Name Neel Ahuja
Location Chapel Hill, NC
Job Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Relevant Class Gender, Sexuality, and South Asian Diasporas
I first met Neel Ahuja at the premiere of “All of Us North Carolina,” at the Motorco Music Hall in Durham North Carolina. Manju Rajendran, the main protagonist of the film, introduced us briefly before the screening. I immediately felt a kinship with him as we discovered a shared experience of growing up in small, rural, homogenous, middle-American towns, he in Kansas, myself in Pennsylvania. As children, we grappled with our hidden or silenced identities of being queer and 1st generation South Asians within communities that didn’t know who or what we were.
NEEL: I grew up in Topeka, Kansas, which is a place I still visit. My parents still live there. I grew up in a part of Topeka that was kind of on the outskirts of town, situated in between suburban and rural communities. My high school was a mix of people coming from those two spaces. When I first moved there, I remember very clearly one of the particularities of being brown in the US is that there’s all kinds of uncertainties that others have about your racial identity. I was often called Mexican, I was told to go back to Saudi Arabia. It was a mixed and complicated experience, and I had many friends and positive relationships that I made in Kansas at that time. Also, especially as there was a growth in the 1990s of a…profound sense that white Americans from rural backgrounds were losing out economically as the country was changing in demographic ways, but also in its enmeshment in globalization, there were really strong feelings about race within my high school. There were confederate flags openly displayed both inside and outside the school, so there was an atmosphere of racial tension evident that we all had to grow up with. I’m referring to other South Asians students but also other students of color. We were hazed and bullied, and I remember in particular one male friend of mine and I were often called faggots or taken to be less masculine just because of our kind of racial identity or the uncertainty of our racial background, whatever the person’s view of us was. And my experience was definitely shaped by race in ways that I didn’t necessarily understand at the time, and now I’m trying to piece them together a little bit retrospectively.
After the Durham premiere, Neel came up to me and asked if I would share the film with his students in a class he taught at UNC-Chapel Hill called, “Gender, Sexuality, and South Asian Diasporas.” The title alone had me excited and I of course said yes. Neel’s impetus for teaching the class came from his own experience discovering and exploring his South Asian identity.
NEEL: The history of South Asian migration all over the world, and the politics of the incorporation of those people into new societies, really helped me understand my own pathway into the United States through my parents immigration. Part of what we grew up with, in the United States as least, is this kind of myth of the model minority, and it’s not just South Asians but many other Asian American groups. It was reading about the history of South Asian immigration and learning that it’s not simply that these are ingrained qualities of hard work and success, that we aren’t foundationally suited towards capitalism, but that these were particular moves the American state made during the Cold War to recruit certain types of workers and steal their free education that was given by the Indian state after Indian independence. Basically the model minority immigrant, that kind of highly educated immigrant, was educated by a socialist state for free or for a low cost. It’s usually somebody who is already upper class or upper middle class who’s getting into those institutions, and they were selectively brought to the United States. Although my father wasn’t a doctor or an engineer, he was implicated in those migrations. I think from that perspective learning about the broader history of South Asian migrations–about the ways in which indentured laborers were brought to replace slaves in the Caribbean, about the railroad workers in central Africa–gives you a kind of counterpoint and helps you understand that myth of the model minority is set up to pit you against other racialized groups within the society. That’s one of the issues we explore in the course, and the film All of Us is a great way to think through that history as well.
All of Us touches on this same concept of pitting seemingly separate groups against each for political gain. Preceding the presidential primary elections in 2012, The Human Rights Campaign leaked the National Organization for Marriage’s (NOM) campaign strategy to the public. It stated, “The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage, develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots…” The NOM memo also stated, “The Latino vote in America is a key swing vote, and will be so even more so in the future, both because of demographic growth and inherent uncertainty: Will the process of assimilation to the dominant Anglo culture lead Hispanics to abandon traditional family values? We must interrupt this process of assimilation by making support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity – a symbol of resistance to inappropriate assimilation.”
Currently in North Carolina, we are seeing more and more of the “divide and conquer” strategy by the right wing.
NEEL: In 2010, the Republicans took over the legislature as well as other important political posts in the state including the Wake County school board. This campaign [was] widely reported [as] funded by Art Pope, a major conservative donor within the state who’s become the budget director of the current governor. The Republican governor was elected last year, and now [North Carolina is] a fully Republican-controlled state. This is the first time that’s happened in the state in recent memory. There has been a flurry of bills passed by the legislature or currently under debate in the legislature that are rolling back various long-fought social, economic, and environmental justice initiatives, dismantling of public schools, particularly reducing funding for the university system, and refusing to transfer guaranteed federal funds to employment and Medicaid programs. These are just simple refusals to take federal program money that would ensure the health and wellness of people in this state. So there are very fundamental social and economic initiatives that have been undertaken by the new legislature, and I could go on listing many more bills, but I won’t. The important thing is, for now, that there are people actively mobilizing against this, and although we don’t have enough support to block some of these initiatives right now in the legislature, we are raising these issues publicly and making sure that both the state and the national press [are] not ignoring them. And within that coalition of groups and individual activists we have the North Carolina NAACP, we have members of All of Us, but we also have teachers, other labor activists, the student power coalitions on the public university campuses throughout the state have been extremely active, and many environmentalists throughout the state are really up in arms about the fact the state legislature is rolling back local and municipal environmental protections. So all of this is coming together at the moment because each one of those supposedly discrete constituencies has a real and imminent threat from a legislative action. And I think that that’s a moment in which the ways these struggles interweave is becoming very apparent. It is a hopeful time even as we watch with horror at the list of bills that have been passed so far.
The key message of All of Us is the ways these “supposedly discrete” justice movements interconnect. The intersection of our lives, our bodies, gender, sexuality, ability, race, class, etc., become the place from which we move, as whole people.
NEEL: [All of Us] seemed like a film that really got that connection of different histories coming together and demonstrating that even though there are moments at which forces of power try to split us up and divide us, we do have interconnected struggles. Even though we need to understand our different histories and how we come to those different struggles, there is something overlapping, there is a deep need for justice shared between our communities. [In my class] we had read a series of histories that pitted South Asians diasporics and African diasporics against each other in various parts of the world, whether it was Africa, the Caribbean, the United States, or even Britain. Seeing those kinds of tensions was really important for understanding how South Asian traditions had been constructed by the dominant powers that be within the community and outside the community. All of Us was a great response to that because it showed other histories, histories in which our struggles had been intertwined. Americans often know about the relationship between MLK and Gandhi, but I think that these struggles go far beyond that. All of Us was really helpful to showing a present-day reality in which these different attempts to secure social justice and belonging were coming together in one space.
I have been very much focusing on the racial identity in the migration history, but the whole impetus behind the course is to look at the ways in which gender and sexuality become these central sites at which community definition is normatively written. Many of the tensions that we experience between racialized groups in the diaspora are often written through our gendered and sexual lives. In many of the films, novels, music, writings that we studied, it was the political and social tensions that the communities were facing [that] were always put through the grinder at that point of intimate relationships. The ways in which family is normatively understood to be a heterosexual form of kinship that is about biologically reproducing, but also economically reproducing the community in a very limited way. All of Us was both representing the stories and the experience and the struggles of queer-identified people, but then also articulating a totally different vision of kinship and of family. The concept of polyculturalism moves us towards understanding not just that we have one or two particular intersecting identities–that there’s gender here and race there–but there is a very complex story that we need to share in order to work between and understand the commonalities of our struggles. So gender and sexuality are very much at the forefront of that in the course that I taught, and All of Us was really pointing to expansive visions of kinship that can offer some political ways forward after the histories of division that we know so well.
I do want to emphasize that I think that this is a great film for teaching social justice in the South, but that it also has very national implications in our present moment. Given that marriage politics is constantly on the ballot these days, given that the red-state/blue-state split and the urban/rural splits are becoming central to the way that people are talking about politics in the US, showing the actual, on-the-ground complexity of these struggles and also the kinds of possibilities and hopes for organizing a new kind of politics is something that would be really useful for a lot of different classroom settings: this would be appropriate for high schools, this would be appropriate for all kinds of classes at universities. One final thing that the activists really showed me is that they’re able to take things that you learn in school sometimes: the complexities of our own histories, they’re able to take ideas about political organizing, critical concepts about race, gender, and other forms of social difference and put them into practice. So what does it mean when in the classroom we’re teaching critical race theory or gender theory, and then we have an organization on the ground that’s deploying it in a very specific way. It’s a [means] to reflect on the ways in which the ideas coming in and out of the academy are also circulating within broader contexts. It’s not the university versus real politics or the real world. There’s often a back and forth in our ideas, and we are in shared conversation, so the classroom is one place where the film should be shown. There are all kinds of other places where it could be shown too: a bar, an activist meeting, etc. I love that about the film as well. It was the perfect ending to the semester.