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Smashing the Myth of the Model Minority

University of Minnesota Press (June 2000)

University of Minnesota Press (June 2000)

As you note in The Karma of Brown Folk, the VHP is incredibly popular abroad. Why do you think they have achieved this form of popularity in the diaspora?

Several years ago, Biju Mathew and I began to investigate and write about the VHP, and found that it gained popularity because of an opening afforded it by the liberal state. Under pressure from people of color, the U.S. state grudgingly accepted the idea of multiculturalism, in which each 'culture' was to be somehow tolerated. The idea of 'culture' embraced by the state was static and without history, and the arbiter of 'culture' was to be the orthodoxy. Since 'India' was seen as spiritual, the 'culture' of India was seen as religion, mainly Hinduism. The VHPA was sanctified to begin its exertions amongst the Indian Americans due to this, and it used its massive resources and terrific organization to propagate a rather virulent brand of chauvinism. In my book, I show how it tackles the racism felt by desis with a racism of its own. Biju and I also have an article on this theme in the recent issue of the English journal Ethnic and Racial Studies.

In The Karma of Brown Folk, you speak a lot of the subtext involved in the discussion of Indians as a model minority. Your claim is that white praise for the success of Indian immigrants is at the expense of the Black and Latino working poor. Can you talk a little about how this "model minority" myth functions? How can South Asians resist this "model minority" label?

The basic idea is this: Dinesh D'Souza asks, "why can't an African American be more like an Asian?'" The basic assumption is that Asians are somehow superior to African Americans and Latinos. These conservatives then claim that it is family structure and discipline that accounts for this difference, and not racism, for Asians are also 'minorities.' What they disregard is the historical process of the construction of Asians in the U.S. We came here not as enslaved people, but as technical workers through the good graces of the immigration regime. Our success, I argue in the book, is not a result of Natural Selection, but of State Selection. You have to read the book to see how to fight this, but my main idea is for us to commit model minority suicide!

In your book you do a good job of uncovering a history of solidarity among Indians and Blacks. Have you seen much coalition-building between South Asian and African American youth in the U.S. today? Do issue-based coalitions (like those against police brutality or for the rights of taxi drivers) hold up for other issues as well?

Of course. I'm on the Board of the Center for Third World Organizing in Oakland, CA. At CTWO we've seen so many desis who want to work on social justice themes. For several years, the executive director of CTWO was Rinku Sen. Rinku, people like Urvashi Vaid at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Arvind Ganeshan formerly of Human Rights Watch, Amit Pal of the Progressive Media Project, these are examples of a few people who are part of building the terrain of solidarity. I think of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance as more than an issue-based coalition. It is an alliance of immigrant workers, and it is on the terrain of immigrant work that many new forms of solidarity will be constructed. I want to write a book with the title Is Immigrant a Type of Race which will develop this theme. I'm currently writing a book Raw Skin'(Beacon Press, 2001) which is about Afro-Asian solidarity. There is much to look at here and more to look forward to politically.