“I am ripping on ‘uncles’ in our own community [South Asians] who lack self-awareness and propagate anti-Black and anti-brown rhetoric just so Asians can get ahead.”
That’s Hasan Minhaj from episode one of his political comedy show “Patriot Act” on Netflix. It’s also where I first heard of a lawsuit brought by Asian American students alleging that Harvard’s affirmative action policies are discriminatory towards Asians.
Insert collective groan here.
The irony and sheer stupidity of a minority group advocating against affirmative action policies at a historically exclusionary university in America, is a trigger for a much need conversation around Asian privilege — or in my specific case, South Asian privilege. South Asian Americans are afforded a certain degree of societal advantages regardless of their native or immigrant standing in many non-Asian countries.
Speaking as an immigrant from a middle-class, urban upbringing, I have been given opportunities to make a professional mark, to network, and gain access to information and people who were in a position to better my social standing. Simultaneously, I’ve struggled against the privilege of others that has kept the natural rise of individuals at bay. This tug-of-war is unique to Asian Americans who have benefited from the strangely positive or neutral stereotypes that exist around their ethnicity — Asians are hard-working, smart, fish-loving brainiacs, who dominate the medical, science, and IT fields — while tackling very real racial, economic, and cultural challenges that prevent them from gaining access to opportunities.
Like other minorities, South Asians combat negative stereotypes that are projected on their race; however, they leverage the aforementioned stereotypes that place them on a higher footing than other minority groups. This distracts us from the bigger picture of racial justice. It is classic “us versus them” Colonial indoctrination, where a group of people are taught that they are less than the colonizer, but somehow better than their neighbor. This is the root of the Harvard lawsuit.
Case in point: I’ve been invited to dinner at a prestigious yacht club and I’m standing at the top of a manicured hill looking out at a calm blue sea peppered with sailboats. The simplicity of the view is breathtaking but also coveted. The nearly two hundred year old structure sat at the edge of a township that caters to the entitled, so much so that my Uber driver commented on the aura of affluence as he dropped me off. I felt an awkward, unsolicited compulsion to share that I had been invited to attend as a company guest.
As I make small talk with interesting people, the head of one of our divisions spots me from across the room and gives me a wave. I have never met him in person and he only first heard of me yesterday when he was told I would be attending as his media relations liaison. Yet, we instantly identified the other without being introduced. We were the only people of color in the room. He is Indian and I was born in Bangladesh.
As the evening ended, I accepted an offer to join a sailing crew the next morning to get a better view of the J-22s which were taking part in the sailing regatta which I had come to see (I had to look up “regatta”). That’s when the absurdity of my situation hit me. I arrived in this country as an immigrant and through a series of circumstances ended up with opportunities to expand my social and financial clout. The head of the business “coincidentally” being South Asian is validation that our race didn’t hinder our success.
Starkly missing from the room were African, Latino, and Native Americans. Maybe there are a handful of yacht club members who fit that bill, but if my evening was any indication of society’s barriers to entry, then I would say that South Asians have somehow wedged themselves into a corner that promotes an “exception to the rule.” It begs the bigger and fully-loaded question, how did this happen?
In fairness, the standards are high for that corner real-estate and I’m not discrediting the hard work South Asians, or a person from any group, has invested to getting where they are. Heck, I’ve had to work hard and sacrifice to get where I am. However, it’s common knowledge that hard work is meaningless without institutional support — access to people, money, opportunities, and places.
The unglamorous side to all this is when South Asians dare to be authentically South Asian. I’ve learned to steel myself against glares and aggression from people who don’t fancy my cultural garb, maintain composure with people who roll their eyes when they hear an accent, and attempt to clean the hate speech written on the door of our Mosque (we had to paint over it). But these are minor offences in the bigger challenge against prejudice. Not many people want to actually kill me because I’m Asian (at least no one has said it to my face). Conversely, myself and other Asian Americans benefit from the efforts of diverse advocacy and civil rights groups that have secured equal protection from the law for citizens, and continue to fight injustice today.
I’m not ungrateful and, I’m sure, neither is anyone else who has benefited from the fight that others have endured for the masses. The real question is, if you agree that South Asians, to a certain extent, benefit from a type of privilege, what do you then do about it?
Here’s what I am committing to when it comes to South Asian privilege:
1. Acknowledge that the privilege is real. This goes back to the “uncles” quote at the top of the article. Seriously, just go watch the episode.
2. Help those who don’t have the same level of access, gain that access by advocating for people, opening doors where I can, and calling out systemic racism and bias at work, school, or on the playground.
3. Reminding other South Asians of the privilege that works in their favor, thereby helping to create a sense of awareness and acknowledgement that it’s not hard-work alone that’s getting them to where they are. The lack of awareness is how the students suing Harvard are being used to fight on the wrong side of the affirmative action war.