Race, Social Justice

When will the Asian American movement remember Desi people?

The awkward relationship that South Asians have with the Asian American movement is the elephant in the room in activism circles.

It can feel strange to be passionate about a cause that tends to forget you exist. The Asian American movement unites without a common language or culture, but many have criticized it for failing to address the entire community. For South Asians such as myself, it’s a unique case. Racially, ethnically, and often religiously different from East Asians–the dominant narrative in the movement–South Asians have always been on the furthest edge of this already hazy identity.

South Asians established significant populations in the U.S. later than Chinese and Japanese migrants, who comprised the first major waves of Asian immigration. South Asians were also a racially ambiguous group, at one point even considered white before the government finally categorized “Asian Indians” (and other South Asian ethnicities) as Asian American. Despite this complicated history, South Asians are finally integrating into the mainstream movement.

Still, our presence is neglected. The awkward relationship that South Asians have with the Asian American movement is the elephant in the room in activism circles. Even as a leader of an Asian American advocacy group at my own college, as a Nepali-American, I sometimes feel like an intruder to the movement, unsure of my purpose within the community.

The movement’s singular narrative gives voice to the same topics, like media representation and certain microaggressions, over and over again. These issues are important, but there’s a lot more to the problems that Asian Americans face.

I’ve sat through an Asian American Studies class where the topic of the day was discrimination, and Islamophobia wasn’t discussed at all–despite it being a very real problem for many Asian Americans. After 9/11, South Asian Muslims in particular were impacted by the increasing racialization of Islam, and categorized with their Muslim as well as non-Muslim counterparts from the Middle East. At the same time, non-Muslim South Asians, mostly Sikhs, became victims of misdirected Islamophobia.

These groups of “brown people” are homogenous to white people, seen through the lens of Islamophobia and otherness. This external perception plays a role in forming identities and give us some insight into why the “Asian American” label doesn’t always stick to South Asians.

So while there’s plenty of similarities between East Asians and South Asian Americans, there’s more than a handful of differences. Today’s racial climate is making those differences harder to ignore. Fear of brownness, among other things, is pushing some South Asians away from the mainstream movement and into niches of their own, forming political movements better suited to their needs. South Asian-specific groups such as DRUM and SAALT have made important progress in addressing issues facing the community, but other Asian American groups should step up as well.

We have to assess and address our threats wisely. We can’t consider something as critical as Islamophobia, for example, to be a problem that affects “other people” when some of those people are supposed to be your own. The concept shouldn’t be foreign to the movement: for example, hate crimes against Sikhs who are assumed to be Muslim parallel the tragic 1981 murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was mistaken as Japanese.

Solidarity between Japanese Americans and Muslims in America, including those of Asian descent, has actually been strengthened in the past year. After Trump threatened Muslim registration and internment, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center releasing a poignant video of Muslim children reading letters from Japanese Americans imprisoned during WWII. A Trump surrogate’s citation of Japanese internment as justification for a Muslim registry energized opposition, and cooperation from Muslim, Asian, and groups in between (like MPower Change, DRUM, and MoveOn.org) succeeded in shutting down NSEERS.

The Asian American movement might be the right platform for South Asian Americans. If we want our place in the movement, it’s up to everybody to choose to accommodate it. Solidarity in the face of blatant oppression could be the push for Asian Americans, as diverse as we are, to strengthen our prized campaign that transcends ethnicity, culture, religion and language. And if South Asians are to be included, South Asian issues better be addressed.

Special thanks to Helen Li (@hli016) for aiding in the development of this piece.