Sinta Penyami Storms, husband Jamie Storms, and their children

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My husband and I have been working from home since the pandemic hit. We turned our dining room into my office/dance studio, so we now have meals in the living room. Equipped with TV trays and a plastic folding table, our five young adult children and the two of us sit nearly on top of one another while enjoying our favorite dishes

It’s not the typical family dinner, but nothing about our family is typical.

The go-to meal in our house is homemade Southern fried chicken served with Indomie mi goreng, Indonesian instant noodles. These are foods we grew up with; my husband uses his grandmother’s recipe to prepare the chicken, and I whip up the goreng. It’s easy, fast and delicious. Healthy? Maybe not. But it’s our comfort food.

When you see us together, we look like a diversity campaign brochure. There’s an African American man, an Asian woman, and racially ambiguous young people. To further paint the picture, the right side of my head is shaved, and the rest of my hair is purple. Then you’ll see my husband and two boys with their black curls, my daughter with her long, beautiful ebony hair, and my step-sons, who have lighter complexions, with their long dreads. Our blended family is beautifully diverse, with a hilarious dynamic.

As a traditional dance artist and part of South Philly’s Indonesian community, my goal has always been to promote our culture and provide safe spaces for expression. I’ve organized and advocated for immigrant rights, and campaigned for neighborhood safety and protection. It’s a natural thing for me to be involved in helping my people ― that is, until things get complicated.

Recently, I’ve been caught between the tensions of the Black and Asian American communities. I’ve been frustrated, enraged and saddened. From the murder of George Floyd to the mass spa shooting in Atlanta, from Martin Luther King’s assassination (yes, it’s still very upsetting to me) to the beating of the Filipina grandma in New York, I’m standing at the intersection of it all.

I feel tired as well as conflicted. Our heritage and race should be celebrated, but lately they seem to separate us.

With commentary about the recent SEPTA attack among teen girls circulating endlessly on social media, it seems like anxiety and resentment toward Philly’s Black communities is building among Philly’s Asian American communities. I don’t know if it’s reflective of the real situation, because sometimes it feels more like a competition among communities of color to make others look bad.

I do know that I have to stand up for my people, but it can’t be at the expense of Black communities. How do I achieve a balance in a society like this? Am I the only one feeling this way?

Storms performing traditional Indonesian dance Credit: Courtesy Sinta Penyami Storms

Driven by my frustration, I searched for Black and Indonesian families in other cities and states and found quite a few. I started conversations and a Facebook group, and found the support I needed. We are now in constant contact with each other. We share pictures of our Blasian families and host live virtual conversations.

It’s a start. I know there is more work to be done. The more of us out there talking about this, the more awareness there will be.

In theory, it should be pretty simple to come together and stand up against racism and white supremacy. In reality, trying to inform my own immigrant community on how not to discriminate against other communities of color has grown to be exhausting. Some get it and join me in educating others. Others ghost me when I remind them good and bad people come from all races and backgrounds.

The Asian American communities in South Philadelphia have been the target of thefts, bullying, robberies, violence, and discrimination. We have endured through neighbors and landlords who complain our food stinks, and demand we not cook in our own homes. Robberies and assaults have happened time and time again. Often, the people caught on home video surveillance cameras were Black. I personally feel the police didn’t do much to help. At a town hall hosted by community leaders, the district captain told us to get a dog, and said the department doesn’t have the capacity to send more bodies to patrol the area.

Some relevant backstory about Indonesians. During 300 years of colonialism, the Dutch taught us very carefully to prize lighter skin as being more desirable, more beautiful, and more civilized. Racism against Indonesians from Papua, with their Black skin and tightly curled hair, remains rampant across our country. These ideas remain when we immigrate to the United States, where we are as susceptible as any other group to the anti-Black images that pervade American society.

Many members of our community came here to escape oppression and violence. Indonesian Christians, in particular, left to escape persecution. But people also learned to lock their doors and keep quiet in the face of knocks from people who might be violent, whether that’s militias in Indonesia, or thieves or ICE agents in the U.S.

In 2020, amid the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement that followed George Floyd’s killing, I reached out to other Indonesians with Black families. I attended protests with my daughter and initiated discussions within my community.

For showing solidarity and standing up for my loved ones, I was attacked. I made a shirt that said “Indonesian for Black Lives,” and was told by one community leader I shouldn’t use “Indonesia” or “Indonesian” on any poster or signage. Another peer, whom I thought was a friend, told me that racism against Black people is not real.

For my own mental health, I decided to focus on community work. I helped build care packages for neighbors who lost jobs during the pandemic. I volunteered during the 2020 election to educate Asian American and Pacific Islander communities on voting rights.

Storms often takes part in activist movements Credit: Courtesy Sinta Penyami Storms

After a difficult year, I was hopeful for 2021. Then, a mass shooting happened at an Atlanta spa, with most of the victims Asian women. Another vigil and solidarity rally to attend. I was not shocked anymore. I was weary.

A few days after the vigil, I was tagged by a community member on social media. Two Indonesian teens were assaulted while waiting to take SEPTA home, by what videos showed were Black girls. News reporters kept asking: Did they say anything hateful or racist? My answer: Does it matter? Of all the people on the platform with them, did anyone help? No. Nobody helped.

I understand my people’s pain, and I also empathize with Black communities.

My children may be Black and Indonesian, but to many people on the street, they present as Black. We had to have a conversation with them on how to act if stopped by police, and tell them, “Don’t act foolish when out white friends, because they’ll get away with things, whereas you might end up dead.” Every time they are out, I find myself worrying. I worry about my Indonesian dance students. I worry about an elder in our community who still works a factory job and comes home very early in the morning. Every time I get a WhatsApp message, I wonder if it’s another report of someone getting assaulted in Philly, a video from another violent attack in another city, or just another question on where the next vaccine clinic will take place.

We need to be better — and I include myself in that assessment.

I want those who assaulted and robbed my community to face consequences not because of their race, but because they’ve committed a crime. I want Asian business owners to treat Black customers the same way they would treat white customers. I don’t want my friends to clutch their purses when passing a Black person in South Philly. I want Black community leaders to meet Indonesian community leaders and start talking.

That’s the key. I want real action and change within the system, not another political photo-op in the name of performative activism. We need to have this difficult conversation. Together.

Sinta Penyami Storms is an Indonesian dance artist, visionary, community leader, and activist who nourishes and promotes dance, fashion, cuisine, and other aspects of Indonesian tradition. Sinta’s mission...