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 Â“American-MuslimÂ” or Â“American-Islam.Â” ItÂ’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 Â“AmeriMuslimÂ” – it is easy to understand, and it sounds like Â“A merry Muslim.Â” 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?