By Basab Dasgupta
In view of the recent increase in alleged hate crimes and other discriminatory behavior towards Asian Americans it was a logical question for me to ask myself “Am I Asian American?” and if the answer is “yes”, should I participate in the protests and demonstrations against derogatory behavior towards Asian Americans (AA)? Literally speaking, an AA is any immigrant coming to US from any country in the continent of Asia. However, the common interpretation of the term is someone coming from a country in the eastern (or far-eastern) part of Asia such as China, Japan, Korea, Philippines etc.
When I first came to the US, this group of people used to be called “Orientals”. That made perfect sense because Orient referred to the far east (and more generally to the region east of Europe). Author and scholar Edward Said was the one who first associated the word “Oriental” with colonialism by the European elites in his book “Orientalism”. The Orient was the place where the Europeans invaded and owned countries which then provided sources of their prosperity. Even though Oriental was not considered a racial slur and used in other contexts such as Oriental rug, Oriental medicine and Orient Express, AA was introduced in the last decade in the US as a more politically correct description. The term Oriental was completely eliminated from all Federal documents in favor of AA around the same time when the word “Negro” was replaced by African American. I have no problem with this name change but that puts me right in the middle of this classification since India is a very important country in Asia.
When one thinks about it there are four major subgroups of AAs from a geographical point of view: Asians from the Middle East, Asians from the Indian subcontinent (sometimes referred to as “South Asians”), Russians (I include not just Russia but also all countries that belonged to the old USSR in this category) and finally the Far-East Asians (whom I will call Orientals using the old terminology). Apart from their regions of origin, these four groups are very distinctly different based on their physical appearance, cultural heritage, food and attire and mannerism.
The present protests urging people to stop anti-AA violence and various other mistreatments clearly apply only to the fourth group. I am not aware of any such misgivings from the Russians, probably because they are Caucasians and do not appear to be any different from most Americans or Europeans. There have been incidents of hate-crimes against the Middle-Eastern people, especially after the 9/11 disaster, but those have to do with an anti-Muslim sentiment and not really related to their Asian origin. There were no mass-scale movements against such hate crimes against Muslims, presumably because such strong anti-Muslim feeling was understood by the population at large.
As an Indian American I can honestly say that I have never experienced any blatant discrimination during fifty years of my living in the USA and my guess is that the same experience is shared by other Indians. During the sixties and seventies, the word “Paki” was often used as a derogatory term for people from Pakistan (and sometimes against Indians as an extension) in the UK and Canada but not in the USA.
On the contrary, I have always been treated with admiration if not respect. People have complimented about how smart Indians are, their gentleness and politeness, their spirituality, their professions and the attractive attires worn by Indian women. Whether it is Indian food or practice of yoga or Deepak Chopra’s books, they seem to be all very well-received. Everyone is aware of an abundance of Indian medical doctors and now the professionals of Information Technology are dominating the American life. Yes, people occasionally mock our unique accents in private conversations and are not always thrilled by the smell of Indian cooking; these minor annoyances have never prompted anyone to openly confront the Indian community. In some rare tragedies, Indians have been mistaken to be Muslim Middle-Easterners and killed or harassed.
The reasons why Indians are treated somewhat differently from the Orientals are easy to understand. The most significant reason is our ability to communicate in English. In spite of our accents, people understand what we are saying and we can easily understand the Americans. This communication skill extends to writing, whether we are e-mailing or writing a report or composing an essay. Secondly, Indians are generally viewed as a group which is making positive contributions to the American society. Apart from medical, academic and IT professions, Indians have now spilled over to almost all other professions including those in financial sector, legal work, politics and even Hollywood. Thirdly, Indians are seen as making an effort to get assimilated into the American society, as evidenced by inter-racial marriages and choices of where they live. Finally, I believe that Indians, in general, are easier to get along with from the point of view of their personalities; better ability to communicate definitely plays a role here.
Should I join these various rallies demanding a stop to anti-AA behavior in order to show my solidarity with all Asians? I am reluctant to do so. Even though there are many allegations and factual evidence to support the allegations of anti-AA conduct, I consider participation in such protests to be a demonstration of a “victim mentality”. If I were to face an act of discrimination myself, whether it is a verbal abuse related to my ethnicity or even some violent act, I will handle it just like any other American as an individual. I have faith in our law-enforcement and judicial systems and I will work through them. In fact, one main reason for my embracing the American society was my belief that here I can find “justice for all”.
This business of collective bargaining may be a good practice for employee unions in business environments to bring justice and equity, but presenting such collective fronts to bring social justice is different. It has already gone too far in this country. Intrusion of activists for their selfish personal gain, infiltration by the bad elements of the society looking for violence at the provocation of radical groups and exploitation by politicians for their expansion of support bases all exuberate commotion and tension which do not benefit anyone at the end. Just look at the Black Lives Matter and LGBT movements. Yes, there are unfair treatments against minorities and gay communities. Was it necessary to have seemingly endless violence, looting and destruction of properties in Minneapolis, Seattle and Portland to protest George Floyd’s death?
I see these movements as politically motivated and coordinated activities which have nothing to do with solving the problem through a legal channel. Consider the Atlanta shooting of women working at various massage parlors, most of whom were AA women. I was astounded by the fact that it was immediately publicized as a hate crime when the shooter himself confessed that it was an act conducted in order to eliminate the sources catering to his sex addiction and had nothing to do with any AA hatred.
No, I do not believe that there is a wide-scale mistreatment of all AAs which warrant a nation-wide movement. In any event, I will not participate in protesting such treatments because I do not consider myself to be a part of this so-called AA community. I am a proud Indian American who has embraced this country as his own. I am much more in favor of getting assimilated into the society and then taking controlling roles in order to introduce policies to solve all social injustice problems. This phenomenon is already taking shape. As President Biden said “People of Indian descent are taking over this country” and his press secretary later clarified that the comment was meant as a compliment.
Basab Dasgupta has a doctorate in physics from University of Wisconsin and worked with Sony as Vice President of an operating division. Retired, he now lives in San Clemente, CA.