By: Hema Karunakaram, guest contributor
When I was in the second grade, my parents came to my class for a day to present to everyone about Indian culture. The year was 1999, and they had created colorful transparencies for the overhead projector, brought in cassette tapes of Indian music, and made a tray full of rava laddoos for everyone to eat. I was the only student in my class who wasn’t white or Black, and my classmates, in their youthful ignorance, asked questions ranging from “Do all Indians wear glasses?” to “What does curry taste like?”.
This is how my Indian-American narrative begins.
It’s a narrative that might strike a chord with millions of other Indian-Americans, and perhaps immigrant families of many kinds. The key phrase here is “Indian-American”, a term I identify with strongly. But not all who belong to this identity feel so positively about it.
“My dad and mom told my brother and me that we came to America to be Americans. Not Indian-Americans, simply Americans… If we wanted to be Indians, we would have stayed in India. It’s not that they are embarrassed to be from India, they love India. But they came to America because they were looking for greater opportunity and freedom.”
These remarks are from a speech by politician Bobby Jindal during a trip to London this past January. Paraphrasing this quote wouldn’t quite do it justice, wouldn’t allow the harsh implications of it to really sink in.
Bobby Jindal is the current governor of Louisiana. He’s also only the second Indian-American to have been in Congress, after Dalip Singh Saund in the 1950s, and the first Indian-American to become the governor of a state. These achievements are certainly not small, and will likely remain noteworthy in the history books of tomorrow. In fact, Jindal’s political success would probably be even more celebrated within the Indian-American community, were his viewpoints not so disparate from the struggles of Indian-Americans over the past century.
The history of Indians in America dates back to the late 1700s, when Indian traders first traveled to the Americas in search of economic opportunity. The late 1800s and early 1900s saw the first significant wave of Indian immigrants, with Anandibai Joshi graduating from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1886, and the first Sikh temple opening in Stockton, California in 1912. While Indian-Americans continued to grow in numbers, they faced huge uphill battles politically. The landmark 1923 Supreme Court case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind ruled that Indian immigrants were “aliens” and would never be eligible for equal voting rights. Systemic discrimination against Indian-Americans did not legally end until The Luce-Celler Act was passed in 1943, allowing Indian-Americans to become citizens, and immigration on the basis of education and professional experience—the qualification that brought my own family here—was not legalized until 1965.
Indian-Americans have come a long way since the political struggles of the first half of the 20th century. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Indians have immigrated to the US and planted the roots of their families here. We now have names like Mindy Kaling and Kal Penn in entertainment, Satya Nadella and Indra Nooyi in business & technology, and Nina Davuluri as a former Miss America. We’re no longer invisible or disenfranchised, and we’ve shown that we are here to stay.
Compared to most other fields, however, the political sphere has yet to see a wide range of prominent Indian-Americans. Names like Ami Bera, Nikki Haley, and Neel Kashkari are gaining traction and many first- and second- generation Indian-Americans are pursuing promising careers in politics. But Bobby Jindal is still the most salient name when it comes to Indian-American politicians, with some media sources even rumoring about his potential for a presidential or vice-presidential bid in 2016. And the unfortunate reality of American politics is that millions of Americans will view him as representative of the Indian-American community as a whole, whether or not he himself identifies with our community.
Later in the speech mentioned above, Jindal went on to say that he didn’t believe in “hyphenated Americans”, that assimilation should always be valued over those who try to preserve their cultural (read: Indian) identities in America.
But where does that leave the unique facets of Indian-American culture—the developments that bridge the gap between Indian and American cultural values?
From collegiate dance competitions that fuse Indian performing arts with the American competitive spirit; to the Indian-American domination of the American-as-apple-pie tradition of spelling bees; to the bridesmaids of Indian-American weddings, walking down the aisle in matching saris: our community has formed its own adaptive culture. All of these are uniquely Indian American developments—things born not out of a single culture, but rather the beautiful fusion of two. The competitions, the weddings, the shared experience of figuring out our identities—these are the lovechildren of Indian and American sensibilities, the minutiae that only begin to represent a community three million strong.
Bobby, you can change your name, your religion, your allegiances– but you cannot change how America perceives you. You cannot change how America has perceived all of us throughout its history, and how your place in that history will undoubtedly be qualified by the term “Indian-American”. Your refusal to accept the minority portion of your own identity diminishes the identities of millions of minority Americans across the country, and for that reason, you will never have my support.
While Indian-Americans have made their presence known in many different fields, Bobby Jindal is often still the first name that comes to mind for our identity in the political realm. But I’m holding out for a different kind of Indian-American politician to climb to the top: one who isn’t too proud to acknowledge her or his shared background with the other three million of us; one who can celebrate America without disparaging India; one whose declaration of patriotism doesn’t simultaneously erase all of our stories.
Bobby, you might edit your narrative all you want, until the term “Indian-American” is completely purged from it. But don’t you dare delete it from mine.