Indian-American stories have yet to be acknowledged in America. Many of these stories have not been told, have not been heard, or are simply, invisible in our society today.
However, the future looks promising, as a new initiative called “Homespun” by the Smithsonian aims to document Indian-American stories. Homespun will create a traveling exhibition that “chronicles Indian American history, achievements, contributions, and struggles…to give voice to this community and build bridges of understanding.” Along with the traveling exhibition there will be public programs featuring performers, speakers and filmmakers. Definitely keep a look out for the exhibit! As a former teacher, I am also very excited about a middle-school curriculum guide that will be provided as a resource for teachers. I know how valuable that will be to help teachers educate their students on the diverse experiences of Indian-Americans.
From my own research, I thought I would provide a glimpse of what has been documented about Indian-Americans, in the past and the present. It is important to acknowledge where we have been, because our past experiences play a significant role in how we make sense of ourselves today.
The racism and discrimination that continues to exist has origins set in the past, the stereotypes that we try to live up to today (e.g., model minority) play a role in our conscious of wanting to be “accepted” by society, and the ways in which we are trying to find a voice mean that we may finally be able to stand up and speak for ourselves, on our own terms, and with our own words.
We also have to think about how racism and discrimination can play a role in how we treat other, fellow Indian-Americans. We need to be united and create solidarity amongst ourselves so that we can be a group that is visible in society for everything that we are or are not. We need to embrace all Indian-American and other South Asian Americans rather than only embracing the ones that fit a certain “stereotype” because we are trying to preserve a certain “image” of our ethnic group. This will allow for all South Asian Americans to venture into new careers and for some South Asians to speak up about the day-to-day struggles they may be experiencing.
The Past: Early 1900s
In the early 1900s, Indian-Americans were unwanted and undesirable in the United States. The Indian-Americans that did come over during this time (mainly agricultural workers from Punjab) were labeled as “Hindoo” because this allowed for society to create a fixed image of Indian-Americans; an image that was based on stereotypes and misinformation. The label came from the Hindu religion, however most Indian-Americans at that time practiced the Sikh religion while others were Parsee or Muslim.
Yet, this label stuck with all Indian-Americans that came over. The general term “Hindoo” was used to lump all South Asian Americans into one category and to depict these immigrants as “other” or as unwanted in the States.
Many newspapers and magazines published articles about Indian-Americans based on the term Hindoo/Hindu and made it clear that they were not welcome in America: Hindu in the Northwest (World Today, 1907), Hindu Invasion (Colliers, 1910), The Hindu Invasion (Pacific Monthly, 1907), Hindu: The newest immigration problem (Survey, 1910).
In addition, articles on Indian-Americans were also published based on the physical characteristics of some Indian-Americans such as, Sikh Punjabis who wore turbans on their heads for religious reasons: Tide of the Turbans (Forum, 1910), The Rag Heads: A picture of American’s East Indians (The Independent, 1922).
As a result, in 1917, an immigration restriction law designated India as one of the countries in the “Asiatic barred zone.” Thus, Indians were prohibited from entering the United States. In the early 1900s many Indian-Americans were deported or left voluntarily. The immigration quotas during this time favored Europeans from entering the States rather than Indian-Americans.
As the first Indian-American immigrants to the United States, they were prone racism and discrimination in the United States. Researchers have found that these acts of discrimination may have an influence on how Indian-Americans live their lives today and more specifically, in terms of how much they trust American society. Many of them may try to do what is expected of them so that they feel “welcome” in society and are not discriminated against like they were in the past.
The Present: Post 1965
In order to fulfill a need for highly-skilled workers in the 20th century, new visas were provided that favored highly educated and skilled immigrants. During this time, Indian-Americans moved to the U.S. primarily for economic reasons. In many ways, these Indian-Americans were very different from the immigrants who came in the early 1900s. They were highly skilled professionals who could assimilate to the United States culture because Britain had ruled India for 200 years. They had been exposed to Western ways of living and could speak the English Language.
These new immigrants who were invited to the United States came under very different circumstances. They were treated as “model” minorities who had skills that were highly valued. They felt welcome and they felt like they were bringing value to the workforce.
Based on the need for these workers in the United States, Indian-Americans (at this time) were desirable and not resented by mainstream society. Indian-Americans have worked hard to maintain this group image so that they will not experience racism in the United States. Researchers maintain that many Indian-Americans want their ethnic group image to be one of educated, highly skilled professionals; thus, those that do not live up to this, are sometimes marginalized and exploited by other Indian Americans. Other scholars posit that the upper or middle-class Indian-Americans sometimes blame the others who can’t speak English or have no education for giving them a bad name.
The next generation of immigrants that arrived came in the mid-1980s due to a different set of immigration laws. Many of these immigrants were sponsored their extended families to come live in the United States through the family reunification act. The immigrants who entered in the 1980s had lower levels of education, lacked English language skills, and needed basic job training. Researchers note how they entered non-professional fields such as retail trade, food, or services. Many came at their own will and did not feel welcome in the States by mainstream society or by their South Asian American community. They also did not receive many of the educational and/or social services that they needed because they were still being perceived as model minorities who need little help or guidance from others to succeed academically and economically.
The Future: April 2013 & beyond
It is important to acknowledge how the immigration histories of South Asian Americans have had an influence on how they make sense of who they are and what types of decisions they make in their personal and/or professional lives.
Homespun is a new initiative by the Smithsonian that aims to give voice to Indian-Americans and their diverse stories. What are your immigration stories? What have your experiences been in America? What were some of your own challenges coming to this country? These are the types of stories that will be documented and exhibited across the nation. The traveling exhibit will debut some time in April 2013.
Homespun asserts “Although there are nearly three million Indian Americans today, they have yet to be fully represented in the American story.”
This is unfortunate but true. Stay up to date on this initiative and make sure your stories are told today.
By Amita Roy Shah, Ed.D.