Desis and Philanthropy

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 “give back” 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 parents’ upbringing – 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 – we’ve been raised, trained, and educated here. If we don’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 “model” South Asian community, our kids won’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 “American” without addressing the underlying reasons why we shy away from that label is not an option – 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.

124 thoughts on “Desis and Philanthropy

  1. When I was 15, I was removed from my working-class latin-american family in Jersey City and sent to live with a foster family who had two daughters around my age. I believe the parents were originally from Gujurat. They didn’t have a lot of money, the mom was in school working on a masters or something and the dad worked at a gas station nights and taught during the day. I lived with them until moving to my grandmother’s. When I eventually went to college, I found out these folks had put aside money for me for college.They paid for one of my semesters at school and my books and transportation.

    this is one reason it bugs me to see the random disses on “typical” desi fob uncles and aunties. if they are bothersome it’s because they care. of course, a lot of us like to diss because deep down we know we’re fucked in trying to find a compatible mate with similar ethos in the n. am culture. it comes off as derision.

    They didn’t have to do all that.

    this is a special gift. you must be a very special person.

  2. Coach,

    That is a really cool story, thanks for sharing! I’m sure that when they’re older, some of the kids that you work with will remember you that way. :)

  3. They did not change in appearance at all. Nor did anybody else who came here.The same boxes were checked then as would be checked today.

    Obviously you missed the nuanced meaning. My claim is European ethnics such as the Jews, Italians and Irish for example, weren’t considered “white” when they first came, but were gradually “let in the club” because:

    A. Their skin complexion matched those in power, more so than those not, so “whiteness” to the new immigrant was an easy sell. B. They were willing to shed their cultural ties and buy into the newly adopted “American” view. – a big component of which was, revile non-white residents, consider them as a lower class of human beings.

    Quoting the statue of liberty base and yelling , “See? We’re all American!” and calling someone else out for “tongue in cheek”ness is an irony in and of itself.

  4. That should have read ‘Gujarat’.

    Hairy_d, Everyone’s special.:)

    I just wanted to let everybody know about the anonymous people out there that give, even when they themselves aren’t really well-off, without needing a lot of recognition.

  5. I’m leaving for India tomorrow.

    Well, JOAT. Have a nice and safe trip to India, and all the best regarding the purpose of your visit.

    musical,

    You have brought great points from rural India.

    Also, I was yesterday on the internet looking for outreach in South Indian temples. Some of the temples there like Gurudwara feed thousands of people every day. Tirupathi feeds ~25,000 people a day. There is an ISKON temple in Karnataka that give ~10,000-15,000 free lunches to school children daily.

    We haven’t even broached the Christians in India doing service.

    In 2005-2006, ~80,000 Pakistanis were taken care by their brothers and sisters saving them death before the winter set in the high Himalayas after the earthquake. Same happened in tsunami in South India and Sri Lanka, best to their ability.

    Coach diesel,

    That is a beautiful story.

  6. 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 agree, Naina. I know plenty of desis (from all generations) who give back in an non-monetary way. Those who don’t care to give in any way are stingy because they’re rich and self-centered, not because they’re desi.

    When I was 15, I was removed from my working-class latin-american family in Jersey City and sent to live with a foster family who had two daughters around my age. I believe the parents were originally from Gujurat. They didn’t have a lot of money, the mom was in school working on a masters or something and the dad worked at a gas station nights and taught during the day. I lived with them until moving to my grandmother’s. When I eventually went to college, I found out these folks had put aside money for me for college.They paid for one of my semesters at school and my books and transportation. They didn’t have to do all that.

    This makes me happy. There are good people everywhere. Thanks for sharing, coach :)

  7. Even the poorest people you can find the U.S. are more often too fat and wearing expensive sneakers.

    Hmm…they’re not too fat because they don’t lack material things…they are sometimes too fat because healthy food costs more than a bottle of store brand soda, and you can avoid hunger by drinking several of those a day, and feeding them to your kids, so their teeth rot before they even come in… There are plenty of poor in America who lack material things too–like heat or running water–that’s why they call the free rescue squad every night the temperature drops below freezing with some made-up ailment so they can spend the night in the warm ER. Of course the magnitude of poverty is so much worse in India, but it’s often hidden here. That’s why I no longer get on anyone’s case about saying they can’t afford their meds when they have a fresh manicure–if my life was miserable and shitty, and a manicure made me feel better about it, I’d probably take that over my blood pressure medication.

    That being said, regarding the current discussion, who cares where you donate your time/money/energy, as long as you do it somewhere? And the reason for doing it locally certainly shouldn’t be to earn acceptance or gratitude.

    I just wanted to let everybody know about the anonymous people out there that give, even when they themselves aren’t really well-off, without needing a lot of recognition.

    Exactly–they probably did it because they loved coach diesel and wanted her to do well in life, not because they wanted mainstream Americans to like them. That is a nice story :)

  8. “That’s why I no longer get on anyone’s case about saying they can’t afford their meds when they have a fresh manicure–if my life was miserable and shitty, and a manicure made me feel better about it, I’d probably take that over my blood pressure medication.”

    So true! Goes to show that rational thinking is such a fragile thing, possible only when everything else is in balance.

    On the topic of the American poor vs. Indian poor, and which is more deserving, obviously by the United Nations’ standardized global metrics, the Indian poor are much worse off. But the pain of poverty isn’t any more over there than here, and the UN does not measure pain.

  9. But the pain of poverty isn’t any more over there than here, and the UN does not measure pain.

    The PAIN of poverty is probably worse here, for a number of social and cultural reasons. In India the material deprivation is more extreme, and exploitation also; but the family system, sense of identity, and cultural moorings are more intact. Psychologically they are possibly better off than the worst of inner-city American poor.

  10. Wow, that’s an amazingly myopic view. Why not chastize non-south asians for their lack of international aid to the world’s neediest? Particularly in a day and age when America needs to bolster its image abroad? Seems to me the better argument is that whites need to look beyond traditional recipients of their largesse — churches, universities, and the arts. They need to follow the lead of thought leaders on the subject of philanthropy like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who concentrate most of their giving on alleviating developing world problems like malaria, TB, and AIDS. Even celebrities like Bono or Angelina Jolie might be better role models than the local pastor looking to upgrade the pews.

  11. “The PAIN of poverty is probably worse here, for a number of social and cultural reasons. In India the material deprivation is more extreme, and exploitation also; but the family system, sense of identity, and cultural moorings are more intact. Psychologically they are possibly better off than the worst of inner-city American poor.”

    You have made some very bold statements. I have not read enough on the subject to decide if the Indian culture really protects the psyche from the ravages of poverty or it merely seems that way. What do we know of the psychological impact on a poor Indian father who is watching his little girl slowly go blind due to lack of medical care? Or the psychological suffering of a little “street urchin” (sorry, an Indian term) who is working like a dog before he is ten and abused every single day by the older males around him?

    I think the stoicism of Indians is more linguistic than real.

    Regardless, I do agree with your overall premise that the pain of poverty is an absolute even when the degree of poverty varies.

  12. You have made some very bold statements. I have not read enough on the subject to decide if the Indian culture really protects the psyche from the ravages of poverty or it merely seems that way. What do we know of the psychological impact on a poor Indian father who is watching his little girl slowly go blind due to lack of medical care? Or the psychological suffering of a little “street urchin” (sorry, an Indian term) who is working like a dog before he is ten and abused every single day by the older males around him?

    You may be absolutely right, I don’t know what its like to be in their shoes. I’m sitting in an ivory tower commenting on things I know nothing (firsthand) about. But since we’re unlikely to hear from the extrememly poor on this site, and since this is just a blog (rather than a sociologic research paper or academic publication) I’m just making some guesses here. I have seen the extreme social pathology in parts of Brooklyn and Jersey City, and the severe isolation, addictions, violence, crime that many people live with, and compared to that, poor Indians who at least have their siblings, cousins, caste and village mates, etc. seem better off. The Indian poor also have a lot of traditions and customs, a sense of who they are, where they come from, where they fit in, etc. None of that is meant to imply that they don’t suffer horribly or go through things that even a poor American inner-city person would not want to go through. V S Naipaul, talking about the extreme poverty that many in the Indian community had to endure in Trinidad, mentions the fact that the material poverty only told half the tale, and that the cultural richness, or sense of coming from a strong cultural tradition, was the other half of the tale, and offered a lot of emotional support to people. In another Naipaul book, a Maharashtrian he is interviewing says that ‘every Maharashtrian, even if he sleeps on the pavement, HAS A CULTURE’. But maybe I should shut up about things I don’t really know about beyond superficial impressions.

  13. I think Amitabh if there is a history of unfounded assumptions without any factual backing, the assertor should step back and listen to othes who may know. Making overtly sweeping generalizations leads to a flame war, and the debate is totally debased. I don’t comment much on SM but I regularly read it to know how most discussions here take a different turn. I am not sure you are qualified to make statements about Indian poor as you say you say yourself, you have not been in their shoes.

  14. Its just amazing to see the majority of posters here congratulating indians on their compassion and charity! This is just another sad example of the denial and delusion desis are so prone to.

    The facts on the ground condemn indians as among the most heartless, callous, selfish, uncharitable people on earth: India leads the world in child hunger, child labor, child prostitution, child marriage, beggary, homelessness, human degradation etc. How do you all manage to overlook these facts that expose hindus as the least charitable and least compassionate of all peoples? A few exceptions, such as Sathya Sai Baba et al, do not change the general rule.

    In India the material deprivation is more extreme, and exploitation also; but the family system, sense of identity, and cultural moorings are more intact. Psychologically they are possibly better off than the worst of inner-city American poor.

    The american poor aren’t starving. The worst american slums have running water, indoor flush toilets, reliable electricity, well-stocked refrigerators, and so on. Something that even the middle-class of India (who are a minority of Indians) can only fantasize about.It is really obscene to compare the “psychological” state of the american poor with that of the hungry masses of India.

    In India the material deprivation is more extreme, and exploitation also; but the family system, sense of identity, and cultural moorings are more intact. Psychologically they are possibly better off than the worst of inner-city American poor.

    By what twisted reasoning do you consider the pain of chronic hunger in India “better” than the “psychological” pain of the well-fed, clothed and housed american poor? Food and water are the most fundamental of human requirements for survival. And hindu majority India is the most egregious violator on the planet of this most basic human right.

  15. Doordarshan, it would be easier to discuss things with you if I knew whether your passion springs from love for India or hatred for India. Because it’s hard to tell. That being said, I agree I am not qualified to talk about this issue further.

  16. "It would be easier to discuss things with you if I knew whether your passion springs from love for India or hatred for India."
    

    Perhaps deepest patriotism can only become the most bitter contempt and hatred when the object of one’s devotion (one’s country) is revealed to be heinous and debased in its very core. In this case, one can only hate the present manifestation of this hideous embodiment, while working towards and fervently hoping for improvement, or if this is not possible, then wishing utter destruction rain upon the country. Think of the position of true German patriots such as Thomas Mann while Germany was under the National Socialists.

  17. Do you guys know what you are talking about, tax deductible giving is prevalant in all parts of the world as is charitable giving per se.

    It is, but I’m not sure where it started in the form that we are familiar with nowadays, that covers many kinds of institutional donations, and can be deducted upto a certain percentage of one’s taxable income. I just read that amendments to the 1917 Revenue Tax Act started things here in America. Giving tithe, i.e., making charitable donations according to religious requirements, is ancient, as is donating money to build and maintain houses of worship and funding religion based charity work. I don’t mean this is in any way more important than the social conventions and a temperament of generosity and practices of giving that may be present outside that context, and I do have a sense that giving is more prevalent in India at a personal and familial level as well as being widely practiced institutionally.

  18. Doordarshan, it would be easier to discuss things with you if I knew whether your passion springs from love for India or hatred for India.

    Here is Doordarshan in a nutshell: 1) Indians code worse than lemurs on crack ! 2) Dosa is just bad injera bread ! 3) Guess why you never see Indian twins ? Because they are so rapacious that one cannibalizes the other in the womb ! Especially the nefarious Hindoos ! 4) Bhangra is just poorly executed Nubo-Cushitic line dancing ! 5) The miserable state of the Indian “po-po” demonstrates the abject failure of the Govt. of India !

    My guess is hate….

  19. Amitabh,

    Doordarshan, it would be easier to discuss things with you if I knew whether your passion springs from love for India or hatred for India. Because it’s hard to tell.

    I agree. It’s difficult to tell whether his attitudes are motivated by a genuine desire to promote an honest, objective and balanced view about India and Indians in general (including those in the diaspora), and if he’s therefore taken a stance of continuous Devil’s Advocate rhetoric in order to attack misplaced pride and jingoism — or if he just has a huge inferiority complex about being Indian, especially compared to black people.

    I’d actually have a lot of respect for him if it’s the former (even though I don’t agree with many of his views). If it’s the latter, however, then it’s a completely different matter.

    I do hope it’s the first option, because at least in that case his intentions would be admirable and sincere.

  20. louiecypher

    Here is Doordarshan in a nutshell: 1) Indians code worse than lemurs on crack ! 2) Dosa is just bad injera bread ! 3) Guess why you never see Indian twins ? Because they are so rapacious that one cannibalizes the other in the womb ! Especially the nefarious Hindoos ! 4) Bhangra is just poorly executed Nubo-Cushitic line dancing ! 5) The miserable state of the Indian “po-po” demonstrates the abject failure of the Govt. of India ! My guess is hate….

    for a few mins there i thougt u were Doordarshan confused

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