America has been good to immigrants and we should be honest about who we are

By Razib Khan 119 Comments
Bangladeshi American teens preparing for NYC selective school admissions exam

Since there has been rather persistent confusion about my Unherd piece I will clear up a few things. I am rather tired of talking about it now, as I “said my piece”, but sometimes things need to be done.

First, for many months (years), friends of various backgrounds (brown and non-brown) have been speaking to me of the issue of very self-righteous South Asian American (Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi) “social justice warriors.” There’s nothing wrong as such being a social justice warrior and brown, but, the problem is that these individuals often accrue to themselves the full-weight of colonialism and centuries of oppression to add to their credibility and authority.  The reason I finally punched out the Unherd piece is that an Indian scientist who I am familiar with made a reference to trauma and oppression on Twitter. This resulted in many “likes” and praiseworthy comments. It was a vague and amorphous statement and could mean anything, but the response made it clear that most people took it to be that they were alluding to the weight of colonialism and racism.

The problem I had with this is I know that this individual, a Brahmin raised in India, is from a literally rich family. Rich enough to pay undergraduate American tuition for international students in full. And, rich enough to pay graduate school tuition when otherwise this person would have to take up a teaching assistantship. This is not a person who is well-off in the Indian context. They’re well off in the American context.

This is an extreme case. But it illustrates a more general problem. People who by dint of their brown skin claim to be, or allow people to believe they are, marginalized and oppressed. The vast majority of brown Americans can tell you stories of racial discrimination and prejudice. That is true. But are these experiences determinative in their lives? Does their race define and limit them in a deep and powerful manner?

I would argue not. Today the Americans of brown background are flourishing. Indian Americans in particular are socioeconomically advanced, and now, becoming culturally prominent. Just like their white upper-middle-class peer, Indian Americans are benefiting from the system, and flourishing within it. Their realized outcomes are very different from African and Latino Americans. Some of the same is also applicable to poorer newer ethnic groups, such as Bangladeshis, who begin much lower on the socioeconomic ladder but are placing their children into elite public schools like Stuyvesant.

Second, selective immigration from India has resulted in a very atypical Diaspora. Many who responded to my piece argue that selective immigration is the whole story, so why bring caste into it? Because the criteria used have skewed the India Amerian community in a way where it is not representative of India at all. I am personally not bothered by this. But again, when issues such as caste oppression come up in the USA, non-Indians may not realize when talking to Indian Americans that they will almost never interact with a Dalit, who are 15% of India’s population (one could argue that except for Gujarat the “Cow Belt” is also totally underrepresented due to the way immigration has worked). Many Brahmin Indian Americans I know are vociferously against caste (sincerely, and in their actions!). But to me, this is a laudable idealism, not something that comes out of historical brutality, because their ancestors were willing executors of the system. In this way, they are like upper-class white people who wish for a more egalitarian economic system. Their views are sincere, but it comes from idealism, not trauma.

As a brown person from Bangladesh people who knew where I was from would always make assumptions about my background, as Bangladesh was the byword for incredible poverty for the second half of the 20th century. Those that did not know my family was of professional background would ask naive questions, such as “did you grow up in a hut?” I found it amusing, but I did make it clear that I couldn’t personally speak to the poverty and deprivation which were such serious concerns for everyone about the country of my birth. In Bangladesh, I was a very privileged person. In my day to day life in the USA, this was irrelevant, but I wasn’t going to go around speaking with authority about how horrible grinding Third World poverty was. It was just in many ways just as abstract for me as it was for my white classmates. Honestly, if I did grow up in a hut I’d probably brag about it since it would make my Horatio Alger story so much more inspiring.

Overall, the point of the piece is that when you make identity so important to the content of someone’s arguments and the force of their views, it creates a massive incentive for individuals to cultivate and shade their identity to add credibility. Ergo, a Nigerian American whose family is wealthy from brutal oil extraction which results in human rights violations and crimes in their ancestral homeland will likely not expose this fact when castigating a middle-class white American about their “white skin privilege.”

Brown American should just accept what they are in the main: a relatively privileged people from whom America works, who have to deal with some incidents of racism in their lives.

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The white acting mother of a white presenting daughter

By Razib Khan 117 Comments

My Daughter Passes for White: She belongs in a way I never could. I’m comforted — and worried:

I stand in the aisle of the school bus while the other seventh graders snicker and block me from sitting next to them, as they have for the entire school year. Taking my seat next to the bus driver, I look out to the road with resignation. My great-aunt, adorned in a colorful sari, waves goodbye to me while the entire school bus looks on. I want to disappear into the dingy brown vinyl bus seats. With the newfound cruelty of adolescence, I scoff and loudly tell my classmates, “That crazy lady is just my maid.”

I now find myself in a mixed marriage, mother to a 3-year-old mixed-race girl who easily passes for white. Her fair skin, auburn hair and light brown eyes do not even hint at her Pakistani background. When I tell people at gatherings that I speak Urdu at home, some are very concerned about whether my daughter will be confused. Yet some are the same families clamoring for their children to get accepted into French-immersion kindergartens. Strangers have asked me whether I am her real mother or have assumed that I’m her nanny. It’s not their belief about my profession that’s disturbing — it’s their certainty that my daughter and I can’t be related because of the colors of our skin.

The author is Seema Jilani. She is a pediatrician. The surname is a form of Gilani:

Gillani is the sub-caste of the Syed/Sayyid family who are descents of the Prophet Muhammad and trace their lineage back to Imam Ali, who was first cousin and close companion of Prophet Muhammad. The family lineage of the Gilanis refers to Sheykh Abdul Qadir Gilani, a famous 12th century Sufi Scholar from Gilan-e-Gharb, Iran, hence the surname…

I don’t know if the author’s father claims to be a Syed…but it seems likely that they did not come from the bottom half of Pakistani society. The author’s husband is a journalist at an elite publication (it is easy to find who she is married to). As a brown person with children who also “pass” as white, I have had some uncomfortable experiences. Since I am a male I am not usually confused for a nanny, but rather someone who kidnapped sweet little white children. But by and large, life goes on. It’s not that bad or oppressive. I assume white people also experience rudeness. They bleed. They are human. They have feelings.

Pieces such as the above fulfill a particular role in modern cultural ecology. Affluent white liberals who have experienced the “Great Awokening” on race present a demand for authentic experiences of racism from “people of color.” Many of these affluent white liberals don’t know “people of color” personally, so they “educate themselves” through the media which they consume. Unsurprisingly, the people who produce the sort of media which fulfills the demand are themselves socio-demographically exactly like affluent white liberals (to give credit to Ta-Nehisi Coates, he is the exception). Ask yourself, when was the last time you read an op-ed or think-piece from an Indian convenience store clerk or a Bangladeshi cab driver? Almost always the op-eds and think-pieces come from professionals who likely experience the least “macro” aggression and the most “micro” aggression, and, who can speak the language of affluent white liberals and know exactly how to say the correct things (very educated people in low-wage service sectors jobs who do ‘freelance’ writing are never immigrants, and almost always graduates of liberal arts colleges).

No working-class person says “white presenting.” No immigrant says “white presenting.” I have had friends in academia tell me that my children “present as white.” Their race is a “performance”, masking their essential non-whiteness which is passed down by blood from me. There’s a lot of “interrogate” here. But that’s not the point. Normal people, who don’t have a college degree, don’t talk or think like this.

The point of this post is to point to the reality that a particular type of assimilated upper-middle-class privileged brown American speaks for the brown experience, but their own experience is very curated, the most “comfortable” for affluent white liberals to process. The frankly racist (against black people) immigrant Bangladeshi cab driver who is spending all his disposable income on sending his children to test-prep academies to get them into Stuy is less relatable. Alien. You won’t hear his voice, and since many affluent white liberals don’t many nonwhites personally he’ll be invisible to them. “Erased” as they say.

These op-eds are basically white affluent white liberals in “brown face.”

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When you have a hammer everything is a nail

By Razib Khan 25 Comments

A Racist Attack Shows How Whiteness Evolves
An assault at a New Jersey high school football game had an unexpected cast of characters
:

Two 17-year-old boys accused of harassing four African-American middle schoolgirls — using racial slurs and urinating on one of the victims — are facing charges including bias intimidation and lewdness.

The incident, which took place during an Oct. 18 high school football game in the New Jersey suburb of Lawrence Township and was partly captured on a video that circulated on social media, involves a cast of characters that has given some observers pause: Police say the boys are of Indian descent.

While it’s tempting to see the reported ethnicity of the boys suspected in the assault as complicating the story and raising questions about whether the assault should be thought of as racist, I look at it through a different lens. Instead of asking what the boys’ reported racial identity tells us about the nature of the attack, we should see the boys as enacting American whiteness through anti-black assault in a very traditional way. In doing so, the assailants are demonstrating how race is a social construct that people make through their actions. They show race in the making, and show how race is something we perform, not just something we are in our blood or in the color of our skin.

I want to emphasize the “complicating” aspect. Many American intellectuals don’t want to complicate an already tragic story, in black and white. Those of us of “Asian American” origin complicate that story (as do people of Latino background), so we are co-opted into the preexistent story that already exists. We are subalterns in a black and white story.

So these boys are brown kids in “whiteface”, to serve a particular narrative.

But, I believe literally every one of the South Asian readers of The New York Times that read this knows very well that anti-black racism is not something learned in the United States of America by Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, etc.

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Race Stereotypes in Medieval Islam (and some lines on cousin marriage)

By Omar Ali 7 Comments

This is just a short note from Irfan Muzammil. I hope to have Irfan writing blog posts directly on Brownpundits, but he is a busy man (and a real scholar), so this may take a while. Until then, I will be copying and pasting some of his musings..

Omar

Medieval Muslim scholars and courts seem to have been obsessed with the question of superiority of races: Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Indians, Franks, etc. (a debate that still rages). Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdi’s al-Imtāʿ wal-muʾānasah (Enjoyment and Geniality), a classic of Arab literature, presents discussions conducted in Baghdad at the court of the vizier Ibn Saʿdān al-ʿĀriḍ, who was executed in 984 AD after a short period in office. It illustrates the debates regarding a movement called Shuʿūbiyyah, which claimed cultural equality or superiority for the Persians over the Arabs. But the most surprising part, at least for me, is at the end.

First he quotes Ibn al-Muqaffa’, a prominent 8th century Persian philosopher, and seemingly a massive racist:

We said, ‘The Byzantines!’
“But he replied, ‘Not them either. They have strong bodies, they are good at building and at geometry but know nothing besides these two things and are good at nothing else.’
“we said, ‘The Chinese then!’
“He said, ‘They are good at handicraft and making artefacts; they have no deep thought or reflection.’
“we said, ‘well then, the Turks!’
“He said, ‘They are wild animals that can be made to fight.’
“we said, ‘The Indians?’
“He said, ‘People of delusion, humbug, and conjurer’s tricks.’
“we said, ‘The Africans!’
“He said, ‘Dumb beasts to be left alone.’
“Then we left the matter to him, and he said, ‘The Arabs!’ Continue reading “Race Stereotypes in Medieval Islam (and some lines on cousin marriage)”

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