It began with a question from my mother. I was sitting next to her on a beige loveseat in the living room of my parents’ beige house in suburban Minneapolis. It was August 2014. We were watching a live news report from the uprising in Ferguson, Mo., where 18-year-old Michael Brown had been shot dead by a white police officer and left for four hours, face down in the street.
“Why do they always have to riot?” my mother asked.
Her question was a variation on a common theme, a mixture of disdain and feigned confusion. My immigrant mother’s insinuation was clear: “Why can’t they [Black people] behave like us [Indian Americans]?”
We continued to watch in silence. Teachers I knew were marching alongside their students, and I worried for their safety. My mind raced as I fumbled to formulate the perfect response to my mother.
I chose to remain silent, as I was taught to do.
Days after that exchange, I still struggled to reconcile my mother’s cold response with what I knew about her experiences with racism as an Indian immigrant. I feared her blind spots hinted at my own.
As the executive director of a local education nonprofit at the time, I saw firsthand how racism exists within our public education system. I considered myself an ally to students. But I lacked a deeply internalized sense of how the construction of my racial and ethnic identities presented me with a unique opportunity to combat anti-Black racism. Without this insight, I began to understand that my effectiveness as a true advocate for racial justice in our classrooms would be limited.
Around this time, I read writer Soya Jung’s assertion that, as Asians in America, “[o]ur options are invisibility, complicity, or resistance.” The words rattled me because I realized how often I actively chose silence when witnessing racist behavior and how often I made excuses for my invisibility. It was my survival strategy. Jung’s powerful framing forced me to confront this reality: Identifying as a person of color by itself does little to fulfill a commitment to education equity. I needed to reckon with how racism operates in my own life and what it means to actively resist anti-Black racism as an Indian American.
I started by researching the long history of Indians in America and wondered how we were wrought from the “least desirable race of immigrants” into the “model minority” my parents seemed so desperate to become. The answer wasn’t difficult to find. During the Cold War, the “model minority” myth “provided a powerful means for the United States to proclaim itself a racial democracy and, thereby, credentialed to assume the leadership of the free world,” explains historian Ellen Wu.
This new understanding of the model-minority myth made me curious to better know my family’s complicated relationship to it. My grandfather and great-uncle taught at historically Black colleges after immigrating from India. A 1969 article in a local Virginia newspaper described the new, “exotic” sari-clad acting librarian—my tenacious grandmother.
I asked my mother to share details from her immigration story. I heard the stifled pain in her voice as she recounted how isolated she felt during those early years in America. I finally understood why she let my siblings and me quit our Hindi language lessons as kids and skip Diwali celebrations as teenagers. To her, assimilation was a matter of survival. Unintentionally, she passed along to me this instinct to conform and remain invisible.
When we claim our identities as educators, it allows us to create more responsive curriculum and instruction.
What I realized is that my identities always matter, whether I knew it or not. As a child, I was taught by my family that direct communication and emotional expressiveness were almost always bad. I still become activated when I hear a raised voice. Of course, the act of increasing the volume of one’s voice is neither inherently good nor bad. Knowing why I instinctively react in this way helps me remain curious when working with people who have different preferences.
Reading and personal reflections are a modest start. Putting that thinking into action matters more. Albeit awkwardly, I first practiced noticing and explicitly naming racism in spaces where my colleagues were overlooking their biases. I do so now by humbly sharing my own mistakes and reiterating my belief that each of us is capable of being and doing better every day. I ask hard questions intended to provoke learning. It can be deeply uncomfortable, but my comfort is not the priority when the stakes are the lives and livelihoods of our students.
I can also see when my voice isn’t necessary as an Indian American man in conversations about racism or sexism, and my role is, instead, to simply step aside, listen, and be willing to be changed by what I hear. This has become a critical aspect of my program evaluation work, and research equity is a central concept for me while considering concepts of validity, ownership, value, and accountability.
Self-awareness engenders authenticity, which our students can easily spot. When we claim our identities as educators, it allows us to create more responsive curriculum and instruction. And it models for young people what it looks like when identities and agency are integrated—without their full understanding of who they are, they are not fully empowered. These are key factors in student success.
By ignoring the important role that self-reflection and identity development play in our students’ lives, we increase the risk that they will absorb the endless stream of racist narratives that feed them harmful messages about who they are. This disrupts their ability to thrive.
As lawmakers across the country attempt to restrict our ability to discuss race in our classrooms, I am reminded of my responsibility in actively resisting anti-Blackness as an Indian American man who works in public education. I am certain that being unapologetically Indian American includes a lifelong responsibility to dispel the model-minority myth, reject racial hierarchy, and act every day upon the ongoing calls for racial justice.
And I am no longer silent with my mother. I try my best to honor the pain and joy of her story while helping her understand that ours sits within a larger context that requires us to be seen and act in solidarity with others. She listens quietly and nods sometimes.
We won’t always get it right, but we are accountable to try.
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2021 edition of Education Week as I Am an Indian American Man. I Had Anti-Racist Work to Do