Niyati Desai

As I reflect on the recent increase in violence against Asian Americans, I am confronted with my own journey of belonging in the United States. As a first generation Indian American, I routinely navigate a complicated terrain of interpersonal questions and assumptions about identity, family, community, and a vision of ‘the American Dream.’ The sacrifices made by my own family and community to achieve this vision are painful to recount and important to name.

I recall summers when my friends went off to summer camp in Vermont or to visit their cousins in Maine, while I boarded a 24-hour flight to India for three months. My summers were filled with Indian comforts – bhel puri (Indian street food) and a fresh glass of nimbu pani (lemonade), cooling off from monsoon summers. For as long as I can remember, I have oscillated between my identities – am I Indian or am I American? As if these inherent parts of me cannot mutually exist.

Like the child of many immigrants, I have experienced the erasure of our Indian heritage in order to succeed as American. Uncles changed their names to make it easier for their neighbors to pronounce. Aunties bleached their skin – as fair skin was perceived as more beautiful. My parents stopped speaking Guajarati at home to weaken their accents and accelerate our assimilation. We were told to keep our head down, work hard and not engage in political dialogue, as speaking out could jeopardize our fragile sense of belonging. We shrugged off offensive remarks about smelling like curry or joked alongside those mocking a life of ‘cow worship.’ We seldom ask for help when struggling, as this signals weakness in the family dynamic. Many of us are masters in code switching, constantly toggling between Indian roots and a search for American acceptance.

It is important to note that the concept of ‘Asian American’ is a social construct, developed in service to white supremacy. Positioned as a monolith, the Asian American community has long been wedged in the middle of America’s ‘Black versus White’ narrative. My community becomes a tool to deepen divides and perpetuate racist falsehoods about genetic differences in motivation, drive, intelligence and purpose. The system that placed my family on a pedestal through the myth of the “model minority” granted us great privileges to the detriment of our Black neighbors and colleagues. This position afforded me acceptance by dominant culture, which has been critical to my professional success. Although my community has made real sacrifices to be seen as American, the Asian community owes an enormous debt to our fellow Black Americans, as we have directly benefitted from their remarkable fight for liberation and civil rights.

The surge in hate and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is the direct result of xenophobic rhetoric intentionally used to divide Americans during a historic time of intense vulnerability and crisis. This is the same system that perpetuates racist ideology – positioning my family as the “role model” minority one day and the problem the next.

From where I sit, as the Director of Community Engagement at Oregon Community Foundation, I play a role in addressing racism and advancing justice in many ways:

– Work to allocate adequate resources to those that need it most
– Deepen relationships and continue to establish trust with diverse communities
– Invest in building the capacity of communities who have been historically marginalized
– Ensure equitable and inclusive opportunities for communities to engage and lead
– Embrace new ways of knowing, thinking seeing and communicating to strengthen communities
– Promote policies that aim to eliminate disparities in poverty and uplift equity
– Celebrate and honor the diversity, creativity and resilience within Oregon

Lastly, to my fellow Asians: we must stand in solidarity with the Black community. Their fight for dignity, rights and freedom is our fight. We owe them a debt of gratitude for the privileges we experience today as we advocate for equity and justice.