Life Stories

My journey from a ‘Brownie from the Cave’ to the ‘Black Lives Matter Advocate’

Why should brown immigrants support black people today? I am sharing my journey from a scared brown girl silently accepting the racism to a vocal advocate against racism.

“What is the evidence that cops would not have killed George Floyd if he were white? Nobody talks about cops killing innocent white people?”

“Give me one case,” I politely asked, trying not to lose my cool.

He tried to think, but he could not remember a single case of cops murdering an innocent white man.

He retorted, and this time, he was louder, “George Floyd had criminal records, who came across as a threat, and that is why cops behaved that way. Do not bring race here. And what about those thugs looting the stores?”

Of course, I ended up being upset and angry, witnessing such apathy towards black people.

But my story is not unique

For many brown immigrants like me who passionately advocate for Black Lives Matter, many times, we struggle to explain the gravity of the situation in our own inner circles. One might question why some brown people in America are indifferent towards black people. My impulsive answer will be, “We too are racists.” But the reality is that many of us have never interacted with black people. All we have heard is that black people are committing crimes, and we fear them. And that fear has made us racists as we say, “All black people are thugs or criminals.”

We have silently accepted racism

Thanks to Bollywood, we never understood America beyond the physical and social mixture of flows of people, traffic, electronic communication, and images shifting in all directions in Times Square. To us, America was the land of opportunities (and we still feel so), and we aspired to be part of that glittery and glamorous world. And so, when we landed in America with a big smile on our face, and hope for a better life; we never imagined America to be unjust.

You might be surprised to learn that brown people face racism too. My own experience with racism in America was a dramatic one. I had newly arrived here as a young student when a bunch of angry white men shouted at me, “You brownies, go back to the cave.” I was traumatized, but I kept quiet. That incident was right after 9/11, and I thought their anger, though misplaced, was justified.

“Oh, they are shooting brown people everywhere. Do not report whatever they say. You are a student. They will deport you,” a friend had told me. So, I started keeping my head down while walking to school. If anyone made defamatory comments, I silently accepted them. And that silent acceptance of racism continued till I started interacting with black people.

My introduction to black communities

In the year 2003, I got my first job offer from a grassroots organization in New York City, which made me move to this city.

I vividly remember that enlivening feeling when I came out of the subway station at 125th street in Harlem. I was in awe, witnessing the historic capital of black culture with landmarks that embodied the presence of black people. That made me instantly fall in love with its vibrancy. In no time, Harlem became my second home.

My job required me to visit the poor neighborhoods in South Bronx and East Harlem, which made me question the American system for the first time.

“America is not as glittery as it looks to the external world. There is something wrong with the system. It is just not working for the black people,” I remember telling my friend, to which, she replied, “What system? Look at you. You came from Nepal, one of the poorest countries, and it is working for you. Why can’t it work for black people? After all, they are Americans.”

She made sense to me at that time. I questioned myself, “If I could come to this country and climb the social ladder without any foundation, why can’t they?”

I did not get my answer until I met Alisha, my first black friend while pursuing my Masters’s program. We hit it off immediately as we were the only two women of color in the program that semester. And we started sharing our experiences of being a person of color in America. For the first time, I started sharing the kind of racism that I had faced because of my accent and skin color. And she started telling me that I should oppose racism – no matter what!

Slowly, Alisha started teaching me about the drugs infected black communities, police brutalities, and structural racism. “Cops have taken away my loved ones for no reason. Most have criminal records. They killed my father. They took away my brother. When the system declared them criminals, they became criminals,” she told me.

Every time Alisha spoke about her childhood, I chose to remain quiet. I might have come from one of the emerging countries in the world, but I did not have an unhappy beginning. Born in a middle-class, upper-caste Nepali family, I was privileged by class, caste, or immigration status. I never dealt with instability and chaos as a child. Life might have been trying for my parents, but they did not have to fight against a system that discriminated against them based on race or caste. If anything, the system worked for their prosperity. And so, they were able to establish their values and rules for their children. In short, I was a happy child.

But Alisha was not. Her parents were not able to establish the same stable environment for their children, as my parents did. The system that they were part of was gradually crippling them. They might have been in America, but the hallmarks of American democracy that we know of – opportunity, freedom, and prosperity – were not for them.

Alisha’s Story

Alisha’s father, Jordan, who loved spending time with his young daughter at a basketball court, fell into the trap of crime for no fault of his. 

That day, a man approached Jordan, they spoke for a few minutes, and the man left. That is all Alisha remembers. “But I remember my father disagreeing with this man. He kept saying ‘no’ and so whatever this man was asking for, my dad did not like it,” she said.

That week, cops arrested several men from the building, including Jordan. His wife, Alisha’s mother, pleaded that he was innocent, but that did not matter. Years later, they found that the man who approached her father on that day was a drug-dealer, and he was trying to recruit men from her building.

After three months, when Jordan came out of jail, he was no longer the same man. Instead, he was angry and frustrated with the system. All she remembers today is the night when her uncle knocked on the door and informed that Jordan was shot dead in the neighborhood. Alisha still does not know who killed her father – cops or rival gangs – but it did not matter as her life drastically changed after that. Not able to deal with poverty, Alisha’s mother gave her brother for adoption.

“So, you do not know who your brother is?” I asked in surprise.

“No. I miss him every day. He must be a handsome man today,” she said, with tears in her eyes.  

You might say, “Alisha’s father had a choice to become a responsible person? He chose his path to crimes.”

With the criminal record for no fault of his, Jordan failed to get a decent job to support his family. Depressed with the poverty and frustration with the system, he fell into that trap of drugs and crimes that were prevalent in black communities. Once a compassionate and responsible father turned into a criminal, and he died young, leaving behind his wife and two children.

A short lesson about black people in America 

Black people were not always sitting idle in jail or selling drugs, as one might imagine. Historically, they have been hard-working laborers. During the era of slavery, they were too valuable as property in the South. In the forties and the fifties, the heyday of American manufacturing, black people worked in the auto factories and steel mills.

Things started changing in the sixties with advances of the civil rights movement. By the seventies, many black people began to question their rights in their own country. With the inspiration and courage that they got from their black leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, they entered the eighties with a hope for a better future. Little did they know that the coming era would take them back to a darker age.

The eighties saw the rise in drug culture in America; nonetheless, black communities were hit the worst by the widespread use of crack cocaine. Before they could understand the long-term consequences, many were already addicted to crack. Their obsession dominated their lives and superseded family responsibilities.

One might question, “What did the American system do to intervene and save the black communities?”

If the system – as powerful as the American system – had worked for the welfare of black communities, we would not have witnessed this racial inequity today. Families were broken, fathers were murdered, brothers were recruited in gangs, and mothers were left alone. Many children, like my friend Alisha, were sent to foster care. With broken families and weak foundation came loneliness, poverty, substance abuse, and ‘more’ crime. In no time, the community that was surviving and looking forward to thriving in America was back to darkness. Once the robust and valuable workers of America became the feeble and fragile people plagued by systematic violence and racism.

Let us get back to our immigrant story

We are immigrants, more specific, brown South Asian immigrants. And America is still a heaven for many of us who have witnessed civil wars, famine, hunger, and crimes in our country. America has embraced us as her own, and we are enjoying the benefits in America.

But the same America has a dark side too. And that is its treatment of its black people. Just look at what happened to George Floyd just a few weeks ago. And he was one of the millions of black people dealing with this deep-rooted discrimination in this country.

Geroge Floyd’s death signifies what it is to be black in this country. As he cried for his life, he represented millions of black people crying in anguish and despair. As the cop knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck, the cop, sadly, described the American system that has suppressed the voice of the black communities.

You might say, “Oh, that is an exaggeration. But in any case, we are law-abiding people, that can never happen to us. We are not a threat.”

Neither are black people. And not George Floyd either. Before he could prove that he was a law-abiding citizen on that day, he was knocked down on the street for the whole world to see. He cried, shouting, “I can’t breathe.” And in that state of pain and suffocation, he called out for one person, who is the epitome of ‘love’ and ‘compassion’ in every culture – his mother. And he died.

Lastly, let us take a moment to reflect and retrospect. Dr. Martin Luther King rightly said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And this racial injustice that we are witnessing today is taking away the very essence of America that we so love. At such a crucial time, we cannot afford to remain apathetic, seemingly oblivious to the civil unrest happening around us.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Featured Picture Credit: Pixabay,  Anaterata
Stop Racism, Picture Credit: Pexels , Lalesh

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