Speaking of Self-Description: “South Asian”

Taz’s post today had one of the strangest statistics I’d ever seen — that 25% of South Asian Americans had, in 1990, identified themselves on the U.S. census as “white,” while 5% identified themselves as “black.”

It made me think of a post by progressive Muslim blogger Ali Eteraz from last week, where he discussed his own variant of an identity term crisis, not on racial but religious terms:

I onced asked a little kid I know what he was. He was like, um, er, I am a Pakistani-Muslim-American. I was like, what the hell, thatÂ’s messed up, little kids shouldnÂ’t have to hyphenate their identities like that, man.

Then one day I was typing up a post and I was like dammit I am really tired of having to write out the whole word “American-Muslim” or “American-Islam.” It’s just tiring.

So I decided that we needed a new ONE WORD term to call ourselves. . . In the end, I decided IÂ’m going to use “AmeriMuslim” – it is easy to understand, and it sounds like “A merry Muslim.” So from now on, thatÂ’s what IÂ’m going to use as my identity, thatÂ’s what IÂ’m going to teach nieces and nephews to say, and thatÂ’s what IÂ’m going to use even in my actual publications.(link)

Given that Ali Eteraz is (I believe) of Pakistani descent, my first thought is to say, “well, why not South Asian?” If we want to limit it to just one word, why not “desi” or “deshi”? Of course, in a sense I already know the answer: if religion is the most important aspect of one’s identity, one obviously privileges it over ethnicity. (Analogously, I also know a fair number of conservative Sikhs who are adamantly “Sikh American” and not “Indian American” or “South Asian American.”) Within individual states in the Indian Subcontinent, the term “South Asian” is rarely used. The progressive magazine Himal Southasian attempts to move beyond national identifications to a more regional, South Asian focus, but it’s the only enterprise I know of that does that. If “South Asian” exists mainly in the imagination of the diaspora, does that make it less meaningful?

Finally, I’ve noticed that more liberal Indian Americans in my acquaintance (of any religion) usually don’t bother with “South Asian” except when talking about someone whose national background isn’t known. It’s “Indian American” or just “Indian” (sometimes you even hear the slang term “Indo” — as in “there were a lot of Indos at the club”). In the comments at Sepia Mutiny at various points, people have also disparaged the term “South Asian” — mostly Indian nationalists, who’d rather deemphasize any association with Pakistan or Bangladesh. (On Pickled Politics, Sunny posted that conservative Hindus and Sikhs in England have been making similar arguments.) Is “South Asian” one of those terms that exists mainly in the abstract, to describe large groups and populations — but not necessarily individual people?

409 thoughts on “Speaking of Self-Description: “South Asian”

  1. Kenyandesi,

    It is sad to hear about what is happening in the UK with the stratification of Asians into different segments.

    The segregation is much more between Muslim Asians and everyone else. Sikhs and the various Hindu communities mix pretty extensively, at least amongst the UK-born 2nd-generation.

    Like I mentioned before, it wasn’t necessarily always like this.

  2. The segregation is much more between Muslim Asians and everyone else. Sikhs and the various Hindu communities mix pretty extensively, at least amongst the UK-born 2nd-generation.

    praise be allah!!!!

    o believers, it is impermissible to mix with the unclean ones!
    take not food or water from the hand of idolaters! take not food or water from the hand of the uncircumcized ones! take not food or water from the unbelievers!

    o believers! let not the kuffars be covetous of your womenfolk! o believers, take the womenfolk of the kuffars and bring them to the nation of islam! o believers, increase the nation of islam! o believers, drive the pagans before you as the shephard drives the sheep! o believers, be glorious in the eyes of the lord most high!

  3. funnily enough, i never watched Friends that much while it was running. it was so popular i felt like rebelling and not watching it. i only started watching it in re-runs, and i found it uneven, but mostly enjoyable. my favorite character is ross. cheers was excellent and sam malone is one of the all-time most charismatic characters for men and women alike (although i think a lot of credit goes to ted danson as well).

    i think the beauty of frasier is that it expounded so successfully on what you knew was lurking in the somewhat timid, cerebral dr. crane, completely out of his element in a bar and usually bested by others and his wife. then he moves to seattle and blossoms in all his haughty, but not unsympathetic, and hilarious almost self-mocking grandeur. he finally has a buddy, Niles, with whom he can indulge in his own idea of “things guys do” – a source of mirth to others and great material for all the jokes about them having no other friends and “when you get one, you automatically get the other.” the contrast between them and their more “blue collar” father is well done and exploited (the episode where Martin thinks he’s not their father).

  4. Macacaroach -

    Ignorant nonsense. East Asians do have a shared culture and history. Please educate yourself.

    And their hatreds, like the hatreds between english, french and germans, havent prevented the japanese and koreans from investing massively in China. China is Japan’s biggest trading partner. “

    What is with the name calling, roach? Investing in China doesn’t mean their progeny hang out and sing kumbaya. Arabs and non-Arab Muslims invest majority of their monies in the good old US of A….you get my drift? Hey, I am all for investing in Pakistan, they are the ones who are scared of the Hindu “baniya”.

  5. Hey, I am all for investing in Pakistan, they are the ones who are scared of the Hindu “baniya”.


    Tatas were going to open Tata Bangladesh worth US $2.5 Billion dollars in Bangladesh. But with their (Bangladesh) national elections coming soon, both the national parties in Bangladesh put the plans in cold storage (so that nobody looks pro-India). Tatas are not pleased. Same about India-Bangladesh-Myanmar pipeline.

    About 1-2 years ago, top Indian businessmen met General Musharraf and others. In the meeting, one of them asked, “Can we bid for ownership and direct investment for companies in Pakistan“. The answer was, “Not yet“. ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Commission) has bid for acreage in Pakistan. I am not sure about the fate. With new gas discovered in Rajasthan, they all want to look westward.

  6. Just saw this short post. Began reading the comments. Realised there were 4-1-7 of them. Guys, doesn’t really matter what you call yourselves. Just chill… :)