Jul 14, 2005

Revisiting "South Asian" Identity

I have tried to stay away from this very basic topic for as long as I could, but in the wake of the London: 7/07 revelations that second generation Britons of Pakistani descent are responsible, and the requisite fallout in desi circles (virtual or otherwise) concerning the "lumping together" or "meaningless" South Asian meta-label, I feel that I should at least put some of these thoughts out there, for better or for worse.

This was fueled by two long and winding threads on Sepia Mutiny (linked above), a wonderful source for news, trivia, and commenters with keyboards and boring/no dayjobs. The blog collective runs in the benign to quite clever range, but the commenters are all over the map. Regardless, some trolls, daemons, and otherwise bored internet junkies are insistent on smacking down the "South Asian" grouping. Is it insecurity? Is it legitimate? Is it missing the point altogether?

Personally, I am sick of explaining South Asian American identity to people (generally folks who didn't grow up in the States/Canada, go through the education system here, and have a massive chip on their shoulder about non-subcontinental born brown folk), and who feel so threatened by it that they have to rant in some of the few spaces where we can actually critically look at these issues through this lens. I use "South Asian" as a political identity. I recognize the differences between the different groups, and hope to learn more about them while recognizing what we share together.

I wish people would recognize that "South Asian" - like the hotly contested "Asian American", "Latino", "Black" - are all political identities. They should be affirmative identities, not fallbacks just because outsiders (racists, governments, etc) feel that we should all be grouped together. If someone doesn't agree with the political identity, that's fine. But if they fear that a South Asian identity disallows more specific cultural, religious, sexual, national (not a personal preference) identities, I think that they are missing the point. In the previous thread on this topic, there was a call to "try to go back to South Asia" but that misses the point too: we are Diasporic populations with converging experiences as a function of those migrations, be they first migrations from South Asia, second migrations via London, or much more complex migrations via Fiji, Uganda, Guyana, Trinidad, or some other place.

"South Asian America", to me, is a space where I can explore my solidarity with folks who I actually do feel distinct closeness with, as well as being able to safely (I hope) explore my personal identities as a Jain, as a Gujarati, as a man, as a second generation American of color. We each represent the intersections of identities, and that's what makes it so wonderful to be conscious, and to embrace these differences even within ourselves. Why isn't that obvious to everyone? Why do folks have to turn this into an "either/or" conversation? It's like the old debate of "are you Indian or are you American?" which I still hear. Shit, man, I'm me, and I'm all of these things. I can take the complexity. If you can't, that's not my problem.

I am not confused about my identity - I'm refusing to resort to jingoism, knee-jerk reactions whenever something unpleasant happens, or even pro-"South Asian" folks who essentialize the real and challenging diversity within our communities into a new and hip version of "Indian." We still have some ways to go, but we can still create solidarity amongst folks with subcontinental roots, when it makes sense. As I've explored in these pages before, I'm certainly not convinced that race-based organizing is the only, nor even moderately effective way to attack issues of social injustice. But it's such a good way to begin the dialogue with some people, especially educated, curious, and sheltered young people who haven't stepped outside of the ideology, assumptions, and inherent biases laid out for them by their upbringing.

And for some folks, South Asian America (or Canada?) is a safe space where they actually feel like they can belong. I've had numerous conversations with people who don't feel comfortable with an ethnic identity, or are exploring where they fit in (as minorities of religious, Diasporic, language, multi-ancestral, national origin, orientation, gender, etc.). They feel that "South Asian America" is a safe space where they can belong, and that should be reason enough to justify its currency with those invest in it.


DesiDancer said...

"It's like the old debate of 'are you Indian or are you American?' which I still hear. Shit, man, I'm me, and I'm all of these things. I can take the complexity. If you can't, that's not my problem."

Thanks for this. I wish I were able to articulate it so concisely as you have.

I never was of the mind that I had to "pick one", and only one. I like jeans, but I like kurtis. I like mirchi on pizza, and I smoke cigarettes with my chai... and I don't think any of those things make me (us) Less Than.

vutt to do, we are like this only ;)

Rage said...

Thanks. It's just amazing how limited you can be about issues of identity when you've grown up in a uniform/homogeneous environment. Many of the folks who are most angry about pan-South Asian identities don't even have contact or friends who are not from their particular economic/religious/geographic space. They don't know what it means to negotiate identity, or to create something new.

I told my mom as I became more conscious that I "wasn't Indian." She got angry, and the conversation ended, but my second line was going to be "I'm Indian American".

I think that the fear is that second gen. folks will lose all of the cultural capital that parents worked so hard to preserve over the long hard journey to the United States, and become empty brown shells. What a lot of the parents don't know is that, save for some of the folks in really screwy suburbs, young people recognize that they aren't white and create hybrid identities on the fly (have you noticed how many young desis are on top of the urban/pop music scene and the latest bollywood tracks at the same time?).

And what is "American" culture anyway? But that's an even older debate!

Ms. World said...

DAMN! That was beautiful and I'm a little teary-eyed because the truth is beautiful!

Rage said...

thanks for reading - and welcome back. :)