In a recent article on the lack of ethnic diversity on American television, the critic Emily Nussbaum paused from pondering the absence of blacks on TV — the usual complaint against homogeneity — to note the sudden ubiquity of South Asians. “Black and white are not the only colors of diversity,” she wrote, and listed roles accorded to desi actors in The Office, Parks and Recreation, Community, Smash, The Big Bang Theory, Whitney, and The Good Wife. Never mind that at least two thirds of these shows suck. The mottling by occasional brown faces of the otherwise creamy expanse of TV whiteness, like the smattering of freckles on Pippi Longstocking, should be a sign of character — and progress. Nussbaum understands that diversity isn’t quite the right word for this. “At times I’ve wondered if this isn’t a psychic workaround: is brown safer than black?”
Every South Asian reader knew the answer. When even whiteness is freighted in liberal circles with maudlin guilt, no color is safer than South Asian brown. No minority presence in the US is more reassuring, or less likely to get angry or acknowledge your antiblack racism. The South Asian is sometimes the soft-spoken but intense professional— the alert-eyed and firm-jawed Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN. But just as often the television South Asian echoes the gestures of the standard fawning coolie of yore: palms clasped together, head shaking from side to side, mumbling “sahib” through an apologetic smile crowned with an anachronistic mustache. Or she is a cartoon auntie flinging her sari over her shoulder as she hovers over a pot of steaming aloo methi, yelling to her son in Rushdiean patois: “Eat-na, why you no eat! Food is spoiling-goiling,” et cetera. Nussbaum didn’t mention that the show that for a while came after The Office in the NBC Thursday night lineup was called Outsourced. The show followed the comic travails of whites stranded in an Indian call center, but was chiefly humiliating because its South Asian actors had lined up eagerly, in possession of free will, to portray racist stereotypes. South Asians have done this proudly for years, chiefly in film: from the many who played monkey brain eaters in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to Kal Penn as the repressed nerd in the Van Wilder movies, Dev Patel tomming through The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and the guy who literally played a coolie in The Royal Tenenbaums. Such minstrel figures paved the way for and now coexist with the accentless, “American” desi nebbish who fills the minority quota on TV.
But if we blamed the goras1 for their tacit racism, we’d only be going too easy on ourselves. The presence of desis on television isn’t just a sign of executives obliged to present diversity and doing it by stereotyping a docile minority. The South Asian presence on TV is also evidence of the enormous power of the South Asian diaspora — the most powerful and successful immigrant minority in America. No immigrant group in the US is so uniformly rich, so well placed in professional and executive ranks, so widely dispersed and integrated into wealthy white society. We have the Booker Prize on lock! Bengalis rule postcolonial studies. The motel business is mostly run by Gujaratis. American magazines, which largely count no blacks or East Asians on their staffs, always have at least one pliant South Asian. The most popular immigrant narratives of recent years have been tales of Indian migrants, and Jhumpa Lahiri must be the most successful American short-story writer of our time. The first minority governor of Louisiana since Reconstruction is an Indian, Piyush “Bobby” Jindal. He has recently been joined, in the ranks of brown Republicans, by another Indian governor, Nikki Haley. The decade-long chaos at Citibank was presided over by an Indian, Vikram Pandit, and as Vijay Prashad has noted, South Asians truly may be said to have reached the pinnacle of American success now that Galleon CEO Raj Rajaratnam has been convicted of the whitest of white-collar crimes, insider trading.
All these facts, even the crimes, are sources of unctuous pride for South Asians, both in America and the mother countries. If no American minority but Jews is as powerful, surely no minority is as smug. Yet the unparalleled success of South Asian immigrants is largely the consequence of a famous peculiarity in subcontinental emigration: a quota system that tended to favor professionals has made the drain from South Asia (chiefly India) almost entirely brain. Both education and capital emigrated to America (though they frequently flew back home to visit); this has meant that the brown people who arrived here were not even very brown in their mother countries. They were often high-caste (if not upper-class) Hindus fluent in English. Unless they were Punjabis whose world had been scythed by Partition, they barely registered the passions and arguments of the independence struggle, knowing only the misery of the subcontinental poverty they had to escape. When they left India, the immigrants fled politics as well as joblessness. When they arrived in cold war–era America, they were prepared to play it safe.
India had the wind taken out of it in the early ’60s by a losing border war with China, setting off a long period of stagnation. Despite and perhaps in part because of this, it achieved impressive success abroad as a “spiritual” destination for American travelers. Allen Ginsberg trailblazed a path to India for the hippies, who came back to set in stone the cliché that India was “a land of contrasts.” Ravi Shankar brought the sitar and the frog-sounding glissandi of the tabla to pop, thanks to the otherwise useless George Harrison, while La Monte Young and Terry Riley translated the droning ragas of Indian music into classical minimalism. It seems only fair that a variety of hack gurus on tourist visas of their own came to dupe the naive in America for more money than they could in India. It was the first and last time that it was cool to be Indian in America, and it gave cover to thousands of business, professional, and educational migrants who benefited from this first “positive” image of brownness.
Desis began to enter the US en masse around the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, just as the racial conversation in the US was shifting away from racial equality and toward the disorders of black families and their “culture of poverty.” Since then, as Vijay Prashad has argued in two penetrating books about the diaspora, The Karma of Brown Folk and Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, South Asians have contributed to and benefited from the vibrant American tradition of antiblack racism. South Asians routinely are held up by elites (especially, self-servingly, newly crowned desi elites) as examples of how to succeed in America — in contrast to (the comparison is sometimes implied, but often explicit) blacks’ stagnation in their own insoluble pathologies. One doesn’t become the very model of a modern model minority simply by being good in the gaze of whites; one also has to be visibly bad to the “unmodel” minorities below.
The success of desi professionals became a key argument that some difficulty intrinsic to blacks was the cause of their failure. Years before Goan immigrant reactionary Dinesh D’Souza made his wildly successful documentary about Barack Obama’s dystopia, he asked, even more influentially, “Why can’t an African American be more like an Asian?” Around the same time, Jesse Helms, arch-segregationist senator from North Carolina, was invited to address the Indian American Forum of Political Education, which he gratified with the following panegyric:
Indian Americans represent the best and the brightest the United States has to offer. You go to the finest hospitals, you can go to the universities, you can go into business and there they are, people from India. You understand the free enterprise system far better than a lot of people who were born and raised in this country.
As Prashad points out, Helms was speaking recognizable code, suggesting that the achievements of Indian Americans are “evidence that racism poses no barrier to success.” Behind this signal lies another: that of the whiteness of the Indian. Helms’s racist bigotry posed no barrier to his love of people whom the British once referred to as “niggers.” Brown has enjoyed a surprisingly easy translation to white.
W. E. B. Du Bois worried long ago about the loyalties of South Asians in the fight against imperialism, in a 1938 essay deploring India’s “temptation to stand apart from the darker peoples and seek her affinities among whites. She has long wished to regard herself as ‘Aryan,’ rather than ‘colored’ and to think of herself as much nearer physically and spiritually to Germany and England than to Africa, China or the South Seas.” Du Bois was reassured by Tagore that India stood with black struggles against colonialism and racism. Maybe it did, for a little while — but in a very different intellectual era, as Pankaj Mishra has shown in From the Ruins of Empire, when figures like Du Bois and Tagore conceived of pan-Asian and -African identities that they hoped would stabilize and give cultural power to nations emerging from colonialism. If the situation of the diaspora has changed since the demise of Third Worldism, the status of South Asia and India in particular has changed more recently and even more dramatically. India’s swift economic growth since its 1991 reforms not only brought it respect it previously enjoyed only among other developing nations, but allowed it to align with the greatest rogue, or unilateral, state powers. Casting off fraternity with subject nations, India turned toward America, of course, and also toward Israel and oil- and arms-rich Russia.
The cultural effects could be felt across the world. Bollywood, formerly the leading edge of third-world cinema, the one currency to survive the Sino-Soviet split, became, with the support of the Indian elite, a newly slick Hollywood craze. Indianness itself, for years a source of shame in the diaspora, became puffed with pride. Lahiri’s protagonist in her bestseller The Namesake, Nikhil “Gogol” Ganguly, takes a roots trip east and briefly swaps his white girlfriend for a mother-approved Indian. Less familiar to other kinds of white people, diaspora children in recent years have been subject to low-budget films like American Desi and ABCD (American-Born Confused Desi), coming-of-age stories in which deracinated teenage South Asians — never Muslim, usually male — learned to cast off their self-loathing and embrace Hinduism, arranged marriages, and bhangra dancing.
Behind the scenes, the Indian American Center for Political Awareness (IACPA) recruited these deracinated Indians who were “discovering their roots” and sent them to work for American congressmen, quietly pushing Indian issues into the light of the new world order. In 1993, two years after the first neoliberal Indian economic reforms, Congress formed an India caucus. It began with eight members and now has 180. A founding project of the Indian lobby was to push the US away from its cold war alliance with Pakistan and toward an India that was becoming astoundingly “business-friendly” in the ’90s and, after September 11, could be counted on to contribute to the United States’ campaign against Islamic peoples. India’s 1998 nuclear tests briefly alarmed the US (while earning a congratulatory note from Israel), but two years later President Clinton signaled a shift in American policy with a much-feted visit to India. One of the India lobby’s greatest victories came in 2005, when the US finally signed the nuclear energy deal India had been pushing for since the ’90s. Another great success has been to squelch any discussion among American elites of the occupation of Kashmir — which India regards as a “bilateral” issue (i.e., between India and Pakistan) rather than an ongoing international crime. India, land of Gandhi, is now the world’s largest arms importer, with Russia and Israel as top partners.
We should be troubled by the success of desi politicians in the American South, home of the white-supremacist theocracy. (Both Jindal and Haley happen to be converts to Christianity.) The accession to power isn’t a sign of a Republican Party more hospitable to minorities; rather it’s a reflection of a minority for whom race is nothing but expediency. We will be ethnic when you want us to be, but we can slip right out of it when the blacks come to call. Hacks like Jindal and Haley have risen in the party through their brownness, which they disavow except when exploiting it. No one lives in a postracial America, but we desis have mostly enjoyed a postbrown existence that looks like one; “brown” solidarity has often amounted to desi professionals forming business associations to better exploit workers.
And yet, the desi figure is becoming more equivocal than the white Indians of Southern politics might suggest. A happier image for the future is the desi stoner Kumar of the Harold and Kumar films, who may be the single best role model for generations of brown people otherwise condemned to going pre-med. Kumar, who uses his textbooks to roll joints, suggests the dual character of desi immigration. For the standard idea of the South Asian professional has been complicated in the past two decades by new waves of immigrants, many from Bangladesh and Pakistan, who own grocery stores, work at gas stations, and drive cabs. These new immigrants appear to have caused a shift in the politics of South-Asian Americans. After voting by slim margins for Democratic candidates in previous elections, they voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008 and 2012. (The President, addressing an audience of Indian Americans in San Francisco, talked about his friendships with South Asians and dubbed himself an honorary desi who knew how to make a decent dal.) And the hardening of Republican anti-immigration sentiment has meant the GOP has lost a putatively natural constituency for the near future. The white Indians who went into the halls of racist power currently enjoy prominence; but the future may yet hinge on how many more of us prefer to go to White Castle.