The tragic killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian immigrant, in Kansas confronts the nation, once again, with how to emphasize the value of diversity as a counter to a climate of hate. As we watched the heartbreaking videos of Sunayana Dumala grieving her husband’s brutal killing in Kansas and admired her stoicism and clarity in demanding answers, we were reminded that she represents a seldom-told, powerful piece of the story about immigrant diversity.
Ms. Dumala came to this country to pursue higher education. She is among the substantial flow of Indian immigrant women who come to the United States on their own, without family sponsorship, to pursue higher education and work opportunities. Through research for our recently published book, Indian Immigrant Women and Work: The American Experience, we were able to uncover statistics and stories about this large but mostly unheralded immigrant group.
“We were reminded that she represents a seldom-told, powerful piece of the story about immigrant diversity.”
In recent years nearly half of all female permanent immigrants from India gained permanent residence status through their professional qualifications rather than family connections. Their experiences offer a true mirror to the value of the diversity of perspectives that immigrants can bring. Given the priorities of immigration laws and the privileging of science and technology education in Indian education policy, a majority of the independent Indian women migrants are forging careers in fields that remain highly male dominated in the United States.
Our interviews with women who migrated in every decade since the 1960s uncovered many examples of how, using their experience of navigating gender barriers in two different cultures, Indian immigrant women are pushing against the glass ceiling and opening conversations about gender in notoriously insular fields. In the 1960s, they were among the pioneering first generation of women students in premier engineering programs. As they transitioned to jobs, some of them argued for professional travel, participation in conferences and an active presence in other work-related spaces that had not previously been open to female employees.
“It is by challenging the status quo, not fitting into prevailing ideas about gender roles, that immigrant Indian women have forged a path.”
In recent years, they have been among the few women in senior management positions at large firms. These women have challenged the boy’s club mentality of these organizations in a multitude of ways, from challenging the prevalence of “football-talk” in workplace gatherings to creating networking groups for women. In doing so they are opening up important avenues for all minority groups, immigrant or otherwise.
Their journeys reflect the multifaceted contributions of immigrants and the diversity of perspectives they bring. Yet, these perspectives are often unacknowledged in the general narrative about immigrants that remains focused on the jobs they allegedly take away rather than the immeasurable and nuanced contributions they actually make. At times these powerful contributions have been minimized by Indian immigrant communities themselves.
“We cannot claim that our diversity adds value by seeking to erase every mark of that diversity.”
Too often, communities have taken refuge in the “model minority” trope that seeks to distance itself from other groups of color and emphasizes fitting in, rather than challenging, the status quo. Soon after the horrific killing in Kansas, an Indian immigrant community group put out an advisory asking members to avoid using their native language and to speak in English even among themselves in public spaces. Such short sighted attempts at playing it safe only add to the idea that immigrants and people of color are somehow misfits.
We cannot claim that our diversity adds value by seeking to erase every mark of that diversity. It is by challenging the status quo, not fitting into prevailing ideas about gender roles, that immigrant Indian women have forged a path for, not only themselves, but other women as well. We hope that their spirited approach will become the model for Indian communities in the United States.
The visibility of being high skilled immigrants, whose contributions as doctors and technology leaders are valued, confers a certain privilege to these members of Indian immigrant communities. This privilege can be put to good use by collectively and actively confronting racism, and finding common cause with other immigrant and minority communities. It is only then can we hope to change the national conversation about immigration and diversity, a change that is essential to ensure the safety of all immigrant and immigrant communities.
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Ramya M. Vijaya is a professor of economics at Stockton University in New Jersey. Besides courses in economics, she also teaches in the interdisciplinary Global Studies Minor.
Bidisha Biswas is professor of political science at Western Washington University. She previously served as a policy adviser on South Asia to the United States Department of State.