Desis, H1Bs, and 500,000 Broken Dreams: Why South Asian Americans Must See the Problem Beyond Apu

South Asian American comedian and immigrant rights icon Hari Kondabolu’s recent documentary exploring racism in The Simpsons contains a very touching moment about his parents. The sharp edge of attack in the politics of representation surrounding America’s most famous Indian stereotype is after all not simply appearance, but also voice, specifically, accent. When South Asians in America are mocked as “Apu” the slur is premised most of all on accent (a mock, sing-song accent performed by Hank Azaria in what some scholars rightly call “Brownvoice”).

“Thank you, come again,” is what Indian (and other South Asian) children got called in America by bullies in school. It is their equivalent of hearing something offensive and hurtful as the “N word.” Yet, for all his own pain, Kondabulu points out that what pains him most about Azaria’s impersonation is the fact that he is attacking people like his parents; first-generation Indian immigrants whose accent is their marker, their give-away, in ways that American born and schooled second-generation children can sometimes escape.

That clarity of perception, and sheer love across generations it speaks from, is commendable. While I do have some concerns about certain important absences in the documentary’s reasoning (which I will write about separately), I was moved by this American son of once Indian parents courageously enacting his love for them through this artistic and engaging work. There is a vulnerability that first-generation immigrants to America carry with them no matter what their success story might be. Small things, like being talked down to by people, or talked slowly to, or stared right through. And this is fought back by small gestures of knowingness by their American-born children, like lending their Americanized voices to the family answering machine (back in the day that is). I am sure there are thousands of stories of families in America and their journey as immigrants, as people straddling not only continents but also generations and vastly different cultures. It is inspiring to see the children of the first generation of Indians, the post 1965 beneficiaries of hi-tech economies and immigration reform policies, speak up for what is right, as humans, and as Americans.

I acknowledge all of this sincerely, because as much as I appreciate all that Hari Kondabolu, Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, and many other South Asian American celebrities are doing for immigrants, racial minorities, and for a better America, broadly speaking, I am also alarmed by how quickly a large swathe of immigrant lives have become seemingly invisible in the South Asian American discourse today. Kondabolu might recognize that immigrants like his parents face certain challenges in American society (and all the more so since the last election campaign), but at the same time, there also appears to be a studied silence when it comes to the situation of a certain group of immigrants to America; first-generation, struggling, worthy of support from any immigration supporter, and yet, largely ignored. I am not talking about Rohingya Muslims or Syrian refugees, but simply, Indians in America. Not so much the storied 1960s first generation doctors and scientists who have become citizens, grown companies, families, and have done home and adopted home proud, but the thousands of younger people who have made (or still trying to make) a life and home for themselves in America in the last couple of decades; Information Technology workers and engineers, for the most part, many of them from small towns, villages, and less privileged communities in India. Yet, when South Asian American activists, lawyers, and celebrities talk about immigrant rights it is very rarely about this demographic. The broad assumption seems to be that Indian Americans are a wealthy, successful, privileged group, and need no voices to speak for them (and on occasion, require voices to speak at them and their alleged blindness to privilege, such as this oped in the New York Times by an Indian American about her own immigrant parents).

Hari Kondabolu has spoken up for the problems faced by Sikhs, Muslims, and brown people generally. Kal Penn was inspired by a xenophoic jibe telling him to go back to his country to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Syrian refugees. Aziz Ansari brilliantly fought the objectionable tirades against Muslim Americans in American politics. Yet, as far as I know, they have not publicly spoken about the challenges faced by Indian workers and families in American as a whole; not on terms of religion or race, Islamophobia or brownness (though these are important too), but on the grounds of nationality, the basic ground of laws and rules which determine the nature of one’s privilege or lack thereof as an immigrant. All the assumptions about their “privilege” notwithstanding, Indians struggling to live and work in America are struggling, and struggling with hardly a voice for them in the public culture (except those admonishing them that is).

As this report in the Times of India by Chidanand Rajghatta notes, as many as half a million first-generation aspiring immigrants to the United States might have to abandon their lives and dreams and go home; simply because the timeline for green card processing has become so long now. These are just the actual H1B workers seeking to find a sense of peace and stability in their promised land; but what this new move will imply is a disruption not only of their lives, but that of their spouses, and their children, most of all. They are going to face many of the things other immigrants are facing in a time of great concern about both immigration and security in America; going through years of hard work, taxes, and lawful processes only to find that a climate of anti-immigrant rhetoric has somehow pulled their world out from under them.

The only difference is that when anti-immigrant policies affected people from a list of mostly Muslim countries in early 2016, there were hundreds of activists, lawyers, and celebrities, ready to speak for them, and even show up at airports and shut down routine services to show solidarity with them. The streets of America are filled with eager volunteers, many of them of South Asian descent, making sure that the great American immigrant ideal is not weakened in the least. Yet, their concerns are focused on certain identities that end up excluding concern and compassion for large sections of people from India. They promise solidarity with and support for Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, and almost as an afterthought “other South Asians.” It is commendable, for sure. Brown solidarity, black solidarity, color solidarity are all forces for good. Yet, half a million people who are brown, colored, far more vulnerable than any American born desi, continue to be misinterpreted as privileged, and ignored.

It is not even one year since a young Indian engineer from my hometown of Hyderabad was cruelly shot by an immigration vigilante in Kansas City. Anti-immigrant rhetoric, and pro-immigrant declarations of support, were both in a heightened state at that time. Yet, a whole evening of pro-immigrant posturing by Hollywood’s elites at the Academy Awards hardly two days after the shocking murder of a young immigrant, failed to mention his name. I wrote about this at the time; there were more South Asian celebrities there at the Oscars than ever before perhaps. Yet neither the South Asians, nor the others, thought it fit to say the name of Srinivas Kuchibhotla amidst all their standing-up for immigrants in principle.

And worse, the op-ed analyses that followed denied the Indians of whom Srinivas was a part even a sense of their own subjectivity and dignity. A South Asian American Harvard graduate writing in USA Today admonished Indian immigrants for being “Hindu nationalists.” An Indian journalist writing for the Washington Post spoke of the killing as a “lesson” for Indians in America. It might have been true that some Indians voted for Donald Trump. Yet, which writer with good taste, let alone pro-immigrant sensibilities, would view a moment of victimization for a vulnerable group as a teachable moment about their “privilege”?

Are half a million Indians, even if they are educated, employed, and somewhat affluent, really that “privileged” if they can get tossed out, shot at, or their children systematically denigrated in America’s supposedly civil-rights guaranteed multicultural classrooms?

There is a fundamental problem in the understanding of privilege in South Asian American discourse today. American-born citizens, even if they happen to have experienced racism as people of color, cannot presume to judge people like their own parents, the “FOBs” (”Fresh off the Boats”) to put it colloquially, as somehow unworthy of their support and understanding because they happen to be slightly more educated or wealthy than Mexican workers or Syrian refugees. They are vulnerable, and they are struggling.

It is my hope that whatever has caused a whole generation of second generation celebrities and activists to lose sight of reality (even with very good intentions, I will grant that), the future will see a more honest, informed, and inclusive discourse about being Indian emerging in American discourse. I do hope that Hari Kondabolu, Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, and other South Asian “Desi” celebrities will will show the generation of Indian Americans growing up after them that there is no shame at all in speaking for one’s own name as much as the names of one’s allies. I’m waiting for a word from one of you about the H1B/Green Card Wait abyss. It’s far more serious than Hank Azaria, trust me.

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