Home > Magazine > Features > Commentary: BLACK? WHITE? ASIAN? ASIAN-INDIAN?



By Vinay Harpalani Email By Vinay Harpalani
June 2015

Exactly what race are Indian-Americans? There have been different answers to this question just within the past few months. In February, Louisiana Governor and 2016 Presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal quipped “You mean I’m not white?” when asked about a commissioned portrait that depicted him with lightened skin tone. Then, just one week later, Alabama police officers severely beat and injured Sureshbhai Patel, a 57-year-old immigrant grandfather who had been in the U.S. for just one week, after a suspicious caller identified him as “a skinny black guy.” Apparently, the Indian American experience with race gives new meaning to Michael Jackson’s song, “Black or White.”

Such ambiguity in our racial identification is not new. Indian Americans have a long, interesting history of encounters with racism, marked by changing racial classifications. But contrary to Michael Jackson’s lyrics, it does matter whether we are classified as black or white—or something else.

Ninety years ago, Bhagat Singh Thind faced the question of whiteness. In 1923, Thind was denied U.S. citizenship because the Supreme Court ruled that he was not white and thus not eligible for naturalization. In its Thind decision, the Supreme Court found that Asian Indians were indeed Caucasian, but that we did not fit the common person’s understanding of whiteness. Indian-Americans thus could not become U.S. citizens, precisely because we were not white.

Congress removed racist restrictions on citizenship and immigration soon after World War II—but Indian-Americans still had to ponder the question of race. For the first time in 1970, the U.S. Census classified us as white. While prior censuses had categories such as “Hindu” and even “Non-White” for Indian-Americans, the 1970 classification prevented us from receiving protected minority status under recently enacted civil rights laws. Once again, Indian-Americans were left out, but this time for the opposite reason—because now we were white.

Indian-American organizations in the U.S. protested, lobbying for census reclassification and protected minority status. We were successful: since 1980, the census has classified us as “Asian Indian”—separately from White Americans. Nevertheless, the issue of whiteness recurs for Indian-Americans—perhaps because some of us equate “American” with “white.” In 2010, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, also Indian-American, was criticized because she had marked her race as “White” on her voter registration. Jindal’s lightened portrait is just the latest, as Indian-Americans navigate the line between cultural pride and assimilation.

If those contrasting experiences with whiteness are not enough, Asian Indians in the U.S. have also been characterized as black. In 1965, when Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Pakistan President Mohammad Ayub Khan expressed opposition to the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson referred to both leaders as “niggers” and cancelled their visits to the U.S. In August 2006, Virginia Senator George Allen, a 2008 Republican Presidential hopeful, referred to Indian-American college student S. R. Siddarth as “macaca”—an anti-black epithet which means “monkey.” Most recently, Vijay Chokalingam—the relatively dark-skinned brother of Indian-American actress and comedian Mindy Kaling—reported that he pretended to be black on his medical school applications, shaving his head and changing his appearance to fit into the role. Chokalingam did this as a protest against affirmative action, but he notes that he was harassed by the police and accused of shoplifting while posing as black.

Throughout the twentieth century, some Indian-Americans have come to identify with African-Americans in a much more in-depth manner, showing that being “American” is not just about identifying as “white.” In his book and documentary film, Bengali Harlem (2012), Professor Vivek Bald of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tells the stories of Bengali immigrants from the early 1900s who settled in African-American communities around the U.S. and became an integral part of these communities. And Northwestern University Professor Nitasha Tamar Sharma, in her book Hip Hop Desis (2010), describes how many Indian-American youth today become immersed in hip hop and forge a cultural and political bond with African-Americans—one that leads them to explore their own heritage in different ways. Professor Vijay Prashad’s pathbreaking book, The Karma of Brown Folk (2000)—modeled after W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)—draws parallels between the struggles of Indian-Americans and African-Americans. These types of connections are particularly important in light of widely-covered recent incidents of police brutality against African-Americans in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, Maryland, and other places. Indian-Americans must not forget that in spite of the success of our communities, we, too, have often been scapegoated.

Of course, race in America is not just about black and white. Sometimes Indian-Americans are simply identified as themselves, and are victims of racism because of it. Early twentieth century American newspapers referred to Indian immigrants as “hated Hindoos”—even though many of those immigrants were Sikh or Muslim. In the 1980s, the “Dotbusters,” a Jersey City, New Jersey gang, targeted the local Indian-American community, committing several violent hate crimes including the murder of recent immigrant Navroze Mody. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, there have been more such hate crimes, and Indian-Americans have been racially profiled as alleged terrorists.

Even in the absence of violence and hate, inaccurate stereotypes of Indian-Americans are all too common. Generally speaking, many Americans see India as a strange and mystical foreign land, defined by exotic spirituality—and this image defines their view of Indian-Americans. The West has also co-opted and morphed Hindu and Buddhist religious imagery and practices to market them for its consumers. Yoga and meditation are prime examples. Western perversion of these religious traditions is not usually rooted in malice and may even be a well-intentioned attempt to understand other cultures, but it can still lead to ignorance. At different times, I have been asked if Asian Indians worship cows, if we can choose our own spouses, or my favorite—“Who is your guru?” Such stereotypical assumptions lump together the vast diversity of backgrounds that Indian-Americans represent and also completely ignore American influences on our identities.

All of our experiences also show how race is socially constructed. Scientists determined long ago that races are not real biological categories, but rather social and political groupings which can change over time. The different racial classifications of Indian-Americans in the U.S. illustrate this well, and there is no true answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article. Our changing faces in American history show that racial classification itself varies and can be a means of oppression.

But that does not mean that race is unimportant or can easily be cast aside. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated last year, “[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.” And Indian-Americans, with our complex history of racial classification, and with our tenuous but increasingly important position in American’s racial and political landscape, should become more aware and vocal about race.

Dr. Vinay Harpalani is Associate Professor of Law, Savannah Law School.

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