Over the past week, Hema Karunakaram struggled with a seemingly simple task – translating the word black from Telugu, her first language, into English, the language of her native country.

Hema grew up in a Telugu-speaking household in Michigan, US, where she learned to speak, read and write the language, and now lives in New York, where she works in Information Technology. She got stuck on the word black while helping with the Letters for Black Lives project, translating a letter intended to explain the Black Lives Matter movement to the parents of first-generation Asian Americans, and the word was coming up again and again.

Negative associations

“The word for black in Telugu is nalla,” Karunakaram said over Skype. “And nalla is used as an insult very often.”

She added that when she was growing up, people in her community would tell her to stay out of the sun. “They would tell me to come inside because they didn’t want me to be nalla,” she said.” Like they didn’t want me to be black, that’s a bad thing.”

When she found out about “Letters for Black Lives,” she had just been thinking about colourism in the Telugu language and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“In my mother tongue, Telugu, I am called ‘Rangu Thakkuva,’ meaning less color,” she wrote in a post on Facebook, referring to her own skin-tone. “Ironic – because I have more melanin in my skin than many of them, but it seems that rangu is its own antonym in my language. Rangu refers not to any arbitrary color but to the supposedly superior color of white...When are we going to stop the prejudice in our own languages, and stand up for fellow people of color? #BlackLivesMatter.”

Karunakaram added that she didn’t consider herself to be super fluent in Telugu and had no idea how to translate complicated words like police brutality, or discrimination so she used a dictionary. “[But] more than any of those really complicated words, black was the hardest to translate.”

After leaving a blank space where the word black would go for several days, she and several other Telugu translators collaboratively chose to use the literal translation of the word black in their version of the letter.

“We have to be straight with them, we have to use language that they’ll understand,” she said, “Why is black used in this manner? Why is it used as an insult? Why does it make us uncomfortable? And I think for the purposes of this letter we kind of want to make people feel that discomfort and sit with that and think about what that means.”

Collaborative effort

With the help of over 190 people, 21 translations were published on Medium since the letter launched on Monday – just five days after the project was conceived last Thursday.

Letters for Black Lives began with a tweet that Christina Xu, a New York-based designer, sent out when she heard speculation that the policeman who shot Philandro Castile in his car near Minneapolis in Minnesota might be Asian-American. Xu was worried that segments of the Asian American community might organise in support of the shooter, as they had earlier this year when officer Peter Liang was only sentenced to probation for the 2014 killing of Akai Gurley – another unarmed black man.

“Asian-Americans who support BLM, we need to get ahead of our community organising another pro-Liang rally. Talk to your families today.” she tweeted, “In fact, let’s draft letters in our native languages to our parents and our communities. Get it passed around WhatsApp, WeChat, LINE, etc.”

Over 15 people helped to write and revise the letter based on a set of guidelines that encouraged writers to avoid using overly academic language, and to respect one another as they forged a version they could all agree upon.

The base version begins:

“Mom, Dad, Uncle, Auntie, Grandfather, Grandmother:
We need to talk.

You may not have grown up around people who are Black, but I have. Black people are a fundamental part of my life: they are my friends, my classmates and teammates, my roommates, my family. Today, I’m scared for them.” 

The letter goes on to explain the epidemic of killings of unarmed black people, including those of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile in the past week:

“Overwhelmingly, the police do not face any consequences for ending these lives.” 

The letter also addresses possible prejudices the reader might carry:

“When a policeman shoots a Black person, you might think it’s the victim’s fault because you see so many images of them in the media as thugs and criminals.”

It concludes:

“For all of these reasons, I support the Black Lives Matter movement. Part of that support means speaking up when I see people in my community – or even my own family – say or do things that diminish the humanity of Black Americans in this country. I am telling you this out of love, because I don’t want this issue to divide us.”

The letter quickly spread beyond the Asian American community, and was adapted into different versions to suit various cultural needs. It’s been translated into German, Russian and French, and there are specific versions for Latinx and Canadian readers.

Other versions

Chinyere Osuji, a sociology professor at Rutgers University, wrote a version of the letter specifically for the African immigrant community.

“Reading the English version of the letter, I thought, ‘It would be wonderful if there could be a version of this that I could share with my own family members,’” she said. “As people who do not have an ethnic identity that is tied to the Atlantic slave trade, African immigrant understandings of race in this country are rarely vocalised.”

Osuji wrote a version of the letter that switches the word black for “black American” and highlights the death of Matthew Ajibade, a Nigerian student from Lagos, who died in US police custody.

Katherine Pan, who works for Kickstarter in New York – and who helped draft the original letter and organise the translations – said that she was pleased, but not surprised, that the letter turned out to be so universal.

“I don't think it's specific to the Asian American immigrant experience at all,” she said, “When you hear about these tragedies, it's a very human reaction to kind of retract and be like,ok I've got to protect my own, and just focus on my family and just focus on what I can ostensibly kind of protect. That's not a way to get involved or effect change.”

Some helped with the translations after experiencing overt anti-black prejudice in their families and communities.

Su Layug – a professional Filipino judicial interpreter and translator, who lives in Chicago, and who worked on the Filipino translation – is married to a black man and has a mixed-race child.

Layung said: “I remember one dinner time, while visiting my brother's family, when I had to stand from the table and ask if they even see me sitting with them there, because as it was, they were dissing black people, as though I wasn't married to one and my son didn't exist.”

As more translations are still in the works, the next phase of the project will come once those the letter is intended for have a chance to react to it.

One translator, a student from India who now works in the US, says she is still working up the courage to share the letter with her Indian family who also live in the US.

“I think I think their anti-blackness is something that's always been in under the surface, and it's just a very difficult conversation to broach because I do not want to be seen as teaching them,” she said. “They've been in this country many more years than I have.”

Confronting contradictions

Karunakaram, on the other hand, is interested to see how her community reacts.

“I feel like the values that they raised me with and that they always preached to me were always very positive and about equality and treating everyone similarly,” she said, but added that their actions didn’t always align with those sentiments like the times “when they were like ‘Oh, be careful around black kids.’”

She said: It's jarring I think when you’re so young to hear these contradictions. I don't think they would ever admit to saying things that they would consider to be racist or discriminatory. I think they would be like, ‘Oh no we uphold these values, we think everyone's the same, we think everyone's equal,’ but they still do things that would be construed as racist.”

Whatever the reaction to the letter, those who helped write and translate it are unanimous in feeling the project has helped bring them together in support of Black Lives, and feel closer to their communities.

Karunakaram said that she and her fellow Telugu translators felt that grappling with their language in this complex way brought them closer to it.“Talking about really serious things like police brutality and anti-blackness, talking about really serious issues in another language brings you closer to that language.”