Sureshbhai Patel, Old Indian Men, and Police Complicity

Sureshbhai Patel is a 57 year old Indian man. On February 6, 2015, he was seriously injured while detained by police officers. He had been walking around his son’s neighborhood; someone called dispatch thinking he was suspicious. You can listen the call here. The caller thought he was a skinny black man in his 30s looking into people’s garages. When police approached Sureshbhai, they attempted to talk to him, but they clearly understood that he could not speak English. You can watch the dashcam footage of the events here. Here’s additional footage from another police officer who responded to the scene soon after the first 2 officers. Patel was hospitalized and left partially paralyzed as a result of this treatment by these police officers.

Eric Parker is officer who responded to the call and who slammed Patel into the ground. On March 26th, Parker was indicted for deprivation of rights under the color of the law, which includes the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable force. The trial started on September 2nd, and on Sept. 11th, the judge declared a mistrial.

I don’t remember when I first learned about this case, probably back in March or April, and when I first heard about it, it was in the context of this article, “3 secrets of the Sureshbhai Patel case every Desi needs to know”. This article highlights the anti-black racism that instigated the situation. A man in the neighborhood was suspicious of a someone, he identified as a really skinny black man in his 30s. He called because he didn’t want to leave his wife alone because this person was making him nervouc. I think the stereotypes at play here are pretty self-explanatory.

There are so many other things at play as well. This case struck me particularly hard because I could see this happening again. I can imagine men I know in my life being treated this way. I struggle so much with this case because growing up, I spent mornings or evenings going on short walks around the neighborhood with my father, grandfather, various uncles, and whole host of family friends, all of whom have varying levels of fluency with English.

Watching the dashcam videos, it’s pretty clear that Sureshbhai didn’t know what was going on and responded as he thought was appropriate. It’s clear that the officers involved knew he couldn’t speak English. It’s clear that excessive force was involved. Like, in what situation would it be necessary to do a leg sweep and slam down a man who is handcuffed and not resisting in any way?

It’s very frustrating to me that the defense lawyer tries to make it seem like Patel was non-compliant. The prosecutor makes the statement along the lines of “failure to understand does not mean failure to comply.” From my perspective, Parker unnecessarily escalated the situation. The defense also tries to put the blame on Patel for not having identification. Like in what reality is it necessary for a person to carry identification with them at all times, especially if they’re just going on a short walk around the neighborhood?

What was most frustrating about the trial is that Parker/the defense had 6 police officers testify on his behalf, and the prosecution could not get a single person to acknowledge that Parker was using unreasonable force. They all were saying something along the lines of, “I wasn’t there, so I don’t know if it was appropriate or not”. These officers don’t see anything wrong with what Parker did, and they’re going to continue being police officers. This makes me think about the case of Samuel Dubose. When the details about shooting of Dubose came out, I remember hearing that another officer corroborated Tensing’s statement that he was dragged by Dubose’s car. There is footage of an officer saying that he saw Tensing being dragged, but since it was not an official statement, the prosecutor did not pursue any charges against any officers other than Tensing. The challenge with all of these cases is that there is an attitude among many law enforcement officials to stick up for their fellow officers to the detriment of the safety and well-being of the community. Perhaps they are not outright lying or being dishonest, but I can believe that there are really problematic ideas being perpetuated about race, citizenship status, nationality, criminality, etc., that are going unchallenged.

I am a feminist.

I’m just going to ramble. This blog post will not have a cohesive structure or argument. I’m just going to try to put things I’ve read into context with each other. I’m part of a really awesome queer women’s group, and we do really great things like have board game nights, camping trips, general get togethers and so on. We also have a book club, and the book we’re reading for August is Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. I’m going to write about some of the things I thought about when I read the introduction.

In the introduction, Gay talks about why she embraces the label of bad feminist. She says:

How do we reconcile the imperfections of feminism with all the good it can do? In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement (x).

This really resonated with me because I feel like mainstream society views feminism as a monolithic thing, that they view feminism as having one goal or only doing one thing or only having one vision.To say that feminism is only about creating equality between the sexes is too simplistic; it doesn’t capture the full picture of what’s going on. Feminism as Gay says “can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us (xiii).

Rowan Blanchard, the star of Girl Meets World, recently answered a question about feminism on her Instagram. She calls out “white feminism” by saying, “with as many issues as feminists have succeeded in adopting, many of us seem to have not accepted the fact that police brutality and race issues are our issues too.” Feminism can’t just be about one thing. Audre Lorde said “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live singleissue lives.” People blame feminism for not living up to their expectations without recognizing that it’s our fellow people who are not living up to our expectations. Blanchard acknowledges the flaws of feminism while trying to “minimize the fractures”. She acknowledges the good that feminism has done while saying we can do better, that the battle is not nearly over yet. She doesn’t totally disavow feminism as I see people do all the time when they don’t see feminists or feminist groups responding to issues they care about.

Roxane Gay also talks the anger she feels when “women disavow feminism and shun the feminist label but say they support all the advances of born of feminism (xii).” This made me think about Lisa Hogeland’s essay, “Fear of Feminism: Why Young Women Get the Willies”. This was one of the first essays we discussed when I taught an intro to women’s studies course during grad school. Hogeland’s essay was written about 20 years ago, and it was written in response to the political climate of the time. Parts of it are still relevant today. Hogeland draws a distinction between gender consciousness and feminism by saying:

Feminism politicizes gender consciousness, inserts it into a systematic analysis of histories and structures of domination and privilege. Feminism asks questions–difficult and complicated questions, often with contradictory and confusing answers–about how gender consciousness can be used both for and against women, how vulnerability and difference help and hinder women’s self-determination and freedom. Fear of feminism, then, is not a fear of gender, but rather a fear of politics. Fear of politics can be understood as a fear of living in consequences, a fear of reprisals.

When Hogeland talks about the “fear of reprisals,” she’s talking about how it’s not in the interests of heterosexist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy for people to be questioning how these intermeshed systems of domination are at the root of the violence that happens to us. It’s the people who most benefit from these systems of domination that are the most vocal opponents of feminism. Pat Robertson, a ultra-conservative televangelist, is the one who said “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” Yet, it’s not only from his mouth that we hear that rhetoric. Gay said, “I was called a feminist, and what I heard was, ‘You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating victim lady person'(xi).” Gay explains that her fear of feminism came from her fear of being ostracized (xii).

Both Hogeland and Gay express that fear of feminism is about fearing consequences. For both Hogeland and Gay, fear of feminism is about fear of being held accountable. Hogeland says

The central feminist tenet that the personal is political is profoundly threatening to young women who don’t want to be called to account. It is far easier to rest in silence, as if silence were neutrality, and as if neutrality were safety. Neither wholly cynical nor wholly apathetic, women who fear feminism fear living in consequences. Think harder, act more carefully; feminism requires that you enter a world supersaturated with meaning, with implications. And for privileged women in particular, the notion that one’s own privilege comes at someone else’s expense–that my privilege is your oppression–is profoundly threatening.

Feminism forces you to acknowledge when you are benefiting from or actually further perpetuating systems of oppression, and that’s a very hard thing. It requires you to exam all aspects of your life.

In my own life, I like stuff. I like buying new clothes. I like buying knick knacks. I like electronics. I must acknowledge that I have economic privilege; I buy and throw away stuff that most people around the world can’t. I buy stuff that was probably made as a result of labor exploitation. Feminism has given me the tools to recognize the systems at play when I drive my car to go to Target to buy some arts and crafts supplies. I’ve always felt guilty about stuff like this, but my guilt does no good. I just have to live my life as the best feminist I can be while recognizing that there are some areas of my life in which I am a bad feminist.

Feminism has given me the tools to better understand the factors that influence who I am and how I move through the world (Gay xiii). About a year ago, I got the following tattoo.

I'm a feminist.

I go this tattoo knowing there are going to be tons of people I encounter who will look it and think I’m a terrible person. I go this tattoo thinking “I don’t want to be friends with anyone who will judge me negatively for embracing feminism.” For me, embracing feminism means embracing complexity and challenges. Feminism is not a single issue movement; it the lens through which I view the world.

*While I was thinking about what I wanted to write, I read this article, “Black Feminism and Intersectionality,” and I think you should read it too if you want to learn more about intersectionality.

Who Am I? Where do I belong?

In this blog post, I’m writing about where I come from, so you, as the reader, can get a better sense of who I am. I grew up in a very small town in Georgia; it is a predominantly white and Christian community. The place where I grew up is nice, but it exists in a bubble. People there tend to believe in the same thing, act similarly, and when others are different, are slow to accept them fully. Many families in this community have lived there for generations, and reflecting back, there are definitely “in” groups and “out” groups. People rarely talked about race. My hometown is place where people have huge trucks emblazoned with the Confederate Flag, but for the most part, my friends and their families accepted me warmly. The religious differences in this community had more to do with what church people attended, rather than if a person practiced their faith in a church, temple, synagogue, or mosque or if they practiced any faith traditions at all. In my hometown, people are friendly and nice, but I don’t think I ever really fit in as a person of color, as an immigrant, as a non-Christian, and as an outspoken liberal. I was acceptable to people in my hometown because I was a high-achieving, hardworking student; I fit the myth of the model minority.

I’m brown, an immigrant, an American-raised desi, queer, feminist, and a whole host of other things. As an immigrant from India, I am subject to the “model minority” or “model immigrant” myth. Part of this myth is the idea that we (I mean Asians-Americans and more broadly, any others who are also subject to this myth) fit in with the dominant culture, that we’ve assimilated, that we can almost pass for white. However, while the myth perpetuates the idea that we can benefit from whiteness; it also simultaneously points out that we are no more than “honorary citizens” to quote Fanon. In Fanon’s essay, “The Negro and Language” from Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon states:

“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is. Rather more than a year ago in Lyon, I remember, in a lecture I had drawn a parallel between the Negro and European poetry, and a French acquaintance told me enthusiastically, ‘At the bottom you are a white man.’ The fact that I had been able to investigate so interesting a problem through the white man’s language gave me honorary citizenship” (38).

Fanon is talking about language and race here, but we can apply this idea to the “model minority” myth. As much as we assimilate and take on the cultural norms of whiteness or “American-ness,” we will never fully be more than “honorary citizens”. The “model minority” myth perpetuates the idea that the “American dream” is accessible to anyone who works hard enough for it, but this is clearly not true. Figures like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley have embraced the “model minority” myth, but in doing so, they perpetuate white supremacy. I always get the question, “Where are you from?” When I get this question, I am interpellated as a foreigner, as an outsider, as someone who is not from here, and no matter how much I assimilate, I will always get this question so long we live in a white supremacist society.

I reject being a model minority, but I must also negotiate the complexities of my cultural identity. While I was growing up in this small Southern town, I was also being raised by my conservative Hindu parents. My parents hate that I don’t really have many desi friends, and only recently, they’ve opened up and said, “If your husband is white, that’s okay; we just want you to get married.” Growing up, my parents hated that I embraced “American-ness;” they would say, “You’re not American. You’re Indian! Start acting like it!” They really struggled with the fact that I didn’t really speak Gujarati, that I didn’t embrace Hinduism, and that I sometimes didn’t enjoy the Gujarati food my mother made everyday.  Part of the reason I don’t have many desi friends is because I’m afraid of not being desi enough. From my parents’ perspectives, I don’t do the “Indian” things; I don’t really cook the my mother’s foods, dress the way my mother dresses, or embrace my mother’s religious traditions. From my parents’ perspectives, I dress “American,” eat “American” food, consume “American” media, and have “American” friends.

In this press conference, Junot Diaz gets a question about people not liking his use of the n***** word. He talks about how there’s an idea of “imperial blackness” which he defines as “a blackness where one person has the keys to what blackness means”. We are constantly putting each other in check; we are constantly judging others for not fitting into the model of blackness, brownness, “American-ness”, or whateverness. As a brown person, I judge Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal for not being “Indian” enough while being judged by others for not being “Indian” enough. To try to boil down Indianness into things you check off on a list does disservice to all of us because there is so much diversity to group of people who call themselves Indian or “desi”. There are social, racial, historical, material, etc. realities that have contributed us having some shared experiences, traditions, history, etc. but we should not be so loyal to the idea of being “Indian” or “American” such that we seek to exclude people who do not fit neatly into these categories.

Where does all of that lead us now? To go to the title of this blog post “Who Am I? Where Do I Belong?”, I am Bhumika, and it doesn’t really matter where I belong because all of these identity categories are socially constructed.