How to be Brown in Trump’s America?
Don’t go to a bar. Avoid Altercations. Fake an accent. And don’t travel to the Midwest or South.
By Nidhi Chaudhry
On the evening of 22nd Feb (last week), Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian, was enjoying a glass of Jameson in a Kansas bar with a colleague (also Indian), when Adam Purinton, a ‘white’ navy veteran started shouting racial slurs at them. The night ended with Srinivas shot dead, his colleague badly injured along with another American bystander who had intervened. Adam Purinton was arrested hours later after he boasted at another bar that he had killed some middle-eastern men. So far, the killing hasn’t been labeled a hate-crime.
“Don’t worry. Stuff like this doesn’t happen in Seattle.”
My husband is on the phone with my parents in India, who just saw the news about the fatal shooting of an Indian engineer out drinking in a Kansas bar. Apparently the shooter, a 51-year old white American, had shouted, “Get out of my country” before opening fire.
My parents are very concerned. Since the elections last November, “Move out of the US, come back to India!” has become my mother’s mantra and she sprinkles it generously into every conversation. On most days it’s easy to dismiss (“Don’t overreact mom!) but lately it has gotten tougher. Today, it will be impossible.
“It’s a Kansas issue,” my husband continues. “This is a risk you take on when you choose to live in the Midwest or the South.” I roll my eyes at the sweeping generalization. Sure, the Midwest doesn’t have the finest racial record but Johnson County has a high proportion of immigrants; Olathe, the Kansas City suburb where the shooting took place, is an affluent, newer city by all accounts. A quick search on Reddit throws up descriptions like ‘bastion of suburban whiteness’, “No significant race issues”. Racist level: Subtle.
It doesn’t sound very different from where I live with my husband: Kirkland, Washington — a Seattle-suburb, predominantly white, affluent and recently inundated with Asian tech workers. We are Indians. My husband is an engineer at Google, we both went to college at NYU, and on most days, we use the word home to refer to Kirkland. We have local bars that we haunt, favorite restaurants we swear by and a circle of friends that feels like family. We never really think of ourselves as immigrants — My husband is here because in 2017 this is the cutting edge of the tech world and I’m here because I followed love. Yes, Kirkland could be Olathe, except we tell ourselves we are safe because Seattle has a better record than Kansas City of accepting immigrants and giving them sanctuary.
That doesn’t work on my Indian parents. Seattle — Kansas — To them, it’s all of the USA and Trump’s rhetoric has had months to make them fearful, even as it’s emboldened others. Through every news report of anti-immigrant assaults, slurs, and government policy, my parents have kept a lid on their bubbling fear. But this one hits too close to home — An Indian, an engineer, on the wrong side of the barrel. What do they have against Indians, my mom wants to know. Is this an Indian issue?
“No, apparently the shooter thought this guy was Middle Eastern,” my husband clarifies. What an idiot, I had vented, when I first found this out. I had bristled — Middle Eastern is not the same as Indian! We come here legally, pay our taxes, turn into CEOs, and we don’t kill anybody. But then I felt guilt over my racist knee jerk reaction. Had the shooter killed someone really from the Middle East, how would it have been better, or different? I might have still been cocooned in the illusion of Indian safety in Trump’s America, but the taking of any innocent life, Indian or Middle Eastern, is senseless. And for what? Being an immigrant?
I read somewhere that the shooter was an alcoholic and had recently lost his father. Grief drives people crazy. So does Alcohol. Add a gun to the equation and boom. You get one dead engineer in a bar in Kansas. How differently this could have turned out — a bloody nose, a black eye were both better than a lost life. Maybe this was a gun issue?
A Facebook event invite pops up on my phone: A peace vigil for the Kansas engineer, calling all immigrants to persist and speak up. “His death shall not go waste,” it says. Hashtag WeBelong. Do we really? I walk to the mirror, take a long look at my brown self and slowly mouth the word, “immigrant.”
In the last few months, as the anti-immigrant sentiment of this administration has become overt, my husband and I have discussed, “Are we safe here? Are we making the right choice by staying on?” It’s eerie that the Kansas engineer had discussed this same question with his wife, weeks before being shot.
My husband takes a pragmatic view. “It’s all risk and reward,” he rationalizes. “The risk of a similar incident is low in Seattle compared to the reward of working at Google here.” I tell him it’s a bubble of safety, carefully constructed by things we’ve told ourselves — I am not muslim. I don’t live in the South. I am here legally. In Trump’s checklist of undesirables, I didn’t check any of the boxes before and that felt safe. But now I do. I am brown. And some drunk with a gun at his hip can decide that’s not a color he likes. Yet the Trump administration thinks it “absurd” that the Kansas shooting had any link to its hateful rhetoric. For them this isn’t even a hate killing, just a tragic loss of life.
Later in the evening, at a gathering of Indian friends, this story comes up and everyone is full of advice to keep safe. “Don’t go to a bar with all white men. Actually, don’t go to a bar at all. Hang out at home,” one says. “Avoid altercations. If you get into it, you’re just asking for it,” says another. “And don’t travel, neither to rural areas, nor to the Midwest nor to the South.” It sounds a bit too much like the things I’m told to do to keep safe as a woman. A list of don’ts to make me feel like I have all the control (which I don’t) and shift the burden of blame, if something does happen. A friend says he might move back to India. “It’s not like you’re any safer in India,” comes the retort. But isn’t that the point? This is America. Aren’t things supposed to be different here?
Nidhi Chaudhry is a writer for several international publications. See her work at nidhichaudhry.com or say hi on Twitter @Nimbupaanii . If you’d rather do neither, then check out her food shots on Instagram @Masala_modernista (Because who doesn’t like looking at photos of delicious food!)