Indian Americans occupy a "third space" in this country, as they have neither been afforded the implicit privileges of whiteness nor damned by the historical burdens of blackness.
|Barack Obama's historic speech on race in March was not only a defining moment in his presidential campaign, but a renewed call for Americans to confront the country's often unflattering and turbulent history of black-white relations.|
Obama argued that the black-white dichotomy - which has been used to create an "us versus them" segmentation and segregation - does not allow Americans to understand the huge gray area that exists in between. This gray area has largely defined the Indian American experience in the United States.
Though Obama's speech tackled the issues of black anger and white frustration, its salience to Indian Americans couldn't be clearer. Indian Americans have occupied a "third space" in this country, as they have neither been afforded the implicit privileges of whiteness nor damned by the historical burdens of blackness.
In the early 20th century, Swami Vivekananda and Lala Lajpat Rai were appalled by American segregation during their visits to the country and insisted that they be treated the same as blacks. They believed that blacks and Indians shared a common history of oppression through colonialism and slavery, and that nothing should differentiate them in their quests for emancipation.
However, in 1923, Bhagat Singh Thind felt he should be treated as a white person because of the commonly held belief at the time that high-caste Indians were direct descendants of the "Aryan race." Thind believed his naturalization as a U.S. citizen gave him the same privileges as whites. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, arguing that because of the intermixing of "pure" Aryan blood with Dravidian blood over time, Indians could not be granted the status as whites in the United States.
Since 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson helped repeal the ban on Asian immigration, Indian Americans have steadily tried to find their place in a society that has institutionalized a black-white standard. This has had a dramatic impact on the community's self-conceptualization.
Indian Americans have struggled with the model minority label because it is so intertwined with the mythical American Dream. Many Indian Americans, especially those who migrated from India, believe in the ethos of hard work and rugged individualism. Yet the model minority myth, as scholars such as Vijay Prashad and Frank Wu have noted, only serves to keep Indian Americans - and other Asian American groups - in their place: better off than black, but not quite white.
This tension has also had generational implications. More Indian Americans are openly identifying with the "other," which has historically meant blackness. This has been evident in the growing number of Indian American political and social activists, as well as the creation of an Indian American subaltern culture that uses hip-hop and spoken word - performative expressions identified with blackness - to articulate their own identities.
Yet there is also a sense that second-generation Indian Americans can use these forms of self-expression as a means of performing their hybridized identities without dealing with the same burdens as black people. Despite the discrimination that a number of Indian Americans have had to face post-9/11 and the fact that we as a whole continued to be marginalized in the media, the community still has not experienced the same systematic exclusion as African-Americans have.
This is why the Indian American experience in the United States speaks to both sides of the color dichotomy and why our self-conceptualization is complicated by our desire to associate with side or the other, or both. While Indian American intellectuals such as Prashad and Gayatri Spivak have articulated ideas about how racism is disempowering to us, others like Dinesh D'Souza have openly questioned whether race or racism even exists except in the minds of those who claimed to have experienced it.
But race - and Indian Americans' conscious or unconscious acceptance of it - is very real in this country. So is their anger and confusion. Obama spoke of how blacks in his pastor's generation carry with them a frustration of being disenfranchised, an experience that many Indians who came to this country in the 1960s and 1970s can at least peripherally relate to.
My father, for example, was called the n-word when he first came to the United States, and in the upstate New York towns where he lived, he was often considered a black man and treated as such.
When I gave a speech before an Indian American group several years ago, one doctor asked why it was such a bad thing to be considered a model minority. He went on to note that Indians are respected by whites because of their hard work and their unwillingness to make excuses - an implied reference to the idea that somehow the collective inability of blacks to achieve equality somehow rests with them.
In this large area known as third space, Indian Americans can have these dilemmas, identifying both with white privilege and black disenfranchisement. It's the gray area of race that few of us - black, white, Indian, Latino - want to interrogate, partially because it has the potential to invoke painful memories and yet be audacious enough to bridge common understanding.
Perhaps Obama's speech will have little resonance with Indian Americans, because we are too divided by generation, subcultures, or individual experiences to ever see how and where we fit in. Or perhaps it will help Indian Americans better understand that, as the country tries to break away from its black-white binary, the expansive gray area that rests in between is not such a bad place after all.