The Das Racist rapper reflects on 9/11 and how racism against Middle Eastern and South Asian people in America is still as alive as ever.
By **Himanshu Suri**
By arrangement with AlterNet.Org.
The first fatal victim of post-9/11 hate crimes was a man named Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was killed in… wait for it… Arizona. He owned a gas station and was mistaken for a Muslim because he, like many Sikhs, wore a turban.
Up until about a week ago, Arizona legislation was in place to ensure his name wouldn’t be included in a state memorial. Just prior to Osama bin Laden’s killing, new legislation was enacted to include his name. According to Colorlines, “Singh Sodhi’s family members said they felt re-victimized by the bill, a decade after the national tragedy and the death of Balbir, but now feel relieved.” But for how long?
The day after Osama bin Laden was found and shot dead, I took to Twitter—partly because I’m bored and an egomaniac like most people on Twitter, but also to utilize it as a microcosm for greater society and explore this revitalized racism. I had previously used the platform to turn a mirror on American racism against Hindus and Indian people, and was interested in seeing what effect Osama’s death had on how people were discussing race. I searched the terms “sand ni**er,”“sand ni**ga,” “dune coon,” “camel jockey,” “towel head,” “hindu” and any other thing I have been called in the last 25 years, particularly since 9/11, by any number of races.
What I found was overwhelming. So much so that I wasn’t sure if I wanted people to see what was going on outside the comfort of their personal Internets—and I wasn’t sure I wanted to have to repeat (or retweet) such disgusting language for followers who weren’t people of color.
What interested me wasn’t just white racism, something I’m well accustomed to (although not as well accustomed as some of my darker skinned bruhs). I was also interested in how the racist slurs were being treated as though they were perfectly reasonable coming from people of color. I have always felt anyone can be racist (though white people have the power to make their racism fuck with my life), so this wasn’t a shock, but more of a reminder that racism occurs across levels. I thought about me, not just as an Indian, but as a person of color and what the history of people of color in this country is. Although my experience as a South Asian in America was nothing like the experience of a black person, it wasn’t too much fun either.
Turnstyle News recapped some of the tweets I curated after Bin Laden’s death here.
On September 11, 2001, as a 16-year-old junior and the vice-president of New York’s Stuyvesant High School, I woke up like any other day: tired, burnt, cranky, and not looking forward to having to “do stuff.” I yelled at my mom for not understanding that “I know what I’m doing, yo,” and went down the stairs. I hopped on the bus to head to Kew Gardens and get on that E/F. I probably met up with my bandmate Ashok “Dap” Kondabolu on the bus ride. I missed the QM1A that would go directly from my Queens neighborhood to downtown Manhattan, where my high school was located a couple blocks from the World Trade Center. That bus would have dropped me off in front of the Century 21 clothing store across from Ground Zero, maybe an hour or so before the world would change and I would become a crazy in my head.
“There is this enormous hole in the head of the ‘American mindset’ that makes bin Laden’s two holes seem painless. The American hole in the head is deep, cavernous and nearly endless.”
Not too long into class, our principal made the announcement. Stanley Teitel, in that weird voice of his, announced that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and to turn our TVs on to watch the news. Holy shit! A gigantic metal container flying through the sky carrying people crashed into a giant building in the sky and innocent people died. But I didn’t think about it in those terms the second it happened. I couldn’t fathom the enormity. I’m ashamed to admit my first thought may have even been “So we got school off?” We’ve now had 10 years to think (or suppress feelings about) that day, and we still don’t know what to think.
My mom started calling my three-color Motorola Timeport incessantly, as I would if my seed was so close to such a disaster. I assured her we were okay. We talked about a family friend who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and was a victim of that day’s events. So, 16 years old, watching all this smoke rushing out of this building on TV and simultaneously out my classroom window—but not doing the latter closely, as the sight of people jumping to their deaths was one I tried to avoid.
I thought of the Amritsar massacre and Jalianwala Bagh a lot that morning. I thought about British soldiers firing upon unarmed celebrants and the well in which they jumped to their deaths to escape. On screen, above my instructor’s head, I saw what I thought was another plane about to hit the other tower, and by the time I looked out the window the collision had already occurred. Live TV is never really live. Still in the state of confusion that precedes panic, I went to speak to a school official who informed me that they had spoken with the FBI and the safest place to be was inside the building, as there was no way the Towers would fall. AND THEN THEY FUCKING FELL!
Our principal announced we were to evacuate the school and walk up the West Side Highway. To this day, I salute all the staff at Stuyvesant for that day. Talk about a logistical clusterfuck: ever try to get 3,200 students, aged 13 to 18 years old, who all think/know they’re smarter than you up a busy New York City highway? My friends organized all the South Asian/Middle Eastern students into a group that would walk together that day. The time we spent organizing was worth it, as we specifically wanted to make sure no one would harass the girls in our group who wore a hijab. We were already sensing the racism we would face. Indeed, later that day, someone yelled at our friend, “FUCKIN PALESTINIAN” or some other unoriginal racial comment (as most are). But that person wouldn’t dare cross the street and say it.
The day after 9/11, I met up with some of my neighborhood friends, all affiliated with the South Asian/Middle Eastern friends I went to school with through our “collective,” which we called Third World Fam. We went to these woods near some tennis courts in Queens and sat around on dirty couches trying to make sense of what happened the day before. What I love about Queens is you could be in the woods in one second, and in the hood the next.
For the next month, the students of Brooklyn Technical High School were kind enough to let us use their school while our high school was being used as a triage center. By “kind enough to let us use,” I mean “hated us but were forced to let us.” They had to go to school two hours early so we could share the building. Beef at the Kennedy Fried Chicken around the corner (or was it Crown?) was a regular occurrence. The first week we attended Brooklyn Tech we called an assembly, and I took it upon myself to speak to all 3,200 students about, essentially, “not being an asshole to or beating up Muslims or those who may appear Muslim.”
After suppressing whatever effect 9/11 had on me—an effect that seems inseparable from those of normal adolescence, because who knows why I did what I did when I was 16 (I can’t afford a therapist)—the U.S. execution of Osama bin Laden and the racism that followed made it impossible to suppress further. I wasn’t yet sure if there was any racial backlash, although when you’re brown you get a quick understanding of what events will lead to you feeling weirder, and what events will lead to you continuing to just feeling weird. I didn’t even need to know this happened to know that it happened. Recently a Texas middle school teacher was suspended after picking on a Muslim student.
Like its citizens would need to use terms like “sand ni**er,”…our government needed to reset the example by tying the execution of a Muslim…to that of a First World hero…
She said, “The teacher told the student that ‘I bet you’re grieving.’ And she basically looked
at him and said what are you talking about? And he said I heard about your uncle’s death
and she said wow, because she understood that he was referring about Osama bin Laden
being killed and was racially profiling her.” […]
The mother said, “The student ended up crying over what was said to her by the teacher and
the teacher asked her why she was crying and another student said it was because of what
you said earlier. And his response was, oh, OK, and just kind of smirked and giggled and
That night I went to see “Dap,” who was by my side on 9/11, and his brother Hari Kondabolu perform their variety show. It was nice to be around people who looked like me. Hari mentioned my Twitter project and said something to the effect of, “sand ni**er means I hate brown people, but only in relation to black people. I mean, I really hate brown people, but historically speaking I have to hate black people first.”
When they did find bin Laden the U.S. Navy Seals confirmed that “Geronimo was eliminated” to the U.S.S. Vinson, their base in the Arabian Sea. Like its citizens would need to use terms like “sand ni**er,” which tied their anti-Arab racism to the centuries-long racism against African Americans, our government needed to reset the example by tying the execution of a Muslim, our new “enemies,” to that of a First World hero, our original “enemy.” And now the actions of the man they say ended racism shall revitalize and reinvigorate that very evil.
My friend Durga’s father, the writer Rana Bose, recently sent her a distressed e-mail about all that’s happening in America; all that has happened since we found and executed Osama bin Laden. He wrote, “There is this enormous hole in the head of the ‘American mindset’ that makes bin Laden’s two holes seem painless. The American hole in the head is deep, cavernous and nearly endless.”
Copyright 2011 Himanshu Suri ________________________________________________________________________
This essay originally appeared at AlterNet.Org.
Himanshu Suri is a member of the collective Das Racist and the Founder/CEO of Greedhead Music. He has previously written for Village Voice, Stereogum, Death + Taxes, Fuse TV, and Flavorpill.