By Marcus Dieterle, Taylor Haire and Tyisha Henderson
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
More than 14 years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh people continue to be victims of discrimination, racial justice activist Deepa Iyer said Wednesday during a speech at Towson University.
Speaking to an audience of approximately 100 people, Iyer said the current social climate in America is saturated with Islamophobia, xenophobia and racial anxiety.
“We’ve received daily signals from the political system and the media that this is not our country,” said Iyer, who was the former executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). “We can’t be by-standards anymore,” she added later. “We have to become involved and we have to make a stand.”
Iyer listed several examples of Muslim Americans who have been the victims of discrimination and hate crimes: Balbir Singh Sodhi, murdered four days after the Sept. 11 attacks; Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha, three students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who were shot and killed last February.
During her speech, Iyer presented a slideshow of people who have been discriminated against since 9/11 – and she shared their individual stories. She said people of color need to come together to fight for social inclusion rather than just diversity.
But beyond the pain and tragedy—or rather in spite of it—Muslim Americans are working to reform and reshape the system, acting as “disruptors and bridge-builders,” Iyer said.
Iyer, who is originally from India but moved to Kentucky when she was 12 years old, said the current sociopolitical hierarchy in the United States works to divide people.
“The racial hierarchy of this country has always existed to keep black people at the bottom,” Iyer said.
She said non-black minorities often feel the need to “aspire to whiteness” to survive in this racial environment. To enact real change, Iyer said, the country must eliminate that hierarchy altogether.
“We need to get rid of the ladder, to dismantle it,” she said. “But to do that we have to understand why it’s built.”
Part of that process is the acknowledgement of intersectionality. By “standing together in power at the intersection of movements,” different groups can see how their individual issues are connected, Iyer said.
She cited movements such as Hoodies and Hijabs that provided insight into the commonalities between racial profiling of African Americans and Muslim Americans and established a platform for intersectionality.
Ultimately, Iyer believes that Americans must use the power of conversation and activism to combat discrimination.
“We can’t be bystanders anymore in America,” Iyer added. “We have to be involved and we have to make a stand.”
At the end of the speech, Iyer led a question-and-answer session with two young activists, Shani Banks and Yves Gomes.
Banks, a recent graduate from the University of Maryland where she was the vice president of the Muslim Student Association, recalled when her university had planned to screen the film American Sniper, which had been criticized for being anti-Muslim. After an unsuccessful meeting with the student organization that was in charge of the film event, Banks started a petition against the screening.
“I just wanted to prove that I have a voice and I wanted to express my voice,” she said. “There’s power in mobilization and vocalizing your opinions.”
Gomes said his parents were detained and deported after losing their work permits. He said he was able to remain in America.
“I was in such a unique position,” Gomes said. “I feel like I was meant to share my story freely about deportation. You have to demand for change to happen.”
Shortly after the speech, Iyer distributed postcards so audience member could write down their “call to action” on what they plan to do to create a better America.
“I will seek out people of color from different communities so people will know their stories,” said Josephine Hill, a Towson student. “I think I want to do that by reaching out to the Muslim Student Association [and other organizations].”
“I was moved emotionally and gained a form of education that I wouldn’t have received in any other place,” Hill added.
Other audience members who were interviewed said they enjoyed the speech.
“I think it was powerful and eye opening,” said Sam Dowling, a Towson student.
“I thought the speech was too short,” said Mike Robinson, a Baltimore City resident. “But it presented a positive view and helps you to understand more.”
Iyer graduated from the University of Notre Dame Law School and Vanderbilt University before she moved to Washington, D.C.
Following the speech and Q&A, Iyer held a book signing for her new book “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future.“