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. I think,to be called South Asian American is kinda weird mainly cause of geographical reasons. ( And it invites a lot of not so creative smart ass comments from our American brethren)

    To be called just Indian American or Pakistani Amercian is not all inclusive and breeds alienation.

    I like the term “Desi”. It tells that you are from “Desh” but doesnt define the Desh. My desh can be India, pakistan, Lanka, Bangladesh whatever.

    So its kinda like we are all from back “there”. Although my “there” is a little diffrent from your “there”, but they are so close by and we are so similar that they are almost “right there” next to each other.

    Do I make sense :(

  2. While I am American as a nationality, I also identify as Indian, which to me is not just a nationality, but an ethnic background. I work with a lot of uneducated hicks (as in I provide them with medical services, not as in they are my colleaugues) from the rural south and Appalachia. Usually when they ask me “are you Indian?”, I’ve realized they are NOT implying that I’m not American. Most of these people watch enough satellite TV to know that Americans now come in a lot of colors and flavors. They are just trying to figure out which flavor I am. And unlike more educated white Americans, they rarely follow this question with the statement “you speak good English”. They really don’t find it surprising that I speak English like an American…they actually expect it. Anyway, my point is that being American and being Indian (or Pakistani, or Bangladeshi, or Sri Lankan) are not mutually exclusive, even to the eye of the beholder. My friends, both white, desi, and other, refer to people as Indian or Pakistani as a description of their ethnic background/country of origin rather than their nationality, just as I refer to my friends as Italian, Polish etc. So maybe it’s not politically correct, but it’s specific. And I don’t feel like it makes me any less American. No amount of politically correct labelling is going to change the fact that I’m as brown as a walnut and people will see what they want to see regardless of what I call myself in my head.

    I might add that in 3 years of working with the rural Southern poor, only 2 patients have ever said anything vaguely racist. And if you think it’s because I’m their doctor and they respect me, that’s not it; they frequently call me “little girl” and make other sexist or agist comments about the ability of a young-looking woman to be a doctor. Rednecks are a lot less racist in many instances than middle class urban Americans.

  3. Do I make sense :(

    You do, but I don’t think “desi” is as useful as SAA, b/c most of the people I know or have met are more likely to think “Arnaz” instead of brown if they hear that term. I know. My AIM sn has been “politicaldesi” for the past five years and I have to explain it constantly.

    SAA contains three terms that most any idiot can grasp AND it doesn’t satisfy the ingrate who is badgering me with “What are you?” questions, who damned well knows what I am and wants me to say “Indian”, which I won’t, because I was born in CA and while I lowe my India (and ESPECIALLY my Kerala), I’m a fucking American, damnit.

  4. So its kinda like we are all from back “there”. Although my “there” is a little diffrent from your “there”, but they are so close by and we are so similar that they are almost “right there” next to each other. Do I make sense :(

    Yes. :)

  5. Most 1-geners prefer the word Indian as opposed to South Asian because they do not want to be associated with Pakistan. Having spent a considerable amount of their life in India, many of them have seen the terror unleashed by Pakistan….or have heard stories of the same. After donning the American citizenship garb, they prefer the term Indian-American.

    Personally, I never use the term “south asian”.

  6. Nooooooooo… of course we need identities. I’m just saying – why not South Asia?

    My answer to “why not South Asia” is here.

  7. i never even heard the term ‘desi’ until a few years ago. a friend asked me how to pronounce it, and i had to admit i didn’t know what he was talking about.

    Not even in your travel to Bangladesh. I am surprised.

    It is used in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in one’s langauge 1000 times a day. Just a broad term for “home boy/ girl” or “local”.

  8. Any project which seeks a universal definition will fail – especially when attempting to define identity. As many commenters have stated, how one chooses to describe oneself, is based on context. In particular, what one person chooses to privilege in terms of a description of themselves. For myself, my Muslim background does not define me, if anything I consider myself “born Muslim”, something my first name gives away immediately. Of more importance to me, is that my ancestry hails from India. And as such, typically when people ask me where I come from I reply with “India”.

    Now, when I traveled to the Dominican, and was asked the same question, I replied with, “Canada”. In this situation, my ethnic background was not important, rather I found it more convenient to explain myself via my nationality.

    More interesting, was when I traveled to Pakistan. I had returned to a perceived “motherland” (albeit my parents were immigrants in Pakistan also) and originally had a sense of everyone being “one” especially having growing up in a country where I had been the “other”. Boy I was up for a reality check. Within a matter of minutes of talking to anyone in Urdu, I would be asked, “Where do you hail from?” The first few times I would respond confused, saying, Pakistan. The questioner would then ask, specifically my parents background, and when I said they were originally from Hyderabad, they would be satisfied and say something to the effect of “Yes, you have a very Hyderabad accent”. It became apparent to me, that in Pakistan, it was quite important for people to determine where specifically in the subcontinent you hail from; being simply Pakistani was not enough.

    I bring this up, to show, that while for the purposes of this blog it may be useful to use the term “South Asian” in the name of being inclusive. The label in itself does not have the same currency in real world scenarios. While I personally have never used the term South Asian to describe myself, I can see why it is useful in the context of this blog. However, it would be a mistake, to make the leap, to think the term is appropriate in more general usage for everyone who originates from the subcontinent; context would define the appropriate term of use.

  9. While I personally have never used the term South Asian to describe myself, I can see why it is useful in the context of this blog. However, it would be a mistake, to make the leap, to think the term is appropriate in more general usage for everyone who originates from the subcontinent; context would define the appropriate term of use.

    Well, said. I think for blogs, cultural functions, talking about diabetes, etc. it is OK but has very, very limited use.

  10. I’m a 1.5 gen American of Indian descent and I don’t mind being associated with Pakistan. Neither do my parents or any of my childhood friends who live here. When I meet a Pakistani or someone whose family is Pakistan it’s usually a bonding moment. I really don’t think Pakistan loomed large as a terrorist presence during my childhood. And I am Hindu, not Muslim. So I don’t object to the term South Asian.
    The real terror I saw growing up was communal violence, often incited by the RSS, and I don’t recall ever linking it in my mind with Pakistan.

  11. South Asian as a term is so contrived that I doubt if anybody can relate to it. If you have to characterize yourself as something, why not use your heart instead of your head. If you were born and raised in India or Pakistan, you are going to call yourself an Indian or Pakistani or whatever no matter how long you have lived in the US and what your citizenship is. If you are an ABD, just call yourself an American. Forget the hyphenation. It only typecasts you. If you are hanging out with your desi friends, they’ll know who you are. If you are in mixed company, ethnicity wise, who cares anyway.

    South Asian can never be an equivalent of Latin or Hispanic, people who come from dozens of different countries but share a common language, a common religion and many cultural similiarities. The problem with the concept of South Asia is that there is not a common language, not a common religion, and not even a common culture.

    I understand a need for the South Asian label when branding a blog such as this one or some some association or forum. It may serve a purpose.

    Post #113′s suggestion of desi as a broad, all inclusive definition is not half-way bad, except that it is a Hindi/Urdu word, and half of India has nothing to do with that language, neither does Sri Lanka, not Bangladesh. What’s Bengali for desi?

  12. The point is not which label to use, as long you understand that multiple labels are not exclusionary and understand the intent behind each of them and use them appropriate to the context. The subcontinent/SA has lot of crap & glorious things in its history, you will never find a single term which satisfies all.

    brownz is as good as any other term, as long as you are clear in your intent. And I cringe every time someone makes a chapta reference.

    I am giving a talk on joint work between India and Pakistan

    Oh great, we work together on stuff without resolving the K-dispute. Not to thread jack, what kind of joint work is this ? Do you refer to Lahore as lahore, Indian subcontinent.

  13. i never even heard the term ‘desi’ until a few years ago. a friend asked me how to pronounce it, and i had to admit i didn’t know what he was talking about.

    I grew up hearing my Dad use the term “desiby” (pronounced desi-bye) for Indians and “angrezi” for caucausians. (I didn’t hear it shortened to just desi until grad school.) Did anyone else ever hear those? I had actually never heard “pardesi” until this year. Interestingly enough, my dad has intermittently adopted the American use of the word “Indian” and has used it to describe both Native Americans and Indians depending on the context.

  14. Hmm, so the problem seem with the “Desi” is that not a lot of American people know what it is. Well it can be fixed if we start using it more and then mainstream media might start to use it on the seldom occcasions they actually write something about the community or when they refer to a brwon dude in a movie.It will take time but might work. In fact I rememebr Time Magzine using the term “Desi” when they published an article about us becoming a new consumer base force to reckon with.

    Although the term would have got a huge Rating boost if ony Mr Allen had called the guy as “Desi Macaca” or something :D

    And guys dont worry about the inability of some of the Americans to know all about what we are or what desi or SAA is. After walking some of the J walks on the Jay Leno show, I think there is a long list of things people need to know here before they come to our identity issue.

    And other way of making those questions of where u from obsolete.. breed breed breed :D . I dont think these questions arise much in Canada or UK

  15. I grew up hearing my Dad use the term “desiby” (pronounced desi-bye) for Indians and “angrezi” for caucausians. (I didn’t hear it shortened to just desi until grad school.) Did anyone else ever hear those?

    I would assume that your father was saying “desi bhai” – meaning desi brother. Though I have never heard the term used in that way myself.

  16. What’s Bengali for desi?

    deshi. and it’s more than a letter, the way the vowels are emphasized seems totally different and frankly alien to me.

    but my parents would refer themselves as bangali, white people as shadha manush (white men), and foreigners as bideshi.

  17. I agree that South Asian is somewhat of a contrived term but it has its place in academia and census forms.

  18. The problem with brown is, I use it to mean anyone who isn’t white–yellow, black, Mexican, desi. And then what about all the desis who look white? Or what if a desi family adopted a white child and raised them desi?

  19. I would assume that your father was saying “desi bhai” – meaning desi brother. Though I have never heard the term used in that way myself.

    You’re probably right. He never told me how it was spelled using the roman alphabet, I just tried to hazard a guess. It was just one of those little details that crept into my lexicon and that I remember vividly but that was never accompanied with a detailed explanation. ;)

  20. The problem with brown is, I use it to mean anyone who isn’t white–yellow, black, Mexican, desi. And then what about all the desis who look white? Or what if a desi family adopted a white child and raised them desi?

    a term like brown is contextual and relative. just like south asian frankly (e.g., i’ve talked to people who assumed i meant southeast asian when i said south asian cuz those were southern asians they knew, they thought of what we term south asians as ‘indians’). no need to get that hung up over names and terms :) FWIW, i know many arabs who think they are white (would you guess that cindy crawford’s mother is an arab american?), and yet i’ve known of norwegians who consider the irish ‘black’ (or, consider that in georgia people from the caucasus, caucasians, are ‘black,’ even though. here is a british georgian singer, you can decide if she be white….

    -brown out

  21. On identity, there hasn been no finer work than those written by Iranian-American authors. They faced crises of identity during the aftermath of the embassy hostage takeover. The issue of being hypenated Americans has been articulated rather well, especially in this magnificent work, this one and this memoir.

  22. consider that in georgia meant, in russia.

    This is totally off topic, but I saw on “Eye on LA” that the city of Philly gave an award for the best Philly Cheesesteak to a woman who has her restaurant in LA. I think that she is from Georgia, Russia. Just goes to show you how today, many of us live in a very global community where identity is not only determined by the one’s location of origin or ancestral home, but by preferences as well. :)

  23. I had never heard the term south asian till I came to Canada. I lived in a very brown dominated community (in Kuwait not in India) and people there simply identified themselves as Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan etc. It was understood there that we belonged to a similar place geographically with overlapping customs/culture… so there was no need for the term South Asian to describe our ‘community’. I also never heard or used the term ‘desi’ or ‘brown’ before I came here… terms were always more specific, related to a specific region.

    In Canada, the term South Asian is used a LOT from what I have seen. Any advertising/publicity done for the ‘brown folks’ is under the South Asian label. Simply, because it seeks to call out to the entire brown community not just Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans or Bangladeshis exclusively. Non-brown Canadians, near Toronto at least, defenitely understand what South Asian means – unless they live under a rock. They are also aware that it is an umbrella term for several nationalities. I cannot recall any ‘brown people’ that I know using the term south asian to describe their identity however. For me, Canadian or Indian-Canadian don’t fit, so I go with Indian as a way to describe my personal national identity, South Asian is what I use to describe the larger cultural community to which I belong. So the term used depends on the context.

  24. It’s interesting how people often identify differently than people see them. For example my white husband says he often forgets he is white. He is one of those ambiguous looking people that could be anything; in fact, people often think he is what they are and come up to us speaking different languages. I don’t really think of him as being white either. By association with me, and looking like he could possibly not be white, he has pretty much lost his whiteness. When he’s with a bunch of white people, I’m sure they see him as white, but he identifies so strongly with our family unit that he doesn’t see himself that way anymore. He is Jewish so has already had some experience with being the “other”. He definitely doesn’t think he’s Indian, just “not white” as in detached from the mainstream US society. I don’t judge him for that so I don’t see how I can judge desis or Arabs who see themselves as white.

  25. Someone said I’m a fucking American, damnit.

    Someone, eh?

    Hey, we are talking about identity. Not activity.

    Indeed. If I were to believe all the coy brown girls at college, there are NO fucking Indians. Not until they’re married, at least.

  26. I don’t judge him for that so I don’t see how I can judge desis or Arabs who see themselves as white.

    there are many things to judge people for, these sort of things seem trivial. but hey, i don’t have rabid opinions about indian, bangladesh, pakistan, etc. etc.

  27. I believe in “not before marriage.” But then again, coy brown girls can’t exactly marry other girls, so…?

  28. Let’s not forget the commercial undertone of “South Asian,” very much like Indo-Pak restaurants and grocery stores. You have got to appeal to all demographic segments if you need the business. But if I ever see a South Asian restaurant, I know I’m not going in.

  29. Indian Nationalism not unlike other nationalistic pride gets old after a while. As Ismat stated earlier, consider South Asian to be the English term for Desi. Let us keep using the term South Asian and leave us alone.

  30. Oh great, we work together on stuff without resolving the K-dispute. Not to thread jack, what kind of joint work is this ? Do you refer to Lahore as lahore, Indian subcontinent.

    Earthquakes, and Himalayas.

    I could talk more about it but then I will threadjack, and it is an ongoing effort. You can always email me. In May, I was supposed to go to Pakistan along with 100 other people. The meeting was cancelled 4 days before because some top-notch Generals did not like the idea at the 11th hour. I rather not talk about it.

    Now to Lahore. If I was talking about Lahore before August 14, 1947, I would use term India or pre-partition India. As of Lahore today, it Lahore, Pakistan.

  31. This is at heart a religious identity question. Again, the Indian-American brand proponents are invariably Hindu or adherents of another Indic religion. Indian-American – the way the debate in the community is going now – is essentially code for Hindu, though obviously anyone with antecedents and roots in India can claim that term – and there are many Indian Christians who opt for this term, and Indian Muslims too. In fact, the brown Muslim organizations (1gen) are not necessarily pan-brown…

    “South Asian” has unfortunately become code for progressive/leftist, also mainly Hindu (because the American population of brownz is mostly Indian and a small -I would say tiny- number of Pakistanis buys into the label.) Did anyone notice the “progressive” blogger above finally settled on Amerimuslim? :) What does that tell you about Brown Muslim choice, and the comparative stregnth of the Muslim identity vs. the Hindu identity among 2gens at the moment? Besides that, several of the most prominent advocates of the SA brand are engaged in forceful (I would say self-righteous) academic critque of India and Indian culture, often from a Marxist vantagepoint.

    Frankly, though South Asian gets much attention, I think its a campus phenomenon and shallowly held – Indian American will win the day. Just as the Hindus in Britain (with a much larger number of born Britons by the way) are moving on, Hindus here will revolt and do much the same. It will become more apparent as we get older-when culture takes greater hold, when spiritual questions start to occupy our consciousness, when we are over rebelling against the brown, when we raise children, when we become wealthier, and thanks to our American citizenship, have a legitimate shot at influencing geopolitics, when, thanks to intermarriage with brownz from different communities, “regional” affinities start to fade away – and a few hippies will remain hip and progressive forever; a few whitened browns will go be white; and a few others will keep wondering what the fuck they are until the Kali yuga ends. And for the “I am so many things” proponents- while “solitarist” identity may be anathema to liberal thought and is viewed as an unelightened “category error,” its how the world works, and always will. Culture is not a bunch of menu options, like “bhangra” and “Chettinad cuisnine” and “Mogul minitiatures” and “yoga” to be grasped at, glorified and then rejected if not progressive enough for your autonomous hybridity. its an entire package, a framework of being, though admittedly ever-changing – and this emphatically does not mean one is blind to its faults. That India, mired in its imperfections, is still important to many of us should not shock anyone, many ethnic communities have demonstrated similar allegiance to their old countries

    But hey, may the best brown kabbadi team win :)

  32. So much of this is class-based too. Usually people who are or were college students and have been able to be involved “South Asian” organizations (or have had a campus culture that includes “South Asian” as an identity term) can identify with that term, along with whatever else they identify as…

    In my own humble experience, South Asian Americans from “upper middle class” and wealthy backgrounds who grew up in mostly white areas are overwhelmingly represented in various “South Asian” organizations, and people from more diverse class and community backgrounds gravitate towards other identities – in particular, Indian, Pakistani, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc. Why? I dunno. Maybe because if you’re raised around more desis (which for us in this country often implies being not wealthy, or being from a truly middle class or working class family), you gravitate towards identities that reflect identities held by people in South Asia, whereas those of us who’ve been alienated from that moreso reach a point where we “choose” how we want to identify.

    That “choice” is both a privilege and a burden, I think.

    Personally I feel “desi” and I feel “Indian” and I feel “South Asian” – but most of my desi friends, with a few exceptions, would not immediately think of themselves as South Asian any more than an Arab would consider herself West Asian. I was raised in a middle class family in a heavily white town. My friends are from mostly middle-class, some working-class, desi families from heavily desi suburban areas in Chicago. I’m certainly highly race- and ethnicity-conscious, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing.

    Also: whitey whitey whitey whitey whitey. Thank you.

  33. [which is not to say that you don't get crossover and that "South Asians" are 100% privileged class people, just speaking to observations of who tends to dominate. whitey whitey whitey whitey, thanks.]

  34. I don’t think it’s gone there yet. As long as people keep it civil right? Haven’t we learned our lessons, my fellow South Asian / desi / IndoPakiSriNepaBangMaldBhutanivianis?

    You know what? I forgot that we do have a commonly agreed-upon word that doesn’t even have the Hindustani-centric associations of “desi”:

    macaca

  35. My friends are from mostly middle-class, some working-class, desi families from heavily desi suburban areas in Chicago

    Schaumburg?

  36. while “solitarist” identity may be anathema to liberal thought and is viewed as an unelightened “category error,” its how the world works, and always will.

    no it isn’t.

    My bet is 274+-20 comments before this thread is shutdown/die out

    320+-20