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THE INVISIBLE INDIAN: INSULARITY, INTERSECTIONALITY, AND THE MODEL MINORITY MYTH

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THE INVISIBLE INDIAN: INSULARITY, INTERSECTIONALITY, AND THE MODEL MINORITY MYTH

The Ankh

Disproportionate economic success of Asian-Americans and Indian-Americans has created the model-minority stereotype, but has also allowed many to deny racism in the United States, resulting in the erasure of Indian-Americans in the public eye. But Indian-Americans are not exempt from marginalisationwe must encourage young Indian-Americans to enter the public eye and join other movements as allies.

The immigration of Asian-born people to the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon. For the most part, Asians began entering the US in bulk during the early twentieth century. However, among Asian-American subgroups, Indians are the newest arrivals—as of 2010, only about 12.8% of ethnically Indian-American residents were born in the U.S.. These Indians tend to cluster in large numbers in particular counties or neighbourhoods. However, the number of Indian nationals moving to the US has consistently grown, and as many situate themselves as permanent residents and start families, the lack of a true Indian-American culture becomes more and more pronounced. For the most part, Indian-Americans work in specialised fields, make good money, and keep their lives private. However, this reserved character (generally speaking; there is plenty of diversity among different individuals, especially young Indian-Americans) has resulted in a pigeonholing of the Indian-American as a “model minority.” This perception can only be broken if we encourage young Indian-Americans to enter the public eye, whether by working in public office or by engaging in sociopolitical discourse as allies of other movements to dispel stereotypes and generalisations about marginalised and invisibilised communities.

Since Indians began immigrating to the United States, first and second-generation Indian-Americans have bore the burden of the model minority myth. This stereotype portrays Asian-Americans (including Indians) as brainy, reclusive and obsessively hardworking. As Robert S. Chang writes in the California Law Review, “At its surface, the label ‘model minority’ seems like a compliment. However…it [is] a tool of oppression which works a dual harm by (1) denying the existence of present-day discrimination against Asian-Americans and the present-day effects of past discrimination, and (2) legitimising the oppression of other racial minorities and poor whites.” Historically, Asian-Americans have been used as an “if-they-can-do-it-why-can’t-you” example to deny racism based on disproportionate economic success—for instance, the quicker social mobility of Asian-American former sharecroppers compared to southern blacks in the late nineteenth century led to resentment predicated upon this stereotype.

The relatively low number of Indians in the U.S., combined with the model minority myth, has resulted in an invisibilisation of Indian-American culture. It is uncommon to see an Indian in mainstream media unless s/he has a strong accent, works in IT, and/or is Aziz Ansari. This does a disservice to the various Indian-Americans who are excelling in their chosen fields; the rapper Heems, for example, or the writer Anand Giridharadas, or the CEOof PepsiCo Indra Nooyi. The erasure of Indian-American nuance in the public eye, coupled with the remaining divide between our community and other minority communities, prevent Indians’ achievements from being widely recognised.

As a result, this invisibilisation has permeated public service as well—American government pervasively lacks diversity, publicly and privately. Indian-Americans should encourage savvy young members of our community to consider pursuing politics or federal service; however, as evidenced by Bobby Jindal’s stances on issues of citizenship and diversity, it is not enough to play identity politics. Our community must establish vocal support of public officials who will consider Indian-American issues, while also infiltrating federal departments and agencies to precipitate change behind the scenes. 

Furthermore, we must establish a national identity that breaks the model minority myth by accepting and taking pride in prominent Indian figures in all fields while joining with other groups working toward progress in the same direction. The Civil Rights Movement paved the way for Indian immigrants to attempt to improve their families’ lives in America; thus, participating in #BlackLivesMatter as allies establishes a clear, unified position on racial justice issues. Indians, especially Sikhs, experience many negative externalities of American Islamophobia; thus, pushing for the acceptance of Syrian refugees into America could be a step toward a united front opposing bigotry and xenophobia.

Instead of retreating into the safe space of our insular communities, we must acknowledge the reality of intersectionality: the issues of black Americans, Muslim-Americans, and other people of colour concern Indian-Americans too. It is easy to stay divided, to care only about issues that directly affect us, to attempt to ignore the popular stereotypes that colour many Indian-Americans’ daily interactions, but it is in unity that we will find our strength.

Sahil Singhvi '18
Originally published in the current and global affairs review, Fox & Hedgehog.