Unlocking the potential of Indian-American identity | The Indian SCENE

Unlocking the potential of Indian-American identity

We still have a long way to go in acknowledging our true diversity and respecting our individual struggles.

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Over the past few months, I have written several articles on the Indian American marriage conundrum, family dynamics, empowerment, and mental health on this platform. As we close out this decade and get ready to embark on a new one, I can’t help but reflect on this necessary space, and how such a platform was not available a decade ago, when I had just become a young psychologist focused on studying Indian American psychology. To the best of my knowledge, back then, there were perhaps two handfuls of us around the country studying Indian-Americans in a non-medical, non-clinical sense. Since then, the fields that study Indian-Americans and the number of people studying us have proliferated, but about 10-20 years ago, those of us studying the Indian American communities formally and scientifically were rare. Yet, we had the incredible chance to do so during the ethnogenesis – the formation and development of a unique cultural group with unique identity, norms and etiquettes – of a distinct Indian-American culture that borrowed freely from its Indian roots and American environment to create a voice that is undeniably its own.

Observing and studying something you are also an active participant in is one of the most mind-warping, identity-crushing experiences one can go through. It is also one of the most powerful, revolutionary, transformational experiences you can go through.

The Indian-American culture has been created right in front of many of our eyes; most of us have had to be observer-participants. The beginnings of our unique identity may be less than 50 years old, dating back to the 1970s. Those who came here before 1965 as indentured servants, peons, and coolies, and the vast majority of those who came in the first two or three waves of Indian immigration after 1965, often did everything in their power to be absorbed by the American culture so that they could fit in and blend in.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 1960, only 12,000 Indian immigrants lived in the United States. By 1980, that number rose to 204,000. As of 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of people with Indian heritage in the United States stood at over 3.9 million and growing. But those early numbers reflect Indian immigrants only. It is only in the mid-to-late 1970s that the first few batches of NRIs began having children in the United States, and raised them to know and honor their ancestral heritage. This period is thus the origin of a unique Indian-American culture and identity, one still figuring itself out as it develops. Even now, about 69 percent of Indian-American citizens are foreign born. In this context, it’s worth thinking about how young our cultural group is and how we can collectively shape its development in the future.

As multicultural Indian-Americans, we’d like to think we have shed our ancestral restrictions on who we should be as a people, and on the norms that we “ought to” follow. We might openly scoff at constructs such as caste and class, things that we consider antiquated or unsavory. Outwardly, the Indian-American group presents itself as a community of wealth, affluence and influence rooted in the privileges of our higher education, our intensely persevering and humble work ethic and our tolerance to the ambiguities of the American life. Looking inward, however, we should consider that we haven’t yet created a community or culture that acknowledges our true diversity, respects our individual struggles, and allows all (not just some) of us to thrive. We still have caste discrimination problems, gender inequity issues and we fail to acknowledge the reality of those of us who are outside the bubble of wealth and affluence. We are in a complex and powerful stage in this cultural development process that we can actively and intentionally participate in, to determine our identity, our voice, and the future of our entire community’s identity and health. Over the next few months, here are some issues I’ll be digging much deeper into:

For one, we need to immediately shed our “log kya kahenge” (What will people say?) mentality and start doing things for ourselves, using our own judgments instead of those of others. That in itself would be enough of a powerful change to indelibly affect our children and theirs for the better. But we can go deeper still. We can start having conversations about our own mental well-being without any stigma attached to it. By doing that, we can obliterate the stigmas that we and our parents and other older generations have unnecessarily burdened ourselves with. Imagine the statement that would make and the example that would set for future generations. In addition, we need to engage with the larger American society around us by getting civically engaged, to shatter model minority myths that do disservice to our true diversity, and so that our future generations see themselves represented in public spheres of leadership.

We can do this while still maintaining our commitment to education, family and faith. In doing so, Indian-Americans can become and be the best versions of ourselves, for the sake of our families, our communities and our children.

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