Editor's Note:As the US Presidential Election draws near and the battle between Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump gains more teeth, it might prove instructive to examine the constituency at which the twin campaigns are directed; to understand what America means to its citizens and what these men and women seek from their politicians. To do this Firstpost assembled profiles of a broad section of people, each telling a story that speaks of the (anticipated) state of the union.
In the third part, 27-year-old Tara Sarath talks about race and the urban-rural divide. She lives in New York City and does freelance work as an events planner and publicist for writers of colour in New York and small presses.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the great state of New Jersey, in one of its rapidly gentrifying farming communities. East Brunswick — the town I grew up in, and that area where the Rutgers school is — used to be farmland and actually there are people in my town who are my parents age who remember when it was like a one-street farming community where you could drive miles and miles and not see another car and in fact a lot of the schools that were being built on farmland. As I grew up in the town, I saw a lot of its land get cut down and turned into developments. You know, we used to have county fairs and almost all of that is gone. It moved from the fairgrounds into like the mall parking lot. There’s no better symbol of gentrification in America than sitting in a Ferris wheel that overlooks the JC Penney’s as it goes up and down. But East Brunswick, a lot of the old farmers still live in the town. There are a lot of families that were farming up until 10 or 20 years ago.
How would you identify?
Actually, I identify.. I would go more with South Asian American. I know that’s partly generational, but I think it’s more political. It’s partly about identifying with Muslim Americans. I think for me, that’s what being a South Asian American means rather than being Indian-American. And I think there’s something particular about claiming north Indian cultures and reframing your cultural identity around north Indian cultures as sort of dominant Indian culture rather than looking at it as more inclusive. And I think in New York City, where we’re lucky enough to have different South Asian groups, it makes more sense too from an organising and community-building standpoint.
Let’s talk about your hometown. How did you feel being a brown person growing up in what was once a farming community?
For me, it was more like, I came into the town when I was around 7 years old, and everybody there had grown up together and were absolutely uninterested in making friends. It felt very insular to me. Most of the kids I grew up with never had a passport, and even through high school, never left New Jersey. Even today, it’s hard to get them to come up and visit me. For me, that was hard to understand because my mother would whisk me away to India every summer. For me, travelling was just a part of what you do, and my parents were also very big on traveling. It was weird to me that everyone there thought that New Jersey was the greatest place on earth. For me, it was never a positive experience and I think that small towns, not purposely and maliciously, but just happen to be very insular in their thinking and I didn’t really enjoy any of those things. I don’t really enjoy being told what to do, I like to work my way there.
But actually, there were a couple of Indian families in the town and the kids were like five to ten years older and they would tell me these stories. Actually, there was this one woman who told me about how she would get ragged, like ashes put in her locker and people would call her dot head and stuff and she was in school around the Gulf War, so it was interesting to look at it from that perspective.
So 9/11 happened when I was in 6th grade. I remember in 9th grade, being in a public speaking class. This one student got up and gave an ad-libbed speech about how he thought we should just bomb Iraq off the face of the earth and drop a nuclear bombs all over the Middle East and just blow it up. Just something about the way he was talking was really threatening to me and there was just one other brown kid in the class and he was Muslim actually, he was Bangladeshi. I looked at him sort of like, dude, aren’t you going to say anything? And he was laughing, pretending that the whole thing was hilarious and I had never felt more isolated and threatened. My teacher eventually stopped him but it felt like it was too late. There were a lot of weird experiences like that.
Could you talk a little bit about how you perceive the class-race issue in America?
I see a lot of the class-race divide. Immigration laws in this country being what they were, a lot of Indians came over in the 80s for their PhDs. They came over on this special class of visas and for the most part were able to remain and get green cards, so a lot of my peers and their parents are of that class of people who are highly educated. They came into America at a certain point and were able to get jobs and move up in society at rarefied levels so I think that those are the same kinds of people that you see these Hindus for Trump rally. There is a way in which, even though we’re brown bodied, our class is somehow going to stop us from being hurt by these politics. Every once in a while there would be an incident in the Indian-American community, and particularly the Sikh-American community but there wasn’t this organising around it.
Hindus for Trump, this particular benefit concert, showed how Trump has really broken for some people this illusion of class privilege because he has spoken so directly against all the things they’ve ever believed about America, all the things they’ve ever believed about themselves and their non-racial existence. He punctured a lot of happy dreams people carry around. Either he’s punctured them for you or he hasn’t and I think what’s been amazing for me in this election, and anecdotally for other people as well, suddenly there’s a groundswell of organising among first generation Indians. People like my parents have sat out every single political thing that I’ve ever considered important. This has really focused their energy and anger and has really caused them to question their politics and realise that their status is somewhat fictive. Hindu-Americans particularly, coming from a place where you are in control and in power, carry that sense of privilege from that community setting into this new community setting and are now forced to grapple with the fact that it doesn’t really mean anything here in the US.
I think a big thing that Trump has done is force us to confront the fact that white people aren’t always decent, that Americans aren’t always decent. Although there is all this rational and enlightenment thinking and there are all of these cultural touchstones that people of colour grew up with, that doesn’t inherently mean that whiteness is inclusive of these things. And I think those are lessons that we as young people learn a lot faster than adults who interact in different spaces, who haven’t interacted much with young people who aren’t as tactful or guarded about what they really think. Like I’m sure Donald Trump never talked this way to his board members or his business partners. So I’m sure for them it’s shocking for them to see this. As adults, you make transactional decisions and you interact in a different way and it’s harder to see these things happen.
Can you identify a symbol or an image or something cultural that you would call uniquely American?
I don’t know that I could to be honest! My cultural references are more city-based, so if I had to choose one… For me, New York is like the best part of America.
Talk a little bit about the urban-rural divide.
Hurricane Sandy was like the clarifying moment. I wasn’t in New York, I was in New Jersey. What was really striking was, Sandy happened and my house and our whole town lost power. And slowly, night by night you could see different houses come on. And in the mean time, it was freezing. My parents are not spring chickens and it was terrible! I was watching them get sick in front of my eyes and I was worried they would catch pneumonia and then what would we do. And so I watched every house come on, and mind you, we’ve lived in that neighbourhood for a long time, have had the same neighbours the whole time growing up. And no one came over, no one invited us over, and we know all these people. And it’s just a factor of like, I don’t need anyone. In New York, people were organising to deliver supplies, and in fact they were turning people away they had so many volunteers. And you saw the stories of people sending their power strips over the windows so that people could charge their phones. In cities, you rely on each other. I think you realise that you’re beholden to each other and I think that cities can really foster that sense of civic duty. It’s also up to individuals to accept that burden, but there is a lot more visible need for others. In my experience of suburbia, no one really gives a s**t. You don’t need anyone.
What do you think was a pivotal moment in the US in terms of trajectory?
I really think that invading Iraq was a pivotal moment, more even than 9/11. We really committed ourselves to long-term infrastructure rebuilding. That was the moment that we fatally overstepped. More than Afghanistan, the Iraq war has come to define this last decade of American history for the worse. And a lot of the policies and a lot of the issues that we face now are direct consequences of the Iraq invasion and in fact the decision to go there in the first place which was ridiculous. And I hope this is what history will judge these particular men for.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Hmm.. I don’t think identifying as South Asian American puts me outside of America, it puts me squarely within it and what I feel most responsible for, not just the inclusion of Muslim Americans into our community and social and political and artistic life, it’s also important to remember our LGBTQ communities as well. Something that I struggle with and people I organise with struggle with is pushing against these things that are deemed “Indian” or defining factors of being Indian, so being Hindu which means believing certain things about people. So pushing back against that and saying, is this not an opportunity for us to redefine ourselves and also America. We are a growing political group. We have a growing cultural influence and we have a responsibility to step into that political power before someone takes it away from us.