Is the term “Desi” offensive?

Despite its long-standing usage within the South Asian community around the world, over the last few years, many have increasingly stopped using the term.

Some believe that the term “Desi” refers exclusively to Indians and excludes other South Asians. They also claim that it seems to primarily identify a section of dominant, upper-caste Indians, erasing the gamut of other cultural identities.

Desi literally means native of a desh (“country”). In the context of South Asian diasporic communities in the US, it is used colloquially to refer to those of South Asian descent, invoking a pan-ethnic rather than nationally bounded category, according to a paper by Sunaina Maira, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis, and author of a book on South Asian youth culture titled Desis in the House.

Maira believes: “In India, it is sometimes used more pejoratively to index a ‘country-bumpkin’.”

Many prominent figures have joined the debate about how whether the term is an appropriate label for the South Asian diaspora.

Among them is a Mumbai-based man who runs the film-focussed Instagram page “Vintage Desi” anonymously. He said he has received several messages from Indian Americans in recent years for using the term in his handle.

“When I started my page in 2018, I didn’t really think too much about my handle name…” this person said. “But over the last two years, I’ve become more conscious of it and have been thinking of changing it.”

He said he had started the page to use vintage cinema as a way to make cultural theory more accessible.

But after his posts started getting traction, many Indian followers pointed out that the word Desi is “very North Indian”, he said. They drew parallels with the Facebook group “Subtle Curry Traits” that has come into the limelight for its racial stereotypes and largely North Indian, upper-caste representation.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, this person said: “Desi wasn’t a term that was earlier used by the ‘urbane’ class that identifies with it now.”

Not American or Indian enough

At its core, the controversy is philosophical, suggests Tanuja Desai Hidier, a musician and author of Born Confused and its 2014 sequel Bombay Blues. “It’s hard to say that home is only the place where we live,” she said. “Home is not necessarily a place, even though during the pandemic, we’re bound by geography.”

Desai Hidier was born in Boston, raised in the US, and lived many years in London, UK. Her mother was born and raised in Mumbai. Her father is from South Africa and Gujarat. Growing up in the US, Desai Hidier sometimes felt “too Indian” in America, and “too American” in India.

Subsequently, her experience of the origins of “Desi” was as part of the acronym “ABCD” (American Born Confused Desis) – a term used to describe South Asian Americans who are purportedly muddled up about their backgrounds.

Desai Hidier first heard the term while she was in college when she was one of the two “ABCDs” in a social circle that was largely Pakistani, with some students from India. “When I first heard the term, I was excited that there’s a name for this not-American-enough, not-Indian-enough identity…,” she said. “But it’s not great when you’re being named by people outside of the group that they’re naming.”

There was excitement and indignance, she said. But “Desi” had a negative connotation because it was part of the problematic construction “ABCD”.

Desai Hidier said she couldn’t relate to some of the Indian-American associations in college, because many of the students had grown up in South Asian communities, some speaking their parents’ and grandparents’ native languages, neither of which was the case for her.

In the late ‘90s in New York, everything changed. After her short film The Test, which featured an Indian-American protagonist, she met many other second-generation South Asians who were also interested in the arts for the first time. “I never had a group of South Asian, Brown friends who were born and raised in the US, who were interested in pursuing the arts,” she said. “That was mind-blowing.”

We were coming of age, and diaspora culture was coming of age, too, said Desai Hidier. “It was this amazing moment of critical mass and momentum,” she said. “You’d be walking around New York City and actually bumping into each other on street corners. The people I was meeting were making space for ourselves. And they didn’t seem that ‘confused’ to me.”

Her work has been a process of redefining the “C” in ABCD’s “Confused” to Creative, she said.

Using the term “Desi” felt like she was being handed a key to India, to family history and her own ‘in’, without going there. Desai Hidier said: “It was a word in progress and an identity in progress, just like we were works in progress.”

Desai Hidier uses various terms—South Asian, Brown, Indian-American, British Asian. When she uses Desi, it is in a diasporic, colloquial sense of overlapping immigrant histories embedded in this usage, she said. “Our reclamation of the term in that late-90s moment was a way of making space for our diasporic selves, and allowing ourselves to take up space in a white-dominant culture...In that moment, we identified as Desi. We took ownership of that. We didn’t identify as ABCD – we identified as Desi. The crucial difference was that we were naming ourselves.”

Imposition rather than solidarity

But Sri Lankan American fiction writer VV Ganeshananthan, and author of Love Marriage, cites the history of Indian imperialism in her native land, as well as Indian cultural hegemony, as reasons why many Sri Lankan Americans resist the label.

“Often when you go into South Asian spaces in the US, there’s a failure to be truly pluralistic,” she said. “Many of those spaces are dominated by people with not just the privilege of dominant nationality, but those are also spaces that are often patriarchal, upper-caste, and dominated by straight, able-bodied people.”

Declining to use Desi is a way for her to personally resist this.

Ganeshananthan added that given Indian imperialism both in the diaspora and in South Asia, terms like Desi feel like an imposition, rather than solidarity.

“It’s about who is included and who is not, whose story is centred and whose is not,” said Desai Hidier. “The debate is about how best to show solidarity within the multi-cultures grouped together under these monikers. How do we celebrate our connection without facing our differences?”

The idea of the American melting pot can be dangerous if people aren’t willing to open their eyes to issues such as race, caste, and who holds the power in communities, she said.

She added: “There’s also the question at this divisive time: How do we use these terms to extend a hand to other communities? To the Black Lives Matter movement? For many of us, this involves having to face our own colourism, casteism, colonialism, and Islamophobia, to be able to actually intersect in a truly helpful way with other people of colour.”

Identifying as South Asian

In 2019, TD Canada Bank had to pull down an ad for using “Desi” after they were told that in India, the word is “used as an offensive term”. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the bank had received complaints that “…some Indians use the word to describe people as “not very modern” and “from the countryside.”

In recent years, many Indian Americans have chosen to identify with the term “South Asian” instead. But there are problems with that term, too.

“South Asia is an academic term,” said Snigdha Sur, founder and CEO of new media publication The Juggernaut, and a South Asian Studies graduate. The term, she said, “is both self-reflection and also created”, referring to the colonial construction of South Asia’s borders.

Sur said her publication’s style guide asks that writers use the term South Asian, or Brown, instead of Desi, because the latter is seen as offensive. “Whenever we see ‘Desi’, we nix it unless it’s a quote,” she said. “We also always capitalise the word Brown”, just as other publications capitalise “Black”.

But her audience takes issue with the term South Asian, too, said Sur. “They feel it’s misleading,” she said. “Sometimes, people use the word South Asian when they really mean Indian and that’s offensive to people. They say, ‘If you really mean Indian, just say Indian. Why use the word South Asian, increasing my hopes that there are other groups represented?’”

These terms may not always be intended as offensive, she highlighted. Sur described an example with the term “Latinx”. “I have friends who identify as Hispanic but don’t want to call themselves Latinx…,” she said. “At the end of the day, we want to use the term that is least offensive and most inclusive, at the same time understanding that no matter what term we choose, not everyone will be happy.”

Ganeshananthan echoed the sentiment, saying that finding a one-size-fits-all solution is an enduring emotional and political project. As diaspora demographics and politics have evolved over the years, and South Asian groups diversified, so have the ways they gathered, viewed, and talked about each other. While she resists the term Desi, other Sri Lankans favour the term, and embrace it as a label of solidarity, she said. “It’ll always be an ongoing conversation,” she added.

Desai Hidier’s solution is using terms respectfully with an awareness that these terms can’t hold any country, culture, social group, or religion under an umbrella. “At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that we are so much bigger than any of these boxes,” she said.