South Asians need a separate liberation movement

General Asian liberation movements largely centre East Asians

Asia's diversity means it can't be reduced into one movement. PHOTO: Wachiwit / iStock

By: Meera Eragoda, Editor-in-Chief

I can’t tell you the number of times a white or East Asian person was surprised that I, a Sri Lankan, am also considered Asian. Whenever Asian Heritage Month comes up, I know the majority of representation will go to East Asians, with barely any representation of Southeast and South Asians. This marginalization, along with the different struggles we all face, is part of the reason I think South Asians need a separate liberation movement. 

In the Harvard Kennedy School Student Publication, Dr. Kevin L. Nadal explains, “Since the inception of the Asian American Movement, Filipino Americans, South Asian Americans, and Southeast Asian Americans have consistently vocalized feelings of marginalization and exclusion.” All “describe a common narrative that ‘Asian’ usually refers to East Asians,” leading to feelings of invisibility.

The marginalization of South Asians makes sense when you learn that the Asian American liberation movement was started by East Asians. It only included South Asians after Indo-Americans fought to be included in the term “Asian American.” The centring of East Asians is evident through references to “Yellow Power” and solidarity with Black liberation through signs reading “Yellow Peril for Black Lives.”

These ideas are also in the mainstream through posts such as Sayan Grover’s on (@sgrover484) TikTok. In a recent video, they say, “South Asians should stop trying so hard to be included in the ‘Asian’ label.” They say the label “Asia” is an orientalist construct created by colonists to group together diverse sets of people under one umbrella, erasing the differences in our struggles. They point out the majority of South Asians don’t face COVID-19-related racism, while the majority of East Asians don’t get profiled as terrorists.

When I first came to Canada, there was a civil war in my country. Ignorant white strangers, upon finding out I was Sri Lankan, would ask if I was a Tamil Tiger (insurgents fighting the state). Without understanding the legacy of colonialism or the state-mandated genocide against Tamil Sri Lankans, they reinforced the stereotype of equating Brown people with danger. After 9/11, the first Islamophobic murder was of a Sikh American man, Balbir Singh Sodi, who was perceived as being Muslim. His murderer then targeted a business owned by a Lebanese American and an Afghan home. 

When pandemic-related hate crimes began against the Chinese community and anyone else perceived as Chinese, posts calling to “Stop Asian Hate” began circulating. I had people reaching out to me to make sure I was doing ok, despite sinophobic racism not affecting me. Asian and Pacific Islander heritage month fairly centred around the fight against COVID-19 racism, and it makes sense that it did. 

Though there are similarities between East and South Asian struggles, Dr. Nadal talks about how South Asians feel discriminated against in greater Asian liberation movements for “cultural, religious, and racial/phenotypic differences.” When Crazy Rich Asians first came out, it was seen as a huge win for Asian representation. While it was important for East Asian representation, the completely gratuitous scene of two turbaned guards brandishing bayonets perpetuated harmful stereotypes against South Asians. This reinforces my point that we need a separate movement where we are in charge of our stories and our concerns about racial hierarchies within Asia are centred.

The struggles East Asians and South Asians face are both valid. But it’s clear that, even if there is some overlap, they’re different struggles and need different movements. As Grover mentions, white supremacy hyper-fetishizes East and Southeast Asian women while it masculinizes South Asian women. Growing up, I remember seeing Brown girls mocked for “having mustaches” and non-East Asian men talking about having “yellow fever.” 

While South Asians are not a monolith either, a separate South Asian movement would give us a greater chance to be able to talk about oppression against South Asian women, caste and class-related issues, the “terrorist” stereotype, hierarchies in Asia, and more. 

We can and must work in solidarity with East and Southeast Asian communities, as well as other communities. But we can’t fight for our own liberation if we insist on being lumped into this movement that was never founded with us in mind.