different colored hands stacked

7 Ways South Asians Can Honor Black History Month + MLK Every Day

It’s Black History Month as I recall when I was 16 years old and became an officer in the Martin Luther King Jr. Club at my small New York suburban high school. While it was led by a white male teacher who had protested in the ’60’s, just like the truth of New York’s melting pot, none of our club members were white. We were all the first generation children of Indian, Sri Lankan, Puerto Rican, Pakistani, Filipino, and Caribbean parents.

My own immigrant parents saw this as a college application builder, a positive way to spend time after school while they worked. It was one day a week that I did not go home right away to watch my younger siblings and help prep roti for dinner when my mom got home. To me, it was a way to get out the questions I had about race and identity. As a club, we spoke about the peaceful protests that paved the way for us to be in this country and we shared how, as young people, we could advance social justice.

I would come home and talk about the disparities of race in our country at our family meals. My father would carefully listen then talk to me over his Gujarati dal and basmati rice as he always did. He would reflect and say that it’s the way things are, but if you just work hard and be a good, kind person, that’s what matters. These were the qualities he fell back upon in his own experience that had mattered as he paved a path for me and my siblings in a new country. I agreed with him, “of course it is important to work hard and be kind. But what about when you work hard, are kind and your people are still marginalized?”

My father understood this in his own way. He supported black small business owners on his Jamaica Avenue corner in Queens, including buying me the underground rap CD’s I wanted, (even though he disapproved of my music taste). He helped his dverse patients financially with what they needed, often taking trades with them. We had never tasted such amazing pies and sauces and I’ll never forget my mom’s full on ’80’s perm she received once, which she rocked proudly.

My grandfather, Dada, who came to see us every weekend saw that I had more questions. I would tell him that I didn’t understand what that meant, “the way things are.” At that time, circa 1996, black churches in the South were ablaze. How could that be ok?

Dada told me about his own youth in India and talked about Mahatma Gandhi, who had also questioned the way things were. How Martin Luther King Jr. had visited India. I read Martin Luther King Jr.’s paper on his beautiful experience in India and felt joy at that alliance.

“Virtually every door was open to us. We had hundreds of invitations that the limited time did not allow us to accept. We were looked upon as brothers with the color of our skins as something of an asset. But the strongest bond of fraternity was the common cause of minority and colonial peoples in America, Africa and Asia struggling to throw off racialism and imperialism. We had the opportunity to share our views with thousands of Indian people through endless conversations and numerous discussion sessions.” Martin Luther King, Jr. “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi” July 1, 1959

I wondered where those sentiments were for the Indian Americans we knew who criticized the black race, buying into the model minority myth, (Read the book “The Karma of Brown Folk” if you need to know more).

My grandfather showed me his signed copy of The Satanic Verses and told me of the book’s ban in India, and what it means to talk about things others may not agree with. As an educator himself, he knew how to speak to my curious mind. As my grandfather, he knew what my Indian American identity meant in my teenage world. These teachings echoed in the year my Dada passed, my sophomore year of college when the twin towers crumbled and my brown skin identity rang in my ears wherever I went.

Two decades later, during a pandemic and post election racial tension that shook our world, my children and I had the day off for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a day of service last month, (we loved doing this service and kindness checklist by Kids For Peace). And as we reflect on Black History Month right now, I try to have meaningful conversation with my young children. Even if you do not have children, it’s been quite a time to think about.

While we have read some wonderful books as a family, (I love this EmbraceRace resource on #ownvoice authors for Black History Month), I wanted to reflect on the heart of race education. The empathy. That is the alliance of South Asians and Black Americans that I felt when I was 16 years old and reading My Trip To The Land of Gandhi, (a good reference read if you haven’t). Weigh in on the importance of the civil rights movement on the liberties all POC like us as South Asians have in this country and why it matters for us to remember those who paved the path for us.

To me, here’s what matters to share with my kids and not only for Black History Month awareness, but on all days for South Asians to honor MLK and be an ally against racism…

  1. Question the moments that you know are not fair. And if no one answers you, dig deeper to learn more on what you are asking. This means read books (like the ones mentioned in this article). Relying on other people on social media and the news will not always resonate truth.
  2. Don’t be afraid to make your voice be heard. Over and over again.
  3. Celebrate your heritage and contribution to the country you live in and be proud.
  4. Celebrate the races, religions and cultures that make up the fabric of our country. Honor and respect all of what is different to you.
  5. When someone is unkind to you for the color of your skin or culture, remember to connect with them. They are mean because they have disconnected with their own heart thus cannot connect with yours. If you need help, find friends and other heart-centered people.
  6. When someone is unkind to someone else for whatever reason and you witness it, meet eyes and do not be afraid to speak or act from your heart. Choose bravery and kindness in your actions and words.
  7. Do not ever give up on what you know is the right. And no matter what: always, always stand by peace.
Written by: Puja Shah, Chief of Content, The Chai Mommas

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