What’s the Indian-American story?
It’s been about 50 years since the first big wave of Indians immigrated to America, when will we finally find our voice?
I’ll never forget the feeling. It was 1987. I was 7 years old. Intense worry, fear, and confusion had me pacing around my house in Jersey City. The night before, a gang who called themselves “The Dotbusters” attacked our home while we were out for dinner. My parents tried to shield me from what they graffitied on our garage, but I had to know. My memories are blurry on the specifics but I remember “leave this country or we’ll kill you” and other violent threats plastered on the crisp white paint. They also blasted our living room window. I recall beer bottles and shattered glass all over the floor. Shortly after that horrifying incident, I recall being in the car with my parents and seeing a member of this group pointing at the bindi on my mother’s head and clutching his baseball bat. At 7 years old, I truly feared for my life and my parents. It’s a feeling you most definitely never forget. Ultimately my parents eased my worries, the city took action on the gang, no one in my family got hurt, and life moved on. Thank God. Some others weren’t so lucky.
The rest of my childhood was full of similarly confusing (and thankfully much less violent) experiences of racial identity in America. My parents immigrated to the United States in the last 70s. Like most Indian-Americans of that generation, they assimilated economically but kept their distance culturally. Their relationship with my friends’ parents was friendly and cordial, but never anything more than that. All these decades later, they continue to roll thick with their fellow Indian immigrant crew, they work hard to keep their Indian traditions alive, and regardless of how much success they may achieve, they just try to survive and stockpile cash. As Hasan Minaj has pointed out, our parents’ generation’s modus operandi has always been geared around survival (death threats from gangs notwithstanding) and economic stockpiling. Matters of national identity held no relevance to our parents’ generation. But it matters to us. Or so we’d like to think.
As a tech founder, I’m constantly told by white men that I’m “not a minority”. They tell me “just look at the CEOs of Google, Microsoft, Mastercard, IBM, Adobe — all Indian — there’s no f**g way you have faced any oppression whatsoever”. I guess this is what the Dotbusters were afraid of — that once given the chance, we would ultimately rise up. But if you were to ask Sundar, Satya, or any of these Indian CEOs and ask them about the racism and bias they had to beat out to get to where they are, that’s where some of the truths of the Indian-American story really lives. But this a story that hasn’t been recorded yet. The truth is, most Indian-Americans even in today’s generation, no matter how many trillions in market capitalization they may oversee, seem to have inherited the same gene as their parents — just shut up, survive, and keep stockpiling cash.
I’ll never deny the incredible privilege that we have had as an ethnic group in America. When the United States started letting Indians into America in the 70s, they handpicked visa issuances for Indian doctors, dentists, engineers, and other professional elite. So our community is incredibly well-educated and prosperous. Yet, we have our own racial struggles, we’re still lost, but worst of all, we’re alone. Most of us have faced direct racism in our childhoods and through our professional lives. As the founder of Bizly, I try to look for comfort with fellow minorities in tech, but I’m not welcome in many places there either — sorry, Blacks and Latinx only, I’m told. And yes, there are some groups for Indian founders like TiE (the Indus Entrepreneur), but it just feels too much like the way my parents roll — all Indians, no assimilation, can’t relate. We aren’t welcome in places designed for “underrepresented minorities”. Apparently, the word ‘underrepresented’ was designed specifically to exclude us. While I’ll never deny the privilege we had due to our parents’ circumstances of coming into this country, the current dynamics also force us to deny the bias and pain we have faced as brown people in America. So here we are, all these years later, and the search for OUR voice in America is still going.
It’s been 33 years since that night in Jersey City. While Indians have become more “accepted” in America and visible in the mainstream media, the racial ambiguity and lack of national identity still plague us as Indian-Americans — but I have hope. Maybe our time is finally upon us. We have an Indian-American Vice President of the United States! I never dreamed this day would come. While it’s not all riding on our Madam Vice President (as it shouldn’t for any politician), her arrival does present a rare window of opportunity. It’s our chance to step forward, grab the moment, and seal our voice — and identity — in this country that we call home.
Let’s do it for our kids.