Digging Into Race, Media And America: Meet Kumarini Silva

Oct 23, 2017

 Kumarini Silva grew up in the midst of a violent civil war in Colombo, Sri Lanka between the government and rebel groups. She was mostly sheltered from the violence because of her father’s status as a U.N. diplomat, but her family still helped those they knew were in danger. They moved to Liberia when Silva was a teenager but had to leave after a few years after a violent conflict erupted inside the country.

 These experiences shaped Silva’s views on the treatment of minority populations. She experienced being labeled as “other” when she moved to the U.S. to go to college, and she says hostility toward her because of the color of her skin only got worse after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Today Silva studies how media and popular culture along with global politics influence racial and gender identities.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Silva about her upbringing and reflections on race in the U.S. Silva is a professor of communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also the author of "Brown Threat: Identification in the Security State." 

Interview Highlights:

On growing up Sinhalese in Sri Lanka during a time of ethnic tension:

It's a complex space to occupy. I am Sinhalese and Buddhist, so I am very much a part of the majority. But I grew up in a household where two things were primary: politics and art. And these conversations happened over dinner tables very loudly. My family talks very loudly over each other's voices all the time. And I grew up with a very large extended family … And we all lived very close to each other, and we would get together most evenings … So in one sense it feels in retrospect like a very bucolic childhood, but in ‘83 when I was 11 … The war seemed very distant until that point, and I don't think I really [understood] what was happening until the riots came to Colombo – then things just became very real for an 11-year-old.

On Silva’s family’s efforts to protect people fleeing persecution in Colombo, Sri Lanka:

We had friends stay with us a few nights in our house. Then our dad managed to get another friend who happened to be a Dutchman who was working on a project with my father and who was less likely to be stopped on the street to be checked. He brought his pickup truck and piled our friends flat in the back of the pickup truck and threw blankets over them and just drove them off. They had to do that to get them to a camp because the day before we had been warned that if we were harboring Tamil friends that our house would be burnt down, and they would come back to the next day.

On moving to Liberia as a teenager and traveling as a diplomat’s daughter:

I often think about the irony regardless of what I have paid for going through a line quickly. I am always “randomly” picked out to be checked. I always – in the way I think about it, and I’ve started writing about it – I juxtapose that against growing up or being in my late teens and having this little blue diplomatic passport, and I would get pulled out [of] lines not because I was seen as a threat but because I was seen as so completely neutral that I didn't have to go through this long line, and I would have to be shuttled through. That is kind of a remarkable difference in the way one person’s body is read at different time periods in their lives.

On Silva’s experience traveling back to the U.S. shortly after 9/11:

When I came back from Sri Lanka to the United States, I was on, I think, the second plane that came in after flights had been grounded. I remember that my suitcase was forcefully, at the L.A. airport, they wanted me to open it, but my hands were shaking because I’d never seen this much security, and I couldn't get the padlock opened. And the two officers kept saying, “Let’s use a crowbar. Let’s get a crowbar.” They were looking for pliers to open it. And I remember just saying, “Give me a minute because if you break the lock then nothing will make it back to Oregon.” … I finally did manage to get that open, and that was really a pivotal moment in suddenly recognizing that my body was different now.