I read this article in the Cultural Connect (thanks, Sumaya) on desis and philanthropy that I’ve been mulling over for the past few days. NYU law student Maneka Sinha argues, among other things, that: a) South Asian Americans are more likely than other Americans of color to engage in international philanthropy and less likely to donate to American causes, b) the reason for this trend is because most South Asians identify as brown first rather than as American, and c) brown people should donate to domestic causes in order to assert our American identity to the mainstream population.
I have many thoughts on the article. But first, let’s go through Sinha’s arguments:
The national US population only donate to international causes at a rate of 2.2% of all charitable activity. Minority groups, on the other hand, tend to Â“give backÂ” on an international scale at a higher rate of 13%. Though as a whole minority groups focus on international giving at higher rates, there are discrepancies between these rates among different ethnic groups. While all minority groups demonstrate a strong tradition of giving at home and abroad, African Americans tend to focus a large degree of their charitable activity on domestic efforts supporting community churches, other community organizations, and education. Asian Americans place the least emphasis on international giving, focusing a majority of charitable efforts on the Asian American community and education. The Latino community gives internationally at a level somewhere between those of the Black and Asian American communities and also tends to focus its charitable efforts on its own community here in the US as well as on education. However, South Asian Americans in particular often give back to communities tied not to their own upbringing, but to their parentsÂ’ upbringing Â– namely, communities in South Asia.
And that’s a problem because…
Though it may be hard to swallow, the truth remains that we are American Â– weÂ’ve been raised, trained, and educated here. If we donÂ’t establish ourselves as an active force investing in the development of our communities and in aiding those members of the American population less fortunate than our own Â“modelÂ” South Asian community, our kids wonÂ’t either. And not only that, we will continue to remain somewhat isolated in a nation that benefits from our skills, talents and brainpower. Cringing at the thought of being Â“AmericanÂ” without addressing the underlying reasons why we shy away from that label is not an option Â– it is necessary to give back to the communities where our future generations will be raised in. Showing the mainstream population that we identify as American and are fully invested in the betterment of our local communities will help the general population appreciate us as such and ultimately allow us to shatter some of those glass ceilings.
I disagree with most of these arguments. First, I think it’s important to re-evaluate what constitutes as “charitable giving.” I gave two years of my life to teaching in an under-performing school in New York City. That was my way of paying back society. But my work as a teacher wouldn’t be included under Sinha’s definition of “giving.” So I think it’s important to note that while many South Asians probably aren’t contributing financially to domestic causes, there are also several of us who have made public service to our fellow Americans our life’s work. I’d be more interested in an article that includes people who’ve chosen the public sector as a career path at any given time under the category of “domestic givers” and then see if Sinha comes up with the same conclusions.
Second, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong or un-American about wanting to give to international causes as opposed to domestic ones. Many Jewish Americans prefer to donate to Israeli causes as opposed to others — does that make them any less American than anyone else? So why should the burden be on brown people to prove how American we are by showing less interest in the motherland? Why the double standard?
I also don’t buy Sinha’s argument that glass ceilings for brown people will shatter once we start giving domestically. If that really were the case, then other people of color — who Sinha argues contribute more domestically than we do — would no longer be subject to glass ceilings, either.
That all being said, however, I’d like to see a more comprehensive article that details where exactly South Asian Americans donate philanthropically. I have a hunch that most Hindus, specifically, would rather contribute to their local temples first before donating elsewhere. I also think that part of the reason we don’t see many South Asians giving back to their own community in America through setting up scholarship funds for low-income desi teenagers or volunteering to teach English to newly arrived South Asian immigrants is because many of us are in the dark when it comes to those in our community who are less well-off. And I don’t think that’s out of selfishness or denial — it’s simply because we haven’t had the gift of time in this country like other groups have to establish social services for our own. So in future generations, our attitudes towards giving will probably change — not out of wanting to become more American, but most likely because our perception of who is most in need will probably change as well.