When we began discussing the idea of publishing a special issue on racism, George Floyd was still breathing. In fact, we did not know George Floyd. Nor did we know Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor or Rayshard Brooks. But we knew that our local and global communities were in dire need of a racial reckoning and that too many people had no understanding of systemic racism – and worse, they simply shut down at any mention of white privilege or systemic racism. Eight months after George Floyd took his last stifled breath, the world has changed. There has been some racial reckoning. Discussions have become more nuanced. More white people have been eager to learn, think, and ask questions in ways they never did before. There has also been horrifying backlash. And maybe the world really isn’t changed. Maybe we just have a clearer view of the polarized realities we live in and the deep ideological assumptions about who belongs where and how and why and who can breathe freely and walk their dog in the park or take a jog in the neighborhood and who can claim censor culture and who can claim injustice and who can gather in protest without being beaten and labeled thugs and rioters and who can access social security benefits without shame.
Long viewed by other nations as a uniquely American problem, racism is now more widely acknowledged to be a global phenomenon. In the streets, social media, and forums, people gathered to better understand and to support the Black Lives Movement this past year. They recognized that the US problem of discrimination and racism is expressed and known in diverse places by various names: caste, untouchability, refugee crisis, immigration bans, and numerous policies and social or religious practices of discrimination. They have recognized that global world orders, implied by nomenclatures like First/Third World, developed/developing world, and Western/Islamic nations, are deeply rooted in inequities. The system that has its own unique history in the United States is manifested through other histories – colonialism, imperialism, neoliberalism – and with other names and effects in regions of South Asia, Africa, Europe, and elsewhere.
As the names of George Floyd and too many others entered our homes one by one, many of us were finding it increasingly difficult to breath. The hashtag #ICantBreath, which in 2014 was the rallying call for racial justice after Eric Garner’s last breath in a police chokehold, went viral yet again. Countless articles have been published, and social media exploded with revelation and debate. Many commentators believe that the global 2020 movements for racial justice will lead to lasting change. It’s too early to say. But the past year’s events have increased the level of discussion and awareness, perhaps especially among youth who are sometimes more willing to see systems for what they actually are.
We decided to focus this special issue of Shuddhashar primarily on the perspectives of those who experience racism, colorism, and casteism. Since racism has been on everyone’s mind, we originally expected an abundance of articles for this issue. We have received some excellent articles, but not an abundance. We suspect that people are strained by the pandemic’s toll on everyday life and by the weight of having to explain racism to people new to the concept or still unwilling to listen. Writing about a difficult subject can be cathartic and even generative and healing. But it can also be exhausting when called upon to repeat the same explanations again and again. We honor the need to be silent.
After having fled persecution in their native countries, exiled writers and artists have also suffered from racism as they navigate their new homes and countries. When trying to understand how a new country functions, what the societal and political norms are, it can be difficult to trust one’s own feelings of alienation and difference. Was I not provided with proper information because the official did not believe I deserved it? Was I denied an opportunity because of an assumption that I was not intelligent or capable, due to my country of origin or my appearance? These types of perplexing questions may seem absurd to members of a host country, but for an exile, these experiences undercut confidence and an ability to become productive members of society.
With this issue, we share insightful articles about the insidious effects of racism, the logic behind global systems of inequality based on constructions of “race” and “caste,” and the ways in which these ideologies are invisibly woven into multiple aspects of our everyday life – in friendship, marriage, movies, music, health, education, work, and so on. We hope you find new ideas, think with us, and continue to work toward racial justice. Racial injustice is harmful to everyone, and overcoming it requires sustained effort by enough of us. When some of us need to step back in order to breath, others need to be ready to step forward and stay the course.