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The ‘model minority’ in the middle no more?

Indian Americans used to be sheltered from America’s racial storm — but then came Trump and COVID-19

Jialei Sun

In 1851, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote about the “porcupine dilemma,” a parable about a company of porcupines that want to be close to one another to help them survive the bitter winter. But when they get close, they hurt each other with their prickly quills, so they separate. On and on they move in this infinite cycle, a perfect metaphor for the eternal human dilemma: If you get close, you’ll get hurt.

It also perfectly captures the bind of America’s racial and ethnic groups — at home but without belonging.

The past few years of unrelenting stories of racial injustice, gun violence, and rising anti-Asian xenophobia as the novel coronavirus and paranoia swept through the world has brought the problem of race to the doorstep of one of America’s “model minorities”: Indian immigrants.

The Indian diaspora has lived in a middle space: better off than poorer refugees, immigrants, and historically oppressed groups but never equal. Existence between equality and inequality has had its benefits: lost in the binary that is White and Black politics, while inequality allows wealthy Indian immigrant families to wall themselves off in suburbs, often in neighborhoods where they are in the majority. This position puts some distance between them and “tennis match” politics, keeping second-generation immigrants removed from the storm center of racial trouble.

All of this, of course, changed due to two things: the Trump era and the coronavirus pandemic. In May 2020, as antiracism protests broke out after the death of George Floyd, a Black man murdered in Minneapolis police custody, many Indian American families sat down for The Talk. This phrase usually refers to the conversation generations of Black families have had with children in preparing them for the realities of navigating life in a color-conscious nation.

The Indian American version of The Talk has similar warnings: Avoid certain neighborhoods, don’t talk back, follow the rules, be courteous, and, most important, never interfere in or escalate the “tennis match,” the caustic back-and-forth of political discourse. While many Indian American families simply ignore the conversation or encourage silence until it is forced, many are now learning to talk about race. Parents I’ve spoken with point out that while they encourage caution, they do not endorse cowardice, especially as migrants.

The Talk arrived at the Indian American dining table with the Trump administration and anti-Asian xenophobia brought on by the pandemic. The truth is, Indian kids had never been at a high risk, the way African American teenage boys were; that was our privilege. But The Talk could no longer be avoided. So parents sat down to discuss everything from different skin color to so-called “smelly” Indian lunches with a throughline: No society is perfect.

For these families, discrimination in their origin country was based on caste. In their adopted home, it was race. The parents of a suburban Boston family say they de-emphasized the role of race during The Talk, nudging kids toward curiosity and compassion for people with whom they have differences. Another mom I spoke with in Texas recalls telling her daughters she may not be Black, but “she should not for one second forget that she is not White.”

The conversation among people living in the in-between has also turned the spotlight on the relations between Asian Americans and African Americans. Like porcupines in Schopenhauer’s parable, they find themselves moving backward and forward, trying to reach an equilibrium. One Texas mom says the “Indian community can be so racist toward Black people. When I hear that kind of talk, I immediately have a corrective conversation with my children. Indian people have genuinely benefited from the civil rights movement fought by Black people, but there seems to be no acknowledgment of it, and that bothers me.”

Indian Americans enjoy a share of the spoils of a system of racial hierarchies. This “model minority” is wealthy and, by extension, a powerful lot, representing the top 10% of earners in America. Because Indian Americans are well represented in science, technology, engineering, and math professions, they increasingly occupy roles of political and social influence. Vice President Kamala Harris, who is Black and Indian, was celebrated across India as a matter of great pride when she was inaugurated.

But no amount of wealth can keep communities safe from dangerous attitudes in a system that privileges a portion of the population over others. White supremacy is what created segregation, policing, and scarcity of resources in low-income neighborhoods, as well as the creation of the model minority myth — all of which has driven a wedge between Black and Asian communities. As The Talk gets tailored to suit immigrant experiences, families are increasingly realizing the underrepresented have much in common as they navigate oppression and discrimination, and build resistance movements.

In Schopenhauer’s parable about human intimacy, we achieve equilibrium — one that enables us to endure being together only by acknowledging the very human and mutual need for warmth, human connection, intimacy, and affection.

Vidya Krishnan is a global health reporter who works and lives in India, and is the author of “Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History.”