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NCORE Conference: Scholar Offers Perspectives on Inter-Minority Racism

SAN FRANCISCO – Not only do South Asians and Blacks in this country hold increasingly racist notions of each other in the post-September 11 era, but they, along with other people of color, are increasingly likely to engage in White supremacy behavior, a biracial scholar of cross-cultural relations asserted.

“I’m very concerned about inter-minority racism,” said Dr. Nitasha Sharma, an assistant professor of African American studies and Asian American studies at Northwestern University. “It’s more than just having a negative idea about someone; it’s about oppressing them. Some minorities uphold White supremacy in what has become multiracial White supremacy.”

Her remarks came during the 24th annual meeting of the National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education. As examples of such racism, Sharma cited how some South Asians—which she defined as Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis—unfairly scorn Blacks, while xenophobic sentiments in recent years have led some Black Americans to unfairly typecast South Asians “as terrorists.”

She noted how gaps continue to increase between Blacks and South Asians, making them near-polar opposites in yardsticks such as educational attainment and in the subsequent social stereotypes as well. “Blacks are underrepresented in higher education, overrepresented in incarceration and stereotyped as overly sexual and innately athletic. South Asians are earning more income than almost everyone else, including Whites; they’re overrepresented in higher education, yet viewed as asexual, non-athletic.”

She added that, as uncomfortable as people may become from the acknowledgement of such observations, “it’s important we not shy away from talking about our differences” because only through honesty “can we develop models for multiracial alliance.”

Sharma’s comments came during a session she led entitled “Let’s Talk About Inter-Minority Race Relations and Racism: (South) Asian/Black Relations Mediated Through Hip Hop Culture.” It was among discussions, panels and workshops across five days in which educators examined not only race, gender, religion and sexual orientation, but intersections among them that often result in minority populations being abused.

In a speech, University of California, Hastings College of the Law chancellor and dean Frank Wu echoed Sharma’s theme, in part, about Asians becoming marginalized. He recounted how, growing up in Detroit in the 1970s as one of few Chinese American youth in the area, he withstood slurs “like ‘chink’ and ‘gook’ and questions over whether my parents were Communists.” 

While his parents encouraged him to ignore such taunts “and try to fit in,” Wu said, he experienced an epiphany as a teenager when in 1982, two White men murdered Vincent Chin, an American-born Chinese in Detroit. At the time, a flagging U.S. economy coupled with Japan’s prosperity stemming from international trade had fostered resentment among many Americans against any person with yellow skin. In the aftermath of Chin’s death from a brutal beating, Chinese-Americans everywhere were spurred to hold demonstrations demanding civil rights protection. Wu, meanwhile, was inspired to later attend law school.

Sharma, a 2009 Diverse Emerging Scholar who grew up in multicultural Hawaii with an Indian father and Caucasian mother, felt racially stifled while attending the University of California, Santa Cruz as an undergraduate and sought refuge in hip-hop.

The latter endeavor led her to eventually research the lives of South Asian American musicians, which varied greatly. In California, for instance, some artists grew up middle, upper-class in White neighborhoods, attended White schools and gained their social consciousness through hip hop, Sharma recalled. Yet only a few miles away, she met artists from single-parent homes in working-class neighborhoods, attended Black high schools and whose closest friends were usually Black or Filipino. Such lower-income South Asians, she said, were likely, through rapping, to voice anxieties about their friends squabbling with their fathers, dropping out of school and landing in the juvenile justice system.

Sharma noted aloud not only the irony of her scholarship and politics as someone who’s half-White, but also the irony of many U.S. colleges who “channel and manage” students of color within racial pockets such as Black fraternities “separate but equal to” Mexican-American fraternities. “We need these entities but students should be compelled to move beyond these compartments, too. At Northwestern, for example, we lack a formal ethnic studies program even though we have African-American studies and Asian American studies and so on.”

During a wide-ranging, 90-minute interactive group discussion with Sharma at NCORE, one participant, while agreeing with Sharma, said that, at her university, “Filipino, Pakistani and Cambodian students have the same complaints as Blacks over how they’re treated.”

Sharma told the woman and the rest of the discussants that such an observation held plenty of merit but added, “I don’t think all people get equally mistreated.”

She likened her belief to how she tries encouraging her students, regardless of their backgrounds, into polycultural exploration of hip hop “without de-centering hip hop or taking it away from Black Americans, who have already had so much taken away from them.”

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