Until 9/11 and its aftermath, the Indian American community tended to see itself above and beyond race. It had every reason to do so. It was the richest and the best educated ethnic group in the US. It inhabited the same affluent suburbs and corporate boardrooms that were supposedly whites-only preserves.
“Indian Americans often asked why African Americans complained about racism. There’s no racism in the US, they would say,” says Khyati Joshi, an expert on the community at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
No doubt the US has been hospitable to Indians, even though every ABCD (American-bred confident desi) has his tale of petty racial harassment. The community believes class is what counts in the US, not ethnicity or race.
“South Asian Americans are very class conscious,” says Annette Seecharan of South Asia Youth Action. It is also why the community reacts angrily to ethnic stereotyping — forcing Hillary Clinton to apologise for joking about “Gandhi” running a petrol station, or Senator Joe Biden saying an Indian accent was needed to order from grocery franchise 7-11.
The post-9/11 racial attacks on Indian Americans came as a shock. “Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims see similarities in how we are being treated in the post-9/11 environment. Perpetrators of discrimination aren’t thinking this is a Hindu or a Muslim, they are driven by skin colour,” says activist Deepa Iyer of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow.
But as racial attacks become rarer, the community is reverting to past form.
The Indian American honeymoon may simply be an accident of history. The first Indian immigrants came to the US in the 1920s, and after some confusion about what to do with “dark-skinned Caucasians”, were refused citizenship or forced to merge with the Hispanic community. By the time the next wave arrived 50 years later, the US had had the civil rights movement and racial immigration quotas had been abolished. This meant Indian immigrants faced few, if any, major barriers to social integration and economic success.
“Indian Americans who have grown up with less privilege and with other people of colour are more aware that it is political and economic factors, not cultural beliefs, that have helped Indian Americans succeed,” says Sunaina Maira of University of California-Davis.
This may change as a new generation of Indians comes to US soil, one that lacks the polish and skills of the second wave. This group, ‘the taxi drivers and Dunkin’ Donuts’ class, is a growing Indian American working class that is starting to face the same problems that other ethnic minorities continue to face as they come pursuing the American dream.