Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan wrote about her experiences as a South Asian woman in the United States. She wrote about the exoticism of her name, her hair, her body. And she wrote about understanding race when her little brother kicked the back of a seat on a plane when they were kids, and how her father obsequiously apologized when the angry white man in that seat turned around and yelled at her brother. And she wrote about the de-centring experience of being not white in white North America.
Granted, things are changing quickly. Two of Canada’s three largest cities, Toronto and Vancouver, actually have minority white populations. And Montréal, Canada’s second largest city, will hit that mark in the next decade. Something like a third of the population of Canada is comprised of visible minorities, both Canadian- and foreign- born. In the United States, around 44% of the population is comprised of visible minorities, both American- and foreign- born. What’s more, 50% of children under the age of 5 in the US are visible minorities.
The times they are a’changing, but they haven’t changed yet. The simple fact of a ‘visible minority’ category presupposes too many things for my tastes, one of which is that the category is homogenous. It isn’t, nor should we expect it to be. Consequently, the majority and dominant culture in both countries remains white: an amalgam of European cultures that emigrated to North America and blended together creating what Canadian census-takers, with not a trace of self-conscious reflection, officially define as ‘Canadian.’
So, Srinivasan writes that she has experienced, at the very least, the subtle and decentring forces of racism her entire. Her essay resonated with me, as it reflected what South and East Asians in the US and Canada have told me about their experiences. Where I grew up, in Vancouver in the 1980s, racism against Asians was visceral, raw, and very real. White children like me were taught a whole archive of racial epithets to throw at them. And we did… at least until we began to realize that they were our friends, and classmates – in short, people. Gender, too, ripples throughout Srinivasan’s essay, particularly when she describes the ongoing commentary on her hair and her body.
In short, it would seem to me that there is, at the very least, a subtle and decentring racism towards Asians in the two countries. At worst, there is an outright racism towards Asians in the two countries. I’ve had it described to me by friends and students. And I’ve seen it myself.
So I read Nannu Nobis’ response with interest. Nobis essentially tells Srinivasan there is nothing to see here. He reports that most Indians (as opposed to South Asians) are in good shape in North America: they can speak English well, are generally well-educated, and middle class. He also reports that Indians have a sense of superiority with regard other South Asians (with humour, of course):
Bangledshis? They deserve our sympathy, poor things. Pakistanis? Thank God the US has finally recognized they are al Queda [sic] in disguise. Nepalis? Naah, just a small tribe up north. Sri Lankans? I do want to visit their quaint island where my US dollars would be welcome.
He also speaks of the very real discrimination in India against low-caste Dalits. But, ultimately, Nobis contends that compared to African Americans, South Asians in the US don’t know what discrimination and racism is, and notes that they tend not to have experienced the kind of poverty endemic to many African American communities. It is also worth noting that they don’t have the intimacy with the carceral state.
As a white Canadian who lives in the US, I’m not really in a position to speak to what Nobis says in terms of the attitudes of Indians in the US (or India, for that matter). But Srinivasan doesn’t compare her experience to African Americans, or anyone else; rather, she speaks from her own experiences, as did my friends and students. And then there is the question of gender.
Moreover, the relative affluence of South Asians in the US and Canada does not mean that they do not and cannot experience racism or discrimination. It does not mean that they cannot and do not get exoticized. It does not mean that racism, discrimination, and exoticization is not magnified for women.
The long and short is that Nobis constructs a strawman when he compares the South Asian experience with the African American in the United States. And I have reservations with men dismissing the gendered concerns of women, or worse, ignoring them.