When the British Left India, They Left Stuff Behind

Have Desis internalized white supremacy?

First off, let’s take care of some preliminary business. What is the definition of the word “Desi?” It is a person of Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi birth or descent who lives abroad. I honestly don’t know how long the term has been in use, but as an Indian woman, I fall into this category. I was born in Singapore, came to the United States at the age of 2, and have lived in Michigan, New York, California, and Maryland. Some of us born in the United States might also be called “ABCD,” which means American Born Confused Desi. Why might some of us be confused (even those not born here)? Well, this topic kind of gets into that.

Secondly, this is the first in a series I want to do on topics relating to South Asian culture as it pertains to those of us living outside of South Asia. For my non-South-Asian readers, I hope you’ll still read. The topics addressed might not pertain to you exactly, but perhaps you’ll better understand the Desi people in your life better (and I hope you have some Desi people in your life—because like never partaking of a good curry, life without us is bland).

Ok. To the topic at hand. For the sake of discussion, I will be talking about the Desi experience in America. For my Desi friends/relatives in other parts of the world outside of South Asia, I’d love to hear your feedback.

Here’s the super-condensed version of things: India had been occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch, and French in relatively small numbers and specific areas during the age of exploration and the spice trade. Spices and India: like peas and carrots, peanut butter and jelly, and pasta and sauce. Then along came the British around the end of the Mogul Empire on August 24, 1608. Yup, we got dates.

India was rich in natural resources and the British declared her the new jewel in the crown. They stayed until the late 1940s at which point a non-imposing man who never carried a gun led a movement that resulted in a quick pip pip back to Britannia. India became an independent republic at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947. My father, born in 1948, has only known India as an independent nation.

In the beginning, British men in India were encouraged to take Indian wives and concubines. So, if you ran 23 and Me tests on many Indians alive today you have a decent chance of finding a percentage of European blood in us. I have 3% of it because I suspected as much and 23 and Me proved me right.

With the British Empire in charge of pretty much every aspect of India for that many years, and in an oppressive fashion, white supremacy was the rule of law. Three hundred and thirty-nine years is a long time so guess what—Indians to survive—learned to play the game and in doing so, internalized tenets of white supremacy as it applied to them. Skin color and caste, deference to white people (to an extent), adoption of Christianity, and so forth.

Concerning skin color, many Indians have a severe problem in their embracing standards of beauty more akin to European standards—light skin, straight hair, sharp features. Just watch Bollywood movies. Caste or class is very much entrenched in British society and it is still a guiding principle in many echelons of Hindu society especially with regards to marriage.

When some Indians converted to Christianity (propagated not just by British colonialists, but by the white missionaries who came from all sorts of denominations), many changed their names from those of Hindu origin to Anglicized ones. Gone to the first meeting with someone named, for example, Thomas Matthew, and been completely surprised by the brown man standing before you? There’s your explanation.

But the Christianity that came to India with white missionaries sadly carried with it elements of white supremacy. For example, leadership at Christian institutions of learning or denominational administration was always held by white people, with Indian nationals in roles of service to them. Thankfully, that is not the modus operandi anymore, but it was for a very long time.

I had a very high-esteemed colleague who served as a teaching missionary at a Christian university. He and his wife were appalled, he said, when after-church potlucks they were invited to were open only to white faculty, excluding Indian colleagues. He is a good, good man, and he and his wife refused to attend unless their Indian colleagues were invited as well, thus breaking down a segregationist wall with sheer backbone.

The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965, which came about as a result of the civil rights movement (THANK YOU TO OUR BLACK BROTHERS AND SISTERS), made it possible for highly educated Indians with selective and specialized skills to obtain visas for further education and/or immigrate to the United States.

South Asians arrived in the country—even with meager means—already on a much higher educational and professional trajectory than African Americans who had lived in this country for hundreds of years.

While our parents and many of us still experienced discrimination and racism on various levels, we were still in a completely different place than the black community. Quite often South Asian immigrants were extolled for their “model minority” status as newcomers who stayed in their lanes, while still contributing to the wealth and prosperity of the United States. And some of us bought into it and bought into the notion that aligning ourselves with white people over anyone else will serve us best in the end.

Speaking on the second and third-generation South Asian Americans, how many of us were directly or indirectly told to never bring home a black boyfriend or girlfriend? How many of us were given conditional parameters of acceptability with regards to race to work within? What I mean by that is, have any of us been told “classy” people outside our race were ok, but “unclassy” people were not. We knew what that meant. The Cosby Show was classy (in the 80s), Run DMC was not.

All the while, many of our parents told us to stay out of the sun lest we get dark or darker; hang out with “certain types of people,” white friends being on the top of that list; listen to country music please, not that hip/hop “rubbish,” etc. To be fair, many of us were blessed with families who did better than others in this regard, recognizing that in the world of white supremacy, brown and black are the same thing, and thus we need to stand in solidarity. But there were those, then and now, who buy into the nonsense that somehow brown is more valued on a color palette than black.

This summer, when I made a personal commitment to speak out on behalf of black lives and tried to share my viewpoints with family members who were proud of being coconuts (white on the inside, brown on the outside), there was pushback. And I’m sure anytime the topic of race and standing up for black lives comes up in a Desi household, there might be pushback.

All I have to say to that is keep pushing back to the push back as best as you can. If the last four years have taught us anything—especially with the pretty-close-to-endorsement of white supremacists by the president, all our lives are in danger.

To loosely paraphrase Mandisa, we all bleed the same, and if there’s a fight, we all have to fight for each other.

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