We’ve Been Killing South Asians For As Long As They’ve Been Arriving To The U.S.

(Photo credit: The South Asian American Digital Archive)
Responding to the recent targeted attacks on South Asian Americans requires a deeper solidarity with the experience of previous generations.

I saw the picture before I knew the whole story, but then pictures tell their own stories, don’t they?

This one shows the inside of a general store, somewhere in the United States, and the antique cash register and sepia-tone suggest that it was taken long ago. There’s a dashing South Asian man, wearing a bowtie and vest, hands in his pockets, looking off screen. He seems sad, though; his stance mirrors the pillar at the center of the room.

Even without a caption it’s clear that this man works in this store, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, is a mildly astonishing realization — did vest-wearing South Asian people work in this country back then? But there are other, more burning questions: What is he looking at? Is he alone because the store is closed, or because business is slow? Is that the cause of the forlorn expression he wears — or is there some deeper pain showing through?

This man was, as I found out, named Vaishno Das Bagai and he actually owned that general store on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. According to records, in 1915 he moved to the United States — selling his properties in India and arriving on Angel Island with his wife and two kids — and a few years later he was naturalized as an American citizen. He opened this shop around that time and took this photo in 1923. Bagai, it would seem, was living The American Dream.

And yet, as the melancholy in this photo hints at, there were roadblocks to that fantasy. In a letter he wrote to the San Francisco Examiner in 1928, Bagai compared life in this country to living “in a gilded cage.” He wondered out loud if he had made the right choice by moving here. He wrote of insults and the laws which prevented him from owning land. A litany of depressing and familiar facts for immigrants, even today.

He wrote of insults and the laws which prevented him from owning land — a litany of depressing and familiar facts for immigrants, even today.

Of course the stories of immigrants in this country have never been quite as simple as we’d like them to be. Nor has the story of the country itself. In 1924, after a Supreme Court case barred Asians from citizenship — because they were not white — this South Asian small business owner lost his footing. Feeling unwelcome in his chosen home, he longed to return to India. But, without citizenship, that wasn’t possible either; as he writes in his letter, “They will not permit me to buy my home and, lo, they even shall not issue me a passport to go back to India.” Soon he lost his general store too.

Heartbroken and hopeless, Bagai rented an apartment in San Jose in 1928, turned on a gas stove, and took his own life. The letter he wrote to the Examiner was his suicide note:

“I do not choose to live the life of an interned person: yes, I am in a free country and can move about where and when I wish inside the country. Is life worth living in a gilded cage? Obstacles this way, blockades that way, and the bridges burnt behind.”

To see a reflection of yourself in a photograph is an affirmation of the moment, but also a reminder of the life that extends well before you. Every selfie on Instagram announces: I am here, but also I have been here. The timestamp is always a culmination of moments.

Since every picture captures a moment in the past, when I see a bit of myself in one, it can feel a bit like time traveling. Looking at this photo of Bagai, taken nearly 100 years before the events of 2017, we see him and his story, but also a century of other stories of South Asian Americans in this country — told and untold. It’s impossible not to hear the echoes of our current stifling moment reverberating in that empty room.

Since every picture captures a moment in the past, when I see a bit of myself in one, it can feel a bit like time traveling.

In the last few months, at least three men of South Asian origin have been shot in the United States. In Washington, a Sikh man named Deep Rai was standing in his own driveway when a white man yelled, “Go back to your own country!” and fired at him.

Harnish Patel was fatally shot outside of his home in Lancaster, South Carolina.

In Kansas, Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed in a bar by a white American who thought he was “Middle Eastern.” That man also apparently yelled “get out of my country” before killing him. Afterwards, his wife, Sunayana Dumala, wrote a mournful note on Facebook, asking, “Do we belong here? Is this the same country we dreamed of…?”

When I first saw a photo of Kuchibhotla pass across my Facebook feed, accompanied by the horrific story of his murder, it showed him and Dumala on vacation in Las Vegas. In the background the Paris Casino is visible, and a billboard reads “The #1 Best Buffet in Las Vegas.” Both are smiling. They look happy.

Though he’s not wearing a bowtie, Kuchibhotla has a face like Bagai’s. A handsome mustache. But unlike the early 20th century general store owner, Kuchibhotla is looking directly at the camera, as if he is looking directly at us. Waiting for a response.

Of course, his photo came to me with more context. Not only in the form of a link, but with the fact of shared time. Kuchibhotla and I are no doubt very different, but we were alive on the same days. And though his picture is not mine, I too have seen the Paris Casino in Las Vegas—I’ve taken photos on that street.

I’ve also been down Fillmore Street in San Francisco many times, but I don’t think Bagai would recognize that area today. In that sense, we are much more tenuously linked. I wonder then how the answer to Dumala’s question about belonging here might also be different today than it was in 1928— even as certain circumstances, woefully, are not.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s executive orders and ongoing exclusionary campaign — which has been fueled by white supremacist hate — there are ample reasons for immigrants and their children, especially those with dark skin and who wear a headscarf or turban, to wonder if they should stay or go. And though these legislative actions and hate crimes have no doubt been influenced by the rise of the alt-right, they are also a continuation of a much older story.

How long have we been killing South Asian people in this country? For as long as they have been arriving here (which is at least since the 1700s). This story of xenophobia is really just the founding story of America itself. Which even before Bagai opened his store was permanently embedded with a legacy of genocide, chattel slavery, and hatred of “others.”

This story of xenophobia is really just the founding story of America itself.

Yet, within that broader narrative, South Asian Americans have long played a complex role — one that has often remained purposefully obscured, off-camera. It’s certainly not a part that the media or our history books tend to spotlight, but it’s also not one that has always been claimed by many South Asian Americans either.

In a 2015 piece for the New Yorker—which also begins with Bagai’s story—author Karan Mahajan reflects on how the the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 transformed Asian American identity in the U.S., establishing new possibilities, which ultimately could not avoid the old limitations:

“There are now, in a sense, two Asian Americas: one formed by five centuries of systemic racism, and another, more genteel version, constituted in the aftermath of the 1965 law. These two Asian Americas float over and under each other like tectonic plates, often clanging discordantly. So, while Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans are among the most prosperous groups in the country, Korean-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, and Filipino-Americans have lower median personal earnings than the general population…More damningly, the reputations of Asian-American groups, just as in the past, can turn on a dime, with national or international events triggering sudden reversals.”

Today we seem to be amidst another of those turning points (or is it a circling back?) where anti-Muslim and anti-Black sentiments—alongside long festering anti-immigrant attitudes—have metastasized to include all Asian communities, seemingly regardless of faith or class. It’s hard not to feel a sense of deja vu.

In 1915, when Bagai and his peers arrived in America, despite the fact that many of them were Sikh and Muslim, they were often collectively called “Hindoos” — attacked as a homogenous group of foreign men arriving to take white jobs (see the Bellingham Riot of 1907). During a 1914 House of Representatives hearing on immigration, California Representative Denver S. Church described Hinduism as a “Mohammedan” religion which was bound by “a strange religious fanaticism” (his argument seems largely based on what these men would or would not eat).

Church would, a month later, introduce a bill banning “Hindu laborers” from the country, which laid the groundwork for the 1917 Immigration Act — which imposed literacy tests for immigrants and barred most people from Asia from entering (though, as opposed to today, that “barred zone” did not necessarily include most of the Middle East).

Anti-Muslim and anti-Black sentiments — alongside long festering anti-immigrant attitudes — have metastasized to include all Asian communities.

Echoes of that racist language can be heard in the rhetoric used to drum up fear of Muslims on Fox News, but the same intentionally limited understanding of “others” means this fear also includes Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs, and even those brown-skinned Asian-Americans who voted for Mr. Trump. Mahajan’s essay makes the important point that to flatten the Asian American experience today is to misunderstand it, and in many ways only serves those who seek to push everyone who isn’t white, out.

After all, there are also communities of Americans whose grandparents are Bengali and Puerto Rican, or Black and Afghani — some of whom are also queer, trans, poor, disabled — and their experiences are more complicated than even the “two Asian Americas” accounts for. These people have also been killed in this country.

Mahajan concludes by saying, “If Asians sometimes remain silent in the face of racism…it is not because they want to be part of a ‘model minority’ but because they have often had no other choice.”

But perhaps this risks, in another way, making a similar mistake of flattening — especially across time and circumstance. Deja vu is a feeling, but not necessarily a memory. Don’t some South Asian Americans have more choices than others? And, specifically, aren’t our choices today different than those of our parents — of previous generations?

In his letter, Bagai writes about the decade he spent trying to become as “Americanized as possible,” only to be faced with hate and exclusion. When I look again at him in that photo, I imagine that part of what he’s looking off at is the colonial oppression he thought he left behind in India. He was actively involved in the Gadar Party here, who were working to try and liberate their home country. He was hoping to rally support for that radical movement, but was met instead with suspicion and surveillance by the U.S. government.

Asian Americans like Bagai lost their citizenship after the Supreme Court heard the case of Bhagat Singh Thind, who in 1923 lobbied to be seen as “Caucasian” — describing himself as “a high caste Hindu of full Indian blood.” In India his actions were framed as a fight for racial justice — some believed Thind’s anti-colonial activism was the reason the judge ruled against him — but even if it had been successful, Thind’s citizenship case would not have eliminated racial oppression in this country. It, after all, did not include Black Americans in its pursuit of Caucasian-ness (or most others with dark skin).

Meanwhile, after Thind’s failed case, men like Qamar-ud-din Alexander went to court to argue that they were white precisely because they weren’t “Hindu.” These South Asian folks described their ancestors as Persians or Arabs, and thus felt that they should be seen as white, as opposed to men like Thind. They also failed.

What’s striking about this history is not so much the fact that different groups of South Asian Americans were desperate to keep themselves and their families safe in America, but that 100 years later some of our tactics have not changed.

Regardless of our desperation, proximity to whiteness has not lost its allure. As one man, Gaurav Sabis, recently told CNN, some Indian-Americans still don’t like to be “confused with Arabs or people from Muslim countries” because they consider themselves “quasi white.” And within all South Asian communities, including Muslim ones, there remains a current of anti-Blackness. Yet if there were reasons for South Asians trapped under British Rule to see Thind’s case in a more complicated light, we have fewer ways of explaining these actions today.

Violence and distrust of people of color has always existed in this country — but there are limits to the comparisons we can make across time. Because small business owners in San Francisco today are not exactly the same as those in 1920s San Francisco, when that cash register in Bagai’s store had only recently been invented. Wealthy, straight South Asian American men here are certainly not dealing with the exact same problems of exclusion Singh did, and have an extra century of disproportionate power in this country to ponder (as compared to the women in their own communities, Black Americans, and other more marginalized groups).

Proximity to whiteness has not lost its allure.

Do we belong here? America itself does not belong here. This land was stolen, built by force. South Asian immigrants, and their children, are as “Americanized” as anyone else the moment they arrive. Whether or not the white people in power accept them is a question for those people to answer — but it’s clear our own communities haven’t always been welcoming, inclusive places either.

Responding to the targeted attacks on South Asian Americans in this moment, then, feels like it requires a deeper kind of solidarity with previous generations. It requires furthering their work, not just remembering what they went through. Allowing them to travel with us. That means not ignoring the pain of those most in need in our own communities today, including immigrants, nor the danger in which other communities exist. Not shying away from the complications of identity.

There have always been these additional South Asian Americas: those in pursuit of power, and those who are organizing against it. But these histories of radical resistance have also been largely overlooked by those in power. These include stories of Dalit liberation movements connecting with Black American leaders. The organizing work of queer South Asian Americans. And the women who have confronted the legacy of sexual violence left by partition.

Yet, though I feel the rush of representation when I look at these old photographs now or hear these stories of activism, I also have to remember again the two or four or million “Asian Americas” that exist, and have existed, in this country. And that, as a straight cisgender man, every narrative isn’t mine.

Do we belong here? America itself does not belong here. This land was stolen, built by force.

The racist murders of Srinivas and others echo murders in the past, but their photos also serve to highlight the life that extends around and ahead of us. Of how much nuance exists in a single person’s story, and how systems of hate and fear insulate us from that expansiveness. Because there are also echoes of Bagai’s words in those of Daniela Vargas, the young dreamer who, when threatened with deportation, wrote, “I don’t understand why they don’t want me. I’m doing the best I can.” And though echoes are not equivalencies, they are opportunities for empathy. For collaboration.

This is one way South Asian Americans might honor the life of those we’ve lost—remembering them along with Black men like Luke O. Stewart. Not forgetting Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow and the trans women of color who have also been murdered this year. Recounting the specifics of all their stories, and sharing their pictures. Looking at them together. To better understand our past, and what we each carry forward.