Deepa Iyer, a lawyer and longtime civil rights activist, particularly in the South Asian community, has released her first book, “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future.” It’s an engaging account of how post-9/11 hostility has impacted individuals in these groups and how some have persevered after deadly hate crimes including the white supremacist mass shooting of Sikhs at a Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Iyer walks us through these tragedies via their stories and explores how their experiences turned them even deeper toward activism. She ends the book with a call to action for Arab, Muslim, Sikh and South Asian communities to “dismantle the racial ladder” and work toward justice for all communities of color in the United States. I met with Iyer in Washington, D.C., earlier this month to talk about her debut book and emailed with her on Sunday, two days after the Islamic State staged its massive, multi-site attack on Paris.
I noticed that you don’t talk much about your own experiences in the book, despite being a member of the community you are writing about. Why?
I [actually] feel like I maybe I did too much. I had this delicate balance of not trying to insert myself too much into the book because I really do want to lift up the stories of people that we don’t usually hear. Because I’ve had the opportunity to lead a non-profit [South Asian Americans Leading Together], people perhaps have heard my name. The stories of people like Yves and Drost are the ones that people need to hear. My editor said, “You need to put yourself in the book at some level,” so I did what I could. I think one of the things I’m very conscious of is the fact that my story is very privileged.
What is your story?
I was born in India, moved to Kentucky at 12, then I went to school in the South—Vanderbilt University and then law school in Northern Indiana. I went to very traditional, white schools where I was always one of five minorities, like my law-school class. Both my parents had masters degrees.
What brought your family to Kentucky?
One of those typical stories of post-1965 immigrants: My father was a physician and got an opportunity to do a fellowship at the University of Louisville Medical School. He ended up getting a more permanent offer and stayed on. He faced his own share of discrimination, in terms of hitting a glass ceiling and his accent being an issue. I grew up observing a lot of that, and I spent a good chunk of my time trying to get rid of my Indian accent. I’d watch the nightly news every day to try to speak like Dan Rather. People didn’t really know where we fit because it was a really black or white line where being Asian didn’t make sense to other people. I was very aware that I was “different” for a lot of reasons.
Do the racial hierarchies that South Asian immigrants experience in their countries of origin influence how they see race in the U.S.?
Definitely. In India there are hierarchies based on caste and color. Castism and colorism are things that people are used to. It might be on the basis of race, but there is this sense that some people are better than others. Some of that is already engrained in people in terms of how they order the world. In a way that probably contributed to getting used to this racial hierarchy in the U.S.
Don’t some immigrants come from a position of racial privilege in their home country and then face increased racism here?
Yes. That’s absolutely true. When you’re here, you’re kind of all the same—you’re all non-white. Part of what I tell my own community, the call to action, is to try to dismantle that racial ladder by rejecting this notion that we are culturally exceptional. You go to a lot of South Asian events [like spelling bees] and all you hear is, ”We’re the best at this.” We have to recognize what we do when we use that language at the expense of creating a more comprehensive picture of our community. Are we creating these racial wedges ourselves, especially in black communities?
Some of the experiences you recount in this book are incredibly traumatic. What was it like to write about such difficult topics?
It was hard. It was really hard. But it was harder for [the people in the book] to have to tell the stories to me. The first chapter on hate violence was really difficult to write and I’ve heard that it is really difficult to read. I think that, generally, there is a lot of individual and collective community trauma, particularly post 9/11. I don’t think that we’ve actually started even thinking about what it means. That’s why on the book tour I’m actually going to be in dialogue with local activists. I don’t want to just read; I want to be in dialogue. I have a connection with everyone that I wrote about in the book.
You point out in the book that despite identifying right-wing lone wolves as the biggest terrorist threat, the federal government focuses most of its anti-terrorism efforts on Al-Qaeda and the activity of other Islamist terrorist groups in the U.S. Why do you think that is?
It’s part and parcel of this drumbeat of the War on Terror, casting Muslims, South Asians and Arabs as potential terrorists, potential suspects. The Countering Violent Extremism Program has really [placed] an exclusive focus on “Muslim radicalization.” This is the case even though the way they define violent extremism is much broader, and even they understand that hate violence, for example, is violent extremism. But the way in which the funding and the staffing has been allocated has been to focus in on “Muslim radicalization.” With the War on Terror, that’s the message we hear from the media and law-enforcement efforts, that Muslim communities should be profiled and surveilled. The real threat, the threat for all Americans, is this rise in white supremacist extremist groups. We have not seen enough attention going in that direction.
Was 9/11 a turning point for this type of surveillance?
Certainly before 9/11 Muslims and Arabs had also faced this othering from a terrorist standpoint. It isn’t something new, but it was disproportionate after 9/11. We’ve had the media narrative of Muslims as the other. That fuels an environment where people feel like they can discriminate, whether it’s in the form of hate violence or saying [things like], “I don’t want to fly on this plane with this bearded Muslim person.” But the most pernicious piece is what we’ve seen from government. We can shift the cultural narrative. We can shift media narratives. I believe we can even shift individual implicit bias. But when we’ve got the government policies and institutions entrenched [in discrimination], all the work we do on those levels is not enough. The government policies increased tremendously after 9/11. The power of the state to arm itself and to implement the War on Terror has really reinforced this environment of fear. That systemic change is what we need to focus on.
What has it been like to be Muslim, South Asian, Arab or Sikh in the U.S. during this era?
Muslim communities in particular are living in this climate where they have to constantly second guess activities. People in the book [ask], “Can I join a Muslim Students Association?” “Can I wear my hijab today?” “Should I be wearing my turban if I’m Sikh and I’m flying today?” “Because my name is Mohammed, will my homemade clock be seen as a bomb?” These are the sorts of questions that not a lot of people have to think about.
That’s why the book is focused on young people so much. We need to be devoting more resources to making sure that young people from these communities are [addressing] the psychological impacts [of growing up] in the specter of 9/11. Maybe I think about that a little more because I have a kid, too.
Is it possible to prevent terrorism, including white supremacist terrorism? Do state efforts create more harm than they prevent?
I don’t think we can prevent it fully, but I don’t know that what we’ve used so far are the right methods. I also don’t see our government, in either administration—Obama or Bush—really doing that assessment of what has worked and what has not worked. The Patriot Act has been reauthorized in Congress time and time again. We’re going in this direction, but we’re not taking stock of the impact.
I think that we should be engaging in an assessment of the what the so-called benefits have been and what the losses have been, like families being separated and small businesses shutting down. We have groups of young people in this country who live in a climate of fear because there is a mosque being built in their backyard and there is vandalism to it. All the messages [they] get are, “You’re not wanted,” or “You are the other.” I think that we need to step back and look at what the impact has been, but we tend not to want to do that.
While reading your book, I reflected on the fact that we elected a black president with the middle name “Hussein” just seven years after 9/11.
I think it’s remarkable that he was elected given that we were in the 9/11 moment still. He endured a lot for that, everything from the birthers to people thinking he was Muslim. That shows tremendous openness on the part of Americans. I think that also people in our communities who tend to vote Democrat were really pleased in that election. We had a lot of hopes for the president. There have been some advancements, but [also] a lot of entrenchment, particularly on national security issues.
Can you say more about the idea in the book of being co-conspirators rather than allies to the Black Lives Matter movement?
Especially with the movement for black lives, people have been thinking about what it means to be in solidarity and support. The dissatisfaction that many feel with [the term “ally”] is that it implies that you are a bystander or on the sidelines. There is this desire to be more engaged. I heard [the term “co-conspirator”] in my interview with Dante Barry, the executive director of Million Hoodies [Movement for Justice]. Let’s actually come together to create these solutions. [It’s] rolling up our sleeves and being part of this moment in the way that black leaders want us to be.
What went through your mind when you heard about the Islamic State attacks in Paris?
I was shocked, horrified and heartbroken. Just a day earlier, bombings in Beirut claimed the lives of innocent people. It’s been a challenge to fully grasp all that’s going on in the world right now.
I’ve seen a number of people circulating news of the Beirut massacre on social media and comparing the media coverage of it to Paris coverage. I have also seen posts about the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria in January and the Al Shabab massacre at Kenya’s Garissa University in April. What are your thoughts about U.S. news media and social media in moments like this?
Many are making the legitimate point that the media coverage of acts of violence towards white or Western victims has a different tone, tenor and visibility to it than those targeting non-whites or non-Westerners. This raises the question of whose lives are valued more. There’s also little mainstream media coverage about the climate that many South Asian, Arab and Muslim immigrants face in America, especially with respect to backlash over the past 14 years. It’s easier to demonize communities when there is no news about them or negative news and images are provided.
Do you foresee any backlash in the Western world, including America, against Muslims and people from the Middle East and South Asia?
Unfortunately, when horrific events like these occur, activists who work with Muslim, South Asian and Arab communities brace for potential backlash. Since the Paris attacks, we have seen some of that already, with policymakers such as Peter King calling for heightened surveillance in Muslim neighborhoods and threats to a mosque in St. Petersburg, Florida. In addition, we are seeing xenophobic rhetoric towards Syrian refugees in particular. It is important that we stay vigilant, keep communities safe and advocate against wholesale profiling of people based on their national origin and/or faith.
*Deepa Iyer is the board chair of Colorlines’ publisher, Race Forward.