On December 15 last year, Washington DC-based civil rights activist Deepa Iyer sent out a tweet: “On this year’s
#desiwallofshame, Ajit Pai tops the list for being on the wrong side of history, for choosing profit over civil rights, and for advancing the anti-immigrant, white supremacist agenda of the Trump Administration.”
Iyer’s voice is one that the progressive South Asian community in the United States is familiar with and reveres. For over a decade, she has been attempting to bridge the gaps within the diaspora and leading solidarity efforts with other immigrant communities and people of colour. Her book We Too Sing America is a vestibule to the post-9/11 experiences of South Asian Americans and the attendant discrimination they faced. In Donald Trump’s America, the need for her work has intensified.
The hashtag #desiwallofshame had been intermittently used during the first year of Trump’s presidency. But when Iyer boosted it, it set a trend that resulted in the creation of the website shameful.desi, featuring a retinue of Indian-American appointees and supporters of Trump who have been pushing an anti-immigrant, anti-civil rights, anti-Muslim, anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ and anti-internet agenda. The website has now become an indignant riposte by radical individuals of the diaspora to the desi pride that distends at success stories of money and power in the US.
“The aim of the website is not so much to shame as it is to make the community members aware of the harm that is being perpetuated by people like Pai,” said Iyer. “It’s about accountability.”
Pai, under whose leadership the Federal Communications Commission dropped the axe on net neutrality, is not the only contender for the undesirable title of bête noire. Others to adorn the desi hall of shame are Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, for subverting diplomacy through policies such as the Muslim ban and the declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; Raj Shah, deputy press secretary at the White House, for defending Trump’s comment on “shithole countries”; Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, for endangering affordable health care; and Shalabh Kumar, founder of the Republican Hindu Coalition, who rose to prominence after organising the opulent “Hindus for Trump” event before the 2016 election.
Young Indian-Americans have been quick to recognise in these public figures shades of their family members, suggesting that the “aunties and uncles” be given a spot in the hall of shame.
In a broader sense, the website then is the latest instalment of a less visible but larger, cohesive conversation of the progressive diaspora to distance themselves from the views of their conservative counterparts, and recant the reductive idea of South Asians as a monolithic community. At the heart of this conversation stands the legend of the model minority – that priggish belief among Indian-Americans that they succeed thanks to merit and hard work; those who don’t are not good enough, therefore must be disavowed.
The model minority myth, say activists, is a dangerous one especially in the current political climate. Apart from alienating Indians from their undocumented counterparts – a 2014 Pew report showed there were nearly half a million undocumented Indians, making them the fastest growing illegal population in the US – it pushes them to smugly set themselves apart from other immigrants and people of colour.
“We are trying to push back against the widely accepted idea that success is good in and of itself,” said Anirvan Chatterjee, a techie and activist in Silicon Valley. “We grew up believing that we were meant to succeed, but in reality it is foreign policy that helped create the myth.”
What Chatterjee is referring to is the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which opened the doors to America for skilled labour from India and other parts of the world. At the time, the US government was afraid that the Soviet Union would win the race in arms, technology and space, and urgently needed qualified people to help build on its resources. Add to this, the civil rights movement of the 1960s that fortuitously earned immigrants dignity. The Indian-American thus came to stand on the shoulders of giants.
How did this history get forgotten in the flight for success?
Vijay Prashad, in his book Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, writes that the Indians who came to the US after the immigration reforms did not know political struggles for freedom. They were born after Indian independence and reached America after the crusade for civil rights. This “doubly privileged” population, he writes, thought themselves invincible. Their strategy to succeed was this: put your heads down and do not make too much noise.
Then one day, planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Overnight, these good people from the Indian community found themselves caught in a miasma of surveillance and racial profiling. “Floundering with the polite accommodations so typical of middle class migrants, the Indian-Americans had nothing in their arsenal to push back against the sudden cataclysm,” writes Prashad.
American flags started flying outside Indian homes, stores and taxis, carrying with them the hope that these overt gestures of patriotism would shield them from hate. For the first time, a visceral understanding of racism swept across the community.
The 9/11 attacks changed everything; the experiences of Indians began to look similar to those of Black and Latinx communities. “An entire generation grew up with hardly any consciousness of not being racialised and criminalised in America,” said Eesha Pandit, co-founder of the group South Asian Youth in Houston Unite.
It is these experiences that need to be reiterated today for the new immigrants who missed the huge cultural moment following the attacks, say activists. “People need to relearn that wearing bindis or having flags is not going to save them,” said Chatterjee, who conducts the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tours that amplify the need for solidarity. “This is the moment to be aligned with all minorities.”
More recently, in the wake of hate crimes, those who had never previously ventured out were galvanised after the murder of Kansas engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla. For Jayati Sengupta, co-founder of a start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, it came as a day of reckoning.
“I realised what a privileged and sheltered life I had led until then,” said Sengupta, who organised a rally and later started volunteering with her son at a non-profit in an east Palo Alto, California, neighbourhood of poor Black and Latinx families. “I understood the importance and necessity of engaging outside my bubble. We feel nothing will happen to us, but it’s not true. Trump is segregating communities and we must resist that by aligning with other minorities.”