Children of ’65

One day, members of the South Asian Student's Association (SASA) at Brown University arrived at the office of Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) in Providence, Rhode Island, where I worked, to know how they, as Southasians, could do their bit. I was immediately impressed by their sense that something was not right in the world. Raised in affluent, de-facto segregated enclaves of suburban America, these young people knew that their own upward mobility was morally insufficient. They wanted elsewhere. I introduced them to some of the young people in our office – Sabrina, for instance, who was then a high-school student in the local public school, and who ran the E=MC2 campaign (Education = Multicultural Curriculum). Promising to lead a session on college entry for the high-school kids, these students showed me a new dynamic in our community that I had previously only glimpsed.

When migrants from India, such as my family, came to the US after 1965, few had any sense of themselves as victims of racism. They had been born into a country already free from the racist colonial state, and they were raised into middle-class families with caste profiles that allowed them to easily enter college. When they came into the US, it was after the Civil Rights Act afforded them rights to equality, and their technical training moved them into zones where they were able to do well. Fleeting meetings with others like themselves fulfilled their social lives, and their association was always with their homeland, even as they recognised that they would perhaps never return to live there. They were Indians in America who would become Indian-Americans later, only because this latter name was part of the culture of assimilation into being a 'migrant-American'. I knew these migrants because I was one of them. I remember the children of my relatives, those over whom I had to keep an eye as the adults sat in the living room or the kitchen, revelling in each other's presence. For the kids, these were their 'home friends', with their 'school friends' being mainly white kids or others, but rarely any of these Indian kids. I would meet them later, in those Brown University students.

The notion of the 'Southasian-American' emerged before these 'children of '65' flooded the colleges and created their organisations. The lead came from women's organisations, gay and lesbian groups, and anti-racist civil-rights formations. Some of the pioneering women's groups included Sneha: A Network for Women of South Asian Origin (1983), Manavi (1985), Apna Ghar (1989) and Sakhi for South Asian Women (1989). The choice of these names was not incidental. First, given the historical links between Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh, it was logical and pragmatic, given the lack of resources, to reach out to women from all of these places. Second, the defence of violence against women was often made in a national register, with claims made for the normalness of cultural patriarchy in this or that zone, so that the unity was itself a repudiation of the national ownership of the rights or duties of women.

Third, the unity disavowed the multi-racist belief that each people must have their own logic for how to run their families and homes – in other words, 'cultural defence'. Fourth, the unity also celebrated the subjugated traditions and resources that united people across national lines in the diaspora, and also gave us strength in our fights against both the dominant elements in our community and multi-racism. Alongside the women's organisations, on the same axis, came the gay and lesbian (later 'queer') groups. A pioneer here was Trikone, founded in San Francisco in 1986, but followed soon thereafter by the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association and others.

Finally, as racist assaults struck the population, there was a move to create pan-Southasian civil-rights organisations to address this, notably after the late 1980s 'Dotbuster' incidents of attacks on Indian-American businesses, who then organised themselves into groups such as the Indian Business Association. By the mid-1990s, a new set of organisations, led by Southasian-American college graduates, flooded the civil-rights landscape, culminating in the creation of the South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow. As more and more Indian migrants entered working-class jobs, groups emerged on the Southasian-American axis to fight for their rights. Worker's Awaaz broke off from SAKHI to become a base off of which to organise domestic workers, as the Lease Drivers Coalition (later the New York Taxi Worker's Alliance) broke from the Coalition against Anti-Asian Violence to organise taxi workers. These sorts of groups, including the South Asian Workers Project, would soon adopt the pan-Southasian platform as a pragmatic gesture, and as a critique of the national divides that do no good for those in working-class jobs.

Migration into ethnicity
But the women's groups, the gay and lesbian organisations and the anti-racist groups do not alone account for the emergence of the idea of the Southasian-American. When the children of the post-1965 migration came to college, they became Southasian-American on campus. The term, however, continues to be used with some unease, mainly because it seeks to constitute an as yet amorphous social formation. Our major cultural institutions, notably colleges, are polarised places where racial distinction spurs students to undergo segmentary assimilation or a 'second migration' into their ethnicity. The geography of Southasia is irrelevant here, for what is alone of importance is the serial naming of minorities as African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, East Asian-Americans or Southasian-Americans.

Even as 'Southasian-American' emerges as a consequence of racialism, there is no guarantee that the term itself will provoke a progressive agenda. In the segmented world of multiculturalism, ethnicity can function as the clothes for social mobility. The skills learnt in a college SASA could easily train one for corporate mobility, and lead one directly into its post-graduate version, NETSAP, the Network of South Asian Professionals. Southasian-Americans might seek refuge in their ethnicity not so much as a platform for social change but as a way to recover dignity, and perhaps to distinguish themselves from other minorities.

Raised in families of trained professional workers with high aspirations, the children of '65 were under intense pressure to go into the para-professional fields. Those who bucked this pressure, against high emotional odds, were already offering a sotto voce critique of the model minority stereotype. Those who adopted the cultural frameworks that seemed to emanate from Black America were even more radical in their disavowal of the upwardly mobile multiculturalism of our times. Their choice of a career or a vocation is already political.

~ Vijay Prashad is a contributing editor for Himal Southasian, based at Trinity College in the US.

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