On March 3, 2011, Professor Vijay Prashad of Trinity College, CT spoke to a packed house in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall. Prashad, the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and Professor of International Studies, is the author of eleven books, most recently, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (The New Press, paperback 2008), which was chosen as the best nonfiction book of 2008 by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and which won the 2009 Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize. He is also on the board of the National Priorities Project. English Professor Ulka Anjaria introduced him as “one of the few remaining truly public intellectuals.”
Although he covered many topics, one of his main themes was racism towards the South Asian American (aka “desi”) community. Prashad said that there was a widespread fear of internment in the wake of 9/11, when various desi were thought to be Middle Eastern terrorists simply based on their looks. “A terrorist does not announce himself: that would defeat the purpose,” Prashad quipped. This racial profiling, due to the animosity of those who looked like terrorists, did have one positive outcome: it brought young people into politics to reflect the violence.
Prashad went on to say that in America there is a sense of invisibility of the “twice-born” status of South Asians who live in America, and immigrants can often feel trapped between the two cultures. He spoke of the strong sense of community among immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s, and how they used their ethnicity as a platform for social mobility. “Immigrants can’t just rebuild their lives in a new homeland, as they would like to,” Prashad commented. He told the captivated audience stories from his own childhood, as well as tales of activist groups that he has mentored.
Prashad went on to describe various efforts to create South Asian peace initiatives in the United States, but “it has come to no end”. “9/11 racism is all about foreign policy,” he concluded, “and the next hurdle is imperialism”. After his speech, Prashad took questions from members of the Brandeis community, many of which asked him to elaborate on his definitions of racism and imperialism. He defined racism as “a systematic way of making certain populations disposable”, which is strongly influenced by xenophobia. He also stressed that the question of identity is a common psychological problem for all people, not just for migrants.
Attendees seemed very pleased with Prashad’s lecture, and he was certainly a fountain of knowledge. He spoke eloquently about the difficulties that desi face, and inspired people to work for social justice in their own lives.
Professor Prashad was invited to campus as part of the Soli Sorabjee Lectures in South Asian Studies, supported by the South Asian Studies Program and the Office of Global Affairs. You may also wish to read the coverage of this event by the Brandeis Hoot.