not really. America is sitting on an explosive waiting to explode any moment…
Racism in America is covert and operates in a subtle way to maintain white privilege. The black bodies are rendered invisible as long as they don’t collide with the white notion of civility and courteousness.
Black bodies matter as a source of cheap labor in coffee shops, supermarkets, Ikea, and Walmart shopping centers. The white folks make a lot of noise about labor abuse in the Middle East and other parts of the world. I live close to a government apartment block occupied by black folks. If you ask me, it’s nothing but a labor camp in a modern metropolis.
When these black bodies collide, resist, speak up, protest, and try to make their abominable existence visible, Ferguson happens. But then the white folks have the state on their side; they have civility and law and order on their side.
The white state will make sure that Michael Browns are eliminated and rendered invisible once again.
The upper-caste Hindu state in India will kill, maim, rape, and continue to render Muslims and lower-castes invisible.
It’s good to see so many white folks come out on the street to protest against Ferguson. But at the end of the day, they will return to their well-secured apartments in East Village, West Village, Midtown Manhattan, Uptown Manhattan, and Park Slope.
The fundamental questions of poverty and systemic inequity will remain unanswered. Aren’t we too accustomed to forego our privileges?
After reading this, you might wonder: If things are so bad in America, why doesn’t this guy go back to India?
Well, haven’t my fellow Indians asked me: If things are so bad in India, why don’t you go to Pakistan?
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