“America is not a racist country at all, at least there is not as much discrimination as in India.” Let’s face it – when first-generation American Indians say that America is a land of opportunity, a land where “anyone” can succeed simply by hard work and merit, and especially when American Indians deny that they faced any racism in America, they always speak relatively. Compared to India, where discriminatory discourse is open and hurtful – from fair advertisements and preference for fair skin – to “honest” conversations about how “lower castes” and OBCs don’t deserve their jobs “quotas”; to a dismissal of the misfortunes of the average man and woman as the result of ignorance and backward mentality rather than of circumstance.
First generation Native Americans grew up hearing how their prettier cousins were automatically prettier, where the first step in arranged marriages was to approve the particular shade of brown that the (mostly) potential bride and sometimes the groom sported. A country where a darker partner was automatically deemed to have married out of their league (regardless of other qualities of intellect, humanity, etc.) if their spouse was fairer than them. Even Bollywood heroines take the ubiquitous journey from being “dark” to fair via several visits to dermatologists – Madhuri Dixit, Priyanka Chopra, Anoushka Sharma, Deepika Padukone – have all become progressively fairer over the years.
Then again, first generation American Indians also participated in conversations where upper caste members sat down and debated the injustice of caste reservations in universities and government jobs (this is not a coincidence that the bulk of India’s early immigrants up to the turn of the millennium were upper caste) and how the reservation system prevented deserving and deserving members of upper castes from working hard at jobs and holding positions places in higher education that were now occupied by lower castes, who were lazy and ignorant at best, unscrupulous and conniving at worst. The language surrounding the reservation system in India is identical to the language surrounding affirmative action in the United States, except that in India we talk about castes, while in the United States affirmative action concerns the races of disenfranchised people. But that’s fodder for another day.
Since the turn of the century, of course, with the expansion of educational opportunities in India precisely through the reservation system, there have been more people from lower castes in the United States. which suddenly go out as they approach. People who understand the veiled inference that their presence is indicative of favoritism rather than merit.
Of course, India’s centuries of colonial rule introduced it to the industrial, capitalist world of social classes based on wealth and status. This is why the middle class which claims to be the bulwark of India, and its conscience as well, speaks with disdain of the lower classes. Blue-collar workers and workers are seen as morally deficient, ignorant, easily ruled by unscrupulous politicians, etc. Just like middle America claims about blue-collar America.
The point I want to make, albeit deviously, is that we American Indians readily absorb all sorts of frames of inequality, whether they are tied to ancient institutions like caste, or colonial imports like race and class. We excel in the belief that we can only feel validated if we prove ourselves superior to our fellow human beings, whether that superiority is based on caste, class, race, region, language, or upbringing… list is endless. So we talk about how the Tamilians are naturally gifted in science, the Bengalis are the intellectuals (albeit erased), and the Punjabis are the sportsmen – all ridiculously colonial inventions that we have internalized in Stockholm-like fashion. criminal genius! And we feel comfortable in our superiority.
When we arrive in the United States, we find a country waiting for us, where words become extremely important. From litigation, accusations of racism, potential job losses, etc., we learn to be extremely careful about how we talk about other races of people. Raised in the bowels of a society where codes of inequality take so many forms that they insidiously become part of everyday conversation, we internally castigate the “too politically correct” society of the United States for not allowing us to to express our daily ingrained racism and sexism.
Therefore, when we judge American society on its own racism, first-generation American Indians see no common evidence of the kind of blatant, outright racism we are used to hearing in India. And having internalized the prejudices of our colonial masters, we are all too willing to accept the stereotypes of blacks and Latinos that the United States perpetuates. How many of us new to the United States are extra cautious in “black” or “Latino” neighborhoods? Rather than making the logical connection between lower income groups and higher crime rates due to institutional persecution and lack of resources, we automatically side with the institutional version depicting certain races as being more prone to criminality.
Not only do we often unconsciously make racist judgments about other groups of people, but we also rarely hear overtly racist epithets. Unaware that we have the civil rights movement and activist movements of the 70s and 80s to thank for a society that does not openly admit its prejudice against us (again, that’s a topic for another day), we are relieved that racist epithets are not hurled at us daily. Remember, we are still judging by India, and compared to India where no one seems to filter their prejudices in a group setting, the lack of overt discrimination can look like the lack of racism itself. Any information about racism directed at other groups of people (usually blacks and Latinos) can be rationalized within our own racist view of them. Therefore, for most first-generation American Indians, the frequent injustices toward black and Latino peoples are simply the consequences of their actions rather than evidence of centuries of cruel oppression.
But is this necessarily correct? Does a society that does not verbalize its racism as frequently as in India necessarily mean that it lacks racism? Should we judge a society in relation to another society, or in terms of absolute human values? In other words, to use a comparison, the average homeless American owns more assets than the average homeless Indian. Does that mean homelessness doesn’t exist in America? Likewise, if we are accustomed to openly racist, sexist and inegalitarian discourse, and we do not hear this discourse, does it absolve society of all racist acts and microaggressions?
If your answer is no, then I urge you to be part of the solution. If your answer is yes, or if I don’t know, I look forward to having more dialogue with you.
(Top photo: An undated photo from the 1980s. A group of Indian students at Columbia University protest against violence against Indians in New Jersey. Photo by Corky Lee. Courtesy of the Smithsonian. )
Jyoti Mohan is a historian of South Asia and the South Asian American Diaspora. His research currently consists of deeply satisfying hours, recovering lost stories of South Asian ancestors in America. When she’s not digging through the dusty annals of history, she’s also interested in contemporary developments in the South Asian American community, especially the second generation. To that end, she tries to “walk the walk” and participate in civic and community activism to change and raise awareness of complex issues that affect our community like race, gender, sexual orientation, mental health and the evolution of a South Asian American culture. . She also spends a lot of time having fun. Along with her menagerie of dogs, bunnies, and children, she has a fulfilling chaotic life where she alternately wishes she could get away with just her dogs, and can’t believe she lives such a full, loud, and wonderful life! She can be contacted at [email protected]