Political Consciousness in the Diaspora

Beyond Yoga and Pop Culture

To effect political change in the diaspora, the conversation needs to move beyond cultural appropriation and representation in pop culture.

Characterising the “Indian American diaspora” is difficult. It encompasses many classes, castes, religions, and immigration statuses, from the many taxi drivers who keep cities running, to the charismatic surgeon correspondent on CNN. Nevertheless, there still exists an idea of the typical Indian American; hegemony flattens this population into a colour (“brown”) and from a continent (“Asian,” or for the slightly more discerning, “South Asian”). Many of the Indian Americans who have gained visibility or power are champions of their culture, devotees to the mythology of the exceptional immigrant “in a nation of immigrants.”

Often, when these visible Indian Americans are asked to speak about “issues faced by the Indian community,” the topics raised are those of representation politics and cultural appropriation. I am a consumer of pop content—I’d like to see Dev Patel in more movies too. And, I also understand that it is possible to care about more than one thing. But as a first-generation immigrant and a community organiser, I have become frustrated with conversations beginning and ending with whether white people can practise yoga. To quote the Kardashians, the first family of United States (US) pop culture, “Kim, there’s people that are dying!”—that is to say, there are more pressing issues. That being said, I think that it’s necessary to put this irritation aside while building a movement. It is important to realise that these plaintive demands for media representation often come from people who feel unmoored, looking for acceptance through assimilation instead of community. What can we do about it? 

Since there is no universal diasporic experience, I’m going to create a soft straw man of the Indian American, called Adarsh USAkar. Adarsh is like several people I know, and his beliefs are not dissimilar to the ones I held as recently as four years ago. He is a self-described comfortable, but not rich, liberal who claims Satya Nadella and Indra Nooyi (“more women CEOs!”) as his own. He decries Americans who say “chai tea,” and bristles at being mistaken for a person who speaks English as a second language. Adarsh can acknowledge his adversaries—ignorance and racism—but often, only to speak of his (or his parents’) ability to work hard and learn the system. 

In my experience, highlighting the hidden history of civil rights movements in the US is a good way to begin to engage with Adarsh, who is looking for a sense of belonging, and can already see that something about society is wrong and unequal. Since so much of Adarsh’s identity comes from his family’s recent immigration story, it’s good to begin by letting him know that Indians have lived in North America longer than most people think.

The first South Asians who arrived on the continent were coolies and indentured servants, brought in by the East India Company in the late 1800s. In the 20th century, Sikh male labourers moved to the continent to work on the railroads and farms on the Pacific Coast of North America. Their numbers were tiny, but xenophobia was a regular feature in the newspapers decrying the “dusky peril.” As anti-Asian racism mounted, the Immigration Act of 1917 was passed—stopping all immigration from “the Asiatic barred zone.” An act in the 1940s allowed the few South Asians in the US to become natura­lised citizens, but it was only in the wake of the Civil Rights revolution, led by Black Americans, that a substantial reform to American law occurred. 

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the national origin quota and discrimination based on race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence. Instead, visas were given to those who would be reunited with family already in the US, or preferentially given out based on the profession of the applicants. This law led to the first wave of Indian academics, doctors, and engineers to immigrate. A few years later, many students of colour led a strike at San Francisco State University, demanding the establishment of an Ethnic Studies department. The strike was headed by the university’s Black Student Union (BSU) who formed a coalition with other minority student groups deemed the Third World Liberation Front. After four and a half months of their sustained activism, and many student arrests, the university established a college of Ethnic Studies. This led to a ripple effect in scholarship across the country. 

There were other attempts by Indian Americans to gain citizenship for the many years in which American law only provided citizenship to “free white persons” and “aliens of African descent.” In a famous case in 1923, Bhagat Singh Thind petitioned the US Supreme Court to classify “high caste” Indians as white persons; the court unanimously decided that Indians were not white, and ineligible for citizenship. Thind was an activist and scholar, who belonged to the Ghadar party, an organisation of Indians living on the Pacific Coast that agitated against British rule. It is striking that this attempt by Indians to align themselves with whiteness and highlight their caste failed spectacularly, while coalitions of Asian, Latin, and Black people were able to bring about change. In other words, Adarsh needs only to look to our histories in the US to see that our struggles have always had a place of belonging in Black-led movement work. 

Instead of applauding network television shows about India-origin FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) agents who are wrongly accused of terrorism, Adarsh can turn to Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), an organisation based in New York City created in response to police brutality and racial profiling in 2000. Adarsh needs to realise that the goal is justice, not gaining the same privileges as wealthy white men, and leverage the historical precedent that exists for civil rights being gained through mass mobilisation and coalition building. Draconian immigration laws threaten entire communities, and xenophobic hate crimes by white supremacists have killed and injured many. 

Therefore, having a conversation that leads to Adarsh’s politicisation feels more necessary and urgent than ever. But, sometimes, these conversations lead to him being defensive or dismissive, and sometimes he will detachedly play the devil’s advocate. I am not advocating coddling him, especially in instances where he refuses to see the humanity of the people being marginalised. 

Suppose Adarsh is ranting about how unfair it is that Love Is Blind, a popular matchmaking show on Netflix, is currently being embraced in the US while he grew up being teased for belonging to a community that prizes arranged marriage. I ask, “Why do you think arranged marriage is worth defending? Can you pinpoint where the irritation you have right now is coming from?” After understanding that arranged marriages preserve caste hegemony and a strategy for consolidating wealth, Adarsh concedes the point and states, “Well, I don’t think it’s something white people should be reprimanding us for.” In response, I ask if Adarsh is feeling irritated and uncomfortable. “Is it discomfort with being 
Orientalised and othered?” “Yes, exactly!”

Then I steer the conversation to the following line of questioning: “Can you name a consequence of being othered, that’s more deadly than discomfort? What communities are more vulnerable than yours because they are dehumanised? How are these communities materially affected, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic?” Adarsh brings up the facts that he has learned from reading the New York Times regularly. 

To ground the conversation in something that isn’t an abstraction or statistic, I ask, “How is your family, your wider community, complicit in narratives that dehumanise other communities?” When he demurs, I ask again, “How do they talk about Black people, about Muslims, about Dalits?” And then, finally “How is their pain seen as less real; how are issues they face like poverty, hunger, incarceration, or detention minimised?”

When Adarsh comes to the conclusions, he expresses guilt or hopelessness. This is where I save my most passionate pitch, for how he might get involved in impactful activism and mutual aid, because there is so much left to be done! Having these conversations with ourselves, and the Adarshes in our life, can be a catalyst for meaningful political involvement in the diaspora.

 

Updated On : 5th Apr, 2020

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