A New Brown America
Image: Wei Shi/Courtesy of Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King
“This is new brown America. The dream is for you to take, so take that shit.” - Hasan Minhaj
I paused Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King Netflix special when he said “And so I actually have the audacity of equality.” I stared wonderingly at the screen and replayed the sound bite two more times, reading and re-reading the subtitles that confirmed I was not mishearing his tenet. For months, I had felt largely alone in my desperate search for validation in joining the cause for South Asian social action and mobilization.
My social activism journey at Cornell has been rapid and I look back at my freshman year self and wonder how I’ve come to be deeply invested in Desi visibility and embracing and reveling in my brown-skinned, daughter-of-Gujarati-immigrants self.
At the end of a semester of Intergroup Dialogue Project’s race section, after being rejected as a peer facilitator for IDP, I felt embarrassed, invalidated and devastated, finding my throat burning with unshed tears of frustration at my own incompetence. I was not sure what I had to offer, but clearly lacked the ability to facilitate dialogue, and for two months carried a deep sense of failure because I was irrevocably convinced that my self-worth was hinged on contributing to Cornell through this class. It was a semester that had given me more questions than answers, but also a semblance of clarity that encouraged me to try to find other Desis at Cornell that were asking themselves similar questions and looking for forums for discussion and action.
I found wonderful mentors and organizations — the internship program at the Asian and Asian-American Center, Asian Pacific American for Action, the East Coast Asian American Student Union conference team, and more recently my executive board at South Asian Council. I joined committees that were meant to address diversity and inclusion— though now I question if these committees serve more to tokenize students, all the while serving to make the administration appear invested in structural and institutional change.
But in the social spaces I found, I often felt the sharp sting of having my person of color-hood questioned, affirmed by people’s entrenched belief in the model minority myth. I learned quickly that radical spaces are rarely open to criticism and self-reflection on their inherent toxicity. What right did I have to question the culture of those spaces if South Asian people as a whole have been quite deliberate in avoiding discussions about racial and social inequality?
So I still ponder, how do we realize Hasan’s New Brown America? In my New Brown America, we center the margins of our communities and celebrate our individually nuanced and contoured relationships with our motherlands and heritages. We name what divides us internally — partitions, religions and the culture of colorism left by our colonizers and their centuries of exploitation.
though we are an immigrant population, we nonetheless benefit from the legacy of settler colonialism.
We revel in the contributions of our diaspora here, to television, to science, to political and business leadership, all the while noticing the hurt that comes from fake accents, racial profiling, and stale ideals of what a successful Desi-American looks like. We name the things that affect our community’s safety and success — the bamboo ceiling, Islamophobia, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, caste, and the lived realities of our community members who are working class and are stereotyped to be taxi drivers, Dunkin’ Donuts workers or 7-Eleven owners. We mourn Srinivas Kuchibhotla, Harnish Patel and Deep Rai, and the hundreds of South Asian folks that have been targeted, assaulted, and killed on American soil because of prejudice, racism, and hate. We become allies to all people of color and we strive repay our lasting debt to black folks, whose fight for civil rights established a more equitable America for South Asia’s first professional immigrants. We delve into the implications of brownness and immigration with Latinx folks and ask indigenous folks how we can do better by them, because though we are an immigrant population, we nonetheless benefit from the legacy of settler colonialism.
Having the audacity of equality means reckoning with the overlapping and coexisting privileges and oppression of our American diaspora and repeatedly asking yourself if there’s anything you’re willing to do to make it known and felt.
Log kya kahenge? What will people say?
Last year, after Samir Durvasula ‘17 and I published our Guest Room editorial in the Cornell Daily Sun, “To Be Brown: South Asian Students Take a Stand,” we received comments that called us Schlemiel and Schlimazel, whiny members of a race that has been widely portrayed as problem-free, comfortable and without cause for complaint in America. Log kya kahenge, when other Desi students find this piece unnecessary and embarrassing, because of course with hard work, a good internship after junior year, a light dusting of desperation to assimilate to whiteness and anglicizing our names at the office, we can truly overcome any obstacle, move into a nice house in the suburbs and make sure our kids do even better than us (even if they’re teased, mocked and bullied for all the same things we were). Main kehta hoon, I say, that having the audacity of equality is uncomfortable and messy, but never lonely.
My immigrant parents have paid their American Dream tax, I won’t be paying it again.
Shivani Parikh is a senior at Cornell University. She is the president of their South Asian Council, the umbrella board for Cornell’s 18 undergraduate and graduate Desi organizations