American Hate: Interview with Arjun Singh Sethi
Activist Arjun Sethi reached out to me last year about a series of interviews for a book about hate in America. I’m glad that he included a disabled person in a new book he edited featuring people from diverse communities in the United States, American Hate: Survivors Speak Out (available August 7, 2018).
For more, you can read my interview with Dominick Evans, one person featured in American Hate.
You are the author of a new book, American Hate: Survivors Speak Out (The New Press). What led you to writing this book and why did you focus on survivors of hate?
Arjun: I wrote American Hate because I was disturbed by what I was hearing from activists across the country. Hate was spreading and spiking in connection with the 2016 election and it wasn’t getting the attention it deserved. Vicious intimidation and cybertrolling; vandalism and arson of houses of worship; assault and murder. People were being targeted because of who they are and what they believed. So I decided to travel the country, meet with survivors, and help them tell their stories. I wanted to document their struggles and learn how they’re enduring and resisting.
Your book’s chapters feature interviews individuals or groups of people. What was your thinking process on who you want represented? How did you go about finding your interviewees? What was your research process like overall?
Arjun: There’s no better way to tell these stories than in the words of survivors, which is why each chapter takes the form of a personal testimonial. For too long, the stories of survivors have been told by others. This book includes Native, black, Arab, Latinx, South Asian, Southeast Asian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, undocumented, refugee, trans, queer, and disabled voices. All of these communities are experiencing hate in America. This book also centers women of color, young people, folks of modest economic circumstance, and people who are members of multiple disenfranchised communities. These communities are both acutely vulnerable to hate and are on the front lines fighting state and interpersonal violence. I could not have written this book without the support of community organizations, local activists and organizers. They were my gateway into communities.
What are some of the major misconceptions of hate and hate crimes, especially how they impact people and what they actually look like?
Arjun: People feel and experience hate in so many ways. This book includes stories of hate crimes. But it also includes accounts of bullying, vicious cybertrolling, and state sponsored forms of hate. Mass deportations, the Muslim and refugee ban, deprivation of health care, and the separation and caging of immigrant families are forms of hate, too. People forget the immense emotional and psychological toll of hate. Hate sends a community wide message that its members are not welcome, and undermines feelings of safety and security. Studies show that the recovery period after a hate crime is twice as long than it is for other crimes.
Your title American Hate brings attention to the idea that this country was founded on hate (including white supremacy, genocide, settler colonialism, slavery, and violence, etc.). Could you elaborate more on why it’s important to recognize our history when thinking about the current political climate we’re living in?
Arjun:This country has a tragic history of hate, racism, and violence against marginalized communities. So many people forget, ignore, or rewrite the genocide of Native communities, slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. Trump tapped into and mobilized these ugly forces with his hateful rhetoric and cruel policies. He has repeatedly refused to condemn hate violence and been incredibly silent in the face of white supremacist uprisings like Charlottesville. So while it is important to condemn Trump’s rhetoric and dismantle his policies, we also need to have longer, more difficult conversations about privilege, sexism, misogyny, economic inequality, reparations, and hate in America. We need to talk about age old policies that discriminate and unfairly target communities of color. Otherwise we’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
One of your chapters is features Dominick Evans where he shares his experiences with various forms of hate. What are some things you learned about disability-related hate incidents that surprised you?
Arjun: When people talk about hate in this country, they often exclude the stories of persons with disabilities. Dominick’s story is critical because he shows how folks with disabilities have always been a target in this country. Whenever vulnerable communities are targeted, disabled people are impacted, too. The same is true right now. People are increasingly staring, ridiculing, and menacing people with disabilities. Dominick described how the public has become more impatient and doesn’t want to wait those extra few seconds for a person in a wheelchair to cross a street or board a bus. Acts of violence against the disabled community are spiking too. Their recovery time is often particularly lengthy because of pre-existing medical conditions and lack of access to affordable health care.
What have you learned from the survivors on how communities under threat can fight back, mobilize in solidarity with one another, and thrive amidst such difficult conditions?
Arjun: Survivors and their communities are incredibly resilient. No matter where I went, people were organizing and mobilizing against the brutality and hate of this administration. Some are holding bystander, upstander, and anti-racism trainings. Other are advocating for policy changes at the local and national level, and ensuring that existing rights and laws, including the Affordable Care Act, remain strong and in place. They are convening public town halls that feature impacted communities so they can tell their stories and describe their needs. When hate strikes, follow the lead of survivors and impacted communities. Make sure they are safe and have access to the resources they need. Show your solidarity and support them in rallies and other public gatherings. Lend your voice on social media and write an essay in your local paper on how you plan to combat hate. Every little bit counts.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Arjun: I’m really grateful to folks like Dominick and you because I do feel that the concerns of the disabled community are routinely ignored in policy discussions around hate and state violence. It’s shocking because folks with disabilities are perhaps the world’s largest minority. They span every race, faith, sexual orientation, and the like. It’s critical that directly impacted folks continue to speak out and share their stories.
Arjun Singh Sethi is a community activist, civil rights lawyer, and law professor, and has worked closely with Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Sikh communities for years. He has published more than 50 essays in major media outlets like CNN, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and USA Today, and he has previously represented victims of profiling and national security detainees in court. Arjun loves independent and foreign films, and animals of all kinds. His family has two big black German shepherds, Jake & Sophie, and they’re inseparable. Arjun is a Sikh American, and like many in his community, he can be identified by his articles of faith, including a turban and beard.
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