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Is the Indian Diaspora a ‘Model Minority’?

Written by Aditya Burra, 11th September 2020

For a while now, white nationalists have used a simple defence when confronted about their racism. Under the moniker of “race realism,” prominent figures in the movement like Charles Murray and Richard Spencer point to Asians being the most advanced race based on their higher performance on IQ tests. This predilection for associating races with IQ, alongside a multitude of questionable metrics that claim to represent a vague idea of value is unfortunately not unique to these fringe thinkers. Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, the American media made a concerted effort to extol the virtues of Asian immigrants, pedestalizing them as the “model minority”. In doing so, they put forth a false comparison between Asian Americans and other minorities, arguing that deep-seated structural racism faced by other minorities could be overcome solely by a strong work ethic and close-knit family values. In the past half-century or so, another minority has been warmly accepted into this “model” fold – our very own Indian diaspora.

The history of Indian immigration to the US was almost non-existent until 18 years after independence. With the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, the first generation of Indian immigrants made their way to the U.S. The majority of Indian Americans, around 62% of the current population, immigrated after 2000 on H1-B visas, mostly to work in tech and IT. They are a significant driver in the popular American conception of Indians.

There is of course no doubt that Indian-Americans are an educated workforce and one that drives white-collar industries.  Statistically, the group is the wealthiest and most educated amongst all ethnic communities. On average, Indian-Americans earn $126,891, compared to $63,179 made by the average family. 77% of them have a bachelor’s, almost double the percent of native-born Americans.  Perhaps most significantly, despite comprising less than 1% of America’s population, Indian-Americans founded 8% of all engineering and technology start-ups in the country.

So how is this outlandishly high success achieved? Can it be attributed to hard work alone? Undoubtedly, it is true that Indian immigrant children are compelled to work harder than their peers, driven by Ivy-league aspirations forced onto them by their parents. Within both Indian and American media, the success of the diaspora is commonly attributed to their innate talents and drive for achieving the American dream. One can’t categorically discount these factors, but to parrot them as the sole cause without inspecting the structural issues behind them is equally misleading. 

Since widespread immigration began, the selection process from India has favoured the most privileged members of society – those from the educated, upper-classes and castes. The power structures that facilitated Brahminical supremacy in the motherland have also ensured that those from the Indian diaspora who do migrate tend to largely come from upper-caste backgrounds. By attributing their eventual success to merit and intrinsic ability, the caste structures that enabled this success to occur are often swept under the rug.

This is how the model-minority narrative is shaped: by consciously leaving out details of structural privilege and hierarchical power while adhering to mainstream notions of success, materially and socially. American-Indians have historically leaned into a notion of whiteness and white-approved success, and whiteness, in turn, has eventually claimed them as one of their own. The diaspora has rushed forth enthusiastically to belong to the system, but have seldom attempted to transform it. Decades of doing so while witnessing rewards has increased the want to keep up this smokescreen, turning the myth of the model minority into a reality.

Politicians such as Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, and Ajit Pai exemplify the reality of white-assimilation to achieve political success. They highlight their South Asian roots when it is convenient to appeal to an immigrant narrative, but more often than not refuse to adopt their ethnic identity as central to themselves. Attempts to project whiteness are actually far from recent.  In 1923, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the landmark case of United States V/s. Bhagat Singh Thind that Indians were ineligible for citizenship because they weren’t “free white persons.” Thind’s unsuccessful argument for citizenship was based on the fact that he was of “high-caste Hindu stock,” and was classified by scientific authorities as a Caucasian/Aryan. However, the prevalence of intermarriages over time was deemed to have lessened the degree of purity in his Aryan blood, thereby deeming him ineligible for citizenship.

Bobby Jindal/ Portrait of Bobby Jindal

Hindu Indian-Americans are very religious, with 79% of those polled in a Pew Survey reporting that religion is “very important” or “somewhat important” in their lives. They also tend to support and put forth a pro-Hindu view of the world, making it no surprise that they continue to support Modi and Trump. In this moment of rising Hindu Nationalism, they are being awakened as not juts Indian, but Hindu Americans. 

Brahmin and upper-caste NRIs often anecdotally claim Hinduphobia and oppression for brownie points from white Americans to claim allyship with them, with both communities alleging rampant reverse-racism and discrimination. Displaying allyship to a minority that is a “model” is more comfortable than confronting native structural racism, and supporting causes from those communities that have suffered in the country. By consciously keeping out of anti-racist politics that might offend the majority, the model minority has reinforced a reality worth aspiring to. Other minorities are targeted, both inside as well as outside our race, as if to prove that they are unlike them, that they are exemplary citizens (either by assimilation or by being do-gooders). This rings especially true in countries like the U.S., where all immigrant groups have navigated their place in American class and racial hierarchy.

Indian Americans supporting Trumps immigration policy. Image Credits India Abroad

Indian upper-caste culture abroad often revolves around closing the door as soon as you are safely inside. Caste bias has undoubtedly survived on foreign shores, despite the promise of an “equal” society, because immigrant communities can and do import along with themselves, their “traditions” and practices. In America, Civil Rights Laws do not explicitly ban discrimination based on caste. It was practically a non-issue in America at the time these laws were penned in the early 1960s, with the Indian diaspora numbering only around 12,000 at the time of the 1960 census. The problem present in implementing a law that addresses caste specifically is that its manifestations often extend beyond the professional sphere, invisible to most outsiders. Instances of caste discrimination relate to prejudice within social circles, rather than outright, in-the-face discrimination that would fall under the ambit of equality laws.

Although caste discrimination hasn’t ever been a major public issue in the USA, the case brought forth by the State of California against Cisco comes at a time when the country is getting to grips with its structural racial discrimination. The California Department of Fair Employment filed a lawsuit accusing Cisco of violating Title VII of the historic Civil Rights Act, an outcome of the 1960s movement to end outright segregation and discrimination. The lawsuit alleges that the complainant was the only Dalit in a team comprised of upper-castes. Dalits in the workplace fear retribution across companies, through an upper-caste network that spreads across companies, detrimental to their career prospects. These networks can mute a rise in Dalits’ careers. Many Indians, once upwardly mobile in the United States, tend to be cagey, embarrassed but also often defensive to the idea of themselves being the beneficiaries of caste privilege. Caste in second and third-generation families is often invisible due to the obfuscation of discrimination, again due to being born in a privileged caste. 

Discussions of caste abroad by the diaspora are limited, if not entirely absent. It is unsurprising to hear from Indian immigrants that caste discrimination doesn’t exist in their communities. Estimates from the authors of “The Other One Percent: Indians in America”, a 2016 study of people of Indian descent in the United States state that over 90% of migrants were from high or dominant castes. Most American-Indians are therefore as sheltered from the detrimental effects of casteism on foreign shores as they were at home. But caste does continue to influence and shape the lives of the minority who are not upper-caste. The experiences of those that left India to escape casteism are not as rosy. Just as in back home, they report discrimination in multiple ways. 60% of Dalits, in a survey, reported caste-based derogatory jokes or comments at their workplace. They are once again a minority that has managed to escape their domestic shackles, only to remain in a diasporic setting propped up by the upper-castes, those who have undoubtedly had systematic help in getting them there in the first place. Migrant communities that have historically found themselves oppressed by caste find that caste has cemented itself in the diasporic social, cultural, and religious institutions.

Released this year, Isabel Wilkerson’s groundbreaking book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents“, analyses structural racism in America through caste systems.

A survey conducted by equalitylabs.org, an Amedkarite institution operating in the US, provides the first quantitative and qualitative report on way casteism has followed the diaspora rather than being left behind. 25% of Dalits who responded reported verbal or physical assault based on their identity and two-thirds of respondents reported unfair treatment at workplaces. What makes caste discrimination even harder to combat here is the forced invisibility of Dalits – 52% of those surveyed worried about being “outed” as lower caste. 

There is a great, urgent need for education surrounding Indian culture, history, and caste in the diaspora; however attempts to do the same are often thwarted. In 2015, Hindu groups with ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) lobbied and were successful in the removal of mentions of caste in California school textbooks. Often, these textbooks are first printed in California and then used as a template for the rest of the country. Attempts were made to re-brand the structure of the caste system as a system of interrelationship and interdependence of the four social classes. 

The portrayal of Hindu culture chosen was that of a monolith, which fails to address systematic problems in representation.The broad classification of the Indian-American community as a “model” is a misnomer which fails to take into account a pre-existing structural bias that allowed for selective migration. As we unfortunately see in cases like the Cisco incident,  this same bias has re-established itself firmly in institutions on American shores. Given the diaspora’s internal problems with caste and discrimination, the attributes of a model community are ill-fitting. In diaspora families where children are uneducated about the evils of their caste system, and adults either propagate or are indifferent to this subject, how can this largely invisible issue be tackled?

Experience Further: In one his more optimistic songs, Ed Kowalczyk makes an impassioned plea for multi-culturalism. There is a middle ground, where people across races and creed mesh – “The Beauty of Gray”.

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Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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