By Nikhil Umesh:
The year was 1996, and my mother was stranded in London’s Heathrow International Airport with a young girl, recently born, and a mischievous three year old boy. I have blurred memories from this brief time in England, only remembering scarfing down some potatoes that were brought to our hotel room. We were making the approximately 16,000 kilometre expedition from Bangalore to our new home, Kingston, Jamaica.
It was a monumental journey, one that would alter our life trajectories with no going back. And the start of a history lesson — whether I wanted to be taught or not.
These days, I’m thinking a lot about those history lessons: reflecting on the experience of navigating a world moulded by extensive histories of colonial enterprise, capitalistic expansion, and the exploitation of people deemed to be other and less-than. Thinking about what it means to have one’s body racialized, have the melanin in my skin, among other phenotypic features, be cause for stereotype, judgement, and even various privileges.
My family’s ten year stint in Jamaica has left an indelible impact on me. We went through a lot: opened our first business, experienced loss in multiple capacities, mapped out a vision to eventually make it to the United States, befriended many Indians who also made the trek across the seas, and soaked up more sun than we imagined.
In Jamaica, I was referred to as a “coolie”. From my standpoint, the term seemed to have positive connotations, not the least bit offensive. I knew my straight jet-black hair was at least one basis for being referred to as such, since it was applied to anyone who fit the physical descriptors for having East Indian ancestry.
10 years went by without me fully comprehending the racial significance behind the term or knowing the long history of indentured labour that has come to shape the Caribbean. Life went by as usual in that decade. I still ate at Island Grill (a local chain) almost every weekend, getting my fill of perfectly seasoned jerk chicken, replete with sides of callaloo rice and festival, a type of fried dumpling.
Being an avid lover of food, Jamaican food is something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon, with African, Indian, Chinese, and Spanish influences creating a cuisine reflective of the island’s storied past and evolving present. That said, cuisine is a vector with which we can think on the origins of the word “coolie”. Curry is a mainstay of Jamaica’s food scene, product of the culinary talent of indentured labourers from India.
In Trinidad and other countries, “coolie” is a racial slur, but it was tossed around so innocuously in Jamaica, that I felt the island to be some type of colour blind utopia. But little did I know that I was slumbering in my own historical amnesia.
Gaiutra Bahadur describes the history behind the enterprise of indentured labour and its link to the word “coolie” in Dissent Magazine: “Between 1838 and 1917 Indian [people] came to the Caribbean as “coolies”, indentured labourers used by the British to replace emancipated slaves on plantations throughout the empire. The traffic in indentured labour was one third the size of the British slave trade, with more than a million Indians shipped to roughly a dozen colonies worldwide. Despite its scale, the history of indenture—neglected as a postscript to the abolition of slavery—has been largely lost to collective memory.”
“Coolie” is a term I no longer hear. We left Jamaica in 2006 with the help of low priced international moving companies we relocated to live in the United States — Greensboro, North Carolina to be exact. I’ll be turning 22 on August 15, and as I sit in the country my parents dreamed of making it to, having crossed several borders and navigated new spaces, I have had the chance to finally process some key questions regarding immigration, identity, and race. Unlike Jamaica, where I was oblivious to the history and development of the island’s racial formation, it didn’t take long for me to see and experience the more polarizing racialization of the United States. From police violence and racialized mass incarceration aimed at Black people to the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, many of them Latin American, America wasn’t trying very hard to hide the ways in which White supremacy is blueprinted into its institutions.
Important in Gaiutra Bahadur’s telling of the history of indentured servitude is that racial slavery pre-empted and drove it in fundamental ways. Both the United States and the Caribbean were sites of racial slavery, where the construct of race was used to justify the enslavement of people kidnapped from Africa. The relation between enslaved Black people and the White owning class was the template that enabled over 36,000 Indian workers to be brought to Jamaica between 1845 and 1917. The United States has its own histories and waves of South Asian migration. But anti-Black racism, perhaps in different manifestations, is still foundational to racial formation in both regions. And importantly, shapes the ways in which South Asians are treated, whether as “coolies” in Jamaica or as “model minorities” in the United States.
That being said, the notion of the “model minority” has been a cornerstone of conservative White race commentary since the 1960s, positing Asian Americans as evidence of the colour blind meritocracy that is the United States. As a South Asian, I’ve been stereotyped as docile, apolitical, and hard working. All good things, right? But not until my time in college did I process the perverse ulterior motives behind these tired tropes.
The United States has used the success of (some) Asian immigrants to contend that America is a level playing field and lack of success among other people of colour is due to a lack of their own initiative. The model minority myth has been a weapon deployed against Black Americans, positing poverty along racial lines being due to some sort of cultural pathology, rather than being founded in structural and historical inequities that were birthmarked into the country.
Being framed as a “model minority” means dealing with stereotypes that have traditionally positive connotations. Consequently, South Asians have a hard time seeing the myth as a form of racism, giving its utility as a lynchpin to maintain anti-Black racism much staying power. Not until the post-9/11 era with burgeoning Islamophobia did I finally consider myself a “victim” of racism. In my first few weeks as an 8th grader at a charter school in Greensboro, I was referred to as a “terrorist”. The word was tossed around flippantly. Students joked that I would bomb the school at any moment. I laughed along, not sure what to make of the comments. As the Bush Administration was waging its “War on Terror,” American foreign and military policy (the same thing, if you ask me) doled out moral permissibility to deem me as inherently capable of carrying out mass violence.
Since 9/11, we have seen a surge in anti-Muslim violence in the U.S. Many people deemed to “look Muslim”, such as Hindus and Sikhs, have been victim of vicious hate crimes. Public paranoia surrounding Islam has ostensibly been galvanized by the media and political figures. For instance, Sunando Sen, an Indian immigrant, was fatally pushed onto the subway tracks in New York City in December of 2012. His assailant is reported as having said to detectives: “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims… Ever since 2001 when they put down the Twin Towers, I’ve been beating them up.”
It’s been 19 years since my mom, sister, and I were stranded in London. Once I hopped on that flight out of Bangalore, I entered this “in between” space. A space that has meant redefining and questioning what it means to have attachments to any national identity, and carving out new ways that I identify myself.
The melanin in my skin renders me an outsider here in North Carolina, but the American twang in my accent renders me an “other” in India, as well. Though, the latter carries benefits and praise, for I’m seen within my extended family as someone more hip and educated than if I grew up in Bangalore. Still, I’ll never fully be Indian or American.
Like Sunando Sen, I’m not Muslim. Interestingly, I was raised Catholic, and my mother’s family has the surname Gama. Both are vestiges of Portuguese empire in the Indian subcontinent. Imperial policy, and its violent machinations, have played instrumental roles in my life.
But imperialism still lives on — it didn’t come to a full stop when India gained independence on August 15, 1947. It evolved. Moving around the world, I’m seeing ways that neo-colonialism is deeply entrenched on a global scale, with White supremacy, anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, and various forms of marginalization still being manufactured by the powers that be.