Beyond Hashtags and Photo Ops: A Call to Nepali Americans for Black & Dalit Lives
By Pabitra Khati Benjamin & Luna Ranjit
George Floyd’s murder at the knees of police officer Derek Chauvin ignited protests that have spread across the U.S. and into other countries, and have elevated the calls to abolish the police. This recent uprising has also swept up many in the Nepali communities. As Nepali American immigrants committed to building Black-Brown solidarity for justice, we are heartened to see our community, especially the younger generation, engage in this national discourse about race. We are hopeful that it will continue even as #BlackLivesMatter will no longer dominate social media feeds.
This uprising is an echo of decades of resistance and demand for respect for the sanctity of Black lives. The recent uprising is about George Floyd and it is also about Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by police in her own bed in Kentucky, Tony McDade, a Black trans masculine person killed by the police in Florida. It is about the lack of accountability in Georgia when two White men shot Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging. It is about many Black people in the U.S. who have been killed with impunity while carrying on with their everyday life.
The demands for justice is not just protesting the long history of police violence and white supremacist violence against Black communities, it is also forcing structural change. The uprising is a continuation of the civil and human rights movements in the U.S. It is another opening to challenge the broader community to truly respect Black lives. To envision what it means to stop resourcing law enforcement agencies that have torn down and killed Black and poor communities of color. The uprising begs us to consider prioritizing safety of communities of color and poor people as more important than policing to protect properties.
If we take time to learn American history we see that the “American dream” of working hard to get ahead is built on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, Black Americans. Even the American police system is built on a model of “slave patrols” or gangs of white men given the power to terrorize communities to control the movements and behaviors of enslaved populations. Another part of this history is a day many just celebrated, Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the end of slavery on June 19, 1865. It is an important day in American history that few know about. Unfortunately, the end of slavery did not mean the end of systematic government sponsored discrimination, imprisonment, sterilization and murder. America thrives by creating the “black” as “other” and turning our communities against one another.
The message of anti-Blackness goes beyond national borders. Most Nepali immigrants come to the U.S. with preconceived notions of Black Americans as lazy, violent, less educated and/or dangerous. Our community tries to keep our children away from “them” because we worry that if our children associate with Black Americans they could pick up negative characteristics that will make them less “successful”. If we take a moment to think about how ingrained it is to strive to be White and hate to be Black, we start to then really ask ourselves what it means to say Black Lives Matter and really mean it.
It is beyond time to reexamine our own behaviors and call in our community when they are racist. From challenging daily habits like moving away from Black men on the subway to calling the police on Black people for “suspicious” behaviors or saying that Black people are “intimidating” or “lazy.” Then to dive a little deeper and examine the ways in which we appropriate Black culture, such as in Nep-Hop music. Our willingness to capitalize on Black culture while knowing nothing about Black history or the roots of hip-hop is a manifestation of racism. And that to support Black communities is not a political photo opportunity, but an integration of challenging anti-Blackness within our own actions and working to transform our communities to become pro-Black.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan recently reminded us that “South Asian Americans Have to Go Beyond Performative Activism and Embrace Solidarity, Empathy and Reparations.” This deeply applies to our community, including those of us who may be holding #BLM signs or posting about it on social media. We have to examine what it means for us to truly stand with Black communities, not on the sidelines but in our everyday lives. How many in the Nepali community truly see Black communities as a meaningful part of our life and our communities?
We also have to acknowledge that we are indebted to Black communities. Their struggles are the reason we can enjoy many of our rights, starting with the right to migrate to the U.S. and be treated equally with everyone else in the country. The safety nets that have saved many Nepalis from spiraling into poverty, like food stamps, housing subsidies, child care assistance, and Medicare, exist because Black people, specifically Black women, fought for them. Change in this country has always come because people have fought for it, and even died for it. As new immigrants, most in our community have not yet witnessed — let alone participated en masse — in these struggles. Unfortunately, most people in our community have not bothered to understand the history and instead parrot the talking points of white supremacy feeling indebted to a figurative White America for the American Dream.
We have also noticed that while there has been a sharp increase in the number of Nepalis publicly supporting #BlackLivesMatter, few are paying attention to the casteist violence in Nepal, even though seven people were killed, five of whom were Dalit, in two separate incidents of caste-based violence in the same week George Floyd was killed.
An entire village attacked and murdered six young men, four of them Dalit, and threw them into Bheri river because one of the Dalit men, Nabaraj BK, had fallen in love with a so-called upper caste woman and wanted to marry her. The same day, a 13-year old Dalit girl Angira Pasi was found hanging. A day earlier, Birendra Bhar had raped her and the community leaders had forced Angira to marry her rapist. Like the killing of Black people in the U.S., these are not isolated incidents as recently documented and most of them go unpunished. Ajit Mijar’s body is still lying in a morgue, waiting for justice, four years after he was killed for marrying a Brahmin woman.
Even the few Nepalis in the U.S. who are exploring caste have mostly focused on untouchability. Indeed the caste manifests in everyday indignities like who can touch what, who can enter where, and who can marry whom. Dalit community, at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, faces the worst forms of abuse shaded with complexities on colorism. But caste supremacy is more than about untouchability. It is about unequal power distribution that was codified in Muluki Ain as the law of the land. Although caste-based discrimination has been outlawed, the power structure remains and gives upper caste people the confidence to kill without fearing for consequences, the same way police or White people kill Black people in the U.S. They know the chances of them getting punished is almost non-existent because all state structures are in their favor.
There is little conversation about this among the Nepali community in the U.S. because of the caste composition of the early wave of Nepali immigrants. A significant majority of Nepalis in the professional settings in the U.S. are hill Brahmins who sit at the pinnacle of caste privilege within Nepal, followed by other so-called upper caste people. They advocate for increasing Nepali representation in the U.S. power structures but fail to discuss and take action about the lack of Dalit, Madhesi, Tharu, or other Indigenous leadership within our community.
It is easier for the Nepali immigrant community to speak about Black lives because we can identify as “minorities” in the U.S. and remove ourselves from our racism against Black communities. When we talk about Dalit lives, most of us are culpable and have benefited from the caste system in varying degrees. Hence, it is more challenging for Nepalis to really delve into the caste question as it forces us to uncomfortable depths of self-critique and to challenge systems we benefit from.
As Nepali Americans we want to hold our community accountable both about casteism and anti-Black racism. We’re asking our community to take time to understand the racist and casteist histories of our two countries without sugar-coating the truth. We’re asking our younger generation to support the learning of those in our family who may not be able to access materials in English or other mediums. We’re asking our community to recognize the contributions of those who paved the way for us and honor them. We want to learn from and build with the Black, Native, Latinx, and other AAPI communities in the U.S. who have been fighting for a long time to create a more equitable country. We also want to learn from and build on the history of transnational solidarity between Black and Brown people around the world. We want our community to actively engage in movements to dismantle racism and casteism, and respect the leadership of Black and Dalit communities, and step aside when needed just as allies.
As our community stands up for #BlackLivesMatter and against the caste system, let’s use this tipping point as a an opportunity to dive deeper into our own biases, casteism, anti-Blackness among Nepalis regardless of their caste position, and our habitual patterns that allow these systems to kill Black and Dalit communities. These movements are making history every day, and it’s our decision how we want to be a part of it.
Other history lessons and resources:
Facing Race Education Tools
Movement for Black Lives
Letter for Black Lives in Nepali
Adhikaar on recent #BlackLivesMatter protests
Resources on Caste-based Injustices in Nepal
About the authors:
Pabitra is a queer brown parent in a multiracial family and community. She’s a movement junkie, an organizer and hails from a family of Dalits forging change. She considers Washington D.C. home. Pabitra began organizing as a teenager in Wisconsin and brings strong and diverse alliances, seasoned and developed over the last two decades of her life — blending an intersectional approach to race, class, caste, immigration, culture, gender, and sexuality. @PabitraKhatiB
Luna grew up in an intercaste family in Kathmandu, with everyday experiences of casteism and colorism. She is an organizer at heart, strategy consultant by trade, and currently spends most of her time writing poetry and essays about the intersections of race, caste, ethnicity, class, gender, and immigration status.She co-founded and led Adhikaar for more than a decade, building visibility and power for the emerging Nepali-speaking immigrant community, alongside the movements for immigrant rights and workers’ rights. She splits her time between New York and Kathmandu. @LunaRanjit