Updated: October 25, 2020 2:03:20 pm
“We didn’t see ourselves as part of the Black movements or the problem. But we have actually been in the bubble that created it.” These words from my mother came on the heels of the largest race-related protests in the US neither of us had seen in our lives here. Her exposure to America’s race conversation, from when she immigrated in the 1970s, has been vastly different from mine – raised and born in this country. After years of trying to convince her that Indian Americans are a part of a racial equation in the US that they might not always see, I had suddenly heard a moment of unexpected recognition.
This watershed moment is a microcosm of this year’s intergenerational conversations in the Indian-American community, reckoning with their place in America’s racial system.
Memories still fresh from the George Floyd protests (the death of a 46-year-old African American man in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May had sparked off massive protests across the country), Americans are awaiting the Presidential election next week (November 3). Even though this year may see the largest shift in the community towards the Republican Party, this summer also saw a surge of South-Asian solidarity events, marches and talks in religious circles, classical music groups, student associations, and Bhangra teams. Social media was replete with posters describing “How to talk to your Papa about Black Lives Matter for Father’s Day” and “How to make old folks listen”.
“Over the summer, I was talking to Indian families about the fact that we need to talk about anti-black racism, and, Meena, I’m sure you were, too,” said Vanita Gupta, former head of the Civil Rights Division at the US Department of Justice, appointed by President Barack Obama, to Meena Harris, Kamala Harris’ niece, in a recent webinar on South Asian voting mobilisation. “We have to not just speak outwardly and protest in the streets but sometimes it’s about looking inward at our own families. We are never going to be able to have true equality in this country until we recognise how we are so intertwined in this country’s history,” said Gupta.
Before 60-year-old Ravi (last name withheld on request) came to the University of Houston in 1982 to study pharmaceutical science, a family from Houston had visited his home in Hyderabad. “They told me that I have to be careful around Black people. As soon as I landed in New York, I had to give my baggage to a Black man. I was sceptical of him. I had created a mental image that you just can’t trust them, that all of them are bad,” he says.
Over time, Ravi recognised the stereotypes he was taught, but race was still not at the forefront of most family discussions until this summer. “My daughter said, ‘No Dad, we have to discuss this’,” he says.
After Shikha, Ravi’s daughter, moved into her parent’s place during the COVID-19 lockdown, protests began erupting across the country in May. “When my dad was questioning why the protests were violent, I had trouble explaining that this was an emotional response to a broken social contract,” says the 25-year old data analyst.
Shikha, who had begun to understand race relations in college, soon realised that the situation was “no longer about academic conversations or intellect”. She had to find mediums that would speak to her dad. “She showed me the Comedy Central guy – Trevor Noah. He really explained why people were angry. I shared that in my college WhatsApp group with Indians who are now in the US and told them that yes, the protests are causing problems, but now you can see their thought process,” Ravi says.
Shikha says she saw her dad have a “light bulb moment”. “I have known that Indian Americans are taught anti-blackness. But after these conversations, I see that it wasn’t out of bigotry that my dad had these views. It was pure ignorance,” says Shikha, who ended up rewatching several of her favourite race-focused documentaries with her parents. “I kind of forced my parents to watch the. But my dad began recommending it to his Indian friends!” she says, with a laugh. “She did open our eyes,” Ravi says.
Shikha knows her parents might not be on board with defunding the police or reparations. “I’ve decided to pick my battles. I can only talk about it so much,” she says. But, this summer, she felt that was “starting somewhere.”
Two decades ago, Vijay Prashad, a South Asian historian and former Trinity College professor, wrote in his book The Karma for Brown Folk (2000): “I am a weapon in the war against black America. Meanwhile, white America can take its seat … surrounded by state-selected Asians, certain that the culpability for black poverty and oppression must be laid at the door of black America.” His book has now become rite-of-passage reading material for South-Asian Americans. In the book, Prashad wrote, “In the United States, the bulk of the desi community seems to have moved away from active political struggles toward an accommodation with this racist polity. The bargain revolves around the sale of the desi political soul in exchange for the license to accumulate economic wealth through hard work and guile … They live in America, but they are not of America.”
Prashad is sceptical that this dynamic will change anytime soon. “That dull, self-satisfied middle, between activists and the right, won’t get involved until there is a direct attack on Indian Americans from the right wing,” he says.
While Prashad remains pessimistic about collective action, many Indian-American families are beginning to feel a shift. In the 1980s, Maryland-resident Jocelyn Watson moved from Kerala. Her family never directly discussed race in the household. “We were just these immigrants here for the sole purpose of bettering our lives. But there were a lot of indirect comments. There was an underlying assumption of superiority.”
In college, Watson met a Black man who later became her husband. “My parents had never said I couldn’t marry outside my race, but it was implied that I would marry Indian. When Roger and I got serious, my dad would make little comments. But never direct.”
Now with two children, 15 and 13 years old, Watson juggles many cultures in her home, but still tries to teach her kids that they don’t have to choose a side to identify with. The family attends a Black church and the children go to a predominantly Black school but Watson’s parents live nearby and look after the grandkids, feeding them Indian food. With the protests this summer and the election forthcoming, Watson said all three generations are talking about race head-on. “When Roger had conversations with the kids about what happened to him because of his race, there was just silence on their face,” she says.
Watson took her kids to numerous protests this summer, “not to scare them, but to make them understand, because the world sees them as Black children,” she says. For the first time, her parents began asking questions about race. Watson admits to feeling frustrated with her parents, who would often “minimise the situation”, asking why Black Americans have to be so angry and questioning the need to take the kids to demonstrations. “As Indians, we can absolve ourselves from this conversation. We’re a model minority. There is a sense that we did it and we’re still climbing the ladder, so why aren’t you and why are you still bringing up the past? At the end of the day, we don’t have the same historical trauma here as Black people,” she says.
In his book, Prashad speaks about Dinesh D’Souza, a Goa migrant in the US who argued in 1995 that the Asian American success story made the “crisis of black America” even more apparent. Prashad disputed the implication, stating that Asian American achievement in the US was not a matter of harder work or genetics, but more so a product of “state selection”.
In the late 1950s, the US was desperate for technical labour on the heels of the USSR’s launch of its satellite programme with Sputnik I and II and medical labour to staff the newly-created Medicare and Medicaid programmes. The government was also under severe pressure to deracialise policies after the Civil Rights movement brought much of the Jim Crow era under question. In this context, the country’s 1965 Immigration Act allowed in only a subset of immigrants. Between 1966 and 1977, 83 per cent of Indian Americans entering the US were professional and technical workers, leading to strong associations between intelligence, hard work and the Asian racial category. Before the pandemic, unemployment rates amongst Asian Americans (making up 5.6 per cent of the US population) was 3 per cent, while it was 6 per cent for Black Americans (12.7 per cent of the US population).
Shikha has been careful not to directly compare the discrimination her family has faced with the “systemic issues” facing the Black community. “I had to acknowledge my parents’ experiences but also explain the topic of generational wealth – that not everybody can do what my Dad did because not everybody has the same privilege.”
More recently, these issues of privilege and structural discrimination have come to the fore with affirmative action lawsuits, one of the most divisive topics in the Asian-Amerian community. “The only issue where the views of Democrats and Republicans seem to approach convergence is affirmative action in university admissions,” cites a survey of Indian-American attitudes by Carnegie Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Pennsylvania, released on October 13. A slim majority (54 per cent) of Indian Americans support this measure, and party affiliation doesn’t seem to matter much. Half of Republicans support it, as do 60 per cent of the Democrats.
“I grew up around this topic in India, where there was a lot of animosity towards beneficiaries of caste reservations. I never understood what it meant and we were never taught to question things,” says Aparna Ghandari, a school counsellor in California, who immigrated from Hyderabad nearly three decades ago, when she was in her 20s. “After coming here, I took the time to read about it. We Indians take a lot of pride in meritocracy, which actually disguises the privilege that we don’t take time to deconstruct,” she says.
Since the 1970s, at least five lawsuits arguing against affirmative action in schools were initiated by White people. But two years ago, a high-profile federal lawsuit argued that Harvard discriminated against Asian Americans specifically.
A California proposition (a ballot referendum put up to a popular vote) this year would allow race to be a factor in public employment, education or contracting. It has reignited debates between those that feel race quotas harm certain Asian-American groups and others who believe the dedicated support for Black Americans is necessary to make up for historical and structural inequalities. Signs across the state read either “Don’t Divide Us” or “Opportunity for All”.
In a similar contention of identities, 15 per cent of Indian Americans said they were less enthusiastic to vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden after he picked Kamala Harris as his running mate. Of those, 20 per cent said it was because she identified more with her Black roots than her Indian ones. Indian Americans have traditionally been largely Democrats.
Six years ago, in 2014, Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, igniting the first phase of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. At the time, Gauri Joshi remembers her feelings of anger at her parents for questioning the need to protest. It was the first time race had ever come up between the two generations, and there was very little room for agreement. “I remember feeling very defensive. But the conversation never really returned because, frankly, I didn’t have to worry about it,” says the 31-year-old. Internally, however, she began to realise the “casual racism” of her childhood; comments about Indians who were dark and associations between all Black people and crime. “It was never intentionally racist but it was so normalised I had never questioned it,” she says.
A couple of days after the Floyd protests popped up in her parent’s neighbourhood in New Jersey, Joshi’s father – who came to the US in the ’70s – brought up the conversation to her unprompted. “He said that he was really starting to understand how frustrated the Black community is. For the first time, there was real empathy. It was less about ‘this is their problem’ and more about how we have been complicit in this. I remember thinking that this time was going to be different,” she says. Joshi’s father was especially upset that a fellow immigrant, a Palestinian American, had called the police on Floyd. Joshi’s mother, though, seemed less willing to support the protests. In an attempt to bridge the knowledge gap, Joshi found an online resource in Marathi explaining the issue. “There is more inclination to have this conversation if there is less of a language barrier,” she says.
Joshi’s 11-year-old niece, meanwhile, learned about the protests on TikTok and began asking her which organisations she should donate to. “I wish I had that maturity when I was her age to be able to sympathise with people,” Joshi says.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 25, 2020 under the title ‘Bringing race home’.
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