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Being Brown and Desi in America


Guest post by Dr. Amita Roy-Shah

As a child, I often fantasized about changing my name from Amita to Amy. I meticulously tried to mask the scents of spices and incense from my house with anything that resembled the scents of lavender or vanilla. I shed away my Bengali mannerisms to sound and act more “White.” During my elementary and middle school years, the goal was to achieve a higher level of “Whiteness.”

I was raised in a primarily White neighborhood in California. Being a Brown Desi* to me has always been about “fitting in” with the norm. From a young age, I learned that to become part of America’s “melting pot,” I would need to assimilate by melting away my cultural differences.

In America, race-based discussions occur within a Black or White framework. Other groups, such as Brown Desis, are often placed on this black/white continuum that leads towards whiteness. Using this continuum, Brown Desis are often equated with more whiteness due to their educational achievement and cultural values that prioritize hard work. However, these mainstream conversations have led minority groups (e.g., Black, Latino) to be pitted against one another.

Brown Desis are often used as a “model” to show other minority groups that they can also achieve “success” if they work hard enough. However, these “model” minority conversations often ignore the histories and immigration patterns of a particular cohort of Brown Desis who came to American under a set of policies to fulfill a need for highly-skilled professionals. In this way, the term “model” has been used to separate Brown Desis from other minority groups.

Good Desi, Bad Desi

Brown Desis are also pitted against one another, creating a dichotomy within the Brown community as being a “good/bad” Desi based on educational and economic achievements. Within the Brown Desi community, there are some Brown Desis who blame others for giving them a “bad name” in America. They look down upon the ones who cannot speak English and/or who lack the education and skills needed to secure professional jobs. Unfortunately, these types of conversations create more divisiveness within our communities and does not allow for our us to work together in solidarity with one another.

In recent times, hate crimes against Brown Desis have been on the rise. While Brown Desis may be equated with more Whiteness, we can now see contradictions emerge. Srinivas Kuchibotla was killed in a horrible hate crime that was equated with a desire to get foreigners out and to hold on to a more “White America.” In these horrid events, the Brown Desi shares more with the Black experience and the Black Lives Matter movement. As they move down in the continuum that leads to Whiteness, Brown Desis join other minority groups for their fight against xenophobia in America.  

What Brown Desis still need is a conversation about race, that is outside the Black/White discourse. We need a space that embraces our complex and nuanced stories. The contradictions within our stories have yet to be told, heard, and listened to by the majority of our society today.  

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks to us about the dangers of a single story. She warns us about taking a single story and making assumptions about another person or country. She asserts that there are multiple levels, layers, and dimensions to stories that must be taken into consideration in order to avoid a critical misunderstanding.

Brown and Desi

Today, I have embraced being a Brown Desi-American. I cherish my unique name. I flavor my food with Indian spices. I dress in bicultural modes of fashion and decide how I want to act based on various contextual factors (who I’m with, what I’m doing, how I feel). Brown Desi-Americans pick and choose between two cultures whose values inherently contradict one another (e.g., individualistic, collectivistic cultures).

See other books on identity here

To me, being a Brown Desi in America is looking beyond the Black/White discourse that dominates mainstream conversations and learning from the stories of my Brown Desi peers who are also trying to navigate this complex terrain of what it means to be a Brown Desi in America.

It is estimated that by 2050 we will be a majority-minority nation. We need to provide our children with an understanding that goes beyond the predominately Black and White conversations that exist today. The stories our children are exposed to will help them gain a critical understanding of the multiple perspectives that exist in the world.

Talk about Race

In our increasingly diverse society, we can’t really claim to be color-mute. The idea of being color-mute is not acknowledging the race of others in society. Some parents decide not to talk about race because it makes them uncomfortable or they don’t want to seem like a racist. They may say “I don’t notice the color.” Others parents may believe that it is wrong to talk about race, because they believe that they can “poison” their children with race talk. They believe that perhaps their children may not notice color, and based on this unsubstantiated assumption, parents don’t want to be the ones to point it out.

However, research suggests that children are not color-blind and that they do recognize race and develop racial biases between the ages of three to five. For parents, it’s important to recognize that race does exist and it does matter. Be being color-mute, parents are reproducing racial inequalities that exist in our society. Children are naturally categorizing and making assumptions about what they see in their environment. Parents and teachers need to choose books that keep in mind the importance of multicultural competence for children. Multicultural competence is the ability to to understand, effectively interact, and communicate with people from diverse cultures.

See other books on identity here

Rather than viewing the world as a “melting pot” in which individuals are thrown into a pot that melt away their cultural differences, we want children think of their cultural identities using a “tossed salad” analogy. This allows for them to preserve their culture alongside the American culture. With a tossed salad analogy, the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and croutons are not dissolved but stay intact as they are tossed up and celebrated. My hope for the next generation is for children to understand, appreciate, and celebrate one other for who they are and what makes them unique.

*Desi: This is a loose term for people and cultures of the Indian subcontinent or South Asia and their diaspora. Desis encompass people from a variety of cultural, linguistic, and racially diverse areas. Countries that are considered “Desi” are subjective and may encompass, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. In India, Desis make up various religious groups including but not limited to: Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis.

Speaking to Young Children About Race:

3-5 year old: Preschoolers learn how identify color and their minds are engaged in a concept called “centering” in which they focus on one aspect of something or someone. Often times, preschoolers may begin to point out differences in skin color. For parents, it will be important to acknowledge that people do have different skin colors and that is part of what makes us different and unique.

5-8 year old: This is the age where children’s minds can logically understand the concept of race. At this age, they are also more likely to be receptive to listening about race and not forming rigid judgments in their minds. Parents should not shush their child when they have a question about these differences. Parents should be available and approachable to children when they have a question about race.

Some things to keep in mind:

  1. Stay calm. Sometimes parents feel uncomfortable when their child brings up a question that causes them alarm. Remember to take a deep breath, and use active listening skills to figure out exactly what your child wants to know and how it peaked his/her curiosity.
  2.  Respond in a non-judgmental way. Answer their questions, address their curiosity. If you don’t know, tell them you are not sure but you can research it with them at a later time.
  3.  Use accurate terminology. Always explain concepts to them using the correct terms. You don’t’ have to tell them everything about the topic all at once. Answer their questions in a developmentally-appropriate way, with a simple explanation that you can add details to at a later time.

Dr. Amita Roy Shah is an Adjunct Professor at San Jose State University.  She also has professional experiences as a teacher, curriculum designer, and educational consultant. She received her doctorate (Ed.D.) in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University in 2013. Her research focuses on understanding the experiences of South Asian Americans in the United States and why there is a particular shortage of teachers of color in our nation’s schools.

See our post on Celebrating Differences


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