More than a Reading List: Challenging Anti-Black Racism in the Field of South Asian Religions

Note: This guest post by the Auntylectuals asks scholars in their field–South Asian religions–to reimagine what it means to be an anti-racist scholar. While their call is to a specific academic community, we think that there is much to be learned from their post as all of us reimagine our teaching and research to become more anti-racist. You can contact the group at auntylectuals@gmail.com and find them on Twitter @auntylectuals. Take it away, Auntylectuals!

In response to recent horrific acts of murder and police brutality against Black people, we have seen a new interest in racism arise in the field of South Asian religions. On listservs, pedagogy forums, and elsewhere, colleagues have made some excellent suggestions of reading lists, films, and resources on racism. But this relatively new attention to race among scholars of South Asian religions also arouses some concern and frustration. There is something important missing from the well-intentioned conversations about racism and anti-Blackness that now pervade a small corner of our field. What is absent is deep self-reflection on the ways that white supremacy and anti-Blackness have determined who participates in our discipline and our institutions, and how racism factors into the ongoing power-dynamics and orientation of our work. The elephant in the room, virtual or otherwise, is that a large portion of our field is still made up of white scholars of Christian background, as well as South Asians who can leverage the privileges of caste, gender, and race. Our field is embedded in complex histories that cannot be disentangled from racist endeavors and agendas. 

In their recent “Down With Brown” post, Anita and Adriana have suggested that confronting our complicity and the ways racism permeates our work requires “changing our imaginations.” This includes revisioning how we position our scholarship. Rather than researching and writing in silos, what this moment and what being anti-racist require of us is reimagining the boundaries of our disciplines, seeing the intersections between various fields and their relationship to forms of power. As we reimagine, we hope to unearth and undermine racism, ultimately rebuilding our discipline. 

As feminist critical race scholars of religion who are also racialized academics, we are reflecting on our relationship to the study of South Asian religions. We have been informed by and continue to learn from the work of Black feminist scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Roxanne Gay, and Brittney Cooper, who have been engaging with and thinking through questions of race for decades. In 2018, after more than a year of exploratory discussions, we founded the seminar in Intersectional Hindu Studies within the American Academy of Religion, which is a collaborative five-year seminar with eleven other racialized scholars of Hindu studies. We see our work as being in conversation with similar interventions in Religious Studies and other fields that are challenging white supremacy in academia and beyond. Working from a feminist framework of collective labor and collaboration, we have carved out spaces for us to study and support each other. We have worked to create places for researchers of color in our field to talk about their experiences of marginalization and privilege, and to identify ways in which we have been complicit in the racist structures of academia. 

We agree wholeheartedly that we should integrate gender and race into our classes and research, but a reading list is not enough. Developing bibliographies is not new to academia; it is the bread and butter of our fields. But reading some new books cannot be confused with making personal or structural changes. In order to avoid the additive model, where we just augment our study of religion with readings on race, we must reflect back on how our discipline emerged as part of the colonial project that gave rise to categories of religion and race simultaneously. The formation of our discipline is predicated on white supremacy, brahminical supremacy, and hetero-patriarchy. Thus, racism, anti-Blackness, sexism, casteism, Islamophobia, and orientalism inherently inform the scholarship on and pedagogy of South Asian religions. 

As South Asian savarna (with caste) women, this reflection requires us to examine our own positionalities. We are aware that being perceived as “model minorities” shields us from the brutal violence that is so painfully common for Black people, granting us conditional privilege in the hallowed halls of academia. We also recognize that this model minority status is rooted in anti-Black racism. We need to look no further than United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923) to see how South Asians have leveraged race and caste in paving the road to conditional acceptance and citizenship in the US. Thind’s lawyers argued that “the High-class Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint” explaining further that “[it] would be just as disgraceful for a high-class Hindu to marry a member of one of the lower caste as it would be for an American gentlemen to marry a member of the negro race.” Claiming that he was a member of the Aryan race, Thind invoked racial and religious purity narratives that undergird white (and brahmanical) supremacy by invoking white and upper-caste anxiety around miscegenation. Savarna South Asians in North America continue to participate in racist and casteist systems required to maintain our precarious privilege. 

As scholars of South Asian religions, we know that a tremendous amount of training is required to translate a Sanskrit or Tamil text, interpret a ritual practice, or conduct ethnographic research in India or Trinidad. That same kind of specialization is required to bring critical race theory, gender, and sexuality studies into our classrooms and our research. It is not uncommon for people to presume that simply because they are personally and politically committed to addressing issues of racial injustice, or other forms of marginalization, that they are prepared enough to raise these issues in classrooms. 

In no way do we wish to discourage people from working on these issues, but we ask that our colleagues proceed with care and caution. Critical Race Feminist Theory asks that we don’t just announce our positionality and situate ourselves with respect to our work and teaching; it demands that we engage in acts of critical self-reflection and scrutiny. It necessitates that we continually interrogate our positionality with respect to race, religion, caste, class, gender and sexuality as we take action. We are all complicit in forms of white supremacy, and recognizing that is difficult and uncomfortable.

Ibram X. Kendi invites us to think about antiracism as an active, intentional and ongoing action: “The heartbeat of racism is denial, is consistently saying, ‘I am not racist,’ while the heartbeat of antiracism is confession, self-reflection, and seeking to grow change.” 

The road to becoming anti-racist scholars requires an examination of whiteness and white supremacy in a transnational frame. Simply adding comparisons between caste in India and anti-blackness in the US may create the semblance of awareness, yet it does not do the work of anti-racism. It is imperative to do the labour of reflecting on how access to privilege has served, even unintentionally, to capitalize on and reinforce anti-Black racism in our classrooms, research, and institutions. One of the many ways that anti-Black racism is apparent is the near absence of Black scholars and students in our field, which is otherwise dominated by white and savarna South Asian scholars. 

The anti-racist work we are asking you to do may begin with a reading list or bibliography, but it may not be the one that was generated by people who are already in power. How can a discipline that still follows colonial parameters of knowledge production suddenly become aware enough to reorient the field and become anti-racist? In the oft quoted words of Audre Lorde, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

We ask our colleagues who are committed to challenging racism to resist simply adding race to a section of your course or designing a course on race and caste in South Asian religions, but to begin with serious study and self-reflection about the content of our courses, the nature of our research, and the state of our discipline and institutions. These first steps are critical since they reveal how white supremacy and anti-Black racism operate in every component of our society. It is a collective responsibility to do this labor and to unlearn the violence of white supremacy. We ask you to join us in this work.

Intersectional Feminist Hindu Studies Collective aka “The Auntylectuals

Shreena Gandhi, Sailaja Krishnamurti, Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, Tanisha Ramachandran, and Shana Sippy

IMG_6608

Speaking up against the Border Patrol

arizona3.jpgImage source: Sandy Soto, colleague at University of Arizona

We’re back! And we wanted to kick off our series of posts for the spring term by signal boosting the story of University of Arizona students who are facing criminal charges for boldly and bravely challenging the presence of two armed Border Patrol agents on campus to give a presentation to a student club. As seen in videos linked in this Washington Post article about what happened, the student is heard repeatedly calling the agents the “Murder Patrol” and “KKK.” As the student notes, Border Patrol agents have been condemned by humanitarian aid groups for routinely destroying water left for migrants in the desert.

For a longer story of the racist origins of the Border Patrol, check out this interview with Greg Grandin, author of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. Grandin, for example, notes, “The Border Patrol, as a federal agency, was exempt from any kind of that oversight that either the FBI or the CIA was submitted to in the 1970s. There was no equivalent of the Church Committee. It really has been, in some ways, a rogue agency, both because of its nature, working in this kind of liminal area between the foreign and the domestic, and, you know, on these borderlands, with very little oversight. And it was founded in 1924. And it was founded the same year that the U.S. passed its nativist immigration law, which basically reduced immigration from Asia to zero, emphasized and privileged immigration from Protestant Northern Europe.”

It is impossible to separate out the criticism of the Border Patrol and the issue of free speech as they collide in this incident. In the same breath that the UA president proclaims his defense of free speech, he argues that the #Arizona3 were disrupting education. But what do we mean when we say that someone or something disrupts education? What measures are we using, what definitions are we employing, when we (or the UA administration) point to the students as disruption, but don’t acknowledge that the presence of the Border Patrol is also disruptive? It becomes important to ask: disruptive to whose education? on whose terms? When we consider what speech should be defended as free speech (the Border Patrol’s presence or the #Arizona3’s), shouldn’t we also recognize the conditions of power and the institutional power that hyperdetermine what speech we’re likelier to see as more worthy? And then shouldn’t we, if we truly believe in the value of free speech, make sure that minoritized, marginalized voices get heard?

The issue at UA is exacerbated, in our eyes, by the fact that it only recently earned the designation of Hispanic-Serving Institution*, positioning it to be able to apply for more federal awards and aid intended to foster and support the education of Latinx students.

At this point, you are hopefully wondering what is being done. And what you can do. Students there are protesting. Students, faculty, and staff are hand-delivering letters to President Robbins. Faculty in the Department of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona issued a statement earlier this week in support of the protesting students and against the charges they are facing.

You can send letters to President Robbins here. You can also start conversations in your departments and with your coalitions to develop a solidarity statement like that put forth by the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, University of Minnesota.  Finally, we should all be asking hard questions about what it really means to provide an inclusive education–which isn’t just about admitting students to our hallowed halls, but must also be about recognizing (and then interrupting) the ways in which State policing mechanisms can intrude and disrupt these spaces and these students’ lives.

*Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) designates accredited institutions with 25% or more full-time enrolled Latinx students.

Reading the Room –> Responding to Crisis

Image source

As teachers who rely on discussion and dialogue as pedagogical tools, we are often put in the position where we have to “read” the classroom–figuring out, for example, when it might be time to move on to a new topic or when there are questions or confusions about the theories or vocabulary we’re encountering in the readings. At these moments, we try to read the mood of the individual students in the class as well as of the class as a whole, sometimes deciding to surface questions and concerns that the students themselves seem hesitant to voice. Beyond helping us develop more effective discussions and learning spaces, this work of “reading” the room also helps us decide whether and how to respond to events–local or not–that potentially impact our community. For example, after an accident that killed three Carleton students, Anita decided to open her class sessions by giving time for students to share anything they wanted to. In one class, that discussion took up the entire class session and in another, the class felt ready to move on to the activity she had planned before the accident happened. And on the day after U.S. election day 2016, Adriana made space in her class for a discussion of students’ reactions to the results. She noticed that many of the students seemed depleted and others seemed numb, so she let them know that if they wanted to remain quiet, they could. While the discussion began slowly, eventually all the students were engaged in an emotional and honest conversation about their hopes and fears. She made sure to check in later with one student who was particularly upset; that person was grateful for the space to talk, saying it had been strange to walk through campus as if their lives were the same as yesterday.

While we believe it is the shared responsibility of the teacher and the students in any classroom context to create the classroom culture, we do feel that we are in a position of power and responsibility as “leaders” of the classroom. Just as we work hard to read the mood of and needs within our classroom, we think that larger institutions should be trying to do similar work at a macro level. Over the years we have heard several of our students voice their desire for the college administration to speak more often and more powerfully and clearly about particular kinds of issues; they perceive that deans and presidents are the “leaders” of campuses and therefore have a unique responsibility to speak up and speak out. Most recently, the members of the editorial team of Carleton’s student newspaper noted that students “look to our administration for direction and support.” They called on the administration “to have strong, clear responses when events, both local and national, threaten students.” Carleton’s administration doesn’t even have to read the room here; they just have to read the newspaper.*

One of the administrative responses mentioned in the editorial was the one to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville this summer. Given that Carleton was not in session at the time, we thought it would be interesting to read the responses of President Sullivan and the University of Virginia (UVA), since her administration needed to put out several statements in real time as events unfolded. In this way, these communiques give us a chance to see a college administration “reading the room” and adjusting their language and tone to–we presume–the needs of the community.

The first statement, put out a week before the expected Charlottesville rally, emphasizes First Amendment rights to free speech and rights of assembly while noting that the groups marching represent groups that contradict UVA values. However, we noticed that President Sullivan didn’t use the terms “race,” “racism,” or “white supremacy.” 

The set of responses that immediately followed the Friday night march described the “hateful behavior” of “torch-bearing protestors” and understandably emphasized the safety and security of the college community. In one of these statements, Pres. Sullivan labeled the protestors “alt-right,” which at that time still occupied liminal status as a “good enough” word to name white supremacy. She continued to emphasize First Amendment rights, though she did note that acts of violence are not protected.

On August 13, that Sunday, she releases two statements after the death of Heather Heyer and the two Virginia state police. In one, addressed to the university community, she expresses sympathy and condolences but doesn’t name the specific racial violence. In the statement to alumni and “friends of the university,” she notes that there were “racist, anti-immigrant, homophobic, and misogynistic chants.” The difference between these two statements is intriguing to us. We lean towards thinking of it generously; keeping the university calm must have been a priority at the time. Yet on the same day, the university rector sent out a statement where he uses terms like “evil” and “white supremacist”; his particular religious standing gives him, we think, a way to denounce the gathering that might not be open to President Sullivan at that moment.

A week later, a community message is sent by President Sullivan, emphasizing that she has heard her community’s concerns about safety. She delineates a number of steps to achieve it, like hiring additional people for the “Ambassadors Program” and reviewing and adjusting policies about public gatherings. Finally, though, and importantly to us, she assures that the university is reaching out to those students and employees “injured by white supremacists.” This is the first time she uses this specific term, indicating with this usage as well as with other language about listening, that she is “reading the room” and figuring out what her community needs from her.

At the end, reading the room is only the beginning of the process. As teachers and leaders, we strive to read our classrooms and campuses in order to provide guidance and we try to be as transparent as possible about what those next steps are. Reading the room is nothing without clear follow through. Calling something “white supremacy” isn’t going to end white supremacy but it’s a start. Developing a common language and set of values makes possible the imagining of common futures. 

Notes

[*]After we wrote this post but before we published it, we received a campus-wide email from college administration, letting us know that a swastika had been found in a classroom. The email named the symbol as an expression of hate and justly pointed out that this kind of speech does not further anyone’s goals of intellectual exchange. It also detailed the steps the college is going to take to investigate the incident and to create a culture where we all are more respectful and inclusive. (Indeed, for those of you on Carleton campus, please consider attending this panel discussion “Responding to Charlottesville” Wednesday, October 18th.)

Just last night an update was sent, letting campus know that the swastika had been drawn in the course of a class discussion. While we’re both glad to know that there had been no actual hateful graffiti, we were also glad to see that the administration still plans to continue with the steps outlined in the previous email, promoting dialogue, reflection, and proactive deliberation about how we might/should/could deal with hate in our community.

Standing with and Understanding Standing Rock

unnamed

Image credit

Decolonizing Thanksgiving

The last time we wrote about what’s happening at Standing Rock and the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, the unarmed water protectors (the term the Indigenous folks there use for themselves) had been attacked by dogs and pepper spray. We are writing about what’s happening there again after more violent attacks on the water protectors this past week with water cannons and concussion grenades. What’s happening there has been getting more mainstream coverage, assuming The View is relatively mainstream. We wanted today to highlight two resources to learn more about what’s happening in Standing Rock currently and to understand the historical, social, and cultural context of the protests:

  1. Dr. Adrienne Keene visits our favorite podcast to speak about her visit to Standing Rock (before the water cannons and concussion grenades) and describes what’s happening there and provides a larger context for the protests, explaining terms such as settler colonialism. Dr. Keene writes the blog, Native Appropriations, which you should all check out. (Anita was lucky enough to attend her convocation talk earlier this month at Carleton.) (Adriana is jealous, but plans to watch the video soon.)
  2. Check out the #NoDAPL syllabus created by a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars and activists to understand the current resistance against the pipeline in the long history of colonialism and racism.

Education matters, but action should follow. Here are concrete ways for you to take action to support the water protectors:

  1. Call North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple at 701-328-2200. See phone scripts here.
  1. Donate items from the Sacred Stone Camp Supply List: http://sacredstonecamp.org/supply-list/
  1. Call the White House at (202) 456-1111 or (202) 456-1414.
  1. Contribute to the Sacred Stone Camp Legal Defense Fund: https://fundrazr.com/d19fAf
  1. Call the Army Corps of Engineers and demand that they reverse the permit: (202) 761-5903
  1. Sign petitions asking President Obama to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Here’s the latest – https://act.credoaction.com/sign/NoDAPL
  1. Write to the 17 banks funding the pipeline and consider moving your accounts if you have any at these banks:

http://www.commondreams.org/…/how-contact-17-banks-funding-…

15135767_1114160485327769_7908731127870994446_n

The Day After

El Silencio Mata. Silence kills. Oaxaca mural.

(Image credit)

(Anita)

I went to bed early Tuesday night, not knowing the results of the presidential election. The first thing I saw Wednesday morning was a text from my brother: “Are you okay?” I knew then that Donald Trump had won. I logged onto Facebook: friends expressing surprise, sorrow, concern, anger, solidarity, love, and resolve. I appreciated white, straight friends promising to stand up for and with friends who are immigrants, queer, trans, POC–thank you and I’ll hold you to those promises. I appreciated the helpful reminders that the struggles against patriarchy, settler colonialism, racism, and xenophobia have been going for a long time; they have continued during the Obama presidency, would have continued during a Clinton presidency, and will continue during the Trump presidency.

(Adriana)

I had planned to go to an Election eve party on Tuesday, but a descending migraine kept me at home. In retrospect, that headache was an augur and a gift. At home, I sipped whiskey, ate Halloween candy, listened to the NPR stream, and read the 538 and NYT coverage. Slowly but surely I felt the world slip out from under me. At 10 p.m., heavy with a throbbing head and a growing sense of dread, I went to sleep, after texting with my son. “…” he first wrote. I knew exactly what that meant.

I woke up throughout the night. I would roll over, check my phone, fight to contain my fear and my sadness, then try to sleep again. Waking up to the day felt wrong. Mourning is like this. You look towards this possible future, the one you thought you were headed for, and you have to recognize it’s gone. Then somehow you have to keep on moving forward into the future you now realize you don’t understand or know or want. But this mourning is different, right? I’m grieving for the United States that I thought we could be, might be, and most importantly, should be.

How do we teach in sadness? I spent the morning running. Literally. I headed out to the woods and grounded myself in the feeling–ephemeral though it may be–that I have some strength, some power, and a world that makes sense to me. I wear a t-shirt for the day with the words, “El silencio mata” and make plans to hold space for my students. bell hooks prepares me for that: “I believe whole-heartedly that the only way out of domination is love, and the only way into really being able to connect with others, and to know how to be, is to be participating in every aspect of your life as a sacrament of love, and that includes teaching.” Love is not just a feeling. Love is a set of actions. Let us love deeply and radically; let us act wildly and meaningfully.

(Us)

We go to a rally on campus organized by our students. There are at least 300 students, staff, faculty, and community members in attendance. Students share their thoughts. They share their worries about feeling targeted in their women/queer/Black/Brown/immigrant bodies. They remind their peers that they had been so organized and involved in Get Out The Vote efforts, in supporting local progressive candidates, and in going out and voting. They talk about the practical steps moving forward to support those who might be affected most by policies and practices in the next four years–-getting trained as an escort for women going into reproductive health clinics, for example. They remind us to support and care for ourselves and each other. They make us feel hopeful and inspired.

To our students who organized the rally and who have been organizing and have been building bridges and coalitions across differences before the election and will continue to do so now: we see you, we support you, and we thank you.

To our former students who are now teachers themselves, working with children and young adults whom they are supporting and holding space for right now: we see you, we support you, and we thank you.

Teaching, learning, listening, and organizing trumps hate. Let’s get (back) to it!

Some suggestions for next steps:

Let us know if you have any other suggestions that we should add to this list.

Being In and Not Of the University

Kelley-black-struggle-banner

For your reading pleasure this week, we present you with a forum published in the Boston Review that highlights contributions from Robin Kelley, students activists, and other faculty. Titled “Black Study, Black Struggle,” the conversation aims to consider whether or not universities are appropriate or adequate sites of activism.

Kelley’s description of the kind of “betrayal and disappointment” that Black students experience once getting to the colleges they were heavily recruited to resonated with what we have heard from students of color on our campus.

Indeed, to some extent campus protests articulated the sense of betrayal and disappointment that many black students felt upon finding that their campuses failed to live up to their PR. Many students had come to the university expecting to find a welcoming place, a nurturing faculty, and protective administration. If they believed this, it was in no small part because university recruiters wanted them to: tours for prospective students, orientations, and slickly produced brochures often rely on metaphors of family and community, highlight campus diversity, and emphasize the sense of belonging that young scholars enjoy.

Kelley argues that students need to be careful about how they deploy “the language of personal trauma” in their activism and cautions student activists that “managing trauma does not require dismantling structural racism, which is why university administrators focus on avoiding triggers rather than implementing zero-tolerance policies for racism or sexual assault.” He also calls for the creation of intellectual spaces on campuses that use the resources of universities without being a part of them. He asks black students “to become subversives in the academy, exposing and resisting its labor exploitation, its gentrifying practices, its endowments built on misery, its class privilege often camouflaged in multicultural garb, and its commitments to war and security.”

The student respondents usefully take up and push back against Kelley’s critiques of their activism, demands, and framing of their experiences. Especially powerful was Charlene Carruthers’s argument that for today’s black student activists, “trauma is inseparable from the love that motivates activism. It is love in the face of repeated trauma that governs my work and the work of so many young black folks with whom I organize in communities across the country. We cannot separate our pain from our resistance.” Aaron Bady reminded us, two tenured professors, of the positions we occupy on our campus: “…if professors are in danger of acting on behalf of the institution—of mistaking its identity for their own—students tend to understand their place in this machine with much more clarity. Theirs is the exploited labor that makes the university operate; theirs is the debt that funds professorial salaries and endowment; theirs is the place that must soon be vacated to make room for fresher meat.”