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  OCTOBER 2001

Sreenath Sreenivasan South Asians in the Media: An Interview With Sreenath Sreenivasan

In the wake of the World Trade Center tragedy, there has been a lot of attention on South Asians in the media. Sreenath Sreenivasan is an Associate Professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association. Sree talks to NAATA's Shilpa Mankikar about media coverage since September 11th and its impact on our communities.

Tell us about SAJA.

SAJA is a group of about 800 members across the US and Canada. It's basically a networking association for South Asian journalists across North America, but we also focus on South Asian issues and topics.

How has the definition of "South Asian" changed since September 11th?

Well, South Asia and South Asians have always been misunderstood in America, because people haven't heard about them. For a long time, we have been on a campaign to get people to understand "Who are South Asians, what is South Asia?" Sometimes we say "Be careful what you wish for," because suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of everything - from the bombings to the backlash across the country. There are reports coming in everyday of attacks against South Asians.

The reason we believe there is a distinct identity of South Asians while still being a part of Asian America - we're very active in AAJA (Asian American Journalists Association) for example - we spoke out against the China plane coverage, we spoke out against the Wen Ho Lee coverage - so we're very involved in that - but there is a distinct and separate interests that South Asians have because in many ways that part of the world and our community here is not understood, is not covered, people don't know about it. So one of our goals is to get people to understand. And as far as the last month - people don't know anything about that part of the world, and that's part of the reason we've ended up where we have. That's not why the attacks have happened, but the consequences have shown that people don't know exactly what this part of the world is. It's a confusing area for most Americans.

So how does it feel to go from being an invisible community to a feared or further misunderstood community?

Well, we're still misunderstood, but now there are more attempts now to understand. In the immediate weeks after the attacks, at SAJA we've had over 80 news organizations - big and small, from all over the world, contacting us. We just had a Japanese TV station call - they just don't know where to go. So they're asking us for help. One of the things that has come out of this is that there are resources. People say, "I need to find a Sikh leader, I need a Muslim leader - and now I know where to go." That's been good. The attention we've received - from everything from people being verbally abused, to physical abuse, to being shot. That's unacceptable and unexpected in a country like this. I myself was standing at the corner of 30th and Lexington in New York [City] - which is basically Indiatown, and a guy wearing a flag on his head basically walked by went "thhhhp" - gave me a raspberry - in my face, and I was not upset - which I would have been at any other time. I was relieved that he didn't shoot me. That's the stage we're at. And that's the lack of understanding. We have received over 100 pieces of hate mail or email at SAJA.

Initially, in the first week after the 11th, there wasn't any presence of the South Asian perspective in the media. How do you think that has changed?

In the immediate week after, the media obviously had to focus on the deaths - that was the most important thing - that's completely understandable. The focus was the deaths, the investigation, the coming war, the retaliation, and then maybe the backlash. So when it's that order, obviously, you had to get in line. What we were saying is not that the backlash was the most important story, but that so many people who are considered the enemy or that look like the enemy died at Ground Zero. There were 250 Indians alone among the 6000. In this country it's always been "Us vs. Them". But so many "Thems" were down there and died. What we were saying was - there need to be faces and stories about those kinds of people that died too.

To many people, the backlash story was early, and so what if a couple of Sikhs, a couple of Muslims got beaten up, pushed around - so what? 6000 people died. But things changed on September 16th when a Sikh named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot dead in Mesa, Arizona. That's where we at SAJA kicked it up to another level where we really pushed with editors. Some editors came back and said "Well, it's not in proportion to the deaths at the WTC." So I said, "Give me a number. How many deaths would be in proportion? Is it 2, Is it 20, is it 50? Give me a number and I'll call you back then. And that's when it really crystallized people's thoughts. It wasn't just us. A lot of people were saying the same thing. That's when you saw the interest, you saw the stories. To be fair, there have been a lot of stories covering the backlash, and it's been very strong. And since day one, we saw Bush, we saw Giuliani going on the air and saying again and again that we need to do something in terms of not attacking Muslims.

I know there has been a history of communal violence and tensions between people of different religions within the desi community - but now people are sort of coming back together in solidarity because of the backlash. How do you see those contradictory feelings manifesting themselves in the community?

Well, the newer South Asian community has been unlike other Asian communities which have been here longer - we've been more focused on events back in the subcontinent. For example, East Asians who have been here for 5 generations don't really care beyond a certain point about what exactly is happening in internal politics in East Asia. But within the South Asian community, because they're so varied, because they come from so many different religions, and with the first generation, there are direct repercussions everytime something happens. When there was trouble between the Sikhs and Hindus in India, there were riots at the India Day Parade here. Whenever there is tension between India and Pakistan, there is tension between the communities here. We have found that tension tends to be more for the first generation. The second generation - especially younger kids - they see themselves more as "South Asian" or "Asian American" - they've got other things to worry about - they know about building a community here.

This particular crisis has had two effects. One is, it has brought many people closer. Because we realize when someone sees me walking down the street they're not saying - Gee, I think he's from Bangladesh. They say - There's another brown guy. They don't see the qualitative difference. On the other hand there are some South Asian people who have always been bigoted and not very excited about South Asian solidarity. They have seen this as an opportunity to divide up and say, "Look, we are not Muslim." One of the points we have made in SAJA is to go out of the way to tell South Asians not to make this division. First of all, it is stupid - no bigot is going to make that difference. Two, it is the wrong message to send. It isn't right to say OK, that guy's Afghani - let's go beat him up - or oh, that guy's Muslim - let's kill him. We have to be careful about that.

Is there a difference between the way the Ethnic Press has covered the events versus the mainstream American press?

Do you mean in terms of the backlash or the war?


In terms of backlash, the ethnic press obviously latched onto it first. That was the angle that interested them. But we have seen hundreds of stories about the backlash in major and minor publications. As far as the war goes, the South Asian press has been more focused on other parts of war that isn't as obvious - including the other opinions out there that maybe war isn't the answer - or this kind of war. Also the South Asian press has different concerns - what is going to be the impact on refugees? What is going to be the impact of the transition? What is the impact on other countries in the region? For most American publications, the idea has been, 'Let's go bomb the hell out of Afghanistan." It's been a fine line for the South Asian press to tread.

Can you recommend some resources for people?

One of the things SAJA has done is to collect what we call a "Round Up" of articles on our web site We have covered three major areas: The War, the Backlash, and Ground Zero. We have links and contact information for...Victims. So if someone is writing a story about a Bangladeshi person who died - either here or the Pentagon - you can go to our website and just look it up.

There's also an organization called SAALT - South Asian American Leaders for Tomorrow - - a group I work with - that has published a report about the first week of the media coverage and the backlash coverage.

Those are two really good places to go.

Also on our website at, we've just recently set up an online briefing for members of the press and other people who want to know what's going on. We have a Guide to Islam, a Guide to the War, a Guide to Afghanistan -- What is the background? We put them all in one place, we're constantly adding to it. The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) has done a good job of putting together links. I tell educators basically to get to know as much as you can. Educators have a key role in this. They have to be ahead of what their students know. If not, there's going to be real trouble in our society. Basically, this is a turning point for our society. That's why we need educators to explain as much as possible.

How would you say the coverage of the South Asian community today parallels the coverage about the Japanese American community during World War II? Or are there any parallels?

Oh, sure - I think the media has learned a lot of lessons from World War II and the Gulf War. There is much more awareness that some of the efforts being made within the government to go after the terrorists may also have repercussions on the larger community. We hopefully will never be in the internment stage. But there is definitely an awareness of the dangers. The East Asian community has especially been supportive of South Asians, and it's wonderful to see that.

Do you have any tips for media literacy for educators to give their students?

We found out the reason the backlash was there was because of ignorance and all that other stuff - but also directly related to television and the way the video is edited - because you see that building come down, or photos of the dead people, and then immediately after you see Osama Bin Ladin and other terrorist pictures, and people would associate one with the other. So the next time they saw someone walking down the street who they thought looked like the terrorists, the emotion could range from fear to anger to immediately wanting to retaliate. I was even told by people who know me well that - you know, if you had a beard, you'd look like Osama Bin Ladin. These were people who were educated, smart people who are friends of mine. So you can imagine.

My fear wasn't so much the people in New York - though we had stones thrown in New York, and attacks in New York. More than that, I feared the isolated Muslims, Arabs, South Asians across the country. It wasn't a religious thing. It was basically an attack on brown people. We even had Portuguese and Latinos being beaten up. Altogether too weird.

One of the mistakes you see is that they say the "Middle East" when they talk about Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not in the Middle East. It's in Central or South Asia. The other thing is they always say "Moslem" on TV, which is the wrong term - it's "Muslim". That's what they should use. They should also bring in experts who are not the same old suspects. That's my problem - when you watch TV, especially the talk shows and morning programs- they're all white people talking. They need to have more [minorities] on there. And that's not happening. They're starting to diversify their sources and experts, but we still have a long way to go.

For further information:

South Asian Journalists Association -
South Asian American Leaders for Tomorrow -
Asian American Journalists Association -


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