*Asian American Studies and its futures


(First of several parts; scroll down to the bottom for a note to readers on this series of articles)

Part One: “Asian American” and “Indians”: Some Vignettes of an Uncertain History

Just a little over a decade ago, the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, perhaps the first center of its kind in the United States, published my book, The Other Indians: A Cultural and Political History of South Asians in America. (A separate hardcover Indian edition was published months later by HarperCollins.) The main title of the book alluded, in part, to the difficulties inherent in speaking of South Asian “Indians” in the US: growing up in India, the only Indians that I knew of in “the land of the free and home of the brave” were those who had been mowed down by the white man. We called them “Red Indians”, if only because they were so described in the American comics that were to be found in lending libraries. I recall that my late father, though he was a highly educated man (especially for his times, and considering the circumstances under which he had grown up in Multan in undivided India), persisted in calling them Red Indians even if I tried many times to steer him towards a different vocabulary. However, his usage of “Red Indians” did not at all appear to me to be inspired by racist usage, unlike the deployment of this term in dominant white narratives of the ‘settling’ and ‘taming’ of America. If anything, my father might even have looked at somewhat sympathetically at Red Indians as somehow related to his own kinsmen.

Much later, I was brought to the awareness that those whom we knew as Indians are variously described as indigenous people, Native Americans, American Indians, and Amerindians, although as something of a student of their histories I have come to recognize that scholars generally just describe them as “Indians” and that many of the Indians themselves are not averse to being described as such. It was, as we know, an accident of history, one of many such ill-fated accidents in European adventurism that shaped the world, that would lead to the characterization of the indigenous people of the Americas as “Indians”. There remains a considerable amount of uncertainty about how best the indigenous people of America might be characterized.

What, then, of the ‘other’ Indians? Transitioning to the category of “Asian American” was no easy matter either for what the US census now recognizes as “Asian Indians”. In Britain, the term “Asian” indexes most often Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis—among them Indians who sometimes knew nothing of India and had only arrived in Britain in the wake of their expulsion from East Africa. Rozina Visram commences her study, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947 (London: Pluto Press, 1986), thus: “This book traces the history of Asian settlement in Britain from 1700 to 1947. . . . The term ‘Asian’ as used here refers to the people from the Indian subcontinent. I have used the terms ‘Asian’ and ‘Indian’ interchangeably; I use ‘black’ in a political sense to refer to peoples of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin” (vii). The Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Koreans in Britain are something of an afterthought; the “Asians”, on the other hand, were instantiations of what postcolonial scholars and anti-colonial activists wistfully characterized as “the Empire striking back”.

Lal Salaam for more

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