Barack Obama’s victory in 2012 was the result of the Democrats’ ability to attract new voters, primarily minorities, which include Latino-Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans. So it was only fitting that Indiaspora threw an impressive celebration the Saturday before the Inauguration to announce the presence of Indian Americans as no longer an invisible “minority.”
There was quite a gathering for the event at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington DC. In the hotel there were a lot of people from out-of-town, including a large group of African Americans who had come for the Inauguration. It was somehow fitting that two “minorities” were there together, celebrating an election that showed the power of a President who could bridge these communities with his Asian and African American roots.
Silicon Valley danced alongside Washington interns and philanthropists.Scholars and academicians chatted with media celebrities and artists. There was quite an age range too – college students (over 21 of course!), young and older professionals, activists, journalists, Washington insiders and outsiders.
This surely must have been the most colorful crowd of all the balls that week, and, probably, the best dressed. I say this out of pride but also because I know what folks were wearing. Indian “traditional formal” dress translates to a lot of fabulous clothes for both men and women. Though some men wore formal black suits, there were enough in sherwanis to provide a contrast. Adding to the color explosion were the Sikh men in turbans, in reds and oranges perfect for the occasion.
The entertainment was varied and energetic, competing with the din of conversation for attention. Dance troupes, musician Shankar Tucker, and Red Baraat, a band that made the entire ballroom dance and sing along with joy, performed. Maneet Chauhan’s food was super-delicious, and in this aspect too, the Indiaspora ball must have been outstanding, judging by reports of the other balls.
The impact of the event was visible in those who attended: Maya Sotero-Ng, the President’s sister, her husband, Conrad Ng, Antonio Villaragosa (mayor of LA), Kamala Harris (California’s Attorney General), and the first Hindu Congressional representative, Tulsi Gabbard. These were a few of the people I saw and there were many other familiar faces that mingled happily in the crowd. The Indian Ambassador to US, Nirupama Rao, showed up too, happy to be part of the celebration (no doubt, many OCI’s there too!).
This inaugural ball felt at once so extraordinary as well as totally ordinary. Despite the fact that this was the first such event ever at an inauguration week, it seemed somehow taken for granted. None thought it was strange and no one remarked that it was unusual. It was not a big deal that Indian Americans would throw a ball and be part of the Washington scene.
We know from the history of Asian Americans in the US that we have not always been seen as “Americans,” and that the “forever foreign” often describes the ways that Asian Americans have been perceived. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was a particularly salient example of the belief that Asians could not assimilate into American culture, while other immigrant groups could.
The history of Asian immigration also reveals that Asians were not welcome in the US until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act changed the law to allow immigration based on professional skills and family ties. Before that, Indian immigrants came to the US in the early part of the century, settling mostly in the agricultural regions of the West, although now historians such as Vivek Bald are uncovering lesser known histories of Indians in the US, including that of “Bengali Harlem” before 1965.
But quite often, we are accepted as a “model minority,” highly educated, with “family values” and a high degree of professionalism, though many of us are quite diverse in class, sexuality, and education levels. As I think of the many people I know in the community, the diversity of fields in which they work is astonishing: community organizers and advocates in numerous non-profit organizations, academicians in multiple fields of research and teaching, actors, artists, musicians, fashion and interior designers, lawyers, doctors, writers, journalists, farmers, taxi-drivers, domestic work, nursing, business both small and large – the list continues.
Yet stereotypes of Indian Americans as “geeks” abound, leading to discrimination against those of us trying to enter diverse fields. South Asian males are seen as software developers and programmers, though the belief that they are smart is combined with seeing them as socially inept and culturally uninteresting. There is racial discrimination: Sikhs and Muslims are still the targets of racial hatred.The Oak Creek massacre of five people in a Sikh gurudwara on August 5, 2012 by a white supremacist, arson attacks against mosques and the frequent surveillance of Muslims are all reminders of the work we still need to accomplish in the struggle against racial discrimination.
Yet, there are changes in perceptions about Asians and Indians. Stereotypes of the Indian doctor or the software geek are giving way to immensely popular media characters and personalities who are comedians, sitcom stars, news anchors, and artists and writers (Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn and Aasif Mandvi for example). Mindy Kaling’s sitcom, The Mindy Show, is an astonishing breakthrough for a woman in a cut-throat industry, signaling some sense of Indians becoming absorbed into the US in ways that break stereotypes and the “forever foreign” racialization.
The White House’s own outreach into the Asian American community indicates this shift of perception, showing how Asian Indian cultures are becoming part of American culture and politics. I think such shifts are occurring with other Asian groups as well.
So that no-big-deal feeling at the Indiaspora ball was an important sign that Indian Americans are now accepted as part of the US and of a very visible multicultural USA.
Indiaspora’s ball was important to make this point: to show the strength of the community and its presence as equal to any other community in this country. No more simply a “model minority” or “racial tokens,” but rather participants in a diverse and changing society.