While growing up in Mumbai, the notions I had of the United States were fed mostly by conversations with relatives and family friends living there. This distant country, I was told, was a paradise for anyone who showed promise and willingness to work hard. There was rarely a mention of anything that wasn’t right.
When I moved to the US in late 2014, Black Lives Matter was becoming a full blown national movement crying for attention, following the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. I began to realise how systemic racism played out in this country, and participated in demonstrations and protest marches. The absence of voices of fellow Indians (among those like me who had moved here in recent years) was glaring on the streets as well as on social media feeds.
More recently, the ascent of Donald Trump to the highest office showed the same variety of disinterest initially. Days after the election, my cousin who lived in California wondered why I was so distraught. Nothing he does is going to affect you, he had said. Is that any consolation? I snapped back.
Soon after the erratic nature of Trump became apparent, things started changing. Today, wariness has replaced my cousin’s confidence as he follows every move that the new president makes on immigration policy. He has slowly begun to speak out against the dangers of a Trump presidency.
In the wake of Trump’s ban on people from seven Muslim countries entering the US, my friend who lives in Seattle said that as much as he felt for the people who were directly affected by this ban, he couldn’t oppose it because he was not an American citizen. “For me as an immigrant, being able to stay and work in the US is not a right; it is a privilege, a choice. Things are different for American citizens, and I applaud them for speaking out against the ban,” he said.
What explains the proclivity of fellow Indians to largely remain silent in the face of grave failures in American society like racism, inequality, poverty?
Rohit Chopra, whose research and teaching at Santa Clara University focus on global media and cultural identity, explains that the stereotype of political apathy is truer for Indians from India; second-generation immigrants are more politically involved and engaged. “Indians and Indian-Americans in the humanities and social sciences in grad schools in the US tend to be more politically engaged than their counterparts in the sciences, engineering and business, possibly because of the nature of the object of study... Because Indians in the US predominantly study and work in these tech and science fields overall, then, the level of political engagement is low.”
Chopra further explains that the general lack of involvement stems from the middle-class anxieties and competitiveness that inform Indian life. “It is how Indian generations are socialised. Getting into a US university, then a job, then green card are all seen as hitting one jackpot after another and there is a deep-seated fear it may be taken away and should not be jinxed. This translates into a kind of self-imposed political ghettoisation.”
Of the nearly 3.2 million Indian Americans in the country, more than a third are recent arrivals (in the country for 10 years or fewer). They are also among the most highly educated racial or ethnic groups in the US, with about 40.6% having graduate or professional degrees (American Community Survey, 2013). Unsurprisingly, they are generally well-off. The Pew Research Center’s findings (based on 2010 Census data and an extensive survey conducted in 2012) show that Indian Americans had the highest median annual household compared to other Asian counterparts, or even all US households. Only 9% of adult Indian Americans live in poverty.
In this context, Indians naturally underscore meritocracy and hard work as a ticket to success, a success they rightfully earn and deserve, no doubt. However, this tends to lead to unawareness about oppressive systems that ensure certain communities do not succeed. This elitism even tends to align with the anti-black, anti-poor, anti-Muslim rhetoric in the US, and extends to the anti-Dalit sentiment back home.
Development professional Amruta Byatnal says that Indians who don’t speak out in the US are likely not to participate in India either. “We literally come from one place of privilege to another. We are mainly upper caste people coming to the US in search of better opportunities, so feel no need to protest. We think that bad policies always affect others and not us. How many of us even think of ourselves as people of colour?” she asks.
Srivi Ramasubramanian, associate dean of liberal arts at Texas A&M University, says Indians could make use of their privilege in the US. “If you as an educated, well-to-do legal green-card holder or recent immigrant of this country are scared to speak up, then imagine those who don't have such privileges. If not for one or two factors that happened to be in your favour (caste, class, English education, etc), you could also have easily been a refugee or undocumented immigrant. We must not forget that Indians are the sixth largest undocumented immigrants in this nation.”
This is why, it would benefit us Indians, to take a stand. Stanley Thangaraj, assistant professor of anthropology at the City College of New York addresses some of our concerns in a recent article. He points that even though Hindu Indians try to fit into white Americanness in the US, they face similar threats to their existence as their other brown counterparts. “While South Asians might claim their class status, heterosexuality, and male bodies as a way to enter into Americanness, they can never fully occupy Christianity and whiteness.” This, he says, was blatant when a Hindu grandfather, Sureshbhai Patel, was beaten up by police in Madison, Alabama, more than a year ago.
Trump’s ban on Muslim nations and his devious immigration policies should serve as a wake-up call for us Indians. Now is our time to show up, speak out and donate. Our silence will only further authoritarianism. In trying to show we’re an ideal minority, we should not forget the truth in our hearts. We come from a nation built on civil disobedience and mass resistance movements. The struggle for freedom didn’t and shouldn't end in 1947.
Let’s battle where there is only one fight — the fight for equality and justice. Let’s put our bodies and voices where our hearts are. Let us take pride in not only being successful engineers, doctors and bankers in this country, but also in being decent human beings.
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Updated Date: Feb 03, 2017 14:24:08 IST