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Solidarity in the Time of Fear

Review: Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, by Vijay Prashad. The New Press, 2012.
By Kritika Agarwal |
JULY 20, 2012
Like many young, first and second generation immigrants from South Asia, my first introduction to radical desi politics in the United States came in the form of Vijay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk. I had come to the United States for undergraduate education with little knowledge of U.S. history and with several close relatives safely ensconced in American suburbia. Prashad’s text not only helped me situate my own immigrant experience and understand the pestilences of the model minority status that I along with so many desis seem to enjoy, but also to find the courage to recognize and name the anti-blackness that seemed so prevalent in so many desi circles. The text also introduced me to “Yankee Hindutva,” following which the Diwali celebrations sponsored by the Hindu Student Council on my campus took on a different hue and never seemed quite the same again.

With Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, Vijay Prashad has not only extended the arguments laid out in The Karma of Brown Folk, but also provided us with a new framework within which to imagine, what he calls, a “politics of solidarity” (x). Such a politics is needed, according to Prashad, to fight against the reigning politics of fear in the post 9/11 era that has been the direct outgrowth of racism in the United States and which has manifested itself in the form of imperialism and war making around the world. In fact, a significant portion of the book is devoted to examining the linkages between anti-immigration, racism, Islamophobia, militarism, and the collusion of the Indian American community in maintaining and promoting existing cultural hierarchies in the United States.

As in The Karma of Brown Folk, Prashad outlines the coming of age of the Indian immigrant community in the United States as a model minority. He notes, “The road to Indian America was paved by the toil of others, now barely acknowledged” (10). In fact, much of the first generation of the Indian American community owes its presence in the United States to changes in U.S. immigration policy in 1965 which favored well educated immigrants with particular technical and professional skills. Many of these immigrants, having been born in the 1940s and 50s in India, missed the freedom struggles there, and arriving in the United States after 1965, missed the civil rights struggles here. A combination of “state-sponsored education and state-selected immigration practices,” according to Prashad, gave this “double privileged population…the feeling that they were invincible – the massive social network that delivered them their advantages was invisible to them” (11). Believing that it was their hard work and personal determination that was responsible for their success in the United States, this generation not only ignored the struggles of others that had made it possible for them to enter the country and take advantage of its new found multiculturalism, but also embraced the model minority status awarded to it by the white majority, rooted though it was in anti-blackness. Building on Toni Morisson’s observation that, “In race talk, the move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens,” Prashad notes how Indian Americans, by participating in the rhetoric of anti-blackness, have continued to derive cultural capital and ally themselves with white supremacy.

More recently, however, particularly following the events of 9/11, Muslims have emerged as another set of aliens against whom Americanness has come to be defined. “As the ‘Muslim’ increasingly bears the mark of Cain, it opens up immense opportunities for middle-class people of color to demonstrate their patriotism in anti-Islamic terms,” argues Prashad (98). While this opportunity remains closed to working class people of color, some middle-class Indian Americans have embraced hindutva as a way to distance themselves from Islam and to eke out a niche for themselves in the American racial landscape. As Prashad notes, they want a “Get Out of Jail Free” card (31). By arguing that they are Hindus, not Muslim, and by painting the image of a Hindu India ravaged by acts of Muslim terrorism, these Indian Americans distance themselves from their Muslim counterparts and seek to gain political influence by aligning themselves with Israel and the United States.

Such politics of fear, which promotes imperialism and anti-immigrant attitudes on the back of racism and patriotic jingoism, must be repudiated, Prashad claims. There are no “compulsions of ethnicity,” he writes – we must not let proponents of Yankee Hindutva, politicians like Bobby Jindal or Nicki Haley who have built their careers by catering to white supremacy and anti-blackness, or Wall Street neoliberals who promote the exploitation of poor people around the world in the name of globalization, speak for us simply because they are of the same ethnicity as we are. This is a powerful challenge for those of us in the United States for whom critiquing our own communities can sometimes seem to be playing into the hands of white supremacy. But the criticism is necessary, and must come if we are to imagine a more just future. And peppered throughout Prashad’s book are examples of South Asian students and activists who have devoted their lives precisely to this. For those who wish to take on the challenge, their work, along with Prashad’s book, shows the way. It will remain an essential primer for radical desis in the making for years to come.
Kritika Agarwal is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at SUNY, Buffalo.