Last Friday, Indian-American author and community organizer Rinku Sen delivered a convocation address on racial justice. Sen’s experience at the Applied Research Center (ARC) helped her develop strategies to promote social, racial, and gender equality and realize the importance of activism in raising awareness of these issues.
“All I wanted to do was become an American,” Sen said about her experience growing up in an immigrant family. “I watched a lot of television, and wanted to eat hotdogs and pizza for dinner every night because I thought everyone did that.”
As a recent immigrant, her father struggled to find work in the United States. Manufacturing positions began leaving the country just as he and his family arrived from India in the early 70’s. Living next to post-war suburbs, Sen grew up in a predominantly white American environment.
“I was so resistant to myself as a brown-skinned person that I skipped the pre-orientation program at college, because I didn’t think it had to do with me,” she said about her struggles to fit in.
Then things changed during her sophomore year, when a racial campaign made a presence on campus. She recalled her lack of enthusiasm to participate in the rallies but finally gave in due to encouragement from her friends of color.
At the small rally of around twenty-five students, Sen recalled that “for the first time in twelve years, I finally felt where I belonged, at the center of my community where I saw it necessary to help and support it.”
Straight out of college she decided to be a community organizer.
Sen talked about her complicated experience with racial stereotypes about Asians. “There are so many positive stereotypes, and not many realize that these are just as dehumanizing as negative stereotypes,” she said.
She praised the progress brought about by the recent rise of Taiwanese-American basketball player Jeremy Lin, which to her broke through stereotypes and reset assumptions for Asian Americans.
According to Sen, “diversity, equality, and racial justice often get lumped together.”
“Imagine a party, where diversity describes the people who are there, and equality is whether they can change the music or make other decisions,” she said.
Therefore, she encouraged the audience to “change the questions we are asking--from ‘Who’s a racist?’ to ‘What is causing racial inequity?’”
She emphasized that when organizing, it is key to begin with people at the margins, rather than those at the center with more power.
“It’s definitely easier to target those higher up when working to bring about social change,” Sen said, “but the focus needs to be on the outside instead because gradually, those on the margins will be brought towards the center.”