Understanding my Privilege by Learning South-Asian American History


In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s easy to continue seeing the United States of America as just Black and white. Here’s why it’s important for South Asians in the U.S. to become good stewards of their own unique history in this historic moment. 

“You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices.”

Mia Warren says this to co-protagonist Elena Richardson about halfway through the Hulu series “Little Fires Everywhere.” Although this story was set in the 1990s and this line is directed at a white woman, I think this quote can be applied to the vast majority of South-Asian Americans today. The reason it’s applicable may not be clear to some people. Similarly, it may not be immediately apparent what role the South-Asian community should play in the Black Lives Matter movement. From my perspective, the answer to both questions lies in our community learning and acknowledging its collective history.

We have an obligation to understand how the intersection of politics, culture and foreign affairs brought millions of South Asians to towns across America in the late-1900s, and how those decisions continue to reverberate through our lives today, from the career paths we gravitate towards, to the way society perceives our community as a whole. The obligation is not just to ourselves, for posterity, but also for society at large; South- and East-Asians have long been praised as “model minorities” in the United States, to the detriment of other minority communities.

[Read Related: Exploring the Dichotomy of Generational Privilege and ‘Finding Ourselves’]

Over time, the perpetuation of our “positive” stereotype has deepened the divide between white and Black communities, and tensions reached an all-time high this summer. As has been noted extensively in the last few weeks, the Civil Rights Movements led by African-American activists in the 1960s paved the way for the U.S. to change immigration policies and open its borders to millions of Indian immigrants. The fact is that a vast majority of us owe our presence and relative privilege in America to the Black community. I think it’s finally time we return the favor, and the first step to doing so is knowing our history. 

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I didn’t hear the phrase “U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965” and understand how it applied to my life until 2015 when I was 24 years old. I was browsing through a library in my former D.C. office and came across a red and yellow spine with the title “American Karma: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Indian Diaspora” by Sunil Bhatia. My initial motivations for reading this book were selfish: I wanted to learn more about my parents’ history in order to gather more details about my own life trajectory and to better understand my place in the world.

Bhatia tells a compelling story of the successes and challenges of Indian families claiming space for themselves in American society through the early 2000s. In between the academic descriptions of migration patterns, racial dynamics and social and cultural norms, the parts of this book that moved me the most were excerpts from interviews Bhatia conducted with Indian immigrants and their first-generation American children. The parents talked about their own success in terms of their children’s educational and professional success, and the children discussed the difficulties in balancing their own desires with parents’ expectations, which was all very relatable for me.

A few years later, in 2017, another book continued the story of the diaspora: “The Other One Percent: Indians in America” by Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh. Here, numerous studies explore the reasons why Indian-Americans have become the most educated and the highest income group in the U.S. “in little more than a single generation.” Unlike Bhatia, these authors moved away from a discourse on race and culture and instead focused on the selection of and assimilation by Indian immigrants. Specifically, they found that Indian-born U.S. immigrants had higher levels of education, skills and family wealth than immigrants from any other country. These, they argue, combined with a cultural emphasis on marriage and family cohesion insulated Indian-Americans “from the structural inequalities of American society.” Despite this book’s more specific focus on reasons for our success, I still found myself most deeply moved by the personal narratives, specific stories of individuals who looked like me, navigating their way through society. 

[Read Related: Struggling to Communicate With my Indian Mother in her Language? So am I as her Daughter!

I wish I could say that the things I learned from these books spurred me to action. I wish that I had truly, deeply understood what these studies and stories were telling me—that much of my success, and the success of my fellow South Asian Americans, was due to forces beyond my control—and used that to educate my community at large about its privilege but I didn’t. As before, I tucked away from the information for personal use, satisfied with a few more data points in the graph of my own life. I continued to live in my own privileged bubble for the next few years, passively supporting movements like Black Lives Matter by posting on social media and privately ridiculing those who didn’t understand why Colin Kaepernick was kneeling. In 2020, however, we have all had to actively take sides. 

As part of its guide to South-Asian allyship, Brown Girl Magazine recommended that readers engage with various books, TV shows, movies, podcasts and music, including “The Karma of Brown Folk” by Vijay Prashad. This book was published in 2000, before both of the previously mentioned books, and it is far more explicit in identifying how the success of our community is “used as a weapon in the war against black America.” Prashad argues that desis have long been characterized as “good immigrants,” and that perhaps because of our community’s experience with white supremacy throughout the 1990s, there was a strong desire to create a separation from the Black community and more broadly from active political struggles. The intention may have been to lessen the scrutiny on our own community, but an unintended consequence was the perpetuation of the myth of the inferiority of African-Americans. As migrants, we decided to adopt a stereotype “rather than [take] a compassionate look at the enduring forms of racism.” I was finally beginning to understand how truly intertwined the stories of our communities are.

I then decided to re-read the other books with a new lens, looking less for personal validation and more for evidence of systemic privilege. Bhatia discovered that unlike previous immigrants, “Indian [post-1965] migrant students were going straight into the safety of the university culture, which gave them some protection and insulation from the harsh realities of being a foreigner in American culture.” The “Other One Percent” authors also argue that legal Indian immigrants had to be “triply selected” first with access to higher education in India from high socioeconomic status, then by having the resources to become eligible for immigration, and finally by a U.S. immigration system in search of people who matched the specific needs of the labor market. They are explicit in their belief that our community’s “success arose not from some imprecise ‘psychological’ characteristics, but from the fact that they were selected to succeed.” These are just a few of numerous examples of how our “hard work” has more accurately been a combination of some hard work and lots of opportunities. 

[Read Related: Op-Ed: our History of Anti-Blackness and how we Must Guard Against it]

Once we acknowledge and own up to our privileged history, only then do we recognize that we have been subject to the same societal constructs for the last 70 years that Black people have been subject to for more than 400 years. The difference is that we have been given the benefit of the doubt: we have been allowed to amass our own wealth, our bodies have not been brutally policed and we are inundated with praise of our hard work as if achieving academic success in a stable two-parent household is really harder than working after-school jobs to keep food on the table for your family.

I want to acknowledge that my experience as the American-born child of an Indian immigrant is not universal. Growing up in a small town meant that only one of my parents had to work full-time in order to provide a stable lifestyle. I also didn’t work in high school beyond two summers as a lifeguard. I have Indian friends whose parents own a motel, and I have Indian friends whose parents are doctors. I know that in the diaspora as large as ours, the risk of generalizing is pretty high. I also recognize that in a time of unprecedented economic and public health stress, reading dissertations and other academic studies in one’s free time is not the most fun way to unwind. However, to ignore the privilege that the color of our skin provides us in the U.S. today is to continue to perpetuate myths and stereotypes that harm our fellow Americans.

Most of us had good choices provided to us at a young age, good options that all led to good outcomes, gifted to us by forces beyond our control. We can choose to ignore our luck, or we can embrace our history and use our platform to amplify the voices of those who have been left behind. As author Ijeoma Oluo writes in her book “So You Want to Talk About Race”: “When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change.” Moving forward, I will try to remind myself every day of my luck, my privilege, and my good karma, and use my voice to advocate for others; I hope I won’t be alone.

The opinions expressed by the writer of this piece, and those providing comments thereon (collectively, the “Writers”), are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any of its employees, directors, officers, affiliates, or assigns (collectively, “BGM”). BGM is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Writers. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you have a complaint about this content, please email us at Staff@0mq.349.myftpupload.com. This post is subject to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Arushi Kumar

Arushi Kumar is a first generation Indian-American and recent transplant to the Pacific Northwest. While she misses parts of the … Read more ›

Holi Celebrations: A Time to Reflect on Diversity and Inclusion

Holi Celebrations

Holi is a Hindu festival that celebrates the coming of spring and is observed near the end of winter. It’s also referred to as the festival of colors or the festival of love. Although my daughters and I are not Hindus, (we are Sikhs) we still celebrate Holi. Our Holi celebrations always include reading about this festival, making colorful art, playing with the colorful powders, and making some delicious, traditional sweets. This is always such a great occasion to discuss the diversity of Indian culture with my daughters. I use this opportunity to teach them about inclusivity and respect for different cultures around the world. All across India, different states celebrate this festival in their own meaningful ways.

[Read Related: Holi With Kids: Celebrating the Festival With Your Family ]

My first experience celebrating this beautiful festival was in university. My roommates, friends and international students put together a lovely day of Holi celebrations outside. We were completely covered in variety of colors — pinks, purples, and blues. There was music, laughter, dancing, and an overall joyous atmosphere (including bhang, which is essentially a cannabis milkshake). It was particularly heartwarming to see so many Indian students coming together as a community, so far from home, to connect with such a beloved tradition.

For those of us, brought up in Canada, such celebrations were amazing opportunities to genuinely experience the true spirit of Holi. Similar to how it is done in India, everyone became one – there were no small groups or cliques doing their own thing; class lines and caste systems, predominant across India, disappeared. Everyone joined together; our skin tones hidden under the bright colours of the Holi powders. It surely was an unforgettable time.

As a child, I got to experience Holi only through Indian Cinema. Bollywood films like “Silsila,” “Darr,” and “Mohabbatein” stand out in my memory. The actors are dressed completely in white at the beginning of the song, enjoying Holi celebrations, and are then painted from head to toe, in various bright colours, by the end of the song. Since then, I’ve learned that certain colours hold meaning and significance. Red symbolizes love, fertility, and matrimony; blue represents the Lord Krishna; and green stands for new beginnings.

Now, as a mother, I don’t want my children to experience our culture through a screen. So we bring these Holi traditions into our home in our own creative ways. We certainly tend to get creative since around March there is still ample snow on the ground outside and a chill in the air!

The activities we have fun doing are:

  • Making rangoli designs using coloured powders (this is a helpful site we’ve used)
  • Making paper flowers to decorate the house with (like the ones here)
  • Making tie-dye shirts (we’ve got a kit for this because the girls love it)
  • Baking a traditional Indian snack, like gujiya (we bake them because I get paranoid about the girls being around hot oil).

[Read Related: Mithai Memories from Holi to Eid and Diwali]

Some of the books we enjoy reading are:

  • “Let’s Celebrate Holi!” by Ajanta Chakraborty and Vivek Kumar (for three to seven-year-olds)
  • “Festival of Colors” by Surishtha Seghal and Kabir Seghal (for two to eight-year-olds)
  • “Why Do We Celebrate Holi” by Anitha Rathod (for eight years old and above)

This year, Holi falls on the same date as International Women’s Day! To combine the two celebrations, my daughters and I plan on sketching South Asian females we look up to the most, and then adding bright colours using different types of paint. For another element of texture, we might add the paper flowers to these as well. I’m thinking these are going to be frame-worthy pieces of art!

By Taneet Grewal

Taneet Grewal's passion for storytelling began at the age of six with many fictional/magical characters. This grew into a love … Read more ›

The Family Immigration Process That’s Meant to Reunite, Keeps us Apart

These days, the phrase, “love knows no bounds” doesn’t seem to hold true. For many couples, specifically, those in long-distance relationships, the lengthy and complicated immigration process can keep lovers apart for six to 24 months. Well, aside from the thousands and thousands of miles of the deep ocean in between. I’ve been there; I have been an immigration attorney for 10 years and I found love abroad (my wife was living in the UK when we met).

I was flying across the Atlantic every few months so, as you can imagine, dating was quite expensive (though she quite liked the fact that for our first intentional visit, I paid several thousand pounds for a global migration conference as an excuse for flying over).

Marriage immigration is complex and costly. The eligibility and procedural requirements are confusing and require multiple long and complicated application forms over the course of six to eight years: from fiancé(e) or spouse visa through adjustment of status process, the Removal of Conditions Application, and thereafter applying for U.S. citizenship.

To put it in perspective, many immigration applications end up being 200-300 pages long. For you to know exactly what you need can be either extremely expensive — using an attorney, who typically charges $2,000-$12,000 per application (not including government-filing fees) — or time-consuming learning how to DIY. If you opt for the latter, it is quite scary to have to figure out the requirements and procedures and follow up with case status checks in hopes of finally getting some peace of mind that your case is progressing as it should. 

[Read Related: Tug of war: Brown Women and the Feat of Marriage]

The worst part? The grueling wait. Waiting while not knowing how long until you can bring love home; waiting to start a family — the next chapter of your life. You keep hearing people say, “life is short!” and you thought that you finally found a partner you want to spend it with. Unfortunately, life (bureaucratic procedures) get in the way. 

The combination of distance and long immigration processing times puts our next chapter ‘on pause’ while we do everything we can to bridge the gap — the gap that effectively challenges our ability to build a ‘real’ relationship. Or did it? Is there a test for this kind of thing? I mean, apparently, the U.S. Immigration Service (USCIS) seems to know what a “real” relationship is and tests ours against some “standard” to determine if it is genuine enough to grant a fiancé(e) visa or spousal green card. What makes a strong Fiancé(e) or Spouse visa application? I’ve experienced love; I am human. What do they want from me to bring my partner home?

I have been a U.S. immigration lawyer for over 10 years and I myself found love abroad and firsthand had to go through the process of bringing my spouse home to the United States. My wife is an NRI who grew up in the Philippines and lived in London where we met (more on how our meddlesome Indian families instigated our “meet-cute” in a future article). Having recently gone through this journey, and having helped hundreds of immigrant couples over the years, it became obvious that there had to be a better way. It should not be expensive, unaffordable, or overly complicated for you to bring your loved one home to become a family. 

[Read Related: How to Follow Your Heart, Even When it’s Hard]

When we were apart, we did everything from waking each other up in the middle of our respective nights, with the time difference, to one partner falling asleep with the other on the phone. We watched movies together on Netflix. We made travel plans and talked about what the future would look like. We craved each other and expressed our love daily, maybe even hourly.

The future can be uncertain for any couple, but perhaps even more so for those in a long-distance relationship. When one partner is waiting for a spousal visa or fiancé visa, there can be a lot of anxiety and stress about the process and wait times. Even one mistake can set the whole process back months or even years and, if you are not familiar with the process, there’s always the overhanging uncertainty of whether or not the visa will be approved altogether. 

In today’s globalized world where borders are becoming less relevant than ever before, largely thanks to technological advances which allow individuals across countries via Facetime, WhatsApp, and Skype chats without having left home, there is more of a need for a streamlined immigration tech platform that helps “modern” couples who are dating long-distance with the help of technology.

The number one reason Fiancé(e) visa or Spouse visa applications are denied is lack of documentation evidencing your relationship/intent to marry. This article shows what evidence you can provide USCIS to prove you have a genuine relationship and thereby strengthen your visa application. OurLoveVisa.com is an immigration attorney-designed platform that provides free tools and features to help couples going through the U.S. K-1 or marriage visa process plan, manage, and track their immigration journey. Many couples going through the K-1 fiancé visa process, or CR-1/IR-1 spouse visa process, have found its relationship timeline tool, which is as easy to use as Instagram, helpful in building their application. The best part: it’s free to use. The OurLoveVisa.com platform was built so you can focus on what is truly important, your relationship!

The long, unreasonable immigration processing/wait times are definitely another topic for discussion and, as time goes on, I will continue to share and elaborate on my and my wife’s joint and individual journeys through marriage, immigration, and closing the gap from our long-distance relationship. In the meantime, I hope the information provided will bring value to you and your journey.

By Kunal Tewani

Kunal Tewani is a US immigration lawyer who grew up in New York with his extended family under one roof. … Read more ›

5 Indo Caribbean Food Experts you Need to Know This Winter Season

trinidad curry
Curried Chicken with Roti Parata or Roti, popular Middle Eastern/Indian cuisine

It is officially that time of year—the holiday season. There’s nothing like Christmas and New Year’s in the West Indies. Between the pepperpot in Guyana and the palm trees decorated in lights in Trinidad, the home food, warm weather and laid-back ambiance makes us wish we could escape the cold and head back to the Caribbean. Most of us, however, cannot “take holiday” and find ourselves hungry for fresh dhal puri and doubles. But, thanks to these Indo-Caribbean food bloggers, we can bring the motherland to our kitchens.

1. Matthew’s Guyanese Cooking

From Diwali mithai specialties to curry chicken, Matthew is creating a name for himself as a young Guyanese food blogger. He makes a great effort to incorporate Hindu holidays and traditions on his Instagram account, in conjunction with the customary foods and sweets associated with these religious events. However, his expertise does not end there, with new and alternative recipes for classic dishes such as curry chicken and bhara, Matthew takes center stage sharing both traditional Guyanese dishes as well as specific religious dishes made for festivals. His most popular YouTube video, with 1.4 million views, features his grandmother and focuses on the best tips to make the softest Guyanese paratha roti. In addition, his YouTube account is home to many videos offering guidance to Indo Caribbean cooking. Find recipes at @mattews.guyanese.cooking

2. Trini Cooking with Natasha

Natasha Laggan of Trini Cooking with Natasha is wildly popular throughout the Caribbean and the U.S. With humble beginnings, Natasha credits her love of food to her family’s business. She speaks of the nostalgia home food provides her as she reminisces memories of her grandmother’s cooking and helping her mother make sandwiches early in the morning. Featured by Forbes, Natasha grew her Facebook following quickly throughout the pandemic by posting old YouTube videos. Today, she has more than 1 million followers on Facebook and over 200K followers on YouTube. She uses her passion for cooking and Trinidadian culture to bring easy-to-follow recipes to viewers. Her following has now reached the West Indian diaspora globally as she has also become a brand ambassador to two well-known food companies.  Follow the food expert @trinicookingwithnatasha.

[Read Related: 5 Indo-Caribbean Recipes for the Holiday Season you Have to Make]

3. Cooking with Ria

With over 100K followers on YouTube, Ria is quite the expert when it comes to making roti. Her dhal puri, sada roti and paratha roti tutorials have over 1M views! However, her expertise does not stop there. Of the 180 YouTube tutorials, her recipes vary from curry to other Trinidadian favorites like macaroni pie and pigtail soup. Just scrolling through her YouTube page makes your mouth water. From doubles to classic Trinidad bakes like pound cake and sweet bread, she provides precision and anecdotal commentary while guiding you through the familiarity of home food. Check out Ria’s page at @cookingwithria.


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4. Chef Devan

Known as Chef Devan, Devan Rajkumar embraces his Guyanese Canadian heritage by creating recipes combining flavors of both the East and West Indies. His love of food has allowed him to expand his role to judge in a popular Canadian cooking show: Food Network Canada’s Fire Masters. His cooking often blends the flavors of multiple cultures but also creates the classic recipes of his motherland. With a multitude of interests, Chef Dev uses his social media platform to connect with followers by sharing various aspects of his life that go beyond cooking. His most recent YouTube video provides a trailer for an upcoming video “Tastes Guyana” which shows him exploring Guyana from the inside, specifically deep parts of the inner country. To learn more about Chef Devan follow @chefdevan.


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5. Taste of Trinbago

Reshmi is the chef behind the growing blog, Taste of Trinbago. A Trinidadian native who now resides in Texas, she uses her love of food and Trinidadian culture to share hacks, tips and easy recipes with West Indians throughout the globe. She finds a way to simplify traditional West Indian meals, that we once watched our elders make with curiosity.  From holiday specialties like black cake to Diwali delicacies, Reshmi has brought vegetarian and non-veg recipes to followers in an extremely accessible way. She even posts recipe cards on her IG highlights for followers who may need written instructions. Her IG profile is a mix of various West Indian foods while also sharing bits of her life and even her secrets to baby food. Follow her @tasteoftrinbago.


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These are just five Indo Caribbean food bloggers sharing their secrets to easy cooking. The once very daunting recipes and food instructions our parents gave have been simplified by most of these bloggers through video, voice over and modernized recipes. We no longer have to estimate a “dash, pinch or tuk” of any masala. We are just days away from Christmas and this is the perfect time to find the best-suited recipe to make that paratha for Santa.

Featured Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

By Subrina Singh

Subrina Singh holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Asian & Asian American Studies from Stony Brook University and a Master’s Degree … Read more ›