By Saumya V. Sawant
Discrimination against South-Asians is a topic not widely talked about, even within the community. The South-Asian community supports other communities, fighting battles outside that are bigger than we are, and while this kind of support and solidity is applauded, I think it’s also time for the South-Asian community to look inward to try and solve its own problems.
As an Indian, this quarantine period for me has been a major time of introspection and revelation. Individually, I’ve experienced discrimination in various situations from a young age, but as I read other stories from people within the community, I began to see some disturbing commonalities. South-Asians in the U.S. make up only 1.5 percent of the population, yet violence and discrimination against South-Asians are disturbingly common. So why is this topic not addressed more, not just in the community, but also in the media?
One way I see the South-Asian community being discriminated against is on the basis of accent. While this may seem like a mild and petty thing to other people, maybe even a source of envy for those who wish to have some kind of “cool foreign accent” to impress people with, I can assure you that from my own experience, as well as the experience of those around me, it’s not as fun as it seems. Accents these days are “romanticized.” Certain accents are deemed desirable; for example, a French, Spanish, or Italian accent, according to a poll, rank among the top sexiest accents in the world.
Other accents, such as the Indian accent, are constantly made fun of. In one Quora post, user Nick Easton writes,
“No. Americans are not so ignorant that our understanding of Indian accents is apu. We hate the Indian accent because it both sounds like you are trying to be as sophisticated sounding as people with well polished English accents, and failing HORRIBLY at even sounding understandable. Simply put, it sounds like you are trying to sound debonair and upper crust, but that you can barely even vaguely understand the language. Not saying that’s what people with Indian accents are actually like. Just saying that’s what your accent sounds like.”
Please note: the grammatical errors, numerous spelling mistakes, and other vague inconsistencies have been left in on purpose. Since the original author clearly could not be bothered to compose a somewhat literate response, I feel no obligation to do this for them either. I will, however, try and translate the meaning they’re trying to convey here which is this: Indian accents sound horrible to “American people” (their words, not mine) because it’s Indians that are saying it, and not British people, who, as we all know by now, are the height of class and culture (as their recent behavior with Meghan Markle has proven to us).
Another user, Ri Ju, expressed similar sentiments. “Nobody hates it, it just sounds goofy and nerdy that's all. You wont be able to turn on chicks with that accent like the way spanish/italian accent does. I'm ok with the accent, doesnt bother me.” Once again, please note that I have a good grasp of the English language. The words and ignorance of the author have been kept in for the reader’s viewing pleasure. As these two internet users so kindly prove for me, Indian (and other South-Asian accents) are hit with double standards. Ironically enough, the English that Indians (and other South-Asians) speak is more often than not British English. When people make claims that Indians “don’t speak proper English,” I’d really like for them to know that it’s not something they should be bringing up with us, but rather, with the British, who oppressed us for 200 years. If they feel the need to educate us on the proper usage of the English language, I suggest that they start by leading through example, which users Nick Easton and Ri Ju have clearly not demonstrated.
Another disgusting way South-Asians are discriminated against is on the basis of skin color. An example of this is when Nina Davuluri, an Indian American woman, won Miss America 2014. Instead of congratulating her for her (rightfully) earned win, the racist comments sparked up almost immediately on Twitter, a platform I consider to be subpar at best anyway, as well as on Instagram. “That gorgeous chocolate may play as exotic in the West, but in India, we prefer our beauty queens strictly vanilla- preferably accessorized with blue contact lenses,” was only one of the many negative comments directed at Ms. Davuluri. Besides showing a disgusting, Eurocentric approach to beauty, I would like to address the comment directly by saying that the large majority of India does not have pale skin. India is a country with a wide range of skin tones and colors, but expecting the people considered to be the epitome of beauty, such as models and actresses, to all be white, is unreasonable and unrealistic.
On the flipside of this, however, is the refusal to acknowledge that India is anything but dark-skinned. Recently, as I was scrolling through Instagram, I saw a post celebrating two women of color. One of the women was Indian, dressed in a beautiful black and white sari. Looking through the comments underneath the post, I noticed one Instagram user commented that “...true Indian women are not white.” The user later went on to defend his statement, saying that “people idealize pale women too much,” and “the majority of Indian women are not white.” While I agree with his point that the idealization of white skin is something that needs to be stopped, I completely disagreed with the rest of it. Invalidating a person’s identity on the basis of their skin color, especially in a place as diverse as India, is not only discriminatory and narrow-minded, but it also instills in the idea that Indian people need to “look” a certain way to be considered Indian. This struck me as particularly concerning; do people really think that Indians can only be dark-skinned? And what does that say, then, about the light-skinned Bollywood actors and actresses, or models, posing in popular clothing ads? Was the implication here that these “gorgeous people” were “too white” to be Indian?
Case in point, at an auto-expo in Greater Noida, “...over 70 out of 100 models were non-Indians.” As an Indian, I can say there is a lot of insecurity over skin color. I’ve been complimented on my complexion the same way that others around me have been hated for the basis of their skin color. External hate and discrimination from the media are not something we need right now when we have so much hatred for ourselves already.
Adding onto this assumption that all Indians are dark-skinned is the much broader yet equally narrow-minded assumption that all South-Asians look the same. Especially in the eyes of Western media, oftentimes where I see a diverse group of people from South Asia, each with a different culture and unique life experience, they see us as one. We are all either Punjabi or “Muslim” (which is actually a religion and not a nationality, but that doesn’t really seem to matter to the media). Why is this so dangerous? Because it strips us of our identity, and it enforces stereotypes.
A prominent example of this is in the case of Prabhjot Singh, a Punjabi man who was attacked because people thought he was a terrorist. “Both men are Sikhs and have long bears and wear turbans,” writes CNN, who interviewed Mr. Singh. “...(he) heard someone yell, ‘Terrorist, Osama, get him.’” After the tragedy of 9/11, people are especially beginning to target those whom they think are terrorists, such as people wearing turbans, having long beards, wearing hijabs or saris, etc. The media needs to understand that there’s no way to judge someone for being a terrorist based on their clothing. Not only is this dangerous to do because of the risk of South-Asians being injured or killed in the violence that can result from this, but it’s dangerous for the overall safety of the American public as well. If the media keeps reinforcing the idea that terrorists are “others,” that they’re aliens from foreign lands who wear strange clothes and speak with strange accents, then the terrorists living amongst us in society right now will be more likely to get away with their crimes, since they don’t fit the media and general public’s view of what a terrorist should look or behave like. White supremacy, a form of terrorism growing more and more prevalent in the US as of late, is a far greater threat to the U.S. than foreign terrorists have a chance of being. With the U.S.’s strict screening procedures and precautions, outside attacks are rare and infrequent. It’s the attacks from the people we consider to be friends, neighbors, even family members, in some cases, that contribute to the most amount of terrorism the U.S. has possibly ever faced. White supremacy groups are responsible for sixty-seven percent of all the terroristic attacks in the US for the past eight months. As a country, we should be more aware of getting rid of prejudiced assumptions and misbeliefs. Despite what the media claims, a terrorist does not have a certain “look” or “way of acting.” A terrorist can be anyone, regardless of gender, race, nationality, or socioeconomic status.
Obviously, I cannot speak for everyone’s experiences within the South-Asian community. In this article, I primarily discussed Indian experiences, though I know there are many other experiences out there that can relate to some of my own. As a community, we need to continue raising our voices to advocate for ourselves. I urge my fellow Indians and South-Asians to point out these issues, not only to members of the community, but to those outside it as well. No one has the right to make us feel bad about ourselves, whether it be ourselves or other people.