Black Lives Matter and Beyond

Sumita Chatterjee includes South Asian voices in the current conversations around anti-Black racism

by Isabella Vaccaro

PHOTO: Sanjeev Chatterjee

Media for Change Director of Research Sumita Chatterjee has been having conversations about race in America long before the Black Lives Matter movement resurfaced this year. As a University of Miami lecturer of both Gender and Sexuality Studies and History, with a focus on South Asian cultures, Chatterjee is now using MfC as another outlet to explore racism beyond the scope of just black and white.

Chatterjee immigrated to the U.S. from New Delhi to pursue a PhD in history at UMass Amherst. Years later, when her spouse, Media for Change founder, Sanjeev got a job at the University of Miami, he and Sumita left Massachusetts and never looked back, trading in bleak winters for palm trees and year-round sun. Needless to say, Sumita has been involved in Media for Change since its inception in 2013 as a homegrown effort but joined the Board of Directors as Director of Research in 2020.

As a first-generation immigrant, Sumita said she has struggled with different forms of racism but has learned how not to let it define her. “Yes, I did face kinds of micro and macro racism, but at the same time, I also learned how to get past it,” said Sumita. “Our organization [Media for Change] really tries to bring many different kinds of voices to the table, many different ways of looking at our problems and seeing how we can find common ground.”

In an effort to bring light to race issues beyond the typical black and white narrative, and having taught classes on subjects like systemic racism, Chatterjee moderated a multi-generational conversation among South Asian Americans and their reactions towards the Black Lives Matter movement. “We wanted to look at anti-black racism, and how first-generation and second-generation immigrants are engaging with it,” Sumita said.

In the same vein, Sumita and a team comprised of two UM Public Health professors, an English professor, a geographer and Sanjeev, the filmmaker of the group, received a grant from UM’s brand-new U-LINK Social Equity Challenge, an initiative that will fund ten projects looking to discuss racial equity.

Poster of virtual event hosted by Media for Change and moderated by Sumita Chatterjee and Herman Bathla in June 2020.

Sumita said theirproject will focus on “intergenerational dialogues about anti-black racism, but within various immigrant communities.” She added, “there are immigrants who have come from Asia,Africa,Latin America, and the Caribbean, and the first generation may not have paid attention to the history of racism in this country, whereas their children, who have gone through schooling in the American school system, have a different understanding of that. So, we are going to try tounderstand and address anti-black racismthrough youth engagement.”

And that isn’t Sumita’s only undertaking this semester. She has also accepted a Mellon CREATE Grant from the University of Miami, in which she, alongside one of her classes, will create an an oral history collection for the Richter Library’s Special Collections called, “Archiving Untold Immigrant Stories, South Asian in South Florida.” The class, which focuses on South Asian Americans who immigrated to the U.S. and the Caribbean, will record oral histories of South Floridians who identify as people of color (and of South Asian heritage), but aren’t necessarily black or white.

“So, we are going to be recording their stories, their narratives of how they came to America, what struggles they faced and how they made a life for themselves,” Sumita said.

Sumita Chatterjee reading at the Immigrant Voices event at the University of Miami in 2017, PHOTO: Tim Watson

Besides these two extensive projects on Sumita’s agenda, she also finds time to help her students get hands-on experience, beyond the classroom. Sumita said this semester she is teaching a civic-engagement class called ‘Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr: call to Civic Engagement’.—a class that not only analyzes these influential leaders’ ideologies but is taking them one step further. Sumita and her students partnered with Refugee Assistance Alliance—an organization that helps Syrian refugees resettle in South Florida—and help them with various projects. In the past she and her students have worked with City Year Miami. She has also continued to foster these relationships by holding workshops etc. Her involvement with Media For Change inspired her to get more involved beyond her teaching at the University of Miami.

“I’m a lifelong learner, and my passion is in teaching and learning and being able to share that through either the classroom or by civic engagement in my local communities,” Sumita said.

In combining her own experiences as a first-generation immigrant and her love of discourse on an array of social issues, Sumita is a consistent force for good, both at Media for Change and in the South Florida community. Keep an eye out for her projects in the UM Richter Library and on

Race Relations

Am I Racist?

Report on an Inter-generational Conversation Among South Asian Americans

by Sumita Chatterjee

This was an inter-generational conversation amongst South Asian Americans – first generation immigrant parents and their second generation college level American children. Sumita Chatterjee led this conversation by presenting some key historical facts around systemic anti-Black racism and South Asian Americans’ differing responses to African American communities – particularly the problems of anti-black racism within this community, and some problematic ways in which members of this community may uncritically subscribe to the myths of “model minority” that Asian American immigrants are often seen in society. Herman Bathla, a second generation South Asian American and fresh graduate from the University of California, Berkeley raised pertinent questions, prompted responses from participants, and moderated discussions that followed.

Event Poster
ART: Nayantara Mukherjee

This event was held via zoom on June 27th. and had 32 participants with a fair and equal representation from both generations, based in the greater Phoenix, AZ area and Miami, Florida. Due to time constraints and the complex and deep history of race and racism in the US, we focused on anti-black racism, and not on other forms of racism such as how South Asian Americans as immigrants and people of color have also faced discrimination in the US. This conversation was primarily to create a space, however uncomfortable, to examine biases within the South Asian American community to which both presenter and moderator belong. The effort was to center the discussion around prejudices and privileges at the individual, interpersonal and, institutional levels, and pay particular attention to an understanding of anti-black systemic racism by drawing on history, policies, and laws. Since the movement for Black Lives, and Black Lives Matter protests erupted all across the nation, triggered by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery by police and vigilantes, we felt that we needed to understand this not simply as an explanation of “one or two bad cops”, but to understand the systemic white supremacist violence that Blacks have faced in this country, by an examination of this history. We looked at policies that have created a racialized criminal justice system, the deep racial inequities, profiling and, unfair sentencing that scaffold policies such as “war on drugs”, and law and order rhetoric since the 1970s. The presentation also touched on the role of media in perpetuating racist stereotypes, the passive voice coverage of police brutality and, active voice in how protestors are reported in media. We briefly touched on the problematic ways in which certain textbooks teach the history of slavery, confederacy and, Jim Crow segregation.

The presentation was interspersed with pauses to raise questions and have discussions around the facts presented. There were some good discussions, particularly by the younger college going participants, but less so by the parents’ generation. On reflection, and going over the feedback, if we are to host similar dialogues, we may do it with a slightly different format, where we give a short reading or a film to watch ahead of the conversation, and

then moderate by focusing on key issues raised in them. It may allow for more engaged participation. While many participants felt that the materials showcased were new and informative, they may have felt hesitant in joining the conversation as they had little time to reflect on the materials shared in the presentation.

Hopefully our conversation allows us to start thinking critically about others who may be different from us, with very different histories and experiences, and find ways to build bridges of understanding, empathy and, trust. This is a small step, but an important one in building a multi-pronged movement for lasting anti-racist social change at all levels: individual, interpersonal and, most importantly, institutional.



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