Knowledge is Power series: Books Perfect for the “Woke” Self

Here are some book recommendations for those of you who are already woke or getting there but want more:

Ain’t I A Woman: black women and feminism by bell hooks:

bell hooks is pretty much who I want to be, someday. In the meantime, I’ve made due reading what she’s written. This one is considered to be the one that put her on the map. It chronicles the experiences of black women in the U.S., at the intersection of race, class, and gender. It’s not long and you learn a great deal, especially the fissures that formed during the suffrage movement where southern white women placated to racist whites and ignored women of color.

 

We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future by Deepa Iyer:

Deepa Iyer is a renowned activist and lawyer, and has been a major voice for progressive POC causes and coalition-building. If you are interested to learn more about the experiences of Desi and Arabs in the U.S., this is the perfect introduction. And if you are someone who already has a good sense, still pick up a copy and like me, use it for your research.

Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle For Freedom In The United States And India by Nico Slate:

Nico Slate proves, through his work, that yes, there are white dudes who “get it.” Slate is a historian and has been writing on the ways POC across the world have forged bonds against imperialism and racism. For this, he focuses on the solidarity between black Americans and South Asian Indians. And he doesn’t romanticize it either, by showing how complex it was, given India’s own crisis of caste discrimination.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler:

parable of the sower image
(Image from Google)

So, ever sat and watched a dystopian movie and wondered, “Why are there only white people? Wait, did something happen to us? OH CRAP! WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO US?!” If that thought ever ran through your mind, then this book is perfect for you. Octavia Butler is an icon. She wrote mainly sci-fi but it’s not your average alien meet human crap. Butler, who was African American, incorporated issues of race, class and gender into her work. The Parable of the Sower is an example of how she manages to write a story that’s entertaining and yet, meaningful. The main character is a young woman of color and she, along with survivors, must learn to adapt in a world ruined by humanity’s excesses. It is one of my favorite novels, ever, and Butler is one of Junot Diaz’s favorite authors too. And if you don’t know who Junot Diaz is either, god have mercy on your soul.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin:

I started reading James Baldwin when I was in junior-high, and although I wasn’t at the intellectual level to understand everything he was trying to convey, I still felt an urge to keep exploring, and to try and comprehend each and every word. The Fire Next Time is a non-fiction piece by him and is written as part lesson about American racism and life to his nephew and part meditation on what it means to be a black man, especially someone trying to understand one’s place at the height of the civil rights movement.

 

The Making of Asian American: A History by Erika Lee:

Again, if you’re unfamiliar with Asian-American history, this is the perfect option. Erika Lee is an amazing historian and she somehow manages to convey the complexity of the Asian and Asian-American experience in just under 400 pages. She does this by dedicating separate chapters for different groups, i.e. a chapter on South Asians and another on Southeast Asians. But none of the chapters are disjointed. In fact, while you learn about the partial histories of each group, you begin to see the bigger picture: what it means to be Asian-American is constantly evolving.

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The World As Is

 

At the end of this story, you will find two things:
The first will be someone pleading for help.
The second will be of someone having uncontrollable gas.
The order is not so important. Not yet at least. For now, let’s roll back the clock to the beginning scene:
Of me, impressionable Irfan, aged 16, somehow avoiding the devastation that is known as acne, but still trying to grow that awful moustache or whatever you want to call that dead caterpillar fuzz that was festering right above the upper lip.
It’s November in the early 2000s (post 9/11) and I was sitting in class at my school in Queens, and as the teacher did her best to show us the reason for why sine and cosine even exist (which was admittedly something I never thought about), all I really felt like doing was smiling and grinning and making faces with Fareena, who sat right across from me.
Fareena and I met at our parent’s mosque, where I eventually got the courage to ask her if she wanted to hang out. She told me to ask her again when I had a definite idea of where to go, what to do, and how much it would cost, and so, after a week of thinking, I told her we could meet at the movie theater, and a month after that, I had my first kiss, and a year later, I was making faces with her in the middle of class, and she was smiling back, and the world as I knew it was perfect.

. . .

Every day, we would find time to hang out after school, and at least once or twice a month we would go and watch a movie, something that we could laugh at together.
“Oh my god, Bruce Willis looks a giant penis!” she squealed, as others simply turned in their seats and stared at us.
I laughed, and as we left the movie theater, I stuck out my tongue at whoever was still glaring.
We bought hot chocolate at our favorite deli and explored the neighborhood, while also of course making fart noises for people walking ahead of us. It was the Bloomberg years I think. Honestly, I don’t really keep track of which white guy happens to be in power when, but it definitely was a unique time to be growing up in the city, especially in the outer boroughs, when it felt like every day there was another building being left abandoned and another liquor store opening up right across the street from it.
“Did you read this yet?” Fareena asked as we were at the library, in the back corner, rifling through a mix of graphic novels and books that we wouldn’t find on our summer reading lists.
“What is it?” I asked, as I just finished reading some pages of an encyclopedia on nature, which included the infamous Dodo bird. The pictures of it looked funny to me.
Fareena passed me the novel she was talking about, which was titled Giovanni’s Room. “Woah, check this guy out,” she said, holding up another book, this one with the title The Savage Detectives emblazoned across. “Honestly, it’s a little confusing,” she said, but looked down at the page, smiling wide. “But I like how the characters are all writers and poets and trying to find adventure.”
I didn’t say anything right then. But after a few moments, when it became too quiet, I showed her the picture of the bird. She read the paragraph and shook her head and kept smiling.

. . .

Rajeev asked me where Fareena was.

I shrugged and made sure not make any eye contact. Another school day had ended, and we were all in the main lot, either ready to go home or like Rajeev and his group of followers, to head toward the main avenue again, probably find people they could tease and easily tear apart. Fareena had run off to the principal’s office seconds before the bell rang, and so I waited and waited, and ignored Rajeev, who was the top student in school, but also knew way too much about how to jumpstart a car without the key. Rajeev said that he learned that trick from his father, but wherever it came from, I didn’t want to know.

“See you later buddy,” he said, as him and his group finally left. “Don’t forget to wear your tampon.”
I rolled my eyes. Soon after, Fareena stepped outside, with her eyebrows narrowed. I asked her what was wrong.
“Nothing really,” she said. “I asked the principal if I could take some of my tests early.”
“What? Why?”
“My family needs me at our restaurant more often now,” she explained. “Plus, I do need to save money for college.”
I didn’t say anything as we kept walking down the sloped streets. We watched a movie and laughed. We went to the deli afterwards, but Fareena told me she needed to go home and start studying. We kissed, and I finished my hot chocolate, and decided to go back too.

. . .

At first, not much was different. We would still hang out. We would still find ways to be ourselves and have fun. But one afternoon, she again met with the principal. I waited like before as Rajeev discussed plans with his group. He again looked over at me and smirked, but I would look away as casually as I could.
Fareena rushed back outside minutes later. I asked her what happened, and tried to keep up.
“I just needed to take more tests again,” she said.
“Wait, where are you going?” I asked.
“I have to go home,” she told me. “I have a shift later tonight.”
“But what about the movies?”
“Babe, I can’t…”
“But – – -”
Before I could finish, she turned to me and smiled and said, “Why don’t you study with me?”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “What?” I said. “Why?”
“Why not? It’s good.”
“But I’m already doing well,” I said. “What’s the reason for doing more? I don’t even like math.”
“That’s not the point though,” she said. “Don’t you want to go to college?”
“Yea, but that’s later,” I said. “You can’t be so serious about this.”
She sighed. “I have to go,” she said.
“Wait, you do realize this is way too much right now,” I told her.
She shook her head and continued walking.
I should’ve said something, but I didn’t.

. . .

I would still talk with Fareena at school and we would continue to eat our lunch together and walk to class side-by-side, but she was always too tired to do much afterwards. I would sometimes try to spark an actual conversation with her but I would quickly give up, and go to the main avenue by myself.
It was a few weeks before winter break when I decided to watch a movie without her. It was another Bruce Willis film and he still looked like a giant penis. But I watched the entire movie, understood the plot, memorized some lines, and once it was over, I made up my mind to just go back home. But as I exited the theater, I heard a voice.
“Hey man, found any tampons in there?” it said to me.
I sighed. Rajeev was by himself next to a payphone. He asked me where Fareena was.
I again ignored him and kept walking, but he followed. “Yo, guess what?” he said. “I have the answers to next week’s test.”
I didn’t reply. He chuckled. “Come on, man, I’m just trying to help a Desi out,” he said. “Don’t you want your girl to have it easy?”
I stopped. I turned to him, and looked him in the eye.

Rajeev was in his final year at high-school, and all of the school’s main officials, from the principal to his assistant’s assistant, would praise Rajeev and offer him chance after chance to speak before the entire student body. He was great at math. He was great at science. He even knew how to dunk. I once played soccer with him but never kept much in touch, never really knew where he lived or what he did once our games were over. When I entered his apartment, it was for the first time, and it was completely quiet, except for the muffled sounds of traffic that would seep in from the window. I asked him where his parents were. He said simply that his mom was working and his dad was out-of-town.
Rajeev took me to his room, where he sat down at his desk and immediately began rummaging through the drawers.
I, on the other hand, stood in one place and looked around, at the walls, at the floor even, at the stack of CDs he had. At first glance, it was like any other room, with posters of movie heroes and sports stars, of empty CD casings left on the carpet. But I soon realized that he not only had movie posters, but actual DVDs, and even a TV. Plus, his stack of CDs was probably the highest I’d ever seen.
“Here you go,” he said, and handed me a sheet of paper. I read it over, and recognized that the answers were different than what I expected.
“Wait a minute,” I said. ‘This is for the wrong test.”
He shrugged. “Dude, whatever, just take them. I don’t need them anymore,” he said, as he continued to look through his drawer.
I clenched my right fist, but I couldn’t stop myself from looking back at the movie posters and at the TV. I didn’t say anything for a while, as I tried to read the titles of each and every DVD.
“It’s from a business venture,” Rajeev said. He explained, with his hands still in the drawer, that he sold alcohol and cigarettes to students. “It costs a lot more for someone to get a fake I.D.” he said. “So I just hire some older guys, desperate ones especially, to buy the items for me.” He paused. “I’m always looking for friends to help out,” he said.
I looked at him.
He was smiling.
I glared, and I left. Fareena called me later that night, so we could work on our extra credit assignments over the phone. I was glad to hear her voice again, although as we went through answer after answer, I would also look through my bedroom window, at our backyard filled with weeds and the one next door and the one after that, as we went through answer, after answer, after answer.

. . .

“Gary Oldman is a walrus trying to be a man!”
I nervously chuckled.
“Gary Oldman looks like a fucking faggot!”
I held my breath, as the rest of the theater shifted in their seats and started murmuring to each other.
But that didn’t matter to Rajeev, who kept yelling at the screen, till we were asked to leave.
“That movie didn’t make any sense,” he said, as I led him to the corner deli where we bought hot chocolate, and sat and drank by the window since he didn’t want to go back outside just yet.
I sipped and sipped as neither of us said a word. I eventually decided to ask about his parents again.
“Mom works and works and works, not much else to say about her,” he said.
“And your dad?” I asked.
“Like I said, he’s out-of-town,” Rajeev answered, and took a sip from his own cup, as he looked out the window.
I wanted to go to the library afterwards although I probably should’ve guessed that wouldn’t be an option.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be quick,” he said, as he waited by the payphone at the corner.
When it rang, he picked up and whispered.
I stood a few steps away from him. I should leave, I thought. I was worried what Rajeev would do if I did however. Before I could make up my mind, he placed the phone back into the booth and smiled at me.
My stomach gurgled.

. . .

“Don’t worry,” he told me. “Nothing will happen.”
I didn’t say a word as he walked block after block, past the abandoned buildings and finally ending up at a street where there were no Stop signs or functioning traffic lights. At an empty staircase of a building were two large paper bags.
Rajeev looked through them, and I glanced, and noticed that there were bottles of beer and alcohol inside.
“No…” I said, and immediately turned around.
But Rajeev was quick to tell me that if I left, he would just tell the school it was all mine.
“Let’s be real here,” he said. “We might have had the same classes. But who has the brighter future. Who would the school want to protect?”
My stomach continued to gurgle and churn, as I took a deep breath and picked up one of the bags.
“I’ll give you 10 percent man,” he said.
“I don’t want it…” I murmured.
He laughed. “You’re crazy,” he said, as we retraced our steps and headed back to his block.
I dropped the bags off at the apartment, and left. Rajeev tried calling my name, but I just walked down the stairs as fast as I could without falling. It was cold that evening, but I walked all the way back home without my hood on, without my gloves. I didn’t even notice that my hands were turning red until I had to quickly crouch down and tie my shoelaces.

. . .

I tried to forget. I would call Fareena and try to find time to hang out. I would also go to the library and read snippets from books that Fareena had recommended, including parts of Giovanni’s Room.
Rajeev called me again, however, while I was supposed to be studying for a final exam but instead was staring through the window.
Our phone was in the kitchen but my mom was working an extra shift and so were my aunts and cousins.
“Hey man, I have a new job,” he said after I picked up. “Quick like last time. But I’ll even give you a free bottle if you’d like.”
“No,” I said.
He laughed, but after I didn’t respond, he stopped. “Are you serious?” he said. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yes,” I told him, and hung up, and went back to my room.
For days, I ignored phone calls at night, when no one else was home. Fareena and I would hang out when she could. Once, we skipped a movie and went straight to the deli. She couldn’t keep her eyelids open though.
“How can you do well on a test if you don’t get some sleep?” I told her.
She shrugged and yawned.
I rolled my eyes and finished my hot chocolate.

. . .

I was lying in bed, with my eyes closed, when the phone rang. I grumbled, rolled over to my side, but a few minutes later, the phone rang again. I still didn’t move, but every half-hour, it would ring, until finally, I rushed over, and snatched it up.
“Dude, I’m not hanging out with you anymore,” I yelled.
No one answered.
“I’m hanging up,” I said. “Don’t bother me again.”
Suddenly, a voice responded. It was a man’s voice. It wasn’t Rajeev’s.
“Who do you think you are?” the man said, and judging from his voice, I could tell he was older than me. “Who the fuck do you think you are?” he kept repeating.
“Who-who is this?” I managed to ask.
“You think you can fuck me over like that?” he said. “You think you can fuck me over like that and get away with it.”
I hung up and stared at the phone as if somehow it would explode. My shirt stuck to my skin, and even though I went back to my room, I sat up in bed, shivering.

. . .

The calls and threats continued, but I didn’t tell anyone, not even Fareena. I thought they would stop but then, the man started leaving me voicemails, telling me he would find me. I would delete the messages seconds after he would leave them behind.
“This sandwich tastes weird,” Fareena said, as we sat at the cafeteria.
I nodded, as I took tiny bites and looked out the window.
“Mr. Dyer said we can only use a certain amount of extra credit points for our next test,” she said, and again I nodded.
It was cloudy that day, and everyone was more subdued, even though it was a Friday afternoon and freedom was ticking closer and closer.
I was looking out the window and chewing slowly, not really thinking of much or trying not to. But just as I took another bite of whatever sandwich the school had given us, I saw a figure in the school lot. I squinted. It was a tall man standing right outside the gate.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Fareena said. “I mean, we worked hard for those points. If we have hundred points, shouldn’t we be able to use all of them at one time? The semester is almost over anyway.”
I stopped chewing.
There was a pause.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I snapped back to reality. I looked at her and told her “Nothing” and kept eating the sandwich, even though I wasn’t hungry but honestly, was just trying to keep myself preoccupied.
Fareena left school early, and Rajeev was nowhere in sight. As I walked home by myself, I would keep looking over my shoulder. At one point, I felt as if someone was following me. I decided to not walk home but to head straight to the theater instead, which I did, and still, I felt as if someone was right behind me. I glanced at the rearview mirrors of the parked cars, and again, saw the same tall man I had seen earlier, just a few yards away. I increased my pace but knew that wouldn’t work, so I headed for the shopping mall at the end of the block, and walked behind the crowd. I walked around and around the mall for an hour, as I pretended to look at the new video games on display, at whatever I could focus on. There were also kids I recognized from school, and so I walked in the opposite direction and finally went back outside.
“If you scream, I’m going to rip your fucking head off.” The voice echoed in my head, as hands grabbed me by the collar, and all I could do was look up at the man’s face, with his bangs and his furrowed brow.
He took me to the empty streets about a mile away, where the abandoned buildings looked like they would crumble at any moment.
He grabbed my collar and lifted me off the ground. My legs flailed as he pulled me close and glared.
“Where’s the money?” he said, his breath reeking of smoke.
“I-I-dunno,” I stammered.
“Don’t play dumb with me,” he said.
I was barely able to breathe and all I could manage to say was “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” over and over again, as a rotten stench began to engulf us.
He covered his nose, and I dropped. I coughed and I coughed as I quickly tried to recover.
He looked at me, with his eyebrow raised, as I looked back at him, with my own face full of confusion.
He kept his hand over his nose, but I could tell tears were welling up in his eyes.
“Are you okay…?” I asked him.
“I needed that money,” he said. “My dad…my dad is going to throw me out…I needed that money…”
The tears ran down his cheeks.
I asked him who he was looking for. He told me he was looking for Rajeev.
“I keep buying him the alcohol and he pays me sometimes, but these past few weeks, man, I really need the money,” he said. “Rajeev told me you were the new guy. I didn’t know how that was possible since you looked so young, but what could I do? I just got thrown out of college, you know. I don’t know what to do.”
I did feel sorry for him. I really did. But as I watched him try and wipe the tears from his eyes, an idea had crept inside my head.
“I can help you” I told him.
He dabbed his eyes with his sleeve and looked at me.
“Here,” I handed him the answer sheet that I kept in my backpack. I told him to go to the school, tell them he was related to one of the students, and that his cousin or whomever got the sheet from Rajeev.
The man held it in his hands, and was smiling and beaming with joy. He thanked me over and over again. I told him no problem, and smiled too.

. . .

The winter holidays had arrived, and lights were strung up all over the neighborhood, even peeking through apartment windows.
I hadn’t seen Rajeev in weeks, and I didn’t know it then, but I would never see him again. His mother did come to school once. I saw her in the hallway talking with the principal. She was crying and pleading with him.
On the last day of school before winter break, I decided to surprise Fareena at her family’s restaurant. Before I left however, the phone rang, and I picked it up without thinking of who it might be.
It turned out to be the man who once worked for Rajeev.
“I still didn’t get my money…” he said. “You could’ve told me where he lived. Why didn’t you tell me where he lives?”
I waited till he stopped crying and I told him to get some rest and I hung up.
It was getting late and I wanted to see Fareena, with the sun still up. When I reached her at the restaurant, she was outside drinking some coffee.
“What are you doing here?” she said, smiling.
I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, and asked her if she ate anything yet. She replied no, and so, we went to the theater, and I bought a huge bucket of popcorn. We sat down in our usual seats, all the way in the back.
During the trailers, she told me she also had some time to hang out tomorrow. “I need to study and be ready for next semester but I do think I need a break once in a while,” she said.
I smiled. ‘Well, we can study at the library if you want,” I replied.
She laughed, and rested her head on my shoulder.
I put my hand in hers.
The movie started.

Ba noi

by Lizzy Krajan

 

I remember when

you fed me avocados

and rubbed my back when the pain

was too much to bear

I miss the nights when

you would sit up in your bed

and breathe prayers that were quiet

but I could still hear you

through the boards and

paper thin walls of the house

I still think of the evening

when you couldn’t sleep

because upon my pilgrimage to your home

for the first time, your grandchildren

sat together under the same roof

even after years of unknowing

years of the absence of love

and existence of kin

Upon my leaving

we sat together in the living room

you, me, and the entire village

and I wept

for love could not have radiated

any more than when we prayed

on a grey, rainy afternoon

And though you slept

the night that would be your last

not knowing it would be an endless sleep

the stroke may have taken your body

silently, quietly in slumber

yet it never took your soul

Lizzy Krajan is a 2013 graduate of Millersville University where she received her BA in International Studies with a focus on Asia Area Studies. She has traveled to Vietnam, Hong Kong, Cambodia, South Korea and studied abroad in China. She is currently the Cultural Orientation Instructor at Church World Service, a refugee and immigration program in Lancaster, PA. She will be returning to school in the fall in pursuit of a dual Master’s Degree in Public Health and International Peace and Conflict Resolution. She also enjoys singing songs by Drake. 

astro

by Bhumika Mukherjee

One,
Two,
Stars
Or Rabbits?
Growing too swiftly.
More than a dozen of tries and the signal thus dies,
with the liver subject to market risks, I will and won’t meet my demise.
The pink sky and clouds will be under my feet soon,
at early 10:10 of a lonely late afternoon.
The violated were the violators, the free were the caught,
These are the wishes from the Miller’s, planet and not?

 

Bhumika Mukherjee is an Animation Film Designer from National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India. Its closest living relatives are the flamingos.

Animation Film Designer | Concept Artist | Illustrator | Creative Writer | Fine Artist | Visual Poet | Astrophysics Enthusiast | Don’t forget to wash your hands before eating 

Check out more of Bhumika’s amazing work: 

http://www.canvs.in/portfolio/bhumika-mukherjee/

https://www.behance.net/BhumikaMukherjee

Not an ‘Other’

 

by Haley Gittleman

 

“What are you?”

It’s the most cringe-worthy question all biracial people are asked throughout their lifetime.  I don’t exactly remember at what age I was first asked this question – it was sometime during my elementary school days – but even as a young child, I knew this question referred to my racial identity.  And as a young girl, I did not find this question to be offensive.  Why would I?  I was born to a white Jewish father and a Chinese Protestant mother in East Brunswick, NJ, a town that, according to Urban Dictionary, is “populated by wealthy Jews, Asians, and Italians”.  So I should have fit right in.  I should have been just like everybody else.  Right?

“What are you?”  I’m an extrovert.

In elementary school, I paid as much attention to race as I did to Social Studies – none.  Although my two best friends in the world were tall, pretty blonde girls, I had friends of all shapes, sizes, and colors.  But something strange happened when I entered middle school.  Maybe it was because all of the elementary schools were suddenly thrown into one and we were all afraid of this huge change, but the students seemed to enter the front doors and funnel themselves into neat little categories, or cliques.  Yes, social cliques are normal and expected, but cliques by race was something I had never expected.  Each morning before the bell rang, I would walk down the hallways and see clusters of color.  So what did this mean for me?  Where was I supposed to go?

“What are you?”  I’m a violinist.

In middle school, I was separated from my two best friends.  I was thrown into advanced math – they weren’t; I joined the orchestra – they joined the band.  In fact, we didn’t share any classes at all.  This is when they first started to see and treat me as an outsider.  I missed them so much.  But, being the outgoing middle schooler I was, I decided to make new friends.  Perhaps it was because I was in advanced math and orchestra, but the students I was meeting were mostly Chinese.  (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but hey, some stereotypes are true.)  One-on-one, the Chinese kids seemed to accept me.  But in a group setting, I often received some not-so-subtle signs that I wasn’t welcome.  For example, I’d go over to talk to them and they’d switch their conversation from English to Mandarin.  (The only words I know how to say in Mandarin are “thank you” and “pork bun”.)  When I started going on kid-dates with one of the Chinese boys, a girl in the clique told me that I couldn’t “take their men” and even went as far as to blackmail him with an embarrassing photo to “break-up” with me.  I think it was when the Chinese girls invited me to an AIM chatroom (remember that?) in seventh grade with the sole purpose of telling me I should probably kill myself that it finally dawned on me to find some new friends.

“What are you?”  I’m a loner.

I was alone a lot in junior high.  I was too distrusting of new people.  But in the ninth grade, I met a nice Jewish boy.  Although he was one of the popular kids and a bit of a jock, he was different.  Smart, sensitive, and sweet (and of course, very handsome).  I crushed on him hard for the entire year, unreciprocated.  But a month before we graduated from junior high, he asked me out on a date, and we were together for the majority of high school.  When I was with him, the only discrimination I faced was from the other popular kids who constantly reminded me that I wasn’t popular enough to be with him.  This was much more easy to swallow than being bullied for not being “Asian enough”.

“What are you?”  I’m a strategist.

He was my gateway to having a social life in high school.  The parties, the volleyball games, trips to the shore, prom, new friendships.  To him and the new friends I acquired, I wasn’t “half-Asian” or “half-white”; I was a whole, complete person.  I didn’t have to think or worry about race.  Well, not until I had to take the SAT and fill out college applications.  “How would identify your race?  Choose 1.”  When you’re a 50/50 mix, how do you choose one?  Of course, these forms always provide the dreaded “other” category, but who would ever identify as an “other”?  Who would choose to feel sub-human?  Well, I’ll tell you what I did – I chose whichever would give me the biggest advantage.  I had heard about colleges having an Asian quota, so on the SAT and my applications, I was white.  I hated being forced to choose.  I hated being forced to deny half of my identity.

“What are you?”  I’m a goofball.

I was fortunate enough to be accepted to Oberlin College, where I studied biochemistry.  I had chosen that school for many reasons, the first-and-foremost being their liberal ideologies and overall acceptance of those who were different.  Many of the Oberlin students had felt like outsiders in high school.  The four years I spent there were amongst the happiest of my life.  College was just like elementary school!  A bunch of goofy kids running around with Nerf guns who liked to play ping-pong and Rock Band and have fake sumo wrestling matches in the lounge.  There were no cliques.  It didn’t matter if you were queer, trans, poor, nerdy, biracial, bisexual, socially awkward, just so long as you weren’t a Republican (only half-kidding).  And the best part of all, I got to meet biracial and multiracial students just like me, people with whom I’ve shared similar experiences.  In fact, Oberlin College reports that 6.1% of the students identify as multiracial!  Compare this to the 2010 Census, where only 2.3% of people reported being “more than one race.”  Side note, but the Census didn’t even allow people to choose more than one race until 2000, even though interracial marriage was decriminalized in 1967!

“What are you?”  I’m a biostatistician.

Unfortunately, after my four years were up, I had to leave the bubble and enter the real world.  I decided to change gears and get my Master’s degree in biostatistics at Rutgers University.  On the first day of classes, I sat alone.  A Chinese girl sat down next to me and started speaking to me in Mandarin.  I apologized and told her I didn’t speak the language, and she literally got up and moved to another seat.  Things aren’t much different in my current PhD program at Case Western Reserve University.  The majority of my classmates are non-native English speakers and look at me like I’m an alien.  I even mentioned once that my mother is Chinese, which astounded many of the students.  It always baffles me that my silky dark brown hair and almond-shaped light brown eyes aren’t enough to pass considering that’s all non-Asian people see when they look at me.

“What are you?”  I’m an American.

To make matters worse, outside of classes, I have to deal with ignorant Ohioans on a regular basis.  Like last Fall, I went to a comic con in Akron.  An older white man pulled me aside and asked me my least favorite question, “What are you?”  Of course I knew what he meant, but I replied, “What do you mean?”  “What’s your nationality?”  “I’m American.”  “No, what’s your race?”  “I’m biracial.”  Then he started screaming at me, “YOU ARE ASIAN!  WHAT KIND OF ASIAN ARE YOU?!”  Last December, a black nurse at my former health clinic asked me if I was going home for the holidays.  I told her I was and she told me to have a safe flight.  I told her I was driving.  She asked, “But, aren’t you going overseas?”  I said that my family was from New Jersey.  She asked, “But, aren’t you Chinese?”  She couldn’t grasp my situation, all because I didn’t look “white enough” to her.  Last week, I made an appointment at a new healthcare facility and the nurse needed my demographic information.  She asked me for my race.  I told her that I was biracial: half-white, half-Chinese.  She said, “We don’t have a category for that… I’ll just put you down as ‘Other’”.

“What are you?”  I am many things.

I’m a mathematician, a musician, a dancer, a dreamer.  My racial identity has shaped and molded me, but it does not define me.  It will continue to challenge me and make me strong.  It will always allow me see the world differently from those who have never been forced to choose, from those who fit into a neat little category.  But one thing is clear: I will never let my racial identity reduce me to something less than whole.  I am most certainly not and will never be an “other”.

Haley is a biostatistician at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, as well as a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.  In her free time, she enjoys playing the keyboard, tap and swing dance, videogames, and antagonizing her kittens.

Why Race Matters on College Campuses Today

by Zehra Abbas

In the past year we have heard of countless racial incidents, student protests and senior administrators and professors leaving their posts across college campuses. One only needs to glance at the comments sections of articles about race to get an idea of how divided we truly are when it comes to this issue. Many whites don’t understand the minority experiences and when minorities express strong emotions they are labeled as being “too sensitive”.  We as minorities are not empowered in college to speak out and still struggle to find our voices. Yet college itself is a great opportunity to explore these issues and learn to articulate feelings that many minorities have been carrying since their school days.

According to the Pew Research Center, minorities will supposedly account for roughly fifty percent of the population by 2050, which means there will be no clear majority anymore. So are we where we should be, in terms of integration, or are we dangerously unprepared for what lies ahead? It is a hard question we need to ask of ourselves when we complain and fear of what it is to come. How our inaction and silence has made us complicit in social injustices that occur day after day. Collectively, as minorities we haven’t been very successful in supporting each other and in doing so we have provided a breeding ground for people to spew their hateful rhetoric with no fear of any consequences.

Millennials have grown up in a world where they can conceivably go to any college they desire. They can get any job they qualify for and utilize any public space or service without regards to their race, ethnicity or religion. They are coming of age during the presidency of an African American in the White House. So where have we gone wrong? In the past five decades while we may have achieved desegregation, as a society we are far from being truly integrated.

According to Education and Economy, 2015, America has fallen behind in the international standings for education. By 2020, it is predicted that the US will have fallen further behind in the global talent pool. While in 2013, the US was the world leading economy, it is predicted by 2016 China will take over and by 2060 India will surpass the US. There is a direct correlation of an increase in literacy rates with higher levels of labor productivity and GDP per capita. Therefore, there is not only a need to increase the number of students who go to college but to make sure these students graduate.

While nations such as India, China, Japan and Finland are moving ahead in building their educational systems and educating their students, at all levels, America lags behind. America is unique from these other countries in that its’ population is not homogeneous but represents a vast variety of students, cultures, religions and backgrounds that make teaching a challenge. Teachers in the US are not representative of student’s racial demographics and this leads to a multitude of problems.

In 2014, a campus climate study in UCLA, showed that a considerably higher percentage of minority students, reported feelings of marginalization and discomfort on campus compared to their white classmates. A UCLA professor explains this, as a result of minority students facing, racial micro and macro aggressions, from faculty, students and law enforcement. These acts of covert racism usually go unnoticed by those in the majority group and might even be coming from well-intentioned individuals. This lack of awareness leads to further ignorance and ultimately resentment and fear since neither groups want to talk or even acknowledge the issues.

There is also a great divide in the perceptions of senior administration and minorities in diversity and inclusion surveys on campus. In a survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed in 2014, it was found that almost 90% of college and university presidents seemed unaware of any racial tension present on their campuses. It seems that when the enrollment numbers of minority students go up, it is assumed we are doing well in that respect. Whether campus presidents choose to look the other way or are truly unaware of the problem; this seems to be an issue itself.  The irony being that, people don’t even realize there is a problem.

This problem goes much deeper than being merely a college campus issue. Unfortunately today, decades after Brown vs Board of Education, schools remain woefully segregated due to socioeconomic and demographic patterns. Many students are growing up in an atmosphere lacking a realistic representation of the society they are expected to work, function and be civically engaged in. Even when parents might not hold racist ideas themselves, children are now absorbing a barrage of information through social media, popular culture and other information outlets. When students have not had close friends, teachers or other meaningful interactions with racial or ethnic minorities it is much harder for them to understand those lived experiences. It is also much easier for them to attach commonly held stereotypes and negative images to certain groups when they don’t know otherwise. It doesn’t help when politicians and the ratings-hungry media utilize various tactics to play on people’s ignorance to create unfounded fears in order to further their own agendas.

While we continue increasing diversity offices, events and cultural clubs to accommodate the growing number of minorities on campuses we do not directly address the problems of polarization and the lack of social contact. Most students today, study and go to class side by side with their minority peers but these groups are akin to parallel roads that never intersect.

Colleges and universities need to take a proactive role of providing opportunities for meaningful connections and supporting their students through the process. By providing an environment conducive to peaceful discussions where students can speak out without fear. Bring a more global and multicultural experience within our classrooms, dorms and student centers. We need culturally competent educators and administrators who can provide support to students in a culturally sensitive manner and be prepared to help them deal with the cognitive dissonance that follows. Instructors need to be comfortable in having those difficult conversation regardless of what race they are. We also need to empower minority students to speak up and challenge others in and outside the classrooms. Trying to educate our students in isolation of each other, is denying them, one of the greatest resources we have, to prepare them for the modern world.

Zehra Abbas is a graduate student at Central Connecticut State University in Student Development in Higher Education. Her research interests are identity development among minority students in higher education and the intersections of race, religion, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation. She has lived around the world spanning four continents, seven countries and traveled to many more. She is currently a graduate intern at Yale‘s Office of International Students and Scholars.

The Adventures of Jenkins: On Gentrification

NEw york city skyline harold jenkins
(Image from Google)

 

By Harold F. Jenkins

Depending on who you ask, New York City is experiencing a crisis.

Homelessness has surged in the last couple of years to levels not seen since the Great Depression, housing courts are overwhelmed with cases, and people are being displaced in record numbers.

Williamsburg, a neighborhood in North Brooklyn was a less than desirable place to live a few decades ago. For a particular slice of New York City, areas like these were the only places they could afford to live and shop. Plagued with crime and high unemployment, areas of Williamsburg became home to many Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and anyone in close proximity to the poverty line.

Things started to change when the real estate market shifted in the early 2000s. Suddenly, developers, builders, and people in the market to buy were looking outside of the island. Brooklyn was optimal since it’s just a bridge away.

For unscrupulous landlords, the time they had waited for had finally arrived. All they had to do was evict their longtime tenants, transform the basic units that were in dire need of repair into modern luxe apartments and charge up to four times as much.

Evicting residents from their rent-stabilized apartments became limited only by their creativity. Fake eviction notices, harassment, and when necessary, using the overwhelmed housing courts as a tool to evict.

Some unwanted tenants received harassing phone calls at three a.m., others were met by goons who questioned tenants about their immigration status or use brawn to intimidate. Other landlords simply didn’t cash rental payments for months and used it as grounds for eviction.

These tactics continue today throughout the city.

From the margins, it’s simple to say that all these individuals need is legal counsel, but for many, that is a luxury. For others, being mired in the court system goes against their cultural background, so they decide to leave without protest.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to fight displacement by adding several mechanisms to the city’s laws. Soon, those in need of legal assistance will be able to receive low-cost assistance. However, some initiatives are contentious. The most polemic being the “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” plan, in which developers would be obligated to make a certain percentage of units in new projects affordable. Still, many of these “affordable” units are out of the reach of people living on a limited income.

For many it’s difficult to see that the crux of the issue goes beyond affordable rent. Gentrified areas are accompanied by new businesses that catered to a different clientele. Just like the residents that are forced out, so are the businesses that catered to them.

Williamsburg continues to see a mass transformation. Many of the community daycare centers, grocery stores, and restaurants that were staples for decades are now gone.

Nonprofit organizations have attempted to quell the issue, but this is a multidimensional problem. One that needs the attention of politicians, developers, nonprofits, community groups and boards.

Harold F. Jenkins is a man and an idea. He is formless and yet, takes shape through words and actions. This is his column, bi-weekly. Keep reading because Jenkins exists because of you. 

Men and Feminism

“I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder.”

Those are the first words from Killing Rage, a book by bell hooks.

killing rage bell hooks image
(Image from Google)

That was my first legit introduction to feminism. Of course, I was exposed to learning about women in history, and acknowledging gender (to a degree) during earlier classes in high-school and college. And I was taught to understand that the world is a sexist place.

Yet, my understanding of feminism, at the time, was complicated, and to put in better terms: fucking dumb.

I was a man. Am a man. Cis-gender. Penis attached to body. Etc.

Also, I am of color. The main problem I perceived was racism, and how it interacted with class. I definitely had my Marxist phase, wearing Che shirts like a college stereotype around campus, regurgitating lines I heard from Rage Against the Machine to friends. Okay. Maybe I’m exaggerating (I hope). And to be fair, I remain a socialist and my own family don’t play. Grandfather and father were communists back in India. Rest of us have always played a part in revolutionary thought.

But, gender wasn’t on my radar.

Reading bell hooks didn’t automatically wake me up. In fact, what I took from it was that white supremacy fucking sucks, and we need to crush it. Somehow, my mind omitted the stuff specifically on women. Call it socialization. Call it me being a dumbass. Either way, I managed to keep my world intact.

Still, the seeds were planted and as I was graduating Rutgers (where I did my undergrad), I began to think about combating oppression and doing something worthwhile with my life. I ended up working as a journalist, meeting new and unique people wherever I went. I also began to talk more with friends about issues important to us, including sex. It was friends who’d tell me all the crazy shit they’d have to put up with regarding men. It was friends who share weird and frustrating stories, ranging from not getting the promotion they wanted and watching some unqualified man get it to harassment while taking a stroll, something that I never experienced or faced.

I did what any idiot-turned-ally would do. Which is read all the books on feminism I could find, including re-reading Killing Rage. To also, sharing info with my male friends on the problem of sex/gender prejudice.

According to the recent Global Gender Gap Report, the “global average full-time salary for a working woman currently stands at $11,102 a year, just over half of the working man’s average salary of $20,554.” The United States ranked 28th in the world in terms of equal pay.[1] Women are barely represented in the upper echelons of the corporate hierarchy. In fact, there has been focus on this lack of diversity by business leaders such as Sandberg, who’s promoted research that shows this gender-gap that seems to expand as employees are promoted from entry-level positions onto executive. [2] Oftentimes, women are simply left behind and not given the same opportunities to move up.

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), which is an anti-sexual violence organization, 1 out of 6 U.S. women have “been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.”[3] In fact, “27.2 percent of female college seniors reported that, since entering college, they had experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact — anything from touching to rape — carried out by incapacitation, usually due to alcohol or drugs, or by force. Nearly half of those, 13.5 percent, had experienced penetration, attempted penetration or oral sex.”[4]

In terms of political power, the 114th Congress is 80 percent male in both the house and the senate.[5] And after the Republicans took over, fewer women were leading committees.[6]

Reproductive rights, including the access to safe abortions and birth-control, has also been a victim of what I’d like to describe as the “one-step forward, two steps back” approach that’s been a part of the American social and political climate since its founding. Yes, having an abortion s might be more accepted than decades ago, when Roe v. Wade was even decided. And of course, younger women and more men understand the importance of having more than just one abortion clinic in a state, and for health insurance to cover expenses for birth control, despite condemnation from right-leaning religious institutions. Still, abortion rights remain a contentious issue and one that is perceived by conservatives as morally wrong and which requires stringent regulation and condemnation. Men on the political right are often the ones who have led the attack on reproductive rights, from bombing abortion clinics to even murdering doctors. Conservative men in power continue to make organizations like Planned Parenthood, who provide affordable access to birth control and healthcare for lower-income women, the target of their rage (I could go Freudian on the reasons why but I resist).

Every month, there’s a hearing in Congress about how abortion equates to murder and that the women who go to clinics are tricked. When I was a reporter in D.C., I also had the dubious honor of sitting in for one of these hearings. This time, it was about Congress deciding to limit abortions in the nation’s capital. Locals were upset because A) D.C. doesn’t have any real representation and so these politicians are from outside the region, and B) D.C. is a more liberal area and access to abortion is synonymous with healthcare and dignity. I was placed in the section reserved for journalists, and jotted down notes for my article, as one by one, opinions were delivered on how awful abortion were and how risky it can be for the fetus, which to them, was alive and able to feel pain. The person in charge of the hearing was Trent Franks, a representative from Arizona. He and his colleagues were all men.[7]

Since 2010, over 280 restrictive laws on abortion were passed, reducing the number of clinics available to women who need them. In Texas, for instance, half of its abortion clinics were shut down since 2012, decreasing from 41 to only 20. [8] Even in states where abortion is legal, there are limits on the number of months or weeks when a woman can decide to have one, and places where it’s actively discouraged. [9]

 

The more I’ve learned, the more I’ve realized that sexism and gender discrimination isn’t just something to reform, but has been built into our institutions and way of life. If we do away with capitalism, there will still be gender roles. If we end racism, women of color will continue to be neglected. Sex/gender oppression functions as a major pillar of American life. And to be truly revolutionary one must get rid of it, not perform a half-measure.

So, consider this my year of feminist consciousness.

Now, if the story ended here, it’d be safe to assume that you, as the genuine reader, would nod, think, ponder for a sec, and move on. And especially for the men, there are among you who have seen the light as I have.

But, as you can guess because there are more words to follow, the story doesn’t end here. Not at all.

If fact, if it did, I think the story wouldn’t be much to share or talk about. It’d be just another hollow trope.

This is what I mean:

As mentioned, I am cis-gendered man. Of color. Yes. But a man nonetheless. I am socialist. Leftist. Got my anarchist tendencies. Protested. Reporter with the long hair. Jeans. Khakis. I like to watch football on weekends. I like to talk about my favorite authors. I believe that Kendrick Lamar’s ability to be “vulnerable” is something I can connect with. Yet. I am a man. Cis-gendered. With a feminist consciousness. True. But penis attached. Got two hands. Two feet. Listen to songs with the word “bitch” in them. Called other men “punk-ass bitch” too. Feminist consciousness. And yet (and this is what I’ve learned more recently), I am the problem too.

See the truth is, as much as I want to quote bell hooks. As much as I want to call out male friends on their sexism. As much as I do the “right” things. I remain privileged. Based on my gender, and all it affords me.

Currently, I am in a PhD program and one of my main interests is in Women and Politics. Part of the reason of why that’s the case is that race is discussed more so in Women and Politics than in the rest of Political Science. And the other reason is because I want to arm myself with more knowledge.

While taking classes, I’ve been introduced to writers like Patricia Hill Collins and Donna Haraway, both of whom are instrumental in standpoint theory.

black feminist thought image
(Image from Google)

A quick summary on standpoint: Basically, it’s important to have the perspective of the group you are writing about or researching.

For Hill Collins, she feels that only black women can be effective voices for other black women in the social sciences.

As she’s stated in The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought:

“Such thought can encourage collective identity by offering Black women a different view of themselves and their world than that offered by the established social order. This different view encourages African-American women to value their own subjective knowledge base. By taking elements and themes of Black women’s culture and traditions and infusing them with new meaning, Black feminist thought rearticulates a consciousness that already exists.’8 More important, this rearticulated consciousness gives African-American women another tool of resistance to all forms of their subordination.”

It’s important for the actual people with the actual experiences to express themselves, according to Hill Collins.

On the other hand, Haraway believes that a person who is not a member of a group can still do an effective job at writing for and about them. For example, let’s say someone who is white decides to publish material on South Asian Americans. He or she can go about as the humble observer and engage in South Asian American culture without appearing fake, condescending, or pretending that they know everything, i.e. giving advice about what South Asian Americans can do to improve themselves, etc. The proper way of doing such research, as explained by Haraway, would be to write on South Asian Americans with the constant awareness that you are not one of them.

“So, with many other feminists, I want to argue for a doctrine and practice of objectivity that privileges contestation, deconstruction, passionate construction, webbed connections, and hope for transformation of systems of knowledge and ways of seeing,” Haraway states, “But not just any partial perspective will do; we must be hostile to easy relativisms and holisms built out of summing and subsuming parts. “Passionate detachment” requires more than acknowledged and self-critical partiality. We are also bound to seek perspective from those points of view, which can never be known in advance, that promise something quite extraordinary, that is, knowledge potent for constructing worlds less organized by axes of domination.”

I do want to speak on issues about gender. But, doing so exclusively can come at the risk of drowning out the voices of women who are experiencing what I can only be describing in my work.

 

As men, we also have to do more than just “talk.” Like white allies for POC, we have to listen to women, and those who are trans, and hear what they want and need from us. We cannot feel so secure in our bubble of liberal empathy.

This should be an ongoing evolution for many of us.

I don’t have an easy answer on what to do, for those of us in academia and activist circles. Personally, I at least will incorporate gender into my analysis of race in the U.S. and do my best not to subsume it under layers of jargon and data points.

Ultimately, I must keep challenging myself to do more. To end that part of me wedded to notions of roles and hierarchy.

“I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder.”

 

 

[1] Nicole Spector, “Gender Pay Gap Will Be Erased, But It Will Take 118 Years: Report,” NBC News, Nov. 19 2015, accessed Nov. 27, 2015, http://www.nbcnews.com/business/economy/gender-pay-gap-will-be-erased-it-will-take-118-n466631.

[2] “Women in the Workplace,” The Wall Street Journal, accessed Nov. 27, 2015, http://graphics.wsj.com/women-in-the-workplace/.

[3] “Who are the Victims?” RAINN, accessed Nov. 27, 2015, https://rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-victims.

[4] Richard Perez-Pena, “1 in 4 Women Experience Sex Assault on Campus,” The New York Times, Sept. 21 2015, accessed Nov. 27, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/22/us/a-third-of-college-women-experience-unwanted-sexual-contact-study-finds.html?_r=0.

[5] Philip Bump, “The new Congress is 80 percent white, 80 percent male and 92 percent Christian,” The Washington Post, Jan. 5 2015, accessed Nov. 27, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/01/05/the-new-congress-is-80-percent-white-80-percent-male-and-92-percent-christian/.

[6] Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “More Women Than Ever in Congress, but With Less Power Than Before,” The New York Times, Feb. 2 2015, accessed Nov. 27 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/us/politics/republican-takeover-of-senate-pushes-women-out-of-powerful-committee-posts.html.

[7] Sudip Bhattacharya, “Trent Franks on Abortion Bill: ‘D.C. is Not the Issue,’” The Washington City Paper, May 18, 2012 accessed Nov. 27, 2015, http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2012/05/18/trent-franks-on-abortion-bill-d-c-is-not-the-issue/.

[8] The Editorial Board, “States’ abortion limits erode right to choose: Our View.” USA Today, Sept. 7, 2015, accessed Nov. 27, 2015, http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2015/09/07/abortion-texas-supreme-court-editorials-debates/71415468/.

[9] “Abortion laws in the United States,” The Austin American-Statesman. 2015, accessed Nov. 27, 2015, http://www.statesman.com/interactive/map/abortion-laws/.

You and I

You’re here

You have a heart

Two hands

Two eyes to see

A mouth to speak with

Legs to carry you onwards

You are here

Looking at the words

Reading each one until it makes some sense

You are brave

You are courageous

You are also human

Your dark brown skin illuminated

Your black hair combed the way you like

You will face your toughest challenges

You will feel low at times

You are brave and courageous and beautiful and handsome

You shall look at paintings the same way you look at words

You shall watch movies and find meanings in them

Heck, maybe one day you too will write

And wonder,

What is my role then?

For one who looks down at the page

What is it?

To provide sustenance for the soul (almost alliteration)

Or, is it to go beyond

By the way, you probably now hate movies that are a distraction

Then again, sometimes your mind needs a break

But the world can be ugly still

And you don’t want things to stay ugly when you exit the theater

Right?

That bubble exists

Those words can encase you

You will realize what is your right

your privilege

your choice(s)

You are here

With these words in front of you

You will win

You will feel lost

You will need these lines perhaps, again,

to remember that life is still ahead

Questions will return

Maybe you will too, to this.

Must you?

For now, it ends here.

The Woman Inside

Shanti squinted as she stepped into the sunlight.

All she saw were blurry images.

So, she blinked and blinked, until finally, Radha, her older sister, was standing across the street, waving and smiling.

“Yay!” Radha exclaimed and hugged Shanti once they were close. Shanti kept her arms hanging by her side. Even after pulling away, Radha was beaming, and helped Shanti put her luggage in the taxi.

They sat together in the backseat. The driver, whose head pushed against the car ceiling, reminded Shanti of someone she knew at Rutgers. She didn’t feel like talking anymore.

But Radha kept asking her questions, about how much sleep she got the night before, and if she was hungry.

Shanti answered as efficiently as she could, and as they pulled away, Shanti gazed at the building, which loomed, where she spent the previous months in, surrounded by trees. MENTAL HEALTH INSTITUTION OF CENTRAL NEW JERSEY, the big bold letters read on the sign above the entrance.

“So I spoke with the administrator and he said not to worry about the billing just yet,” Radha said, as they made their way along the turnpike, back to what Shanti was used to: concrete and billboards.

“Will I still have to pay in the future?” Shanti asked. Her eyelids were half-opened.

Radha kept smiling. “We,” she said, “will pay them.”

Shanti kept her eyelids the way they were, and asked if Radha told anyone about what happened.

The smile faded, and Radha lowered her gaze.

“Mom and dad know,” she said. “But no one else. I mean, you understand how people can be. They won’t comprehend.”

The car rocked slightly as it returned onto the local roads.

“So what did you tell people about me…?”

“Just that you’ve been busy collecting your thoughts.”

“Did you tell them I dropped out?”

“Some know. But the rest of the information I keep to myself. It’s not for them.”

“I’m not a freak.”

“Honey, no one is saying you are.”

“I’m not a freak. Everybody faces adversity.”

“Yes, of course. I just want you to feel safe.”

The taxi steadied, and slowed.

The house that Radha lived in was on the edge of Union. Like much of north New Jersey, Union was a microcosm of the state. Houses were spread around the downtown like a ring, while projects and whatever remaining businesses were kept closer to the city’s center.

The house wasn’t big but it did have two floors, and Radha shared its expenses with two other housemates, Bharati and Geeta.

Shanti arched an eyebrow.

“The ones from Jersey City?” she asked.

“Trust me, they’re different,” Radha said, as she carried Shanti’s luggage into the living room. “Besides, this used to be Geeta’s aunt’s and uncle’s place anyways,” Radha explained.

Shanti looked at the white walls adorned with pictures of South Asian Americans wearing sarees and Nehru jackets, smiling from ear-to-ear for the camera lens. She also spotted balloons tied to the railings on the staircase.

“You had a party?”

Radha paused, and looked, as if seeing them for the first time too.

“We’ll be having a birthday bash,” Radha said.

“It says Piyush on them,” Shanti pointed out and after a few more seconds, her eyes went wide. “Oh my god, don’t tell me you’re still with him…”

Radha recovered her smile and told Shanti to get settled. She led Shanti to her room upstairs, which had a clear view of the main road.

“Are you hungry?” Radha asked, as Shanti sat on the bed and peered out the window.

Shanti told Radha she was just tired.

“Yea sure, get some rest, and maybe later, we can gossip,” Radha said.

Shanti felt a reflex to arch her eyebrow again, but she saw the expression on Radha’s face, the lips stretching from cheek to cheek and for the first time in days, she understood to do the same.

.  .  .

Sunlight filtered in, and Shanti rubbed her eyes. She quietly got out of bed and after taking her pills and getting dressed, she went downstairs for breakfast. Before going to work, Radha texted Shanti: Eggs on stove. Shanti read the message and prepared some coffee and watched TV in the living room.

Mostly news about weather and traffic filled the screen, and Shanti tried to keep her mind focused, not letting it wander.

However, there were also reports about a woman named Sandra Bland, who was arrested by the police for a simple traffic violation and who ended up dead in their custody. Pictures of the young woman were shown, as well as video of the policemen pushing her into the ground, being played over and over.

Shanti sipped on her coffee. Her heart was beating faster.

Shanti changed the channel and landed on music videos. She took in a deep breath. Suddenly, Iggy Azalea was dancing in front of her. Shanti immediately grabbed the remote and shut it off.

Shanti’s palms were sweaty. Her heart was pounding against her chest. She closed her eyes, and kept her back straight. Her doctors taught her to focus on her happy place. “It’s all in your head,” they’d say, to the point that it felt too obvious.

She imagined herself riding in the passenger seat of a car, being driven past homes with lush front lawns and their windows and porches intact. She pictured herself looking out and seeing all the people, folks who looked like her friends and family she grew up with. The car window would be down, and she could feel the warm air against her face.

For the rest of the week, Shanti applied for jobs, even calling up stores and asking if they had openings. They would tell her to email her resume, which she would, and after a few hours, they’d respond that they’d have to pass. One store manager told her over the phone he couldn’t hire someone like her.

“Honestly, you have a difficult past,” he explained.

“But, I’ve always been a good worker. Have you called my references?”

“It says in the system you attacked another student at Rutgers.”

“That’s not true. He was not a good guy. He was lying about me.”

The store manager sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said, and hung up.

Shanti put the phone down and after taking a deep breath, went back to closing her eyes and feeling the warm air.

And for some time, everything was relatively normal. Shanti continued to apply.

But it was at the end of her second week of recovery that she realized things wouldn’t be exactly as she planned.

It was late night. Radha and Shanti were watching sitcoms, and eating Mexican food.

“Isn’t this fun?” Radha exclaimed, as they filled their tortillas with rice and chicken.

Shanti smiled, as she rolled up her tortilla like a cigar.

Radha mostly talked about her day working at Verizon, selling plans to people who had already made up their minds before stepping into their store.

Although Shanti wasn’t following every word, she was relaxed, and glad to be hearing someone else sharing how they felt for a change.

After all the rice was finished, and their heads drooped, Radha said she would clean up and Shanti went back upstairs.

She laid her head on her pillow, and slowly lowered her eyelids.

Just as she was about to descend, a voice suddenly screamed, “STOP!”

Shanti immediately sat up and looked out the window. The voice sounded like a woman’s, and repeated, “STOP!” again and again. The road was empty, and the lampposts flickered, casting their glow on the other houses, with their floorboards sticking up on the front porches and cracks in their windows taped over.

Eventually, Shanti realized the screaming was coming from next door. Once there was a lull, Shanti returned to bed, but like before, the noise consumed the room as she put her head down. This time, a man was yelling too.

“Shut the fuck up!” his voice boomed.

“What did I even do wrong?”

“Shut the fuck up or I’m going to break you!”

The arguing persisted almost every night. Shanti ignored them the best she could, but as the nights seemed to grow longer, she couldn’t help but ask her sister if she too heard what was happening next door.

“Just don’t pay attention,” Radha said as she was checking her purse before leaving for work.

“Maybe someone should call the cops…”

Radha stopped rummaging through her things and stared at Shanti.

“Unless you’re on fire, don’t do it,” Radha said. “Just worry about yourself, okay? Don’t try to think about stuff that doesn’t concern you.”

Shanti, who didn’t know what to else to say, slowly nodded.

Radha smiled, and grabbed her keys and told Shanti she’d try and come back early. She rushed out the door while Shanti remained standing in the living room, surrounded by pictures on the walls.

.  .  .

The windows were down. Their car was the only one on the road. To her right and left were pretty homes, and outside were pretty people working on their pretty gardens. She smiled, and they’d smile back. She would wave, and they would do the same. The warm air – – –

Shanti opened her eyes, as she heard laughter downstairs.

“Shanti!” the voices called her. “Our college grad! We want to see you!”

Shanti hesitated but knew they wouldn’t stop. She walked downstairs and saw what she expected: Bharati and Geeta passing back and forth a bottle of whiskey while collapsed on the living room couch.

“Our hero!” Bharati exclaimed and Geeta giggled before taking another swig.

They told her to sit between them, and Shanti did, although keeping her hands on her knees and trying to avoid eye contact.

Bharati and Geeta were still wearing their work uniforms from the supermarket, their nametags dangling and covered in fingerprints.

“I heard you spent some time collecting your thoughts, right?” Bharati said.

Shanti didn’t reply.

Bharati nestled her chin on Shanti’s shoulder.

“You know, none of us were so blessed to even get into college, so you shouldn’t feel bad that you didn’t make it through,” she told Shanti. “My mom and dad were just ordinary Bangladeshi immigrants, from the land of beyond, like yours. It’s good you wanted something more than just being a store clerk. So don’t feel awful or anything that you couldn’t end up with what you wanted. It’s too bad being with the average people but you’ll get used to it.” Bharati stopped, and burped.

Geeta laughed, and Bharati soon joined in, their voices flooding every pore.

They tried to hold her, but Shanti wrestled free and ran outside.

She paused, and looked back, but could still hear them laughing through the front door.

She stood where she was, on the front steps, and instinctively, her head slowly turned to her left, to the house next door.

The moon was bright. The house, Shanti realized, had all its bottom windows boarded up. She tried to get close enough so she could maybe hear the woman inside. Shanti went to the backyard, wading through the tall weeds. There was a shovel sticking up from the dirt.

“Shanti!” Radha called out.

Shanti ran back to the front, where Radha was waiting for her on the sidewalk.

“What are you doing?” Radha asked.

“I was…I…” Shanti stuttered, gasping for words.

“Why were you even outside?” Radha said. “You should be in your room, resting, and getting better, like your doctors prescribed.”

“I don’t remember them saying that…”

“Well, one can assume that’s what they meant,” Radha replied and told Shanti to help her carry a cake and some balloons.

Once they were back inside, Shanti continued to help decorate the home for the upcoming party.

As they were tying more balloons to the stairs, and while Bharati and Geeta took turns giggling and putting up streamers in the kitchen, Shanti asked Radha why she was even still with Piyush.

“He’s such a tool…” Shanti said.

“He’s never been an easy person to deal with, I know,” Radha replied. “But his life is on track. He’s going to be a corporate lawyer someday.”

“So?”

“If I can impress his parents, who are coming to the party on Saturday, we can move our relationship forward and get engaged even. You and I can have a better life.”

“That doesn’t make sense…he’s not going to treat you any better. He’ll just be himself and – – -”

“Don’t you think I already know that,” Radha snapped.

Shanti’s eyes were wide.

Radha looked at her, and settled down to her normal voice.

“I know he’s not the top choice,” Radha explained. “Let’s face it: neither of us even have college degrees. We don’t stand a chance for any type of luxury if we keep heading in this direction. We have to survive one way or another and honestly, I can’t stand working 60 hours a week, and barely able to pay my electricity bill. And besides, why do you keep saying he won’t change?” Radha smiled, but before Shanti could produce one of her own, Radha returned to tying up the balloons. “These look so pretty,” she said. “He’ll definitely like these.”

.  .  .

As the party preparations consumed most of Radha’s time after work, Shanti found new ways to occupy her days, such as taking walks around the block, and sometimes, observing the house next door.

One afternoon, Shanti decided to journey much deeper into Union, to its main center, which was in a state of rejuvenation, according to city hall and the businesses they allowed to re-invest with tax incentives.

She walked the furthest she had in months and was eager to see more of the new Union, but as she neared downtown, a man pushed her out of his way, as he ran down the block.

Shanti recovered, and soon after, another man yelled “Watch out!” and did the same, knocking her to the side of the road.

Fortunately, she was able to keep her balance and noticed the large crowd gathered at the end of the street.

There was police tape surrounding a building entrance. Shanti edged to the elevated part of the sidewalk, and saw the men snapping pictures with their cameras, and others doing the same with their smart phones. Shanti craned her neck as the police led a tall man into a van. The man was handcuffed, but he looked in Shanti’s direction, and Shanti’s heart stopped. The police van left, while the ambulance workers stayed, and Shanti watched as they mopped up the pool of blood.

Back in her room, she Googled about what happened, and learned that the man who was arrested had shot and killed two Mexican-American women standing in line at the bank. He simply walked in, and picked them off with his pistol.

Shanti stayed in bed all night, as Radha ordered the caterers on arranging the tables and what food should be served first.

Eventually, the caterers left, and Radha was back in her room.

“You bitch!”

“I’m sorry! It won’t happen again!”

“Shut up!”

Shanti stared at her ceiling, until the moonlight faded.

.  .  .

On Saturday, everyone woke up extra early. Geeta and Bharati were dressed in their best sarees. So were Shanti and Radha, who also stood and waited in the living room.

But the hours ticked away, and no one was knocking on their door.

Radha tried to keep smiling as she looked ahead.

“I guess he got busy and forgot to tell me,” she eventually said.

Shanti clenched her hands into fists and glared at the floor.

They waited until the naan turned stiff like bricks.

On Sunday, gray clouds covered the sky. Radha had begun cleaning up the decorations in the late afternoon, and once Shanti woke, she asked, “Why don’t you go out and have some fun?”

Shanti paused.

Radha handed her money, and told her to get some Mexican food and watch a movie.

“Live a little,” Radha said.

Shanti looked at the money and then looked at Radha. She wanted to say something but recognized the expression on her sister’s face.

Shanti got dressed and left, and doing her best to block out the shooting from memory, she headed back downtown.

She ate at a Mexican restaurant that she used to go to when visiting Union back in the day. She got a table away from the window and poured hot sauce on everything, including the nachos.

Shadows still cut across the walls, as people went to the nearest train station, to whisk them away to the promises of Manhattan, where everyone from Jersey could complain about the tourists from Wyoming.

Shanti did plan on watching a movie. She even went to the local theater and read the films that were available. None seemed to interest her, and so, she walked back instead, away from the crowds.

The roads were more busy when she was going back, feeling cars roll by almost at every second. Eventually, she lifted her gaze from the sidewalk, and ahead of her, were cars parked along the side of the road, right in front of the house she lived in with Radha.

She stopped, her hands in her pockets, as the lights glowed from every window, like a supernova was trapped inside.

When she did cross the street, she went to one of the windows, and peered within.

There were dozens of people dressed in glittering dresses and Nehru jackets.

Piyush was talking on his cell phone in the corner of the room, and Radha was spotted speaking with an older man and woman.

Shanti stayed by the window, until Radha, who was laughing, suddenly looked and saw her.

Radha stopped smiling, and quickly excused herself.

She met Shanti outside on the sidewalk, asking what Shanti was doing back so soon.

“I thought you were going to watch a movie,” Radha said.

Shanti just stared back.

Radha sighed.

“I’m sorry,” Radha said. “I am. But like I said, this is an important event. You understand, don’t you?”

Shanti turned to the voices that were seeping through the front door.

Radha promised that at the next party, Shanti would be with her.

Although Shanti had her doubts (and kept them to herself for the remainder of the week), she followed her routine of watching TV, and sleeping when she could, and when the weekend arrived with another gathering to celebrate Piyush finishing the bar exam, Shanti was indeed prepared in her favorite saree, and standing near the door to greet guests.

After a while, though, she decided to sit on the main couch, surrounded by everyone. Radha was standing beside Piyush, who again was on his phone, and laughing at the top of his lungs.

The other men, most of them much older, congregated in tight circles, wearing their Nehru jackets with lint stuck to their edges, and discussing their “investments.” She recognized them as uncles from when she was younger, men who had arrived in the U.S. part of the second wave of South Asian immigrants, men who unloaded goods in warehouses, who pumped gas for the Desis with sports cars and toupees, who still wore sandals in public. The women, a mix of first generation and immigrant, all of whom were adorned in their finest jewelry, and hovering around the kitchen, passing plates of food to be carried into the living room, and of course, asking about each other’s lives in bits and pieces. They too wore smiles as wide as the sunrise.

Shanti giggled. She covered her mouth when she realized she couldn’t stop. The night before, the couple next door was arguing for hours, and Shanti was up listening and smiling at the ceiling about what she was hearing, of how familiar it was.

Suddenly, without warning, Shanti burst out laughing, and everyone at the party glanced at her. Shanti laughed and laughed, until tears were rolling down her face.

Radha asked what was going on, and Shanti apologized and did her best to stop, even closing her eyes and thinking of the car, and the homes and green grass. But every time she pictured being in the car, the windows were up. She laughed again, and rushed upstairs.

.  .  .

The house was empty. The streets were empty too. Everybody was at work or buying lottery tickets downtown.

Shanti was in her room, staring at the pills in her hand.

“You bitch!”

“Stop! Please stop!”

“You fucking idiot! I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget!”

“No! Leave me alone!”

Shanti’s heart pounded.

The shouting grew louder.

“Leave me alone!”

“You idiot! You loser!”

“Stop!”

“You freak!”

“STOP!”

Shanti bounded out of bed, and rushed down the steps. She followed the screaming to the house it was coming from and pounded on the front door. There was a sudden crash. Shanti kept banging her fists against the door, until it flew open, and standing in front of her was a man, glaring down at her.

A woman was sobbing while on her knees on the floor.

Shanti tried to push through but the man blocked her way, and laughed.

Shanti grabbed his arm, and bit him.

The man yelled, and she rushed over to the woman, who looked up and smiled.

Shanti smiled back and was about to ask if she was alright but she saw the expression on the woman’s face twist into horror. Shanti quickly turned. The man was running toward her like a bull.

He swung. She dodged. She stomped on his foot. He screamed, as the woman ran around him, and knocked him on the back of his head with a frying pan.

He crumbled.

The woman continued to hit him, over and over, until the man’s mouth hung open, and his eyes stayed wide.

Shanti and the woman were hunched over him.

The woman told Shanti she’d handle the rest.

Shanti insisted to stay but the woman said Shanti wasn’t able to help and needed to go home before people noticed she was gone.

Shanti hesitated but followed the woman’s instructions.

Bharati and Geeta were singing pop songs in their room, as Shanti stayed in her own.

“Are you ready for tonight?” Radha asked as Shanti sat on the edge of the bed, her saree bundled next to her.

Shanti smiled.

Radha asked if everything was alright.

“I’m feeling happy,” Shanti answered.

Radha arched an eyebrow, but didn’t ask any more questions and went to her own room to prepare.

Within a few hours, cars lined up along the road again, and guests filled up the living room with their voices, and perfume.

Shanti sat on the couch, and looked around at the people who were sneaking glances at her as well.

Shanti began to zone everyone out.

Bit by bit, their voices faded.

Yet, she heard a car honk from outside. She ignored it the first time, but it repeated, and seemed to be coming from right in front of their house.

Shanti got up and went out.

The woman from next door was leaning against the hood of the car, and smiling wide.

The woman told Shanti she took care of everything and now wanted Shanti to come along with her.

There was more to do, the woman explained. Especially for people like them.

Shanti went closer as the woman talked about the adventures they could have.

Finally, Shanti smiled, and got inside the car.

Soon, Radha emerged from the house, asking what was going on.

“What are you doing?” Radha said.

“Having some fun,” Shanti answered and kept smiling.

“What are you talking about? Please come back inside.”

“No,” she said.

Laughter echoed.

Radha looked back.

“You probably should go back though,” Shanti told her. “You have another party to plan I assume.”

The laughter grew.

Radha bit her bottom lip and eventually, got in as well.

They drove away.

Radha was still asking where they were going, but once they drove out of Union, Radha stopped talking and gazed outside.

Shanti also leaned back.

She smiled wide as they watched the houses go by, as she felt the warm air against her face.