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. “South Asian” has unfortunately become code for progressive/leftist, also mainly Hindu (because the American population of brownz is mostly…

    risible thanks for putting the real reasons.

    So much of this is class-based too.

    Religion and class there. So SA is tainted by association and icons for displaced aggression.

    Reg civility, this seems like one of our better days.

  2. Guys! Guys! I got it! I found a term that’s simple, definitive, and applies to the entire South Asian diaspora. It’s a bit old, but if the ’80s can be back en vogue, so can the ’30s…1630s, that is.

    I give you “Gentoo”.

    I don’t see the problem: we’re all Hindoos and we’re all heathens. Well, see ya guys, Dinner’s getting cold!

  3. This topic always helps SM meet the numbers at the end of the quarter to its share holders. How about this simple formula YOU = First Generation = Indian, Pakistani, Lankan, Bhutani, Bangladeshi YOU > First Generation = SAA, Brown, Light-Brown, Desi, OldCountry-American, Hindu, Muslim, whatever else you wanna call yourself.

    Btw when you guys talk about being inclusive, why do you want to divide humanity into this tag of South Asian American? Its just a tiny bit bigger group than Indian. Why not call yourself Asian-American, Earth-American things like that?

  4. Unity of all carbon based life forms!!Stop the hate!!.the matrix is gonna get us all…

  5. This is a recurring topic that shows up with a vengeance every quarter. The term South Asian has different meanings for different people depending on their geographical location and social conditioning.

    In the US, it is largely a brown-color thing. For the sake of an argument, let us say that people from Bangladesh appeared Caucasian then they would never classify themselves as South Asians in the US. Also, terminology laced with South Asian flavor is mostly propagated by SAARC and SAJA folks. In India, the term is largely a political statement propagated by the likes of Praful Bidwai. In the UK, it is a politically correct way for the media to report crime and law enforcement by branding people as South Asian so that they get to report their stuff and yet not anger any particular community. Pay attention to how they never call the perpetrators British even if they are born in the UK.Yes, it is a side effect of multiculturalism.

  6. - Indian American will win the day…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,

    I’ve heard plenty of…interesting theories or objections applied to the much-derided SA label, but “rebelling against brown”? No. Quite the opposite. If I were rebelling against who I truly am, I wouldn’t give a shit about any of this. Oh, wait…and I wouldn’t be a founding blogger at the brownest blog ever.

    when we raise children, when we become wealthier,

    How much wealthier do we need to be/can we get? Also, if anything, with successive generations, we’re just going to become more American. That’s what I plan on telling MY South Asian American, 3rd gen korengeh.

    …when, thanks to intermarriage with brownz from different communities, “regional” affinities start to fade away -

    Uh…all the MORE reason to NOT fixate on “Indian” and to value/rally behind an inclusive label, since this doesn’t just refer to a Mallu marrying a Punjabi (Hi Jai…how YOU doin’?) but to people in the diaspora whose roots are in one nation marrying someone from a different South Asian country. I have a Sri Lankan friend who is married to a Goan. But hey, to hell with her…”Indian” will prevail, right?

    and a few hippies will remain hip and progressive forever

    If it’s “hippies” who are staunchly SAA, then I need to return my pearls, plaid-lined trench and sorority letters. Kya bakwas. I’m an erstwhile elephant/current independent and I am South Asian. It’s beyond silly to assume something about those of us who choose to self-label inclusively. This isn’t about being hip and progressive– this is about courtesy and common sense.

  7. bit itz a linux distro!!!

    munch Oh yea munch munch it’s that too. Well, that probably gives you further insight into who designed it, right?

    Fellow Gentoos, let us march forward and assert our common identity! Let us be rid of outrageous stereotyping and facile exotification and reclaim our heritage!!

    Right after we’re done eating, of course.

  8. I have a Sri Lankan friend who is married to a Goan. But hey, to hell with her…”Indian” will prevail, right?

    Wait a minute, ANNA you are mixing things here.

    They are Indian origin people married to Pakistani origin or Pakistani people but they all maintian their distinct identity to ones I know and read about. A very famous example is neo-Hindu rashtra/ BJP/RSS darling, nationalist, NP winner VS Naipaul. He is married to a woman from Pakistan. In my brother’s grad school in 80s, he knew an India FOB grad student whose girlfriend was Pakistani FOB.

    So South Asian pan-identity brouhaha has nothing with doing poing-poing or deeper relationships.

    I still think South Asian is a Starbucks/ Frappucino construct.

    Abhi, are you going to do satyagraha/ dharna at AGU meeting whenever the hegemonious word “Indian subcontinent” is mentioned during talks (Just joking). Best wishes on finishing up.

  9. children, plees to note this blog is not brown. it is veatish! how i am going to find good blog bride if you keep saying sepia is brown?

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

    Not so much Scumburg. I’m talking more of Skokie, Desi Plaines, Morton Grove variety. And also some of the South/West burbs. And a scattering from elsewhere. The Chicago metropolitan area. Not where I’m from but I have many desi friends from there.

  11. “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.

    This, I feel, is very true.

  12. I think ethnicity is much more uniting than religion. I identify more with being a South Asian rather than Muslim. You can see it by how there are mosques for different ethnicities. There’s a black mosque, a pakistani mosque, an arab mosque, etc. in the bay area.

  13. Geographically there is a continuinty within the “South Asian region” isn’t there? We have the Hindu Kush mountains and desert in the west, and on the North and East the Himalayas and the River delta in the East. There is also either religious or linguistic continuity in different parts of the region, as well as a lot of diversity. And for religious or other minority communities, there are both reasons to be see commonality and difference within the region. I think “South Asian” may be a primarily diasporic, maybe upper class identity in its specifics, but some of the rationale behind it is solid.

  14. A couldn’t agree more, Notsouthasian (#44) Also, you may have noticed, no Pakistani or Bangladeshi will ever organize any group/activity under the South Asian label. Indeed, some Pakistanis even label the South Asian champions as closet Hindutva.

    To wit – In March 2003, the Pakistani english daily of record,The Dawn, ran an opinion piece by their American hack, who claimed that the South Asian department/s at Columbia and other “elite” Universities are run by the “Hindutva” brigade. I kid you not. Cruel, but true.

    You can imagine the hurt this article unleashed on the poor, all south asians are brothers, united against the evil capitalist west, Indian academy.

  15. Also, you may have noticed, no Pakistani or Bangladeshi will ever organize any group/activity under the South Asian label. Indeed, some Pakistanis even label the South Asian champions as closet Hindutva.

    This doesn’t seem to be an accurate statement

  16. I still think South Asian is a Starbucks/ Frappucino construct.

    I still don’t get what your objection to SA is. For risible,amitabh it is a guilt by association with Marxists(whether that is fair or not is altogether different matter).

    So South Asian pan-identity brouhaha has nothing with doing poing-poing or deeper relationships.

    Who said anything about pan-identity. Is this a strawman.

  17. Also, you may have noticed, no Pakistani or Bangladeshi will ever organize any group/activity under the South Asian label.

    Here’s another one

  18. Though I am an American citizen, when I run into Abhi’s redneck acquaintances who ask me “what I am,” I instinctively respond “Indian.” I identify first as Indian, South Indian, Asian, and Tamil all before “American” even pops into my mind. I’ve been criticized for it by many people — my own parents included — and I haven’t yet figured out why “Indian” is what I identify with most.

    I did not start using the term “desi” until the last couple years or so, and to be honest, it doesn’t feel natural or comfortable coming out of my mouth. My parents have never once used the term and if memory serves me correct, during my childhood, I only heard North Indian people refer to themselves as desi. My South Indian friends and I only use the term in mixed company, so to speak. I’ve noticed how often people on SM refer to India as Desh or Bharat — both very distant terms to me. If my family refers to India, they just use “ooru” or “namooru.”

    I do use the term South Asian, but for me, the term hurts every time I use it. I spent a significant amount of time growing up in another Asian country — an East Asian country, if you will. My best friends were all of this particular East Asian descent, and to this day, many still are. I was fully immersed in that culture and felt comfortable in both Indian and this country’s culture. When I returned back to the States, I was really shocked and hurt to find that the East Asians in this country (now I’m referring to all East Asians) wanted nothing to do with me. They were overtly racist to me and I can’t tell you the number of times someone jeered at me, “you’re not Asian!! Indian people aren’t Asian.” I had grown up my entire life feeling Asian and feeling connected to two different Asian cultures which are actually not that wildly different from each other. Over time, I grew to accept the fact that if I didn’t want to be ostracized or tormented by East Asians, I’d have to settle for the South Asian (and subsequently, East Asian) designation.

    Nowadays I feel very uncomfortable attending pan-Asian conferences/workshops/etc. — I always wonder if I actually belong, I wonder if the Pakistanis in the room feel even stranger, and the old feelings of confusion always bubble up.

    Amongst my friends, we call each other “brownies.”

  19. India is “ooru” in my family, too. Although, even though we are Tamil/South Indian before anything else, my parents use the word “desi” all the time, when referring to Northies and Southies. Go figure… Interestingly enough, desis here at college ask me about “where I was born” more than non-desis. They (desis) claim I have a “definite accent,” even though I was born and brought up here in the States (though English is not my first language), and I always get looks of disbelief when I tell them so. “No! Really? But you…you…sound like us!” (Mostly it’s the FOB desis who ask me rather than the other ABCD’s like me). The non-desis either are too polite to bring up my accent or don’t notice it. Once again, go figure!

  20. I still don’t get what your objection to SA is.

    My objection:

    1) I hold my Indian identity very dearly, and I am not willing to dilute it. Is that not enough? It grows stronger and stronger with each passing day I am physically away from India – it comes from inside and I have no desire to please others or be PC. I am not willing to dilute/ share something that is real (India is a real entity) with a construct that no real roots, and grounding. The term South Asian is used in vague meetings, like SAARC, etc or in Starbucks.

    2) I have no beef with not having partnership/ friendship/ poing-poing/ marriages with other South Asians/ expats/ people of origin. I am not asking them to give up their roots, and neither I am giving up mine. Say, if I married a woman from Pakistan like VS Naipaul and many others, I am not asking her to give up her core. Personally and professionally, I interact with Pakistani and Pakistani Americans. We all are aware of shared history and heritage but we do not smudge it.

    3) If you go to Kashmir, Punjab, Rann of Kutch, Bengal, there are families on either side of the countries. Kids cricket ball goes to other side of the border. In Bengal, peole cross borders to earn bread. In Rann of Kutch, if you have the guts to walk/ camel ride the salt pans, you can cross the border very easily. India and Nepal share nationalities. The most crowded embassy in India for visa is the Pakistan embassy. Have you heard them (billions of people in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.) singing South Asian pan-identity song? Hell, no (except few Marxists in India). The one who did was assasinated – Gandhi. 3) I use the term “South Asian” many times – for general discussion, blogs, talking about diabetes, politics in Amreeka, etc. But it has very limited value for me in discourse, and it hardly rings to my heart.

    Those are my reasons. Others will have different ones.

    I can understand lot of Americans are involved in South Asian thing as “brown” thing or shared growing up experiences in Amreeka. So be it.

  21. I am, first and foremost, South Indian (Tamilian, if you want to get detailed), and then a desi, “brown,” South Asian, whatever you want to call it. When there are so many difference between S. and N. Indian cultures already, why do you want to go and muddle it up by including Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc, in the overarching “South Asian” term? I have nothing against those countries, but I also don’t want to be grouped with them under some huge umbrella term like “South Asian.” I have very little in common with Pakistani-American and Bangladeshi-American kids, except maybe (or maybe not…) the same “brown” skin tone (though everyone will agree that brown comes in many colors). Also, the very language groups are different…Tamil (Dravidian family of languages) and Urdu are about as different as English and Mandarin!!!

  22. I hold my Indian identity very dearly, and I am not willing to dilute it. Is that not enough? It grows stronger and stronger with each passing day I am physically away from India – it comes from inside and I have no desire to please others or be PC.

    Substitute “Indian” with “Malayalee” and “marxist” ole South Asian me could’ve written that sentence.

    BUT.

    As Abhi tried to point out WAY up-thread, I can be both. There is no dilution. I am South Asian AND Mallu and yes, it’s all about the context; if I’m at HOKANA and someone asks me where I’m from, then it’s California/Thiruvilla, it’s never “South Asian”. Let’s not be silly about this. Choosing “brand” South Asian doesn’t mean you are never allowed to be Indian-American or whatever else, ever again.

    1. I can understand lot of Americans are involved in South Asian thing as “brown” thing or shared growing up experiences in Amreeka. So be it.

    That’s all i am looking for.

    1. Have you heard them (billions of people in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.) singing South Asian pan-identity song? Hell, no (except few Marxists in India). The one who did was assasinated – Gandhi.

    What’s the point in asking those who use it in sense 1 to justify 2. So essentially same reason as risibile.

    Rest of the reasons I guessed, but just want to be sure.

  23. When there are so many difference between S. and N. Indian cultures already, why do you want to go and muddle it up by including Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc, in the overarching “South Asian” term?

    When there are sooo many differences between Tamils, Mallus, Konks, Kannadigas and people from Andhra…I mean that last group think they’re Italian or something…why do YOU want to go and muddle it up with the overarching term “South Indian “?

    ;)

  24. When there are sooo many differences between Tamils, Mallus, Konks, Kannadigas and people from Andhra…I mean that latter group think they’re Italian or something…why do YOU want to go and muddle it up with the overarching term “South Indian”?

    And plus, with all the over-arching differences in a family, do you really want to muddle the term, family?

    p.s. the prettiest woman I’ve ever seen was from Karnatka, so that’s my second favorite state in India

  25. Kush: Why do you believe that South Asian is a Frapuccino construct? I can understand that you feel that way but that does not mean that everybody sees it the way you do. Also as Taz and Ismat have pointed out, it is quite absurd to suggest that all Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are running away from this identity. Some sure are, but they do not speak for everybody. Every weekend I go watch football with a bunch of friends in a large gathering and two of the regulars there are of Pakistani origin. They refer to themselves as South Asians as do countless other Pakistanis.

  26. kush – i agree with your sentiments there – and it’s quite evident you’re speaking from the heart

    however, the counterpoint to your argument is that there are a lot of folks on this board who may consider this a wedge issue – especially the folks whose identity is driven by their mother tongue (bangla, panjabee, kashmiree) or religion (sikh, muslim) – this is especially true for those whose knowledge of india comes from the odd genocide or famine or plague or mutiny dispatched on hte newswire. Their natural preference is to keep themselves distinct from the gibbering, perishing masses – “not my people. my people live in an exalted state of enchantment, emancipation and enlightenment on a 2 meter by 2 meter lot in nihilipuram”.

    net net,… i believe that one needs to seek what’s common with the next person to build rapport and a stronger community. So – rather than drive a wedge amongst us, i prefer to use the term indics or south asians on this forum. for example, in canada at least, i find myself drawn to trinis and it’s hard to find a point of convergence other than ‘brown’… and the line goes even fuzzier in biracial folks (there are a faire number of them here too)… net net… vague boundaries like ‘south asian’, ‘brown’ etc serve a purpose.

  27. I guess we could get realllly nitpicky and break it down by gothram and nakshatram, but I have a midterm tomorrow (which is not in astrology) so I guess I have to concede defeat here. But I will say this: Somehow, the term “South Asian” just rubs me the wrong way, and I can’t explain it now cuz I’ve got that danged midterm to focus on. Laterz all.

  28. Anyone knows when the term ‘South Asian’ was put into wider use.. Is it related to the creation of a new division in the US state department to cater to the region.. I guess because people look similar Chinese / Koreans etc.. are lumped as Asians and the browns are lumped into the category of South asians.. Where does Burma/Burmese fit into??

    For second generation Americans whose parents are from that geographical region, I think ‘Brown American’ is probably the right term. Why do you want to associate with a region that your parents escaped from and on which you probably have very little clues other than visiting for a couple of weeks/months once in two years??..

  29. Do all South Asians do the head nod? Bas, problem solved Isnt that mostly a South Indian thing?

    In the north I think there’s less number of head rotations, maybe one turn to the left and right

  30. although, supplemental to #192, when bdeshini posted the following on the chicago meet-up post

    I will be there . . .And I will drag a brown friend along.

    my first thought was of a visitation by Mr Hankey rather than an indic dude(tte).

  31. Andhra…I mean that last group think they’re Italian or something…

    ROFLMAO. But that is an externally applied description, we self-hating-marxists-white-wannabes- have internalized it.

  32. Does SM automatically strip stuff enclosed in “<” “>” ? The sting in my comment is lost

  33. Why do you want to associate with a region that your parents escaped from and on which you probably have very little clues other than visiting for a couple of weeks/months once in two years??..

    Wow. Now wasn’t that sentence full of ignorant stereotyping. What makes you think 1) our parents “escaped” and that 2) We have little clues to the region? When in fact what I love about the bi-cultural hyphenated identity of being South Asian American is the American issues, the desi issues, and unique cultural experience of the desi-American life that honors both backgrounds and are very intertwined.

    Why do you think you can decipher what our self-identification needs are when you don’t even have a clue what it means to live a hyphenated life of being both desi AND American?

  34. Does SM automatically strip stuff enclosed in “” ? The sting in my comment is lost

    Sting me again, baby. I’ll see if I can get the intern to amend it. ;)