Ronak D. Desai gave the Asian-Pacific Heritage Celebratory Keynote Address in the Glass Pavilion on April 15. His presentation focused on Asian American narratives and the challenges that the community faces. Desai, a lawyer and Hopkins alum, is an affiliate at the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute at Harvard University.
The keynote address is part of a series of events that the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) hosted for its Asian-Pacific Heritage Celebration. This event, themed “Not Your Silent Minority,” also included a performance by the Lan Yun Blue Orchids, a Chinese dance team on campus.
Desai addressed the hidden difficulties that the Asian American community deals with at large.
“When I tell my family friends that 7.3 percent of Indian Americans live in poverty, they don’t believe it, because that doesn’t adhere to the conception that they have — not just about themselves but about the community at large,” Desai said.
Desai described problems that Asian Americans experience from people outside their community. He explained how Americans do not consider Asian Americans to be fully part of society — seeing them as foreigners, regardless of where they were born.
“‘Where are you from?’ is a very loaded question. It can be an entirely innocuous question, or it can borderline on ignorant or even get into malignant territory,” Desai said.
Desai also cited internal difficulties that Asian Americans face, including the struggle to politically mobilize in support of others.
He pointed to the 2015 case of Sureshbhai Patel and how different communities responded. Patel was assaulted and detained by three police officers in Alabama. Although Desai attempted to get major Asian American political donors to support justice for Patel, many claimed that it was not in their interest to fight the cause.
Desai said the African American community was extremely helpful in advocating for justice for Patel. He stressed that the fight against systematic discrimination must be as inclusive as possible.
“In instances like this, allies become very important. Are you thinking about communities beyond your own? And yet, when Eric Garner had happened just the year before, getting Asian American groups to get out there and be allies was very difficult because there was a symbol of, ‘this is not my fight,’” Desai said.
President of South Asian Students at Hopkins (SASH) Neha Onteeru, who introduced Desai at the event, stressed the significance of having a united Asian community that can act as a support system at Hopkins.
“The conversation was relevant to everybody. I hope that they continue this pursuit of collaboration, as this is the first year that I’m seeing it take off. At the end of the day, everybody’s struggle is the same, and your interests in your own ethnic group should realistically expand to those of all Asian groups. Any way that we can support each other is great,” she said.
Junior Alan Fang, director of membership of the Inter-Asian Council (IAC), noted that many IAC members had been unaware of some of the issues Desai discussed.
“One of our members was [shocked] to hear about the personal anecdotes about Sureshbhai Patel and the struggle to fight for his civil rights and how many people were unwilling to do so. He appealed to not just South Asians, but Asian Americans as a whole,” Fang said.
Fang concluded with hope that the high turnout of people at this event indicated a desire of Asian Americans at Hopkins to increase their involvement within the community.