A primer on South Asians and Desis

I often talk about South Asian people, or how I identify as being an American of South Asian descent. Many folks outside our communities don’t always know the details there, so I wanted to share some generally useful info, in hopes that it answers a bunch of questions that maybe people are uncomfortable asking, or don't quite know how to Google.

Disclaimer: I'm far from an expert! This is just sharing my own understandings, and others may disagree with some of these interpretations.

First, "South Asia" is different from Southeast Asia, a term which also commonly used in the U.S. Specifically, South Asia encompasses countries and cultures like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, The Maldives, Afghanistan, and Bhutan. (This isn't comprehensive — the boundaries can be fuzzy, and there are longstanding South Asian cultures in other countries like China.) By contrast, Southeast Asia typically refers to countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Laos. So, though both terms are imprecise, there's a distinct geographic separation, and an even more distinct cultural separation.

We talk about South Asian cultures collectively because the political boundaries are relatively recent and were greatly influenced by violent colonialism. Events like Partition (one of the largest, most brutal forced migrations in human history) happened in living memory. More to the point, we often share culture and deeply personal aspects of identity like language, religion, cuisine, music and arts across these relatively young boundaries. This is notwithstanding the political tensions between some South Asian countries. Also, much of the desi diaspora lives outside of South Asia, and millions have never been to the subcontinent but have lived in parts of Africa, Asia or the Americas for generations.

Sometimes I describe our people, including people in the South Asian diaspora as “desi”. This is essentially an in-group term meaning “a person of South Asian descent”. It’s not offensive if other people use it, though it may sound a bit affected. Do note, though, that some people don’t like using “desi” as a demonym, as it elides the history of marginalized cultures in the subcontinent, and perhaps perpetuates casteism in the diaspora. I didn’t grow up using the word, and don’t speak Hindi, so I’m still learning about this connotation!

Many people I know in the diaspora identify first with the regional culture they’re from. For example, you may know people who are Punjabi; this can imply a connection to language, food, clothing, music, even faith in a way that crosses political boundaries. Even my view here is skewed; I’m by no means an expert, and I really grew up around very few other Indian people, including almost none from the region (meaning language & culture) that my family is from. One confounding thing to outsiders is that nearly every region has its own unique language, both written & spoken, and some languages (like Hindustani/Urdu) are similar when spoken but have wildly different written forms. It’s more analogous to countries in the E.U. than to states in the U.S.

Also surprising to many outside the community is that nearly all South Asian countries (and thus South Asian diaspora communities) are very multi-religious. You know of Hinduism & Islam, but Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism & other faiths have more than 100 million collective followers in South Asia. This is true despite the sometimes severe political oppression that many groups face, especially in a time of rising religious fundamentalism from a lot of the people in power.

This stuff can feel a little complicated, and that's made even more fraught because we’re so marginalized in countries like the U.S. There are  roughly 6 million South Asian Americans in the U.S. — nearly 2% of the population. That makes us collectively more populous than the 30 smallest U.S. states are. Despite this, we’re never even mentioned in political polls.

That invisibility is particularly dramatic when you consider that there have been South Asian immigrants for > 200 years. Our first significant presence began in the 1800s, when we were welcomed into Black neighborhoods in New Orleans, Harlem & Baltimore. Later, South Asian workers came to the west coast to build rails & farms. At each new stage of South Asian immigration, we faced barriers both political & social. The Asian Exclusion Act barred our immigration & eventually led to revoking citizenship for desi immigrants. South Asians were also subject to violence, including lynchings and mass killings. We’ve also faced deep struggles within our community. Tensions often arise between immigrant & native-born desis, and we can carry forward animosities that are grounded in tensions between our countries of origin. Casteism and colorism plague our community, and anti-blackness often poisons our solidarity with those who welcomed us first. Domestic violence & misogyny are epidemic.

Despite all these challenges, and the often-tenuous grasp we have on our identity in the U.S., the last few years have seen an unprecedented visibility & presence for South Asian Americans even in the face of white supremacy. We’ve got our first TV shows, first feature films, a real presidential candidate, and a number of prominent business leaders. We finally exist in culture.

I'm optimistic that enough people are even curious about these topics and want to know more about us in a way that promises more acceptance and support in the years to come.

Anil Dash

Anil Dash

Building @Glitch 🎏 — the friendly community creating the best stuff on the web • humane + ethical tech advocate • I 💜 funk, civics, mangos, justice & people • he/him

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