Rinku Sen is a writer and activist best known for her work with racial justice organization Race Forward and its award-winning news site Colorlines. Under Sen’s leadership, Race Forward had many successes, including a campaign to get media outlets to “Drop the I-Word” and stop referring to immigrants as “illegal.” (The Associated Press, USA Today, and the LA Times all changed their practice.) I interviewed Rinku to better understand her particular career path.
What were you like as a teen? Did you know you would grow up to be a community organizer, writer, and activist?
When I was in my early teens I had no politics, so I definitely didn’t think I’d grow up to be an organizer. That is, politics didn’t interest me much, although history did.
I loved books. I started keeping a journal on loose-leaf 3-ring paper when I was 13, and I did want to be a writer. I read fast so I must have taken in thousands of romances and mysteries before I went to college. Some time during high school, one of my teachers arranged for me to meet with a professional writer, and he told me to read everything, whether it was popular (thereby justifying my love of romances and mysteries) or high literature (mostly the novels I read for school). He told me the best writing was in the sports pages, but I never really developed a love of those.
Also at 13 or so, I joined my high school’s Forensics (speech and debate) team, and specialized in drama and poetry. I acted in school plays, but not musicals because I can’t sing. I thought I might be an actor. That was great preparation for all the public speaking I do now, which is more like debate.
Did you think about racial justice then?
It’s important to know that I went to a 90% white middle and high school in the 1970s, and that I was one of the earliest Asian child immigrants to come after the immigration laws changed in 1965. There weren’t a lot of people like me in the country then to begin with, and racial segregation had kept Black and Latino people out of white neighborhoods that middle-class Asian immigrants weren’t barred from in the same way by the 70s.
The most obvious set of politics facing me were about race and class and immigration, but I didn’t dig in. I think that’s because there was no one to help me make sense of how much I wanted to be an American, and how white that image was. When my friends said, “we don’t even think of you as Indian, we think you’re just like us,” I felt strange, but couldn’t figure out why. It was, of course, because I somehow could not be Indian and American at the same time. That was too much to integrate into my brain without support, so I didn’t
When did you first get involved with community organizing and politics? What do your immigrant parents think of your chosen path?
I discovered organizing and politics in college. When the Black students started a racial justice campaign on our campus, my friends Yuko and Valerie recruited me to a rally. I resisted at first, but they told me, “You’re not a minority, you’re a person of color.” And “You’re a woman, not a girl.” They don’t even remember it now, at least not with the detail I do, but that one conversation changed my life. I went to that protest, discovered organizing, and also the very notion of racial justice, and I felt like I belonged fully at last. There was no going back to self-protective ignorance.
My immigrant parents wanted me to be a lawyer – we all knew I wasn’t numbers-oriented enough to be a doctor or an engineer, the professions of both my parents’ families. But Ma and Baba let me and my sister be free. They lifted an eyebrow when I decided to major in Women’s Studies but kept paying the tuition. They were kind of dismayed again when I became an organizer after college, but they let me do my thing and tried to be proud of it even when they didn’t understand it totally.
When it comes to activism, is it important to be smart about choosing the most effective tactics? Or is it enough for all of us to "push in the same direction", as James Forman, Jr. said in a book talk I attended?
It’s important to be creative with tactics and to all push in the same direction. By tactics, you might mean different streams of work – legal, direct action, electoral, journalistic, policy, cultural. There are lots of different kinds of campaigns to run and sooo many people to organize. When you’re choosing a strategy, it has to enable you to organize a particular group of people, and to get something out of the system or transform it in some way that benefits those people who are taking the risk to fight. The tactics of how you fight are going to be creative, escalate (louder, stronger) over time, and challenge specific decision-makers to do specific things. The same direction means that we’re all focused, from our different forms of work, on the same goal (getting Trump out of the White House for example).
Can one separate race, class, and gender when fighting for a more just world?
One can, but we can solve more problems for more people if we look at them through each of those lenses. Disability, sexuality and nationality are also important to consider. This concept is now known as “intersectionality,” a word coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 80s and early 90s. Here’s what I wrote about her theory in How to Do Intersectionality
Crenshaw writes that you could find an anti-racist practice and a feminist practice, but you could hardly ever find them in action together. Anti-racist and feminist politics created constituencies by imagining and acting for an essential “type,” the dominant image of a raced person being a man and a gendered person being White.
When the primary subjects of anti-racist politics are men, and those of feminism are White women, the particular needs of women of color to be free from both racism and sexism are ignored at best and compounded at worst, often with life and death consequences. As a result, anti-discrimination law brings relief to only some victims. When we’re trying to get relief for women experiencing, say, police violence, the remedies are weak because they’ve all been designed with someone else in mind.
Have you ever considered running for office? Why or why not?
I haven’t ever considered it. I don’t think it’s a role that makes the most of my writing and particular creative talents, although I know many elected officials who are great writers and speakers. For me, it feels too constricting because public officials have to be accountable first to their constituents, rather than to a set of ideas. But I’m grateful to progressive people who decide to run and I do think our communities need to be prepared to govern, not just protest.
What can young people who are too young to vote do to make a difference?
There are so many things. Even though you can’t vote, you can be a valuable campaign volunteer. You can write. You can march. You can argue your positions with your peers, and help prepare your own generation for political adulthood. You can make art. Whatever group you’re part of, whether sports or drama or French club, there is always a way to explore justice and politics if you’re creative and persistent.
Any other advice?
The big lesson of my teenage years is to study things that you think don’t interest you as well as the things that do. In high school, I would never have imagined that I could love science as much as I do as an adult. I didn’t move my body enough or know that I love to exercise. Try it all. Leave your neighborhood, if not in body, then in mind through books and movies.
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