Conversations sometimes take a turn for the ugly and it comes at moments that leave you quite dumbfounded. A comment about drivers from South Asia by someone I know and think of as intellectually evolved, was by far alarming. What played in my mind was how an intelligent discerning individual can be so determined about labeling and profiling with alacrity and impunity in a sense. But maybe intellect has nothing to do with it. Intellectuals and the lesser achieved all share the same world view –everyone knows what “their” world is all about and how different it is from “our” world. The separation between “us” and “them” takes several forms and stereotyping is one way of reinstating and perpetuating the gap. No wonder being pulled over for “driving while Asian” (DWA) elicits multiple reactions but mostly chuckles and laughter, unfortunately so.
I am quite aware that stereotyping of any community and definitely of South Asians in the United States is common. South Asians are caricatured through convenience store owner Apu in the cartoon series The Simpsons, feted for acing Spelling Bee contests and success in Information Technology, and courted for their wealth given their status as the ethnic group with the highest per capita income in U.S. Sometimes they are also chastised for not being part of the American mainstream. Many of you might be found answering questions about homes in slums because “Slumdog Millionaire” allegedly informed audiences that every Indian habitat is a slum; or if the language you spoke is Hindu (which it couldn’t be because Hinduism is a religion) and the confusing and multitude of media infused images of cows, poverty, Mother Teresa and then there is Kamasutra! Negative images about other cultures that main-stream North Americans are inevitably exposed to inevitably color everyone's personal socialization experience.
As Indians, we always referred to ourselves as Asians from the continent of Asia. Geographical location determined where one belonged. But in the United States, the country we live now in presents the world in different segmented ways. Asians are restricted to people from Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Indonesia and Korea and I am very reluctant to say that race has nothing to do with defining this category. Now we are saddled with the “South” Asian category, which by the way is a 1990s classification designed by the Washington bureaucrats. I along with many from that region who may belong to one of the several countries (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal) feel that we were given this “ours” and whatever it entails. It is by no means a homogeneous group. It may not even be possible to consider the diverse group of people who lived on a large continent and moved to the United States as a coherent unit of “South Asian-Americans” that can be stereotyped as a homogeneous group. But stereotyping still happens.
A demographic snapshot of South Asians in the United States crunched out from the 2010 U.S Census by an NGO group shows the Indian-American population in the U.S (including multiple ethnicities) grew 68 per cent over the 2000-2010 decade from 1.9 million to 3.19 million. Counting single ethnicity (discounting mixed race), the population grew from 1.67 million to 2.84 million in the same period. That made Indian-Americans the third largest Asian-American group in the U.S after Chinese-Americans (3.79 million) and Filipino-Americans (3.42 million), but with a much faster growth rate. People who identified themselves as Indian origin comprise the largest segment of the 3.4 million-strong. Such census data reflect that demographics of ethnic groups and nationalities can be important for stakeholders to undertake advocacy with government entities and make funding requests. State and federal lawmakers can also use the data to deepen engagement with the communities and reflect their concerns in policymaking.
While strength in numbers is a criteria and may also be a reason to be non-judging of a community, the fact is that the awareness of the "other" is limited and even discouraged. I look to India and see if this is specific to the US and it is not. Women from the west are branded as morally loose and sexually promiscuous. Who has not watched Pretty Woman and Basic Instinct! The other is defined as wild, less regulated and dramatically at the opposite end of the permissible behavior among “us.” Within the country looking inward, dark-skinned people are deemed as undesirable and less economically advanced and civilized. Fairness creams are endorsed by popular film actors who have large fan followings. Matrimonial ads ask for fairness as a prerequisite for brides (not necessarily for grooms).
I wonder if education needs to be more global that helps everyone understand the changes going on around them. It is probably not doing a whole lot to meet the requirements of a new world. By developing a prejudiced, short-sighted focus on the world – whatever the boundaries of that world, it is not creating informed citizens who are proud of their role in a pluralistic society because they remain less informed and that colors their perspective.
Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham.