Why Black Lives Matter to South Asians Too

Why Black Lives Matter to South Asians Too

By Sanjena Sathian



Because today’s race discourse goes beyond Black and white.

By Sanjena Sathian

Martin Luther King Jr. famously credited the strategies of Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian leader who led the decades-long movement against British rule. But the history between Black people and Indians, or desis, doesn’t begin or end there — and one Berkeley-based couple would be pleased to explain how. 

The work of Barnali Ghosh and Anirvan Chatterjee, married for nearly 12 years, has touched nearly every issue you can think of: climate change, greening urban spaces (Ghosh’s day job), LGBT rights, caste. Some of their most powerful projects though are pure non-ideological narrative. Chatterjee, a software engineer, built a website, Black Desi Secret History, that records surprising dialogues between South Asians and Blacks across the centuries. They also run a Radical South Asian History walking tour in Berkeley (next one: July 16) that is famous among a sect of desis.

I called the two up to ask what their — my — community means in the face of #BlackLivesMatter. After all, our history includes both moments of solidarity and moments of betrayal: In 1923, an Indian man claimed to be white before the Supreme Court, and even Gandhi demanded to be treated as white during his South African days. The pair’s answer, boiled down? “Think globally, act locally.” And obviously, they told me some great stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

OZY: Were you activists before becoming community historians? How do the roles inform each other?

Ghosh: Definitely an activist first. But being an activist without knowing our community’s history makes you feel like an outsider within the South Asian community. Desi activists are one person at a wedding, another when protesting in the streets. History gave me a feeling of standing on the shoulders of giants.

Chatterjee: I was an activist before too. I grew up in the Bay Area. (Barnali grew up in India.) And a lot of uncles in my community had stories — just a little bit, but enough. People 100 years ago did these things. Just knowing that made a difference. When people talk about history with a capital H, we think it happened a long time back. But it was going on in the ’60s and ’70s.

OZY: What historical tales caused your aha! moments?

AC: In 2000, before 9/11, I read this book called The Karma of Brown Folk by Vijay Prashad. There’s this picture of women wearing saris and brown paper masks holding signs saying things like “Long Live the Revolution.” It was taken in the 1940s! I thought, someone who looked like my mother could have been wearing her sari and a revolution mask. It was this exciting mystery to uncover. Later, I met the person who took that photo, a student organizer at Berkeley in the ’70s, documenting the movement of Indian students protesting the Emergency back in India. And they got the idea of those masks from Iranian students. They were sharing tactics.

BG: I was in the library at Berkeley, and these images of Punjabi-Mexicans in the early 1900s caught my eye. I didn’t know there were desis in California so early. This was an amazing sort of cross-cultural relationship.

OZY: That’s just one example of early globalization bringing together unusual communities.

BG: The 1965 immigration act undid a ban on Asian-American immigrants. We don’t often think about who was responsible. We think the government saw our merit and let us in. But the civil rights movement impacted the immigration act. Our existence in this country is a direct result of African-Americans fighting for the rights of not only themselves, but ours as well. We owe a debt to African-Americans.

AC: Class is also important. I grew up in a sheltered, suburban, largely white community. For many South Asians, that’s not the case. The Punjabi-Mexicans were unable to get rights; many married Mexican women, building this rich hybrid community. There were also poor communities of primarily Muslim East Bengalis, who moved as far down as Texas from the northeast, a generation of folks marrying into Black or Puerto Rican families. There’s one story of a Bangladeshi man married to a Black woman, living with his mother-in-law, the daughter of slaves. 

OZY: How does this translate into your ideas about #BlackLivesMatter?

AC: Take Asians for Black Lives and groups trying to do the work of ally-ship in ways that are grounded in who we are. We don’t have to delete our South Asian-American identities or our struggles to be allies. 

BG: We’ve been trying to own up to the fact that there is anti-Blackness. It’s really important that we accept that we participate in oppression in the system that makes it dangerous to be a Black person. Asians for Black Lives did an intervention during Chinese New Year in San Francisco. Interventions don’t have to be big. In the 1930s, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was traveling on a train in the South. The conductor said she couldn’t sit there. She refused to move. She realized, oh, wait, she’s not Black, she’s something else. Then he comes back and says, “Oh, you can actually sit here.” Her response is, “No, I am a colored person.” Her solidarity was with African-Americans.

AC: It’s sometimes hard to see yourself in big stories with big heroes. We’re interested in everyday people who’ve made critical choices at the right time. 

OZY: Amid a landscape of loud ideology, how can activists or laypeople inform their beliefs by sharing stories, data or otherwise?

AC: A lot of our walking tour has come from irritating-to-read academic books. It’s unreasonable to ask everyone to read those. We find ways to tell them in ways that are easier to digest, using storytelling, visuals and the desi tradition of street theater. People feel they’re just listening to a story.