When I wrote this article, there was an ongoing #TakeAKnee movement in the United States about kneeling during performances of the American national anthem. NFL athlete, Colin Kaepernick started this trend as a way to speak out against unwarranted police brutality against Black Americans, and the unequal treatment of minorities in America. Yet, since then, this conversation about a greater need for inclusion has turned into a vitriolic debate about nationalism, token representation, and the exclusion of Americans from access to their rights. Especially with a very heated and historic Presidential election coming up next year, as an increasing number of policies of exclusion are being introduced by the current administration, and as more and more candidates are announcing their campaigns for a Presidential nomination, the ideal of inclusion is in real danger of being used as a weapon against us. In this context, I find that writing about the need for the Indian American group to add our voices and power to help is especially poignant.
When citizens with long-established American historical and cultural roots aren’t able to voice their opinions without facing debilitating professional and social consequences, how can we expect new immigrants to be able to do so? How can we add value to new voices, when we are devaluing the power of existing citizenry? How can we include newcomers when we have no space for discussions by those who have always been here? How can “foreigners” find a space to include our voices into conversations that began long before we got here? And, where do Indian Americans fit amidst an environment of increasing internal conflicts and terrorism in our society? For that matter, who are we in this context?
We’re American to Indians and to the rest of the world, yet we are Indian within America. We are Indian within our homes, and American when we step outside. Our historically recent entrance into American society, and our lack of knowledge of the specifics of American history make us unsure of joining ongoing conversations on “race”, equality and inclusion. Our tendency to simply conform and accept societal disparities without rocking the boat also makes us reticent. We contribute in many ways to the American economy and society and are personally affected in return, yet, as a cultural group we don’t get involved in debates unless they directly involve us (and often, even when they do). Our Indian skin tone is a visible and stereotypical marker of our ethnic heritage, but as a group, we have only recently started to represent ourselves well. We are very proud to be Indian, and very proud to be American. But, a lot of us still think that these two identities are separate within us, instead of realizing that we are Indian and American – all the time. Caught up in the midst of this cultural identity crisis, we fail to grow as autonomous, emotional entities. In my opinion, this is the root of the Indian American identity crisis with inclusion.
Inclusion in American society
America has its own complicated history with colonial attitudes and exclusion in society. We may have discarded some our most visible markers of inequality but the psychological force that has shaped American society throughout its history has always been a mindset of segregation. The progress made in our society with its history of genocide, slavery, and a host of other social and economic inequalities has theoretically been in the name of inclusion. But, the administration of services and the enforcement of policies have only reinforced the idea of “separateness”, inequality, and a divisive mindset of “us versus them”. The chances of success for those who don’t fit into the “White” narrative are minimal or non-existent. Individual success (economic stability, social status, equality equity, and privilege) in American society is still very exclusive to certain groups despite all of our progress.
This is especially true of the treatment of non-White immigrants in America. We have a long track record of denying inclusive opportunities to “outsiders”, especially to those who do not fit in to the “White” mold. Until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, immigration policies were specifically crafted to ensure the preservation of the Anglo-Saxon group. Naturalization and citizenship were privileges extended only to Europeans, to continue Anglo-Saxon dominance in the country. Political groups and organizations opposed non-European migrations to curb the dilution of the White “race” in America.
Inclusion of Indians pre-1965
There were small numbers of Indians who came to America in the 1800s and early 1900s. They were largely unskilled servants and field workers who were brought to the North American continent, and eventually to America, by European colonials. These Indians had no social status in American society. They weren’t afforded equitable living conditions because of the prevailing negative prejudices about Indians, and about Asians in general. In the early 1900s, the popular political opinion was that “Hindoos” were THE WORST “race” to be added to the American population. Asians, and Indians had no legal vehicles to enable citizenship; they were legally barred from being eligible for citizenship. They weren’t slaves, but equality in terms of rights wasn’t a matter for consideration. Conversations about “race” involving “Blacks” and “Whites” either categorized Indians with Black people, or didn’t include them at all. The development of the Indian American cultural identity happened within this historical context.
It is important for us to acknowledge that most Indian immigrants and Indian Americans who came to the United States after 1965, have been at least somewhat privileged in India. They have either had familial connections here in the United States, or, have had enough access to education and resources that would allow them to fill a gap in the American workforce. So, the Indian immigrant groups that have consistently been populating the United States left behind relative privilege and paid the costs to start anew. Coming to a brand new land filled with unknowns came with an enormous pressure to succeed in this new environment. But, our pre-existing privileges certainly helped us in our new lives.
The Foundation of a Separate and Somewhat Equal Indian American Identity
By the passage of the Immigration Act in 1965, colonial forces and post-independence Indian administrations had already succeeded in solidifying the “us versus them” mentality in the Indian populace. Indians were struggling to survive because of an enormous population growth that overburdened an already straining economy and culture. Stifling bureaucracy, inequities and rampant corruption and inefficiencies made it practically impossible for average people to achieve financial security and stability in life. To survive, they had to conform to an impossibly rigid society bound by religion, caste, gender, socioeconomic status, and politics that constricted effort and growth of any kind.
The Indian education system was already set up to churn out masses of people who were qualified and capable of meeting the needs of an advancing technological work force. While India didn’t have the infrastructure to create opportunities in this new information technology sector, America did. Indians with the privilege of access to education in India were thus well primed to seek these opportunities in the land of supposed freedoms and equality. So, they came to America to seek a better life for themselves and their families.
The first few waves of Indian immigrants to America had successfully been indoctrinated into conforming to colonial White ideals even in a post-independent Indian society. Conformity had become a cultural trait at an almost genetic level. It was important for survival in an inequitable and hyper-competitive Indian environment with few opportunities and fewer resources. So, it makes sense that the first few groups of Indian immigrants (and arguably, even those groups coming in now) just went along with existing structural inequalities in America. We didn’t need to change our mentality to achieve this success. Indian immigrants could transition into the American way of life while we continued living separately within our subgroups. We only needed to conform to the outward rules of society, without questioning them. More opportunities, more resources, and relatively low corruption practically guaranteed our success if we conformed either to the American “White” ideal, or to our internal Indian group norms.
Those who came to this country as highly educated doctors and engineers became successful, respectable, and comfortably settled into the American life of privilege very quickly. We kept our noses to the ground and rose in wealth and economic status quickly. This only reinforced already restrictive limits of achieving success. With our families and children, we continued an emphasis on engineering, medicine or business as the only pathways to success. Even then, they were mere means to an end, and not tools that would enable us to have access to resources for holistic personal growth. We taught our children that staying silent, working harder than others, and not questioning the world beyond us are the safest ways to succeed. It was a tried and true formula for success in the American society, after all!
The Indian American Bubble of Protection
We were initially largely invisible in American society because of our low numbers. We were already used to living in insular internal communities within India. So establishing similar small groups in our new homeland was only natural, especially with immigration laws that gave preference to family networks and high skilled workers. Job opportunities and the presence of other Indians helped some of these small networks in cities like Chicago, New York, Edison and Los Angeles to grow into large cultural hubs. These “centers” became the preferred spots for more Indian immigrants to cluster around, because of the increased availability of cultural resources. The psychological protection made possible by these communities has allowed us to cope with cultural change while continuing to promote our Indian heritage, customs and traditions within our networks. These cultural hubs are also what allowed us to flourish and grow economically as a group in an otherwise conflicted and sometimes hostile American environment.
Having the safety of our cultural groups is not a bad thing at all. The Indian American community helps us feel like we belong, and provides us with a sense of stability and identity. But, the trap of unquestioned complacency that people fall into because of this conformity is where our problem with inclusion comes in. The protections that our community bubbles give us have come with some hefty costs to personal potential and growth. Our group ideals and stereotypes supersede independent and individual thought. We developed a herd mentality that in many ways continues to persist. Challenging this mentality is a hugely risky endeavor, because it threatens our existing stability and privilege in American society.
The Indian American Mindset of Inclusion
As a group, Indian Americans have not taken advantage of our privileges to give much thought to incorporating inclusion in our separated communities. We are still stuck in this competitive and comparative mindset of outsiders. The history of this group in the United States has invariably led to us measuring our success in American society only in comparison to others. “Keeping up with the Joneses”, or in this case, the Kumars or the Shahs or Singhs has become the way we operate. This only further increased the pressure to conform to our groups.
Our local and regional sub-groups have been so small and tight-knit that even now, almost every Indian family knows almost every other Indian family living in a fifty-mile radius around them. We might have been invisible to the larger American society, but internally, even with a rapidly growing population, we have been very visible to each other. This increased visibility brought with it a slew of pressures that affected our attitudes and values as a cultural group.
For instance, our personal achievements mean more only when they can withstand comparisons with others. If our personal achievements don’t hold up to these external group comparisons, they are almost not good enough. We are more focused on how others will judge our “failures” than we are on growing as human beings with a vast array of human needs. This focus on keeping up with an external measure of success in society has left no mental space for us to include ourselves, let alone others, whether internally within our community, or externally. It has made us risk aversive, and created the mindset of fear that colors most of our actions.
The pressure that Indian immigrants exert on each other to achieve perfection in our success has become almost legendary at this point. Our idea of success has been warped by a combination of the hypercompetitive Indian mindset that we have not discarded, and a paralyzing fear of failure in this new environment. For many Indian immigrants and Indian Americans, failure is not an acceptable learning tool; anything less than perfection is failure. The majority of Indian Americans have a story or joke about their Indian family members asking them why they didn’t get a perfect score on an exam or a standardized test. We laugh about it because we feel like we can’t control it, unless we completely shed our “Indianness”. We take this pressure to be perfect as an indicator of affection from our loved ones; after all, if they didn’t care about us, they wouldn’t expect us to be perfect.
We are bound by the concept that our personal lives affect not just us but our reputation within our community as well. This might seem like inclusion superficially, but the underlying values behind this “herd mentality” are not inclusive. We are taught that our stereotypical reputation of being hard-working, over-achieving, generally agreeable people is not to be threatened in any way because this might affect others’ perceptions of us. We are more concerned with what others will think of us, and not who we actually are. We are more attuned to seeming successful externally, instead of actually succeeding and growing personally.
Overall, these pressures and many others only work to reinforce the societal myth about model minorities. In our cultural history and evolution, Indian immigrants and Indian Americans have made being “model minority” citizens an unquestionable part of our identity in the greater American diaspora. Our attitudes, our values, and our behaviors continue to perpetuate positive and negative stereotypes about us. In doing so, we stay largely oblivious to the harms being caused by the continuation of this myth.