The Skin We’re In | Sojourners

The Skin We’re In

Our Religion Will Not Save Us From Hate

There was a funeral procession yesterday in the streets of Hyderabad, India, for Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the man slain in Olathe, Kan., last week.

Reports say family members followed Hindu tradition and burned the body on a funeral pyre, following the belief that burning the body informs the soul that it is time to leave, to go on to whatever may be next.

Kuchibhotla lived in Kansas, but was from Hyderabad. He spoke Telugu at home, came to the U.S on a student visa, and carried a named that commands the use of your whole mouth.

Much like my own family.

I grew up in Kansas, but am more or less from Hyderabad. I arrived as a doe-eyed 6-year-old kid to stay with my mom as she worked toward her doctorate, on a student visa, at the University of Kansas. We speak Telugu at home, and our names command the use of your whole mouth.

His death shakes me because I have been privileged enough to not see bodies that look like mine brutally murdered on television. I am not used to seeing the faces of people who wear so much of my identity so vividly painted as victims of hate crimes.

And I am grieving — mourning not only for the loss of a life, but for the hate that seems to thicken as the days march on.

It’s been clear for some time that racists in the U.S feel validated by the latest shift of national power, like they can come out of the shadows they’ve been hiding in for years. Indeed, careless, xenophobic language played a part in Kuchibhotla’s death — much of his family believes the same thing.

Kuchibhotla’s story and the story of my family are common in Indian American communities. We come to this country in search of our American Dream, sold to many of us by flashy universities filled with opportunity. We dream of the possibilities and excitement of what a Western lifestyle could look like for us and our families.

But, as we’re thrown into the dizzying culture of the U.S., we’re shocked.

We watch ourselves portrayed as an idiotic Apoo from The Simpsons or an aloof Raj from Big Bang Theory. We watch the disempowered narratives about Indian slum children that Western audiences gobble up. Worse, we silently watch when we are shown as terrorists because of the brown in our skin, without uttering a word of discontent, thinking that this cannot possibly affect anything real. We never truly demand an identity worthy of who we are because we are afraid to do so. We are afraid of our voices — because after all, who are we to critique a culture that is not our own?

In many Indian American communities, we usually believe that being a certain kind of immigrant can save us. If we dress properly, no one can call us foreign. If we’re documented, no one can question our legal status. If we are highly educated, no one can accuse us of being lazy immigrants. If we (especially women) don’t go to bars, no one can accuse us of bad behavior.

We’ve convinced ourselves that if we melt into what we call American culture — into white culture — we can get by without getting killed.

The two men targeted by a racist and violent white terrorist were the quintessential “good immigrants.” But their stories of success — working at Garmin, receiving masters' degrees from the U.S. — did not protect them from hate. Economic status and education do not matter in the face of an extremist who equates skin color with terrorism.

In many Indian Christian communities, we’re the pioneers of separating ourselves from other religions. Because we’re Christian, we think that it is possible to use that religious privilege — one we are not accustomed to in India — to distance ourselves from people who do not share our religion.

Only 10 percent of Indians in America are Muslim. Eighteen percent are Christian. It is the easiest decision to segregate ourselves from our Muslim brothers and sisters out of fear.

But to a person who only uses physical appearances to determine whether you are a threat, religion does not matter. Your religion cannot save you if you’re drenched in a culture that teaches brown skin equals terrorism.

Despite the facts — that most of the mass killings in America are perpetrated by white men — our increasingly xenophobic culture, now aided by friends of white supremacists in the White House, instills in its people a constant fear of death by terrorism at the hands of Muslims.

So this is not a time for caveats or attempts at educating the public in ways that further otherize Muslims. We can’t explain away our identities. We must not sink into the same kind of hate and discrimination that started the violence.

The father of Alok Madasani, who survived the shooting, said he had recently asked his son to come home because he was fearful of the U.S.’s racially charged atmosphere. Indeed, we in the Indian community all feel targeted now. But in truth, people of color — an identity that is ours, too, even when we haven’t been fully comfortable claiming it — have always been targeted. We chose for so long not to speak because disrupting the peace might cause unnecessary violence. 

But unnecessary violence already exists, because of violent people and violent words. Kuchibhotla’s death teaches us that.

Nothing will save us from this reality — unless we dismantle the fear of the other in ourselves as well as in our communities.

In the words of Sunayna Dumala, the wife of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, “I need all your support to pass this strong message of spreading love and giving confidence to every foreign national that their fight will be listened to.”

And with that, let’s get to work and loudly fight for what is good.