For the past few weeks, my posts have been on inclusion in the overall American population. In my first post, I presented an argument on why all of us, as Americans, need to refocus our energies and efforts on inclusion and deliberately inclusive actions. In my second post, I used the Charlottesville terrorist attack, and the Google memo that was biased against women, to highlight very crucial points on what inclusion is not. Then, I was told, “So what? What does this have to do with us? It is best if we stayed out of it and stayed safe”. The person who expressed this was an Indian American man. As I thought about how to respond to this, it made me realize there was no simple “clapback” that would suffice. Indian Americans have a complex history with the idea of inclusion. In many ways, we may have never been able to realize what inclusion really is. That is a very revealing point about our cultural identities and our roles in American society. So, for the next 7 weeks or so, I will be looking more closely at Indian Americans and our evolution with inclusion.
Why should Indian Americans get involved in inclusion efforts?
In one sense, staying out of these debates does have validity to a certain extent. After all, with 3.8 million people, the Indian American community accounts for only about 1% of the overall population. The majority (87%) of us aren’t even born in the U.S. But, 13% of us are. And when combined with the 56% of foreign-born Indian Americans who became naturalized citizens, there are now about 2.9 million American citizens with Indian heritage. As Americans, all 2.9 million of us are directly affected by issues of equality and inclusion in America.
We also have a 69% growth rate (national average is about 0.7%), largely due to the immigration and naturalization of more Indian nationals. Ongoing conversations about equality and inclusion, partly spurred by greater awareness of the many inequalities in our society, are targeting our laws, social norms and practices for change. As we settle down and grow our families here, these very issues that we want to stay out of might affect our future generations. In this case, it is essential for us as Indian Americans to participate in these dialogues and debates.
Currently, leaders and programs in many fields are attempting to reorganize existing diversity structures and practices to make them more inclusive to all segments of the American population. While we are almost 4 million strong, we are not a homogenous group of people. We came from different parts of India and settled in local communities all over the United States. Among us, we have a multitude of diverse and rich mixed heritages and subcultures that we work hard to preserve through our social, cultural and religious organizations. To make sure that this culture is transmitted to the next generations, it is especially imperative that we represent our diversity well. We need to speak up about our different needs, because our silence will only make us invisible and uncounted.
There are already a number of minorities, groups and activism movements speaking up to make a push for inclusion for everyone in society. These ventures need support to be impactful. The almost 4 million of us hold intellectual and cultural “capital” that could be tremendously useful in giving these existing movements the help they need. That is why it is critical that we show our support for others, within our subcultural communities, and within our greater American communities. We need to stand up in solidarity for inclusion. We need to include our voices in these conversations.
As it turns out, many Indian Americans are already involved in larger, open forum, public discussions on inclusion and equality. But, even within these discussions, one question that keeps coming up repeatedly is, “Why aren’t more Indian Americans getting involved in these conversations?” That is an intriguing and compelling question without a simple answer. Even more challenging is trying to figure out how we can increase Indian American engagement in these national conversations. But, to get to that point, we first need to look at where we are and how we got here.
Indian American History with Inclusion
As clichéd as it may seem, in order to understand who we are today and why, we have to look at our historical roots. The Indian subcontinent is several thousand years old, with many invasions and cultural forces that changed its people. One of the most recent blows came in the form of European colonials and the colonial British Raj. The East India Company and its policies fundamentally and permanently shaped the Indian government. It also affected almost all aspects of the Indian culture and society.
While being the minority in the land, British imperialists successfully managed to unify a geographically vast group of diverse kingdoms and lands into a single hierarchical society – one where they placed themselves as the most superior group in every imaginable way. The strategies of divide and conquer that they used to manipulate and exacerbate group differences to create divisions were insidious and successful. These colonial mechanisms influenced the way we think, the way we run, our definitions of “us versus them”, and, our personal and group narratives. The devastating impact of the damages of colonialism can still be felt and seen in many aspects of life even today in a post-colonial, independent, 70-year old India. In my next few posts I will go into more details on colonial attitudes and how they affected Indian-American psychology, especially in the context of inclusion.
Indian American Migrations and Inclusion
As an immigrant group, our Indian history is only one of the pieces of our identity. We also have to look at our selected immigration history into the United States of America, a nation set up by the same colonial tools that affected us as Indians. Prior to the Immigration Act of 1965, Indians had a spotty history with migrations to the U.S. because of quota restrictions and laws that discriminated against minorities.
After 1965, those of us who had selection advantages began to arrive in waves. Our immigrants went from being unskilled, agricultural workers to being highly educated and sought-after. Between 1980 and 2013, we went from being an immigrant group of around 200,000 people, to an immigrant group that is around 2.8 million and growing. Even more interestingly, more than 50% of us in this group have only been in the US since about 2000. Our simultaneous adjustment to the dominant American culture around us, and to our own growing cultural population has had a very interesting impact on our cultural identities.
The America that most Indian Americans know is the post-Civil War version, where many segments of the population were already achieving legal equality. We remain mostly unaware of the pre-Civil war forces that shaped America, and still affect us today. Because of that, a lot of us aren’t sure where we fit in. A lot of us might even see ourselves as a separate but equal segment in America.We created beautiful, affluent and safe little “ethnoburbs” within the American society, and we choose to engage in our culture through them.
While some of us completely assimilated into the American culture, others live our whole lives within these internal communities. We take great pride in preserving and highlighting our Indian heritages, customs and traditions within this setup. We also take great pride in learning and showing off our American patriotism. But, in trying to grow our Indian culture while keeping it separate within America, are we alienating ourselves from both our cultures? I will address this in a future post.
In other posts on this topic, I will also look at how these knowledge and experience gaps affected the rather brief and modern history of Indian Americans. How did Indian Americans adjust to the American culture in the past 40 years or so? In what ways are Indian Americans adjusting to each other and the continuing influx of Indian immigrants? What impact does all of this have on us as people, and as an overall group? These are some topics that will be covered in future blog posts. They give us a better understanding of the spectrum of forces that shaped our attitudes and values into their current forms.
Indian Americans and Issues of Inclusion we face now
One immediate point of note is that as an immigrant group, Indian Americans tend to keep our noses to the ground, and out of the bigger conversations happening around us. We are successful at reaping the benefits of the Model Minority stereotype, while our silence and complacency safeguard us from any major pitfalls or threats we may face as a model minority.
But our success doesn’t make us immune to the stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination that we face in our lives. In fact, one of the biggest and most pervasive stereotypes that continue to hurt our community is this Model Minority myth. This stereotype has devastating effects on its own, but it also blocks us from addressing many of our internal, regional prejudices (about the caste system, our “color” complex, double standards in gender issues, and more). We are also constantly worried about, “what will other people think?”. The debilitating effects of this mindset will be discussed in a future post.
In other future posts, I will also go into more details about the dangers of the model minority stereotype. I will also look at the effects of many of the “-isms” we perpetuate internally within our own communities, and how they affect our education, our cultural identities, and our relationships, and our idea of inclusion.
Additionally, being a model minority also silences us from confronting prejudices from or towards other non-Indian sources. These external prejudices and their effects will also be examined in future blog posts.
How can Indian Americans promote inclusion?
In my last post in this series, I will go into more detail about some ideas that I have about becoming more inclusive in our actions. I will also discuss how I think we can make sure our inclusive actions are making a positive impact. My point in doing detailed blog posts about Indian Americans and inclusion is partly to increase awareness of the various forces which created an entirely new culture – one that borrows freely, but is different from its parent cultures. We definitely aren’t Indian by nationality but we are by culture. We don’t have an established American heritage, but we are American nationals. Both our culture and our nationality help us form our social group. We are Indian American.
This Indian American culture only began taking shape in our parents’ lifetimes. In fact, so far it grew the most in our own lifetimes, and it is continuing to grow and evolve into a stable and powerful entity within the larger American culture. This Indian American culture also allows us to have deep engagements in both the Indian and American societies. We are in a unique situation where we can significantly and positively influence two distinct cultures with various clashing values. From this perspective, it is clear to see that the Indian American group could be very useful and helpful in addressing social issues in India and America, while also building its own inclusive foundations. Once we realize this, it boils down to choice. We could stay silent, do nothing and let existing inequalities and instabilities continue. Or, we could be proactive agents of change and actively help build equitable futures for three different societies around the world.
I already know which option I like better. What about you?