Vijay Prashad – Uncle Swami

by on Jun.07, 2012

Hola Montevidayans, Ken at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop here. We’re hosting a talk tonight at the Brecht Forum featuring Marxist historian and antiracist organizer Vijay Prashad. Guest blogging below is musician and activist Sonny Singh, of the bhangra funk band Red Baraat. The event will start in a few minutes and he’ll be refreshing throughout. Keep your eyes peeled, which suddenly strikes me as a grotesque metaphor.

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Hi folks, Vijay Prashad has entered the Brecht Forum with an entourage. They are looking menacing.

The masses are pouring in.  Vijay has a vibrant and attractive following.  Lots of people standing up, packed house!

Max from the Brecht Forum is making some opening remarks and announcements.  Getting started 30 minutes late, desi standard time in full effect…

Ken Chen from the Asian American Writer’s Workshop stepping to the mic.  “I don’t know what to say because you are all Vijay fans.”  Thanks to SAJA and SASI for helping promote.

We’re in an age of the first black president and the first Indian governor in the United States, says Ken.  An age that is post-multicultural but not post-racial.

Vijay’s anti-racism is not just about civil rights, it’s about something much bigger, more global.  Inseparability of foreign policy and civil rights is apparent in Uncle Swami.

(Ken just mentioned Vanilla Ice. I didn’t catch the context, but it still felt worth mentioning).

Vijay steps to the microphone.  “My immediate response is to go and hug everyone.  It’s like a family reunion.”  My feelings exactly.

Karma of Brown Folk was released at the Brecht Forum when it was in Chelsea, so it’s appropriate that this release is back at the Brecht, says Vijay.

Vijay begins reading from “Letter to Uncle Swami,” the intro to the book.  “Dear Uncle Swami, It’s been 10 years since those planes flew into your buildings… ”

“Why does my stomach still clench when someone with a badge approaches me?…. That badge has begun stopping me more often these past 10 years… Who are these people with badges and why do they stare at me?…I cannot wear my headscarf, I cannot grow my beard….”

Vijay was inspired by “Letters to Uncle Sam” by Manto.  Hard to get in the US but check it out.

Vijay is talking about the process of finishing up and publishing the manuscript for Karma of Brown Folk and how much other academics ripped him apart for not having any theoretical strength.  His story-telling has led him to talking about how Stephan Harper is a right wing lunatic. True that.

After 9/11 he was doing a book tour and a South Asian man asked him, you are saying we are the model minority and we oppress other minorities, etc, now what do you have to say for yourself?  Vijay responds, “We were always whites on probation.”  Our status has now been revoked since we acted up.

How did we react to 9/11 — our community?  The middle class technical community had not been in denial necessarily, but refused to really recognize racialization.  They didn’t have a palpable sense of living under colonialism.   This group enjoyed walking the streets with complete freedom compared to colonial days.  This community missed both the freedom struggle in South Asia AND the height of the civil rights freedom struggle in the US since they came after 1965. That generation was remarkably blessed in a way.  How would they understand racialization? They lived their suburban lifestyle relatively upwardly mobile.

(Vijay is talking about my parents and extended family right now)

But then they had kids!  And second generationers understand race from day one at school.

After 9/11 it was the young people that went out ahead to provide a theory of racialization to the community.  There was a shift in the community.  This narrative did not have an analysis of Islamophobia, however.  Islamophobia is not the same is racism.  It is linked to foreign policy, war, etc.

(I would respond that racism is linked to all these things as well, and Islamophobia is in a sense, a form of racism.  But I agree that there was not much of an understanding of Islamophobia in the initial South Asian response to 9/11, save that by Muslim desis.  Instead there was a lot of distancing from Muslims.  I have seen that time and time again in the Sikh community.  “we are not Muslims….“)

Vijay says it’s silly to say I am not a Muslim because to others you still look like a terrorist.

Vijay continues, Islamophobia is not like racism, which has to do with the political economy of America.  Islamophobia is about fear-mongering about American power.  About nostalgia about something from before 1965, the picket fence.  It’s much bigger than racism.

Vijay begins talking about the Hindu-Jewish, India-Israel connection.  US INPAC spins a BJP version of US-South Asia relations, quite similar to AIPAC in many ways.  He has been criticized for not supporting “his people,” to which he responds, I have politics, not just an identity.

Telling the story of an Indian American politician Nimmi McConigley running for office in Wyoming in the 1990s on an English-only platform in the Republican Party.  Indian Americans said we should support her, she’s one of our own.  But she’s nothing compared to Bobby Jindal. Oh look I just found an article by Vijay on the subject here.

Vijay just concludes his remarks with anti-imperialist fervor and hearty applause.  Opening it up for questions.

Question about NYPD demographics unit and expressing skepticism about distinction between Islamophobia and racism because Islamophobic bigotry is racially coded.  (I share the skepticism).

Answer from VP:  Discussing post-Jim Crow racism as something structured in the political economy of America.  Islamophobia is also rooted in a structure, but it’s a structure that is not about American economic decision making.  Part of the story is: How dare Arabs control the oil? They have no business being in control of it.  How dare Arabs make a revolution?  Racism is about your labor is no longer necessary so we’re going to sequester your body, while Islamophobia is about controlling and treating you with suspicious to keep you in check.  (Or something like that)

There will be populations that will experience both structural racism and Islamophobia because the are a part of both populations.  Brings up the example of a taxi driver, “sweatshop on wheels.”  In this case, a cab driver could experience both racism and Islamophobia.

My thoughts at the moment:  Vijay’s definition of racism seems to be economic reductionist in a way, and any form of bigotry — i.e. islamophobia — that is not at its root about the political economy is then not racism.  He doesn’t seem to be saying one is worse than the other but wants to draw the distinction.  While I appreciate the importance of understanding different forms of injustice and oppression as what they are, I am still not sold on the necessity of this distinction he insists on making.  Even by his own argument, Islamophobia does have some economic dimensions to it — i.e. Arab control of oil.  I wonder how Vijay is thinking about the relationship between imperialism and racism these days.

Back to VP:  Talking about Obama Administration:  The world doesn’t need this kind of sophisticated imperialism.  I’m looking forward to the return of some lunatic. It’s so much easier to deal with.  Obama and company are perhaps just as bad but are so charming.

Question about the NATO protest in Chicago and the state of the anti-war movement in the US.  Vijay was there along with 300,000 people.  Says Occupy Wall Street people dress crazy and the anarchists have the best chants.  Very lively.  The cops went crazy at the end and had to practice beating people up.  They were brutal.

The anti-war movement is a fractured movement.  Part of the problem is the Democratic Party.  A large portion of our movement still believes the Democratic party can be moved.  That Obama is a good guy.  If we just told him the truth, he would stop drone attacks.  He’d pull out from Iraq, etc.  For example, at the Chicago demo there were people chanting: build for the election in November.  The Democrats couldn’t even beat Scott Walker–a lunatic–in Wisconsin.  The Democrats lost to BUSH, an idiot.  Yet tons of people still have hope in the Democrats.

Question: OWS came up during a democratic presidency.  What should people be doing with a democrat in power?

VP: In a way it’s better to have an Obama than a Romney.  But deportations are higher now than in Bush’s years.  I’d like to looks at the records.  But I’m not sure about this lesser of two worlds things.  Sure there are temperamental differences with regards to women’s rights, gay rights, etc, but is it a big enough difference?  I’d rather have a joint with Obama for sure.  But on the issues there’s not a significant difference is there?

“The Democrats are NOT better than the Republicans, but I can agree that on 3 policy issues [DOMA, pro-choice, etc] they are better. That’s all I can agree to,” says VP.

We need to build politics separate from electoralism.  We might be able to combine them some day, but we’re not there yet.

Question about relationship between South Asians and People of Color.  Answer:  People who lead movements often have college degrees.  When you start to see lots of South Asians taking leadership in of color spaces, we need to ask ourselves what that’s about and what the claim of color is about.

Question: how do we build solidarity between South Asians and other people of color, namely black people?

Answer from VP: Why do we even enter those spaces?  We can be in solidarity, but is that really the same?  Do we have the same experience of police brutality?  The idea of saying, “I’m also oppressed” may imply we’re all oppressed in the same way.  Solidarity is not built out of equivalence, it’s built on a deep understanding of difference and specificity.

And that’s a rap folks.  Lots of commotion here, pictures, autographs, book sales.  Time to go mingle. Thanks for reading!

Random quote to end with: “I think if you steal half a country, it’s kind of colonialism.” – Vijay on US-Mexico relations


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