Activist, students discuss U.S. race relations


Deepa Iyer, a South Asian American activist, writer and lawyer, spoke to Pitt students about her recent book, “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future” in the William Pitt Union Wednesday evening. (Photo by Issi Glatts | Assistant Visual Editor)

By Zane Crowell | Staff Writer

Deepa Iyer was working in the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center September 11, 2001.

She immediately thought about two different groups of people — those killed in the attacks and those in the South Asian community she belonged to.

“I remember … grieving for what I knew would be the inevitability that people who looked like the communities that I’m from would immediately be seen as the scapegoats for what had happened on that day,” Iyer said.

Iyer recounted her experiences to about 45 people in attendance at the Asian Studies Center’s event “A Conversation with Deepa Iyer” Wednesday night in the William Pitt Union. Iyer, an author, professor and activist, discussed her recent book, “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, and Sikh Immigrants Shape our Multiracial Future,” which is about solidarity of communities of color and the future of race relations in the United States.

Affected by the rising paranoia caused by 9/11, Iyer left the Justice Department to work for South Asian Americans Leading Together — a nonprofit that advocates for civil rights of South Asians in the United States. Through serving as executive director for 10 years, she learned about how the post-9/11 climate impacted South Asian communities, especially young people. Her experience led her to ask how the future of racial relations could be shaped.

“I think the collective inquiry for us here, but also for so many people around the country, is, ‘How do we create equitable, inclusive and welcoming communities and campuses that also acknowledge and address racial realities?’” Iyer said.

She argued that the United States has faced racial anxiety as a result of changing demographics, xenophobia and Islamophobia, resulting in an overall climate of fear and hate. Iyer said these feelings have always been present, but have become more visible with vandalization of Islamic or other religious spaces.

“We see it in the form of hate violence,” Iyer said. “We see it when mosques are not allowed to be constructed in lots of areas around the country, from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to Sterling Heights, Michigan.”

Iyer offered several ways to improve attitudes, saying people shouldn’t shy away from conversation about race and should recognize the effects of historic inequity such as colonialism and slavery. There are other minorities experiencing racism, she noted, and pressed the importance of addressing anti-African-American racism.

“You might have heard that statement, ‘When black people are free, all people are free,’” she said. “That’s a really important way to analyze liberation or think about it.”

Following the discussion, the event featured a Q&A session with Iyer answering questions and responding to stories told by the audience. One student talked about coming from a Christian background and feeling ostracized by other Indians, which led to the question of stepping away from intercommunity dialogue.

“We have so much work to do within our own community, it’s ridiculous,” Iyer said. “It’s really important to actually work internally to do some of the hard work. It’s harder to do that than it is to go out to a rally with a sign.”

Lakshmi Subramanian, who graduated from Pitt with a master’s degree in physical therapy, attended the event even though she had never heard of Iyer’s work before. She told Iyer about how her very traditional parents were accepting of her being both gay and having a Muslim girlfriend. Iyer said she thought that was a very positive outcome.

“I think it’s about having the conversations but realizing it can be messy and that it’s a long-term thing … I think it’s great that your parents reacted in the way that they did,” Iyer said.

Bhavini Patel, a graduate student studying International Relations at the University of Oxford and a founding member of the Alliance for South Asians in Pittsburgh, attended the event because she was familiar with Iyer’s work. She said Iyer was particularly influential to her.

“Her work reflects the importance of socially conscious leadership, and the importance of building a movement founded on shared narratives,” Patel said.

Iyer closed the event by asking those in attendance to act as activists in their own communities.

“As I close, I ask you to be bridge builders and disruptors … to build across difference, to understand history, to inform ourselves, to move beyond quote ‘fake news’, to lead with our own examples and to disrupt the status quo and to organize others as well to do it,” Iyer said.

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