Deepa Iyer

Featured Contributors Joseph Preville and Julie Poucher Harbin interview author of We Sing Too America, Deepa Iyer, who discusses racism faced by multiracial people in America and her book.

Written by Joseph Preville and Julie Poucher Harbin for ISLAMiCommentary

A vibrant multiracial America is emerging right before our eyes.  According to a new report by the Pew Research Center, “Multiracial Americans are at the cutting edge of social and demographic change in the U.S.—young, proud, tolerant and growing at a rate three times as fast as the population as a whole.” (“Multiracial in America,” June 11, 2015).

Deepa Iyer takes a looks at the struggles behind this momentous change in the United States and the challenges ahead in We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (The New Press, November 2015).  She writes that America “has yet to fully confront the scope and effects of racial anxiety, Islamophobia, and xenophobia that have permeated our national narratives and policies in the years since 9/11.  We must change this legal, cultural, and political climate of hostility and suspicion, especially as communities perceived as ‘others’ change American cities, schools, and neighborhoods due to population increases and migration patterns.”

A native of Kerala, India, Deepa Iyer immigrated to the United States at the age of 12 with her parents and brother to Louisville, Kentucky.  In a 2014 interview, she reflected on her early experiences as an immigrant to America: “It did not take long to find out I was on the margins, that I was not mainstream. In the mid-80s in Kentucky, people were used to a black or white racial paradigm.  People like me fit neither.  I definitely had my share of experiencing some bullying and harassment at school, which shaped my sense of being different.”

Iyer, currently a Senior Fellow at Center for Social Inclusion, is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and University of Notre Dame Law School.  An activist, writer and lawyer, she has served as a Trial Attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice and as Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT).

Her work on immigrant and civil rights issues began at the Asian American Justice Center in the late 1990s. While at SAALT for nearly a decade, she shaped the formation of the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations (NCSO), a network of local South Asian groups, and served as Chair of the National Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA). Iyer’s essays on immigration, the post 9/11 backlash, and racism have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, USA Today, Al-Jazeera and the Nation.

With contentious national debates on race, religion, and immigration making the news every day, We Too Sing America is a fresh voice in the conversation.

Deepa Iyer Discusses Her new book in this exclusive interview

Why did you choose to take the title of your book from a Langston Hughes poem?  Does the poem have special meaning for you as an activist for social justice?

Almost ninety years ago, Langston Hughes wrote a poem about how Black people, though they were marginalized and rejected in all aspects of American society, grew stronger and wiser. He wrote that they too “sing America.” The communities I write about in the book — South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh immigrants — are “othered” and scapegoated today in our country. But at the same time, they are finding the strength, courage and purpose to reshape America by telling their own narratives, building community power, and changing policy. That is why the poem resonated with me.

How did America’s response to 9/11 create a climate of fear, suspicion, and discrimination for South Asians, Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs?

Since 9/11, we have witnessed the scapegoating of these communities through public actions, misleading media narratives, and unjust policies. For example, our communities have endured unprecedented levels of hate violence and discrimination (most recently, the assault of Inderjit Singh Mukkar in Chicago and the discriminatory treatment of Ahmed Mohamed come to mind). Public perceptions of our communities as worthy of suspicion have been reinforced by national security and immigration policies implemented by the government. For example, the policy known as “special registration”, which I describe in the book, resulted in the deportation of tens of thousands of men who were from South Asia and the Middle East. Surveillance of South Asian, Arab and Muslim communities continues at the hands of both federal and local law enforcement. This environment continues to exist even today, 14 years after 9/11.

How have your experiences as an attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and as executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) and Senior Fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion (CSI) shaped your vision and hope for America?

I have been privileged to work at a range of institutions that have helped me to better understand the role that people play in changing policy and culture. At SAALT, we formulated our national policy work based on the experiences and expertise of local organizations that were part of the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations (NCSO). Base building and grassroots organizing can change people’s minds and actions, as well as structures and institutions. I continue to learn how to support and lift up this work, and hope that my book provides a window into how South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh immigrants are building community and creating the impetus and urgency for cultural, political and policy change.

Do you think the Obama Presidency has dramatically changed discussions on race and inclusion in America?  Are critics of the President, such as Cornel West, too harsh?

For most of his presidency, we seem to have had unwilling conversations about race in America. On one hand, the fact that we elected our first Black president led many to erroneously posit that our country has become post-racial. At the same time, we know that structural and systemic policies continue to disadvantage people of color, especially Black communities, in virtually every sector of society. Only recently, due to the urgency that the movement for Black lives has created, have we seen more honest and direct conversations about race, racism, and structural racial inequity, including from the President himself. Every elected official and policymaker in this country should place issues like race, immigration, and class front and center because of how they affect the daily lives of people.

Tell me more about the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement for America?

Thanks to the movement for Black lives, we can no longer avert our eyes and close our ears to the truths that Black people have been saying for years and years about the alarming inequity and violence in many Black communities. The significance of the movement depends also on the willingness of non-Black America to listen and understand, and to work towards Black liberation.

In forums and discussions that I have facilitated with Asian American and South Asian communities on the movement for Black lives, a few key themes tend to emerge: how to be in solidarity with the movement without co-opting it; how to address anti-black racism within our own communities; and how to make connections between Asian/South Asian and Black communities around issues of state violence, surveillance, hate crimes, and profiling.

Could you comment on the Pew Research Center Report, “Multiracial in America” (June 11, 2015)? How are multiracial Americans changing the social and political dynamics of the United States?

Census data shows that people who are multiracial —that is, they identify as belonging to two or more races — are growing in population size. This reflects the national trend that people of color are going to comprise the majority of the US population by 2043. We are already witnessing how this tremendous diversity is benefitting our communities. But we must be vigilant about not assuming that these population changes mean that people of color will automatically, by virtue of population dynamics, gain economic and political power or be accepted. In fact, the Pew report on multiracial Americans shows that a majority of respondents had been subjected to racial slurs. As the demographics shift, it is likely that we will also see an increase in racial anxiety which can play itself out in many ways — from the visibility of hate groups to policies that exclude people of color. Over at the Center for Social Inclusion, where I’m a fellow currently, we are exploring the changing racial landscape and some of these questions through articles and online conversations. The transformation in our demographic landscape is already underway and racial justice advocates and practitioners can lead the way in creating more inclusive and equitable communities.

In Appendix A of your book (Race Talks), you recommend group activities to spark serious discussions about a “multiracial and equitable America.”  How can these exercises transform communities?

In my work with South Asian and Asian American communities over the past 15 years, I found that the most powerful and transformative conversations around race were the most basic ones: where we talked about what our points of consciousness were, or we connected our stories of migration and oppression, or we envisioned the future we wanted to see on campuses, neighborhoods, or workplaces. The exercises I’ve included in the book are premised on the importance of having these types of conversations, regardless of how comfortable we are in talking about race and inequity. They are simple enough for college students, professional associations, and veteran advocates, and can be integrated into ongoing conversations or jumpstart new ones.

Are you optimistic that America can defeat the “forces [and sources] of racial anxiety, Islamophobia, and xenophobia” in the decades ahead?

Absolutely. In writing my book, my sense of hope and optimism expanded even further. The young people I profile in the book – Drost Kokoye in Tennessee; Yves in Maryland; Faiza Ali in New York; Mustafa Abdullah in St. Louis – are examples of the activism and resilience around our country. They are mobilizing their communities, organizing campaigns, keeping people accountable in spite of unprecedented and daily attacks rooted in anti-Muslim sentiment, xenophobia or racism. We are at a tipping point in many arenas in claiming power and seeking justice. The time is now.

More information about Iyer’s book, as well as details about her book tour, can be found at http://www.deepaiyer.com/. She tweets at @dviyer.

ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

This article originally appeared on ISLAMiCommentary.

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