As South Asian American millennials with deep interests in politics, social justice, and activism, we have spent the past year racking our brains as to why our community lacks a unified political identity. Not only are we living under a Presidential administration that threatens our livelihood and civil liberties on a daily basis, we have been shocked to learn that many of our South Asian family members and friends voted to put this administration in office in the first place! To us, this is nothing less than mind-numbing.
Our conversations over the past year with fellow students, family members, and community leaders have made it abundantly clear that our fundamental issue is apathy. We put this together as a wake-up call to members of our community, particularly the next generation of leaders: we desperately need more activism.
Shortly after the 2016 election, we were at a gathering with a number of our South Asian American millennial peers, discussing the aftermath of Donald Trump’s ascension and our action plan going forward. What struck us was the lack of urgency in people’s voices — “we have it pretty good in this country” was the sentiment echoed over and over again. It seemed that our Ivy league peers were more concerned with work and social life than social change.
To be clear, South Asians have had some incredible successes in this country, but accepting this at face value simply buys into the destructive “model minority” myth — it detracts from our ability to succeed in domains such as politics and media and assumes that our community is a monolith, when in fact many South Asians live in poverty and many are even undocumented. Most of all, accepting this idea of South Asian American exceptionalism allows us to brush over discrimination and injustices that occur every day.
What can South Asian Americans do to engage?
First, South Asian Americans need to recognize that our community faces discrimination on a daily basis.
Whether it is reflected in tragedies like the shooting of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas or in the ostensibly small ways we are treated in social situations or in the media, these are injustices worth fighting. In our youth, we were called nerds and nicknamed with references to “curry” and as we got older, we began to judge our social worth by counting the number of white friends we had. A dangerous inferiority complex has infiltrated our community. Acknowledging that discrimination, both intentional and implicit, exists in the United States against our community is a requisite first step.
A common response we have heard is that because our struggles are negligible compared to that of black America, we have no right to complain. We vehemently disagree; by no means do we intend to trivialize the injustices experienced by the other minority groups in this country, or even begin to claim that our relative suffering is greater. However, this problem is not one of relatives; it is of a shared experience that all minorities endure by living in this majority white nation. If anything, we as South Asian Americans tend to detach ourselves from the struggles of other minorities in the U.S., only further bolstering the model minority trope which ends up doing more harm than good.
Rather than presuming an air of superiority and ignorantly asking “if we could do it, why can’t they?,” we must be grateful for our black brothers and sisters for the unforgivable price they paid to allow for us to live safely in this country. Professor Vijay Prashad encapsulates this idea best in his novel The Karma of Brown Folk: “Since we, as [South Asians], are used as a weapon against black America, we must in good faith refuse this role and find other places for ourselves in the moral struggles that grip the U.S.” Let’s not let Dinesh D’Souza tell us otherwise.
Second, it is imperative that we learn about our history in this country.
It hasn’t always been the case that we were considered the “model minority.” Bhagat Singh Thind fought hard for the right to be a U.S. citizen, only to be told that he was “too brunette” to be an American and rejected from the right to naturalization by the Supreme Court. Throughout this country, brown people have been attacked and killed for years, whether in the Bellingham riots in Washington or at the hands of gangs like the Dotbusters in New Jersey.
Every South Asian American should also know the name Dalip Singh Saund. Not only was he the first Indian American to represent California in the U.S. Congress, he was the first Sikh American, first Asian American more broadly, and first individual of a non-Abrahamic faith to be elected. If he could do it in the late 1950s, in times of widespread violent assault against our community, there is no reason that we cannot do it today.
Another oversimplified belief about our history is that most immigration from South Asia consisted of highly educated individuals moving to pursue high-skilled jobs in the United States. But the reality is more nuanced. While the majority of Indian American immigrants to U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s were professional and technical workers, the Immigration and Naturalization Service reported that the percentage of technically trained South Asian workers immigrating to this country declined steadily since the 1980s.
In fact, in 1996, 34,291 of 44,859 immigrants from India and 9,122 of 12,519 immigrants from Pakistan came not by employer recruitment, but for family reunification. Many of these individuals went on to pursue low-skilled labor, contrary to the masterfully painted picture of South Asian Americans as the model minority; remember, our community is not a monolith.
Third, we need to overcome our differences and unite.
South Asian American is a very all-encompassing term. By definition, it is an umbrella term for Americans whose ancestry is from the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Clearly, there is huge diversity among the populations from these seven countries, but it is critical that we come together as one.
Factions within the South Asian American community are only hurting us. We cannot simply assort ourselves into divisions that exist back home; we have different problems here, and a novel identity that we must embrace together.
Looking at the Jewish American community for inspiration, we see a community that has mastered the art of unity and subsequently mobilized to achieve incredible success. By coming together under the pressure of serious antisemitism and Jewish persecution in the U.S., the community has been able to be influential in the worlds of politics and finance. Constituting only 2 percent of the overall U.S. population, 10 of our 100 U.S. Senators are Jewish.
By comparison, with over 4.3 million South Asians in the U.S. making up ~1.3 percent of the total population, we have only one person of South Asian descent representing us in Senate (thank you, Kamala Harris). As our population continues to grow dramatically, this must change.
Finally, we need to come together around issues that matter.
Recent evidence has suggested that undocumented South Asian Americans will be among the most likely to suffer from DACA repeal. This may at first seem shocking, given that it isn’t a reality we see highlighted often in our community. For this reason, it makes some sense that we did not see the same level of engagement and protest that was witnessed by the Latinx community after the DACA announcement.
Further, since 9-11, the rate of violent crime against our community has increased. The backlash has consisted of Islamophobic, xenophobic, and racially charged physical and verbal attacks against members of the South Asian community. Attacks include the brutal murder of innocent Sikh Americans at Oak Creek, Wisconsin and the killing of Indian American engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas. But these are only a few well-publicized attacks of the hundreds of acts of hate against our community, especially exacerbated since the election of Donald Trump.
In addition to immigration reform and preventing racial violence, South Asian American activism is desperately needed for many causes: advancing LGBTQ+ rights in our community, destigmatizing mental health issues, and combating domestic and gender violence are just a few.
If you are interested in finding out more about how you can join us in the South Asian-American activism movement, organizations such as SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together), SAADA (South Asian American Digital Archive), Desis for Progress, and DRUM (Desis Rising Up & Moving) are a great place to start. But most importantly, next time a friend casually says “we don’t have any real problems in America,” we hope you won’t nod your head silently in agreement.
Vinay and Neil are students at Harvard passionate about activism and social justice in the South Asian diaspora. They wrote this article out of frustration with the lack of activism efforts among many South Asian-American youth. They believe firmly that an informed, united, and engaged community can bring about social change and uplift those who are struggling the most.