Help! We Don't Know What 'We' Are, And Things Are Changing!

As you may have noted if you have followed this blog or many others relating to matters South Asian and authored by people racialised in the United States, there is a substantial amount of debate about what various terms mean or which ones to use.  The constancy of this debate is interesting in and of itself, even if its content is tired for people who have already participated in them - why do South Asian Americans or whatever we call ourselves create spaces that continuously and neverendingly debate what the label for the community is?

I would like to put this conversation to rest, but I think that would be biting off more than I can chew.  Instead, I'm just going to offer a series of observations that can eventually hopefully be tied together to address the question above.

1. The United States has no radical left.  Its progressive reformist organisations on identity issues are largely privatised (i.e. non-profits, which depend ultimately on corporate funding or funding , direct or indrect, from wealthy people) or gutted.  This is in contrast to places with strong union movements that have not been gutted over the last 25 year - but you could equally substitute community organising or other resistance efforts that fund themselves through taxing, various forms of business, or other means.  This contrast has some implications - South Asian community organisations that operate in the mainstream sphere (i.e. not 'cultural' organisations like Federation of Indian Associations but groups that travel in policy circles or do social service work or other things are totally dependent on the benevolence of power.

2. South Asians in the United States are placed in a position of double invisibility on race.  Asian American identity is in part positioned as a contest to seek out recognition of their presence and then South Asian identity within that seeks out recognition.  This has changed and continues to with changing geopolitics and global capitals drooling over the potential consumer market in India and the actual labor base on the one hand and the War on Islam For Oil And Security that has been conducted in various ways by American and other governments over the past years.  So it's complex, but the uphot is that South Asian Americans end up dealing with a need for a voice, as well as a need to approach or interact with the cultural categories that exist or are being created or are changing as time goes on.

3.  As point 2 implies, all South Asians are not the same.  The perspective I am writing from and that this blog is based in and that all South Asian Internet writing is based in and that what can loosely be described as 2nd generation South Asian American spaces are in are seriously coloured by particular power dynamics. These include Indocentrism and a variety of things that can entail, American racialisation, enormous class bias, a resistance to difference, and possibly a latent anti-imperialism, though this last often gets articulated in a variety of ways.  It also has a gender politics, which affects both South Asian American women and LGBT people AND men.  As a result, in addition to the surface level issue about recognition and confrontation with cultural categories - South Asian Americans of this type have to confront the itnernal dynamics of South Asian Americannness and the various strands that make themselves up.  This is partly what leads to the contestation and resistance to contestation of these categories - which is incidentally not at all unique, in my opinion.

4. This leaves us somewhere, but I'm not quite sure yet where it is.  What I do know is that the old model of simply existing in South Asian spaces in a neoliberalism-dominated economy with a tired ideology that is now using cultural politics to embrace the same class and geopolitical politics of yesterday, though gussied up in a different way, is not sufficient.  There is a need for some way forward - whether it is throught he systematic creation of radical spaces for people both in terms of position and policy or it is in the abandonment of South Asianness on grounds of strategic essentialism because of the demographics laid out above among those who speak in the language of 'South Asian' and a move towards radical politics, or it is to just leave the whole thing behind altogether - to enter different spaces and then articulate a race politics within them. 

I state all this because it is quite difficult for a single person to learn to grapple with racial politics in the United States and how they change (quickly) and interact with class politics.  In fact, I find it nearly impossible.  So what do you do? 

Post script: A first step for me was some introspection- to reread this when it was still unpublished and notice that I had significantly underplayed class politics and not commented at all on citizenship or nationality in substance and spoken vaguely and uncertainly about gender and sexuality.  Nor is there any comparative element with other diasporas and whether or not they face similar issues or other and what those are.

Notes on moving towards a more empirically accurate (objective) contextualisation of 'South Asian' identity in the United States

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alrighty maing, i'm throwing

alrighty maing, i'm throwing down the class gauntlet:


for all who describe their upbringing as "blue collar" or "working-class" (like Taz over at SM), what income and consumption levels do you think are appropriate?


For those who describe their upbringing as "poor" or "destitute," the same questions should be asked.


For the first 15 years of my life, household income never exceeded 15k USD, inflation adjusted.  My consumption level was about even though I did travel more than most kids my age (given living expenses abroad and tickets were subsidized to a certain degree by far more wealthy relatives) 

Why is it that I hear and read so many lefty's talking about uplifting the poor and and so many proggy/lefty american desis pulling out the consumption card (Hey, my parents didn't buy a new Lexus every 3 years!  They were blue collar! ) to justify their monomania with a difference that is essentially meaningless to those who truly did actually grow up poor.  How does an upbringing in trailers and a seemingly endless series of privations (totally unfamiliar to people who grew up with access to goods and services I had no idea existed) lend me less credibility in online debates on poverty reduction and general class dynamics than good schools, medical care, AP classes, homes, two parents and pocket money?

Also, I would point out that

Also, I would point out that the difference is not 'meaningless' - it may not be something that you are emotionally invested in pointing out repetaedly, but the fact that you can characterise people's behaviours according to their class position while they're being raised is evidence that you notice class and the way it manifests itself in spaces.  :)

It lends you more credibility

It lends you more credibility in terms of speaking from a personal experience of class (subject position), not less.  Now whether that credibility is recognised or unrecognised is a reflection of the class dynamics of the space (whether called rightwing, leftwing, or something else).

That said, it doesn't mean that an analysis of the social structure of class, ethnicity, gender, etc. and the ways they work together and apart and how they impact different people is outside the purview of people who grew up outside relatively privileged on one or more of those grounds.  In other words, males can and SHOULD talk about their (our) experiences with gender, people who grew up well off can and SHOULD acknowledge and talk about their (our) experiences (especially in offering 'neutral' analyses).  And they should talk about those experiences or reflect on their perspectives openly ESPECIALLY when offering some kind of broader analysis, which they can at least attempt to do, if they do it with a general spirit of openness of honesty and connection.  Otherwise, if the membership in the category defines a fixed position of power, it renders those categories meaningless or in the service of power, and you end up getting competitions of various elites in different elites (e.g. Hindu and Muslim men on the laws governing family relations that most significantly affect women in India).

If that makes any sense.

In answer to your first question, about how to specify different class positions - the census is a highly imperfect tool, and class is not simply reducibel to statistics as you pointo ut - there's social capital and cultural capital as well as economic capital, there's income and lack of income, there's your parents' class regardless of your own, there are other factors which can elevate or lower your social position that are sort of like class (e.g. race).  But with all that said, there are some shortcuts that you can use to stop the descent into relying only on personal experiences without any attempt to put them together to consider shared personal experiences and shared categories and the ways that structures of power can be modeled and not just described in the way they work.  For example, median income is a way to measure where you fall - being below 20% or 30% or 50% or 80% of median income all mean different things.  Asset values are relevant.  Profession is important.  Number of parents working and what their jobs are could be relevant.  Level of parental education can be relevant - though as we know, for immigrants, their parents might have a physics masters and be driving a taxi, so all these things need to be taken in conjunction.  As well as locality - an income of $50,000 a year means something very different in New York City than it does in, say, upstate New York.

I can't speak for how specific other people describe themselves or why - the U.S. is notorious for everyone describing themselves as middle class.

I don't know if that answers, but it's the best I can do from work :)

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