In the Blog
What’s in a Desi identity?
Illustration: Heidi Cho
Desi people are those who are a part of the diaspora. The diaspora is made up of South-Asians who are living outside of South-Asia.
I suppose you might have heard about Bobby Jindal, a prominent Republican politician, running for President of the United States in the primaries. Jindal, who is currently serving as governor of Louisiana, is an Indian-American – a Desi.
In his announcement speech, Bobby said, “I’m done with all this talk about hyphenated Americans. We are not Indian-Americans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, rich Americans, or poor Americans. We are all Americans.”
Even though Bobby Jindal is the first Asian-American to launch a nationwide campaign for the position of one of the most powerful people in the world, I’m not that excited. The Desi community, in general, doesn’t seem to be excited – immediately after his speech went viral, so did a hashtag criticizing him for trying to shed his brownness. #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite, created by Desi comic Hari Kondabolu, sparked thousands of jokes about Bobby Jindal, and I contributed to it myself - but it’s worth questioning why he’s doing it.
People of colour are often ostracized for celebrating their heritage, and deal with racism even when they are not doing so. Assimilation is key – the closer you are to whiteness, the easier it is to navigate the world. So, it can also be speculated – and has been – that Jindal’s attempt to be seen as American instead of Indian-American is a sort of “self-erasure” and is the product of a system that would have done it to him anyway.
When I was younger, my family immigrated to Canada from India. I sensed a change in the way people looked at me in Canada, and even in the way that Canadian-Indians treated me. Not all of it came with feelings of malcontent. Some of it was wonder and confusion. However, it was clear that people thought I was different, and I was the butt of many “jokes” about terrorism, taxi-cab drivers, arranged-marriage, bodily hair, curry… the works.
Countless factors play into how people choose to identify themselves, resulting in an infinite amount of different identities that people can have. However, people of colour are usually subject to seeing stereotypical depictions of themselves in movies and on TV. My identity was largely shaped by what I saw on TV, as well as the racism and micro-aggressions that I dealt with while growing up. I was afraid to wear traditional Indian clothing in public in fear of being mocked. My father told me the fear was irrational, but it proved to be valid when a South-Asian friend of mine wore traditional clothing to prom and was heckled by our white classmates. She handled it well – I wouldn’t have been so confident. I’m still not entirely comfortable wearing Indian clothes when I’m out. I’ve succumbed to pronouncing my own name like Shay-lee, even though the original, Indian pronunciation doesn’t sound that way. I’m self-conscious about sometimes slipping into an Indian accent. I freak out about packing Indian food for lunch in case my work friends are put off by its smell. All of these could be considered personal problems – grow up and embrace it, right? It’s not that easy.
While people were trying to make me feel bad for being brown, they were also trying to fit me into their understanding of what a Desi is. I was ridiculed when my white peers did better than me in math and science, but also when I did better than them in English. I was asked why I didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving and why I did celebrate Christmas. I was asked if my parents had set up a marriage for me with an Indian guy back home (sometimes, the question was even genuine) and then I was told brown girls weren’t attractive.
So, what makes a Desi a Desi? The answer is simple: being South-Asian and living in the diaspora. That’s it.
You don’t have to be good at math or science, and you don’t have to have an accent or speak in broken English. You don’t have to celebrate Diwali, and you don’t have to not celebrate Christmas. You don’t have to date within your race. You don’t have to like Indian food. Let me clear it up: I’m not Desi because I could eat naan all day – I’m Desi and I could eat naan All. Frickin’. Day. There are no qualifying factors for a Desi identity other than where you’re from.
A huge part of the reason that so many Desis struggle with our identities is because people use racial stereotypes to try and box us into hurtful categories – bearded brown guy = terrorist, hijab-wearing brown woman = victim of her religion, Sikh man wearing a turban = fresh off the boat immigrant… it goes on and on. The incessant need for people to try and create our identities for us is perhaps a part of the reason that people like Bobby Jindal are dropping what comes before the hyphen in our identities, so we can finally all be equals… but can we be equals if we all call ourselves just “Americans” or “Canadians”?
Asking people to simply shed what comes before “American” in their identities ignores the fact that the part that comes before the hyphen shapes how they are treated and what opportunities they are afforded. This goes for people everywhere. People shouldn’t feel forced to embrace undeniable parts of themselves, but they shouldn’t be told to reject them either.
I get it, Jindal - I get why you go as “Bobby” instead of your birth name, “Piyush,” and I get that you want a more wholesome, cohesive America, but rejecting parts of your heritage is dangerous. Assimilation is dangerous – it’s “the process by which a person or persons acquire the social and psychological characteristics of a group.” If we strive for assimilation, we’re running the risk of simply assimilating into whiteness and losing parts of ourselves in the process. We would be much more able to preserve the hundreds of different cultures of the world if we aimed for integration instead of assimilation. We need to be a part of American society, not like it – that way we integrate ourselves into the existing society with our identities intact. Bobby Jindal would have much more support from the Desi community if he celebrated brownness and demanded that societies take us as we are, but instead, he is asking us to put important parts of ourselves aside so we can be accepted.
Ostensibly, Jindal wants all Americans to come together so they can be treated the same way, but the path to that goal is not through overlooking what obstacles have been put in place for marginalized groups; it is to take into account that people are treated differently based on their gender, race, ethnicities, sexual orientation, physical and mental abilities, and more. Black Americans aren’t going to stop facing disproportionate levels of police brutality and incarceration if they start referring to themselves as just “Americans”; queer Americans won’t have less homophobic violence directed their ways if they drop “queer” as part of their identities.
Being a Desi is a good thing. Being Indian has given me a spot in a culture I love, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Just because Bobby Jindal doesn’t feel the same way doesn’t mean he should tell other Indian-Americans that they shouldn’t care. There is a price to pay when you completely reject who you are – there’s a loss of identity on a personal level, which is something I, and many other “hyphenated” folks, can definitely understand.