In 1971, when I was almost five, my parents and I moved to Hollywood, California from Hyderabad, India via London. But our first stop in the United States was a friend’s home in Yonkers, New York. We landed at JFK during a municipal workers’ strike, and the streets were filled with trash. Recently, my parents recalled to me the stench from the plastic bags that lined the streets and sidewalks. The rats were out; our friend’s home was visited by a healthy population of roaches every night.
“How are we going to live in this country?” my parents wondered. “Why did we move?”
During that time in New York, my mother found herself—she does not remember why—at an outdoor payphone making a call to a friend. A man approached, heavy set and fair-skinned, and started speaking to her in a language she did not understand. She was probably wearing slacks, although it could have been a sari; it was a time of wardrobe transition for her. I recall a turtleneck with broad purple and brown stripes, 1970s style, that she wore often. In later days, she would freely move between clothes and styles with an ease we all would learn to do with identities.
What she remembers about this encounter is a sense of alarm, of offense: “I don’t know what you are saying! What language are you speaking?”
“You don’t speak Spanish?” the man asked.
“No, no,” my mother said.
When she told me the story recently, she laughed at the woman she must have been.
I think I recall the incident, or it may be that I remember my later imagining of it. The distinction does not matter much. The memory has stayed with me for reasons I have sought to understand over several decades. I even used a version in the opening pages of my historical novel about the early South Asian immigrants in the United States, Passage West. In that early scene, my elderly Indian protagonist, Ram, is approached in a grocery store by a Mexican man who speaks to him in Spanish. Ram has lived in California for sixty years and was once married to a Mexican woman whom he loved dearly, but still—he is offended by the man’s presumption and pretends not to understand. In a broad sense, the novel is an explication of this action, an exploration of social hierarchy in the United States.
The person my mother was in 1971 had also responded with indignation to the man who approached her. Maybe she did so because she was raised in a culture, and an era, in which “respectable” women interacted freely only within their extended families. Perhaps, as a Commonwealth subject who had lived for several years in Great Britain, she believed in the western European version of how the United States was formed and did not realize the country would be populated by so many people with roots in Latin America. Like a great many South Asians at that time, she had deep sympathy for indigenous nations, but little recognition of the western United States’’s complicated ties with Mexico and Mexican suffering at the hands of the Conquistadores.
Already, she understood that Latin Americans were not an elevated group. Perhaps she was startled that the color of her skin and hair could be a detriment in New York, as it had in London. In India, she had been part of a recognized and privileged class—her father had served as a member of Parliament in New Delhi. But in Yonkers, people did not even know what language she spoke, what her ethnic origin was. Where did she belong? On what rung did she stand on the ladder of American society?
I am sure she said to my father, later, “How can that man just approach me and start speaking? Who does he think he is?” The simple statement would have conveyed complex feelings around race, gender, status, and class. These are not laudable sentiments, but they infuse our culture and our communities; to deny their existence is to lie. At that outdoor phone booth, standing amongst uncollected bags of garbage, people did not know who she was.
The issue of where—or whether—South Asians fit into the American narrative has always been ambiguous. Are we “white adjacent,” benefitting from the perception of being a model minority? Are we “people of color,” partaking in some shared experience of Black and Brown people in the United States, deferring to the norms of the white majority, succeeding only to the extent that we can accommodate? Historically, the ambiguity resulted in strange legal ramifications, sometimes codified into American law.
What is not ambiguous is mainstream culture’s portrayal of Asians as recent arrivals in the American story; we are the perpetual foreigner. This is true even though significant numbers of Chinese-Americans have lived in the United States since the early 1800s, and Japanese-Americans since the 1860s. The timeline becomes more telling when compared with that of other immigrants—Polish, Greek, Italian—and other southern, eastern, and central European populations arrived even later, between 1885 and 1925, yet those histories are written into the American story in ways that Asians are not. (The number of times that I—raised in the United States, a primary speaker of American English, a holder of two degrees in English literature from American schools, a published author in the language—have been told that I speak English “very well” is too high to mention.)
The term “Asian” is so general as to define almost nothing, a “monolithic other” that encompasses, geographically, people from Turkey to Japan, Russia to Indonesia. Yet when we address Asia culturally in the United States, we think of East Asia and Southeast Asia—Japan, China, Vietnam, maybe the Philippines, maybe Cambodia—only adding South Asia when circumstances warrant. “Asian” forces a kinship that exists only in the simplified world of our collective American imagination. When my mother was standing at that payphone, she would not have thought of herself as Asian—East Indian certainly, perhaps Oriental in the old colonial way—but not Asian.
Within the category of Asian, South Asians often feel excluded, dismissed, or minimized. Our roots are different from other parts of “Asia,” evolving from a mixed, complicated, and multifaceted culture that flourished within the bounds of the Himalayan mountain range and two vast seas. There were ancient indigenous religions in that space, as well as Hinduism and Islam and Christianity and Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Jainism and Sikhi, and the Buddhists whose beliefs flourished for a while and were later exported. This geography is unknown, unconceived of by mainstream American society in the past and today. In the 1910s, during the time of the British Raj, this vast and complicated population of South Asians was called “Hindus” in America.
In May 1919, Bhagat Singh Thind, an immigrant from Punjab in British India, was granted U.S. citizenship by the United States Court for the District of Oregon, “over the objection of the Naturalization Examiner for the United States.” In 1923, he was required to defend that citizenship in the U.S. Supreme Court because the administration of President Warren G. Harding, through the Bureau of Naturalization, appealed his award. Mr. Thind had served in the American army in World War I and lived in the United States for a decade; he sought to keep his citizenship by arguing that he was “a free white person.” This ridiculous argument was necessitated by the fact that, at the time, only “free white persons,” former slaves, “aliens of African birth,” and “persons of African descent” were eligible for citizenship, by naturalization law. Such statutes were first enacted in 1790 and continued to be refined throughout the nineteenth century; in them, race was always a factor in the ability to naturalize.
In its ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Thind was “Caucasian” but not “white,” and therefore unable to naturalize as a citizen. In his 2006 book, White by Law, Ian Haney Lopez discusses the absurdity of this manipulation of language and how it was used to create the falsity of racial distinction. The ruling itself outlines a continuing obsession in America with the White/Black dichotomy: Blacks and Whites are siblings who define the country’s terrible infighting, those in the Latin American community are like neighbors or extended kin, but Asians are not part of the family at all.
Here is a sobering thought: by the 1930s, Nazi Germany was the only other country in which race played an explicit part in the right to naturalize as a citizen. Because Mr. Thind was not from Africa and had not been a slave, the only argument he had—short of challenging the constitutionality of the statutes themselves—was that he was “white.” Decades later, many liberal South Asians criticize Mr. Thind’s choice of argument for playing into the prevailing racial hierarchy, abandoning the moral high ground of social equality in order to win the prize of citizenship and stay in the United States. But that is akin to blaming a victim for the crime.
America’s obsession with the White/Black dichotomy pervaded not just the law, but also lived in the minds of everyday citizens, employers and laborers, husbands and wives. In the mid-1920s, seventy social researchers, funded by the Institute of Social and Religious Research and supported by the California state and county farm bureaus and twelve university research councils, conducted interviews of employers, workers, and members of non-white communities in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and northern and southern California. Their findings were formally presented in a “Survey of Race Relations.” The survey provides “ground-truthed” information about the complexion of American life during those years. It belies mainstream mythologies of a White population conquering the “last frontier” of the contiguous United States.
Dr. E.E. Chandler, an absentee Imperial Valley landlord and employer of South Asians, detailed how Southern White transplants transferred their prejudice “against the Negro” to other races in the Valley, how Japanese restaurants were one of the few places that Hindus could eat. He described the antagonism between Mexican and Hindu men. Despite his recognition of the many facets and faces in the Valley and his friendships with South Asians, he could not adapt a nuanced worldview. In response to one survey question, he stated, “The Hindu resembles us except that he is black—and we are shocked to see a black white man.” America did not know what to do with the South Asians; we have always been betwixt and between.
The Supreme Court decision regarding Bhagat Singh Thind was rendered forty-eight years before my family entered the country. Despite what my parents believed about the lack of discrimination in the United States, my family’s right to naturalize had been restored only twenty-fiveyears before our move to Hollywood.
In Passage West, I wrote about Mr. Thind’s era in American history. I based the novel on real events in the Imperial Valley. The time and setting were emblematic of the displacement, isolation, and non-belonging felt by Asian immigrants. I also explored the jostling for social position, the alliance and competition between the Japanese, Indian, and Mexican communities. One reason the Imperial Valley fascinated me was because it was a microcosm of the United States. As William T. Vollmann observes in Imperial, his exegesis of the Valley and its history, “Imperial is America; Imperial goes beyond all four horizons.” What happened in the Valley happened in the United States: the theft of land that had been under the care of indigenous people, the settlement by White colonizers, the erasure of the history of the “Others” who were also there, tilling the soil and building the businesses and attending the schools that, together, comprised the community. The Others were not just Asians, of course—they were and are all sorts of Blacks and Browns and in-betweens. These are despicable ways to refer to living and breathing humans, yet the manner of referral is made necessary because so many consequences emerge from skin color in the United States.
When the Imperial Valley was still the last frontier, there was a chance for it to remain unstratified, perhaps. Black families moved from Texas and the South in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but segregation was not in effect until the early 1910s. Men of various backgrounds, including Swiss, Japanese, Chinese, and Indians, might be found socializing together. The Japanese, in particular, established their own banking institutions and shipping logistics and were making profits in an economy parallel to that of the White farmers. But more families began to move in and middle-class White values, “protection of women” among them, were used as easy rationale to recreate the social stratification that defined most established areas of the United States.
By the early 1920s, large corporations and agribusiness leveraged political influence to remove the Asians who were long-term lease holders, taking control of the land. In Power and Control in the Imperial Valley, Benny Andres writes that once the stratification started, it took a form common to America, based on race and color. “Employers exploited racial discord whenever possible,” he notes, “by pitting groups against each other to inflame racial antagonism, discourage labor unity, and encourage ethnic and racial competition for jobs.” Coveted jobs in the packing sheds were reserved for White men and White women, while hard field labor was often left to Mexicans, many of whom were recruited from across the border. The stratification was accomplished socially, without question, but most powerfully through the laws. Federal immigration and naturalization statutes worked in concert with California’s Alien Land Laws to divest Asians of their landholdings. That is what was most intolerable in America: the Asians’ independent success, which invited envy. The only recourse for the nativists and xenophobes was to restructure society according to race, and place themselves on top.
African-Americans were segregated in the eastside of El Centro and other Valley towns, and the Asians were kicked out.
In the months leading up to the 2020 election, it may have appeared that the American White/Black dichotomy had been subverted. The election of Kamala Harris, daughter of a Jamaican immigrant father and an Indian immigrant mother, as Vice President of the United States provided a factual counter-narrative to America’s stratification, a nod to the better angels of its nature. Then came the rally in Washington, DC in mid-November. A sign declared: COMING FOR BLACKS AND INDIANS FIRST — WELCOME TO THE NEW WORLD ORDER. To see the sign on my Twitter feed was shocking, in part because of the raw sentiments it provoked, but perhaps as much because Indians finally had made a big enough splash, loomed large enough on the national stage, to be identified as a threat. South Asians had finally been seen, but the reward was envy, menace, and threats of aggression.
Kamala Harris is only a couple of years older thant I am, and no matter what I believe about her specific political views, I am enchanted by this fact. During my childhood and maybe still today (I don’t know), if a person of color mentioned race in a conversation, a White person might say, “Why does everything have to be about race with you? What does it matter?” The answer is simple: to so many people, so many things in their life—perhaps most things—have been determined by race.
But during the 1970s, my parents absolved American culture from this reality. They told themselves, and anyone who asked, that England was where they experienced prejudice and discrimination, which was why they chose to leave. In America, they insisted, one could be whomever one wanted to be. Only later would they concede a feeling of alienation, coupled with hopes that I would have the opportunities they were denied because I spoke with an American accent, or because I had attended American schools. When seen in this light, my mother’s consternation upon her arrival in America becomes clear.
Over the years, I have grown more curious—not only about the woman my mother was but also about why the incident with the man at the payphone was such a big deal to me. I think I might know: On that day, my mother, even if she didn’t know it, had begun to learn about the pecking order, the ways our family would survive in the United States. In this, I do not fault her. Why blame the victim of the pecking order instead of the pecking order itself and those who established it? It’s why I do not blame Bhagat Singh Thind for his Supreme Court argument.