For most Indian immigrants, the stories of their family coming to America start after the 1960’s when the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 was passed, opening up access for international migrants to move into the United States. The tales of newly-married couples, family members reuniting with siblings overseas, and wanderers from the Indian diaspora in search of a better life seem endless. They have been recited in intimate family settings, on Thanksgiving tables and at Diwali puja, time and again reminding first-generation children that the challenges that come with “making it” are sometimes as daunting as they might seem. For other South Asian immigrants, the “Model Minority” narrative does not hold true. Families of few of these immigrants are still struggling financially in America or are among the half a million undocumented Indian migrants in the country.
Samip Mallick, one of the co-founders and the current executive director of a Philadelphia-based organisation South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), wants to bring the diversity of the South Asian American experience to modern community members. His organisation digitally catalogues pieces of South Asian American history such as newspaper clippings of events of discrimination against South Asians and immigrant profiles dating back to early 1940s. Mallick’s drive to put together the archive stems not only from his fear that the important stories of South Asian history in the US might get lost, but also because without knowing one’s roots moving forward as a community becomes even more challenging. SAADA’s work seeks to bridge the gap between the past and present, allowing diasporic Indians and others to form a cohesive identity with the knowledge of the many challenges their ancestors had to overcome to “make it” in the US.
Access to SAADA’s archived newspaper clippings from the 1900’s is not only informative, but also healing for those who have felt more isolated than before in the United States as a result of the current political climate. The “Trump Effect,” which many blame was partially the cause for the 2017 death of Srinivas Kuchibotla, a Garmin employee who was shot dead at a bar in Kansas, is more understandable when stories from the “Early Immigration” page of the archive are ingested. An eerily similar story is that of the 1908 shooting of Harnam Singh in the Pacific-Northwest. Singh’s identity as an immigrant and the fact that he had been hired in a white-majority setting were both motivations for his murder.
The derogatory language that was used against Kuchibotla asserted the fact that he was an immigrant, with his assailant asking him to show his papers and eventually demanding him to “Get out of my country!” Similarly, Singh’s murderers hoped that his death would prove as a cautionary tale for other “East Indians” hoping to migrate to the United States. Further, Kuchibotla’s status as an H1-B visa holder made him an automatic target of politics of fear, which has risen significantly under Trump regime. The tactics of oppression against Indian and South Asian communities have hardly changed since they first began arriving in the United States. However, the lack of connectivity to such issues prove that socio-economic status and geographic location can insulate South Asians with greater privilege. Mallick reflected on Kuchibotla’s death as almost a shock for some members of the larger Indian community who felt perplexed by how something like this could happen to one of “them.”
But even in 1908, South Asians in the Pacific Northwest lived and breathed as “thems.” As Indian immigrants became more prominent in Washington, the Asiatic Exclusion League was formed in response to the rising number of brown faces that occupied their workspaces. The League’s principles were rooted in racism and xenophobia and is a predecessor to today’s Neo-Nazi groups that have been emboldened enough to march in Washington as recently as this summer. The League was responsible for the 1908 Bellingham Riots which injured six people. Their driving belief that America is a “White Man’s Country” still has listeners who welcome the idea even today. The Sikh Americans who were the targets of this act of hatred were coined as “Hindus,” proving that there is a historic thread connecting South Asian liberation. Likewise, to use an umbrella term such as “Hindu” to describe South Asian identity is to assert that it is singular and without variance, which is a factor that contributes further to the Model Minority myth. Despite these clues from history and their parallels in modern times, many Indian and South Asian immigrants think that their skin colour does not make them “others” in the US.
If more community members had access to stories like those of the Bellingham Riots there would be more context to prove how deeply entrenched certain belief systems are in countries where White supremacy is a driving force. Over a hundred years later, the 2012 Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre, which was carried out by a man who had ties to Neo-Nazi groups in the United States, claimed six lives. The attack proved that how cycles of violence can continue due to the ignorance by the oppressors. During the Bellingham Riots in 1908, Sikh Americans were intimidated and harassed into taking off their turbans. And, even over a century later, this article of religious faith and tradition is still clouded in misconception and triggers many Americans to commit hate crimes.
According to Mallick, the tool of self-education can also be a great elixir against oppression and learning one’s own history is a huge part in achieving racial justice. “For South Asians as a community, our future lies in our ability to create a better life for ourselves by knowing our past to be able to advocate for generations to come,” he noted.
For that reason, sharing stories about our families with other members of our diaspora becomes an integral way to push ahead into the future. While the more glamorous stories of wealthy South Asian doctors, businessmen, journalists, and celebrities are easy to focus on, becoming a connected community with a strong future means including labourers who are making their living in grocery stores and gas stations while dealing with everyday racial oppression in our narrative.
The future of the South Asian “model minority” is important to consider, because research shows that the number of Asian-Americans is expected to double to 14% of the total US population by 2065. Despite the growth of the community, wealth inequality is worse amongst Asian-Americans as compared to any other group, including White Americans. Asian-Americans who earn the least within their ethnic group are amongst the most impoverished individuals in the United States, but according to Mallick, many of their more successful counterparts are sometimes hesitant to admit this reality. “There are plenty of Indian Americans who don’t have PhDs who are struggling financially, who need services they’re not getting access to because the community is not willing to acknowledge the struggle of those people,” he pointed out.
For many South Asian immigrants, flying under the radar and not “rocking the boat” are the goals. The community prefers blending in with the majority of Americans. However, maintaining a voice as a group can allow South Asians to take a stand when it comes to issues that strike through the centre of our communities such as unfair housing policies, wage battles, and immigration issues.
SAADA seeks to showcase the multitudes of life within the South Asian community through initiatives such as the “First Days Project” which allows immigrants to the United States to have a digital platform when talking about their first days in the country. There are stories about a young Bangladeshi immigrant working in a food service setting and one about how an older Indian migrant could not afford to make calls home to speak to his family, both realities are common for anyone beginning life in a new place. The glamour of many upper-class Indian immigrants moving to the United States and continuing on a path of wealth are easy to embrace, but adopting a culture of openness and transparency about all experiences are critical to the future success for South Asians in America.
The Community Organisations and Organising page provided by SAADA allows members of the diaspora to actively engage with groups who seek to shift narratives and provide aid in the form of worker advocacy, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. The site has catalogued photographs of a 2001 committee self-advocating for many of the initiatives they have historically taken on, including the protections of their full-time jobs. With roughly 40% of all New York City yellow cab drivers being South Asian, it is imperative that more economically privileged community members provide financial support to such causes. A study conducted by Indiaspora on poverty specifically in the Indian Community asserted, “[The] community will have to significantly step up its philanthropic support for nonprofits serving these vulnerable groups.” This was with reference to the concentration of South Asians in poor neighbourhoods with developing educational infrastructures. Most of the poorest members of the Indian-American community are those who are taxicab drivers, and they are heavily concentrated in Queens, New York. While these men are hard-pressed to advocate for themselves, the leap in their ability to make progress in their individual fights would be significantly bolstered by the integration of their stories into the collective South Asian conscious.
Through the ownership of one’s struggles, giving up a perception of pure structural privilege seems like a short-term loss for South Asian Americans who are seeking to create a better life for themselves in the United States. However, in long-term, the realities of one’s identity always seem to play a role in one’s everyday experience. For many first-generation South Americans, continuing on their parents’ path of “blending in” will not reap many benefits as their offsprings will have to fend for themselves when it comes to their identities. The Deepak and Priyanka Chopra effect of South Asian-ness in America might provide a temporary halt in the processing of one’s complicated self-image. However, the emptiness that will come as a lack of this critical work is an eventual reality.