Colorblind Racism and the Model Minority

Colorblind Racism and the Model Minority

By Sunil Bhatia



Because there is nothing exemplary about a group that makes progress on the backs of other minority groups. 

By Sunil Bhatia

The author is a professor at Connecticut College and a fellow with the Public Voices Greenhouse through The OpEd Project. His book, American Karma: Race, Culture and Identity in the Indian Diaspora, was published by NYU Press in 2007. 

The recent shootings in Kansas, South Carolina and Washington state of three Indian migrants — supposedly mistaken for being illegal immigrants, Middle Eastern or Muslim — understandably stunned and angered members of the Indian-American community in this country, leading some to question whether they belong in President Donald Trump’s America.

“Get out of this country!” shouted Adam Puriton, a white U.S. Navy veteran, just before he fatally shot Srinivas Kuchibothla and wounded his co-worker Alok Madasan outside a Kansas bar. In the wake of the attack, Kuchibothla’s widow, Sunayana Dumala, received nearly 20,000 shares on her Facebook post, “Do we belong here?”

But as Indian-Americans hold vigils denouncing racism and mobilize to combat the rising tide of xenophobia, we need to acknowledge the existence and damaging effects of desi (Indian or South Asian) racism that is embedded in the model minority framework — according to which a particular group is perceived to have attained a higher level of success than the average population. As both a member of America’s Indian immigrant community for over two decades and a researcher of the racial and cultural identity formation of the post-1965, professional Indian immigrant families in New England, I feel well-placed to weigh in on the troubling ramifications I see springing from the concept of the model minority in my community.

The 2014 Pew Research Analysis of census data shows there are 3.3 million Indian-Americans, or about 1 percent of the total population. Yet 32.3 percent of Indian-Americans have bachelor’s degrees, and 40.6 percent of those 25 and older hold graduate or professional degrees. Moreover, in 2010, the median annual household income for Indian-Americans was $88,000 — pointing to an earning capacity that easily outstripped Asian-Americans ($66,000) and U.S. households ($49,800). The authors of The Other One Percent: Indians in America subscribe to the model minority theory, claiming that Indian-Americans are a highly select group of immigrants who are now “the most educated and highest-income group in the world’s most advanced nation.”

Indian immigrants … are fearful, ambivalent and reluctant to talk about the latent — and at times blatant — racism within our own communities.

Digging beneath the statistics, historian Vijay Prashad has argued in his book, Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, that the large number of model minority Indian migrants in the U.S. are “twice blessed” or “doubly privileged.” He writes, “In India they were born after independence had been won, and in the United States they arrived after the civil rights battles had already won them dignity and rights.” That is to say, the smooth entry of Indian-Americans in the U.S was due in large part to the civil rights struggles and victories of the African-American community.

Given their higher education and earning capacity, Indian-Americans frequently perceive themselves to be “good,” “successful” and “safe” immigrants — language they’ve adopted to distance themselves from what is often portrayed as “undesirable” or “unsafe” Black and Latino communities of color. Admittedly, I have heard friends and community members in the privacy of their homes use derogatory Hindi words such as kalu — in place of the N-word — to describe some Blacks as lazy, uneducated and disposed to violence and criminality.

And yet the paradox is that while these Indian immigrants readily acknowledge experiencing racism when they arrived in this country, they are fearful, ambivalent and reluctant to talk about the latent — and at times blatant — racism within our own communities.

Model minority thinking is based on a colorblind racism. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociologist, explains that colorblind racism is an ideology in which racial inequality and discrimination are explained in nonracial terms. The most common example of colorblind racism is reflected in the statement, “I don’t see any color, just people.” Such a statement assumes that a person’s race or ethnic background does not play a role in their experiences with racism or discrimination.

In my ethnographic research, I found that the Indian-American study participants used three specific strategies to maintain their colorblind racism and thus their model minority status.

First: The model behavior of the Indian-American community rests on refuting their racial identity and presenting themselves primarily through their professional status as doctors or engineers.

My research shows that when skin color, bindi, sari, food, gods and goddesses, and accents of Indian migrants invite racial attacks, they deflect these racist incidents by insisting, “Every culture discriminates,” or “It is human nature to marginalize others,” and “Europe is even worse.” Neeta, a 43-year-old woman who studied in Delhi and has lived in the U.S. for 30 years, said, “I have come to realize that no matter what nationality you are, what color skin you are, we all have the same principles. That’s the bottom line.”

Second: The professional Indian-American community I studied fully embraced the idea of American meritocracy, a system that rewards an individual based on his or her intelligence, ability and effort. Raju, a professor of biology, stated, “I firmly believe that being of Indian origin or looking different has nothing to do with the way you go about your life, your professional life, career development.” Like many of the study participants, Raju was aware of his difference, but he genuinely believed individual effort, talent, hard work and merit are the foundations of the American dream.

Third: An important feature of colorblind racism is to frame one’s individual or group identity through a cultural rather than a racial lens. By extolling their culture’s 5,000-year-old history, Aryan ancestry, Bollywood movies and religious rituals, many Indian-Americans feel freed not to engage in discussions of race and to see racism as a dilemma facing other racial communities.

When study participants were told of the psychological, immoral and societal cost of failing to confront racism, they responded by referring to “our society back home in India,” where the caste system is far more oppressive. Perhaps, but the recent upsurge in hate crimes against Indian-Americans is a clear sign that model minority status does not immunize us from racist acts.

Similarly, in the aftermath of 9/11, Indian-Americans were mistaken to be Arabs and Muslims, and were attacked and profiled. 

Indian-Americans must disavow the toxicity of model-minority thinking, as it pits one minority against other minorities and prevents them from creating solidarity politics with communities of color. There is nothing that is model or exemplary about a group that makes progress on the backs of other minority groups.