Why Making Space for South Asian Culture is a Civil Rights Issue
As hate crimes against South Asians continue to rise, we need to dispel stereotypes and wear our voices.
By Rachna Shah
On Sept. 4, 1907, a mob of around 400 white men attacked the homes of South Asian Indians in Bellingham, Washington. They threw them into the streets, beat them, and drove them out of town. Similar riots happened in Vancouver, in California, and elsewhere in the state of Washington during the rest of the decade. It was only a century later that the horror of these events was recognized by Bellingham’s government.
Yet while race riots and Asian exclusion efforts are a part of American and Asian history, they are largely ignored in textbooks and the media. India is associated with the caste system and third-world diseases. In film and on television, South Asian Indians are portrayed as extremes rather than as spectrums — as either too willing to assimilate or not willing to assimilate.
In moving forward, the coverage of South Asia must be more accurate and comprehensive. Mainstream media not only mirrors, but shapes our culture. It produces and reinforces stereotypes of certain cultural groups. Having one’s history and experiences recognized and appreciated in mainstream media allows young South Asians to embrace their culture, not be ashamed of it.
South Asians have long been portrayed as separate and different than white people. They have heavy accents, eat spicy foods, and are generally nerds or geeks, until the very recent past, according to Dr. Bhoomi Thakore, Assistant Professor and Director of the Sociology Program at Elmhurst College.
“Today, actors such as Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, and Priyanka Chopra are players in a larger Hollywood elite circle that inform the ability to move ahead in that industry,” Dr. Thakore explains. “For example, Kaling originally started as a writer for “The Office”, and essentially wrote her character for the show. Over the years, Kaling’s character existed as someone who just happened to be Indian, who was ‘just like everyone else.’”
From 2000 to 2010, the Asian Indian population growth rate was nearly 70 percent, concentrated in New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. Asian Indians are among the most highly educated ethnic groups. Indians are represented in entertainment, from Hindi radio stations and programs to channels such as Zee TV and Sahara One to Bollywood movies in movie theaters to the rise of Indian-American personalities such as Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, as mentioned by Dr. Thakore.
Unified cultural representation has become fragmented and perhaps even contradictory. This reinforces the essence of multiculturalism — that there are multiple truths in a culture. Accurate representation can be defined as incorporating a spectrum of identities and histories, of both South Asian history and modern South Asia. But there are also certain key elements to South Asian identities that should be recognized. One of these is the holiday of Diwali, a holiday celebrated by millions of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs, yet even in Coppell, Texas, where 45% of the district’s students are of Asian heritage, Diwali isn’t recognized.
Dr. Pankaj Jain, an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Texas, is leading a movement in Coppell, Texas to have the school board declare Diwali as an annual holiday. “In India, holidays are granted for Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian holidays,” he says. “America should give equal respect to all religions or not give any religious holidays at all. Indian students should feel that their culture gets equal respect from their schools.”
Dr. Jain’s petition has already gathered over 1,600 signatures in making space for the recognition of Diwali in the school district’s calendar. “Diwali is a civil rights issue for us,” he says. “It’s the question of the heritage of one million students who right now have no proper acknowledgement or portrayal in textbooks or in the media. We want to press on these issues so that the next generation of our communities in this country feel equally proud of their heritage and culture.”
Enabling and empowering South Asian voices needs support on an institutional and cultural level, and that begins with young South Asians. Dr. Thakore suggests becoming a critical consumer of media representations. “If it is stereotypical, stop consuming it. And, if it suits you, get involved in the arts, such as acting or writing, and change the way that stereotypes are perpetuated in popular media.”
There’s so much work that needs to be done, and while it does require the involvement of South Asians, the movement also needs broad-based support. As hate crimes against South Asians continue to rise, we need to dispel stereotypes and wear our voices. It’s for our future.
Author Bio: Rachna Shah is an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College studying at the intersection of economics and development. She is passionate about improving the experiences people have with their voices and the voices of others through her work with literary and political magazines and youth organizations. Find her at: @rachna_rshah
Featured Image: Photo by Luiza Sayfullina on Unsplash
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