"How does it feel to be a problem?" asked W. E. B. Du Bois of black Americans in his classic The Souls of Black Folk. A hundred years later, Vijay Prashad asks South Asians, "How does it feel to be a solution?"
In this kaleidoscopic critique, Prashad looks into the complexities faced by the members of a model minority—one, he claims, that is consistently deployed as a weapon in the war against black America. On a vast canvas, The Karma of Brown Folk attacks the two pillars of the model minority image—that South Asians are both inherently successful and pliant—and analyzes the ways in which U.S. immigration policy and American Orientalism have perpetuated these stereotypes.
Prashad uses irony, humor, razor-sharp criticism, personal reflections, and historical research to challenge the arguments made by Dinesh DSouza, who heralds South Asian success in the U.S., and to question the quiet accommodation to racism made by many South Asians. A look at Deepak Chopra and others whom Prashad terms Godmen shows us how some South Asians exploit the stereotype of inherent spirituality, much to the chagrin of other South Asians.
Following the long engagement of American culture with South Asia, Prashad traces India's effect on thinkers like Cotton Mather and Henry David Thoreau, Ravi Shankar's influence on John Coltrane, and such essential issues as race versus caste and the connection between antiracism activism and anticolonial resistance.
The Karma of Brown Folk locates the birth of the model minority myth, placing it firmly in the context of reaction to the struggle for Black Liberation. Prashad reclaims the long history of black and South Asian solidarity, discussing joint struggles in the U.S., the Caribbean, South Africa, and elsewhere, and exposes how these powerful moments of alliance faded from historical memory and were replaced by Indian support for antiblack racism.
Ultimately, Prashad writes not just about South Asians in America but about America itself, in the tradition of Tocqueville, Du Bois, Richard Wright, and others. He explores the place of collective struggle and multiracial alliances in the transformation of self and community--in short, how Americans define themselves.
Vijay Prashad is assistant professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
Vijay Prashad is the executive director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is the author or editor of several books, including The Darker Nations: A Biography of the Short-Lived Third World and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. His most recent book is Red Star Over the Third World. He writes regularly for Frontline, The Hindu, Alternet and BirGun.
Essential. I'm glad I read this in the year when I've been reading so much India and US history, as its argument lives in the intersect. But I wish I had read it earlier, because many insights, such as the artificiality of normative Indian identity in the US/Canada, are things I've been trying to explain and ways of being I've been rebelling against for decades.
An excellent book by Vijay Prashad, from his days as an academic. There is a lot to digest here. This is the first time I read a book that is about "me", or people like me, in the sense that it is about the South Asian diaspora in North America.
While it focuses mostly on the US, on the Hindu community, and is more than 20 years old, there are still incredibly important points being made in this book. The chapter on "Yankee Hinduvta" is especially prescient. I found many of Prashad's dissections of the "cultural lives" of "Desis" hit very close to home, and he gave voice to things that remain relatable and important.
Towards the end of the book, Vijay embarks on an attempt to resurrect the spirit of "Ghadar", of revolt, that once characterized Indian immigrants on the West Coast. He ends with a touching call to solidarity, an appeal to leftist morality, and, crucially, asks Brown Folk to "commit model minority suicide". After all, "radicalism is as South Asian as Gandhi."
The Karma of Brown Folk takes its inspiration from DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk and attempts to speak towards the South Asian American middle-class, where South Asia is meant to represent Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (the emphasis is decidedly focused around India, however). It breaks down both the historical relationship between South Asia and the U.S., including legislation, migration, and political action, and it also explores how race, particularly anti-Black racism, is constructed and promoted in the South Asian American community in the U.S. It is a critique of the model minority myth and asks the reader to reconsider his/her assumptions regarding the political and legislative processes that control immigration.
That said, the book falls short when discussing the contemporary experience of those individuals who are not raised in wealth, but instead are raised in the inner city, rural, and working class communities of the U.S. The audience, as was mentioned, is decidedly middle to upper class. Such a narrow focus does not do the author or the topic justice, and it assumes a specific base of experiences among its readers. It is not writing towards those individuals "on the frindge" economically, and for that it fails to address the current schisms and challenges to the "master narrative" of South Asian American identity formation in the U.S. Altogether, though, it is an eloquent and well researched read that's good for anyone who is interested in contemporary race relations for a relatively understudied ethnic community.
A one of a kind book in terms of content––I don't think I've read another book that analyzes the South Asian role with so much thought and careful research. Until I read this book, I had no idea about the earliest waves of Indian and other South Asian immigration, as well as the history of Asian-black solidarity (as well as the lack of it). The ideas around anti-blackness and the model minority myth are still so resonant today, especially after the protests around George Floyd. His analysis there could have easily been written just a few months ago. I love the distinction he makes in his Hindutva chapter between religion and culture, and how he emphasizes that culture is not a static set of rules, but ever-changing and ever transforming. The parts about first-gen Indian Americans resonated very personally with me. The one thing I will say is that this is less of a unified analysis and more a collection of essays. Prashad covers many topics, from the rise of the Hindutva right to the conception of India as posed by US orientalists. Once I started treating the text as multiple essays, it became easier for me to follow the different moving parts. Prashad's language lends the South Asian American community a preciseness that our short history lacks: e.g, the 'state selection' of Indian American immigrants, 'we must commit model minority suicide' etc. But for every one of these highly resonant characterizations, there are plenty of terms that don't really fit the characterization as well. While I appreciated Prashad's perspective as a Marxist, for example, his use of very characteristic Marxist language sometimes got in the way of the precise language he would have otherwise used. His politics really show through here, and while I wouldn't expect anything less from a great analysis, it sometimes leads to digressions about Communist movements that seem to be only tangentially related to the main theme (there are exceptions, of course, the mentions of the Ghadar party and the Association for Indian Leftists really gave me a better sense of the history of the Indian left in the United States). It's a dense read, but an interesting one if you're looking for a great analysis of South Asian American history (of which, admittedly, not many exist).
This was my second time reading this book. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember what it was about or even that I owned a copy, so I guess the first read didn’t have a big impact on me.
The book is very well researched and covers a lot of ground. For me it was a tough read mainly because the language is so academic. It read like a dissertation. I wanted to love it but I feel like a lot of the message got lost in the academic jargon. For me, anyway.
This was a heavy dose of history & insightful truths about the Indian American experience. It’s a thoughtful look at the relationships between India, America, and the people who exist on the lines in-between— how those relationships were formed, who had power in them, and how those structures of power are maintained. I loved learning the history! but I wish more was said about showing solidarity with other marginalized communities. ★★★½.
Solid book, well written. In all, I think it sets up a nice set of themes to interrogate around South Asian (American) identity and responsibility. He covers a lions share of relevant topics and sets the stage for good conversations - I read this through a reading circle and it provided good fodder for discussion.
[Some parts of it feel dated and that’s because it is - I wonder how some of his interrogation of South Asian political space would be different if he’d written it post-9/11 and all the racial profiling and hate crimes against SA folks that followed. This part is obviously not a critique, but rather, a note to self to find another text that examines the post-9/11 landscape more closely, that isn’t Desis Divided.]
What could have been a 5-star rating can be a 3-star at best (which I give primarily for his extensive research into the stories of the forgotten early immigrants from South Asia). Vijay's penchant for history and turning anecdotal reports of Indian diaspora into a hanging narrative notwithstanding, one gets away from reading this book wondering which is greater in the author's mind: His worry about pervasive racism against African-Americans or whether South Asians living relatively obscure lives without activism to fight the racial bias. His contempt for what he calls "Yankee Hindutva" is palpable in his treatment of VHPA while in a single line he avoids similar treatment to Jamaat-e-Islami, which by his admission is doing the same thing.
Despite his obvious preference for the word "bourgeois" (which I lost count of the number of times he uses), the middle class is a convenient target whose very characteristic of living a simple life (even if upwardly mobile economically) almost guarantees the author there will be scant critical reviews like mine. There is a certain quiet dignity in minding one's own business, paying taxes diligently, obeying the laws of the land and yet aspiring for a fair share of the American Dream (or the American Reality if you will). The fact that modern Indians don't identify with their own ancestors who worked as indentured labor in foreign lands in the 1800's till early 20th century, much less African-American history, is touted as some sort of affront or weakness.
Most Indians who immigrate to the West - professionals or otherwise - are aspiring to get better economically for themselves, their children and the fragments of their families left behind in their homeland. They are not prone to consider activism as a mark of having "arrived" in their adopted lands. This isn't to condone bearing with whatever racial harm parts of American society imposes on brown-skinned South Asians, but a pragmatic recognition that if you immigrated only for economic reasons (not fleeing any oppression your homeland), then economics will remain the predominant driver for your life choices to be made. In his attempt to expose a community that has worked hard to achieve success (even if it is not a "model minority" - it is not the Indians who came up with this label anyway), Vijay ends up exposing his own biases, bigotry and a thinly-veiled Western liberal playbook under the mask of historical erudition. "Weapon" is a strong word to paint a whole community of immigrants with, especially economic immigrants. And yet Vijay uses this word liberally to describe the "desis" as if they are willing participants to be weaponized by white supremacy - it's obvious he knows no desi will revolt against such characterization. In his world, they are busy padding their 401(k)'s or shopping for Costco deals!
Having spent significant part of my professional career in both India and United States, I have seen how racism is entrenched in India as much as in U.S. Of course, it isn't called "racism" in India, but whether you discriminate based on jati, varna, caste, religion, region, language or even how you look (a perennial curse of the Northeastern Indians with Mongoloid features), the aggrieved person feels the same pain as a black would feel in North America. Human brain detects even the slightest difference in facial features (scientists have long reported that facial recognition memory is strongest among all other forms of memory), so race is the first thing even the most self-aware person is likely to notice. The key is to have our rational mind ignore any default interpretations that flash after the facial recognition and then proceed to have a human conversation with the person we just met.
Activism, even if we concede to the author's point, can take on different forms, some far less obvious. There are Indians breaking the glass ceiling in every sphere. Perhaps this will get the 'white' world acclimatized to seeing people of darker color occupy high positions in academia, business and politics. You can, therefore, make the case this paves the way for other minorities and people of color to aspire for those attainments. Indians who immigrate to the West, at least based on my experience, don't have a sense of privilege and are acutely aware of the dangers of relying on a government to bail them out. If you grew up without a social safety net, it doesn't enter your normal thinking to use it even if your adopted country offers one. So, does that mean Indians are always successful? Absolutely not, and there are plenty of examples the author himself cites. A number of Indians are toiling in low paid jobs in U.S. and they don't get written about, so the author deserves some credit for shining a light on them.
Stereotypes are everywhere in India - "Madrasis" are cerebral and weak, "Gujjus" or "Banias" are commercially astute, "Bhaiyyas" are brutish or loud or even ill-mannered. Normal Indian conversations (even among the upper echelons of Indian society) reinforce the prejudices and clannish views that are so deep-rooted that superlative English language skills among the Indian elite only serve to couch the ugliness in ever so subtle ways and expressions. If you have encountered all of this in India, then the racism you experience in the United States - as terrible as it is - can be conveniently folded into a "reality" of life in pursuit of the aforementioned economic dream. To call this as weak or karma, well, is no different than calling the bleak future of a war-torn country as its karma.
I enjoy learning about anthropological-cultural progressions (which I find the text to be informative of, respectively). I'm glad to be in connection with individuals of varying backgrounds willing to converse respectfully on varying topics. During a meeting at work, I express an interest in one of the topic options concerning the "Model Minority Myth." After conversations ensue around the topic, one of my colleagues recommends The Karma of Brown Folk by Vijay Prashad. I write the name of the book down, and I'm glad I decide to read the book. The text covers aspects of Asians and South Asians (Desi) in relation to individuals of the African diaspora as well as to cultural progress as Asians and South Asians (Desi) in connection to freedom, economy, equality, identity, multiculturalism, racialness, socialness, and solidarity ranging from historical roots of about the past two centuries abroad as well as in America.
Ultimately, the text leads to a point of cheering, and encouraging solidarity. While reading the text, I ponder of scenes in a film, The Rainbow (1989), concerning ideas of war, the way some view parts of life as a game in a way or so that is far more real to others--far more, affecting--present. Nurturing is a part of every culture, a responsibility of each human, whether self-nurturing, or nurturing another. I hope nurturing tends toward good, the betterment of humanity overall, from each individual of and through proper nurturing.
In the film House Bunny (2008), there's a scene containing a point about not knowing about Aztec culture though having fun with an experience of an aspect of the Aztec culture in a celebratory form (which I think is actually a nod of respect in a tasteful way--especially in a comedy) some may find fun, honorable, offensive, be opinionless, etc. At the beginning of the Aztec party scenes, I cautiously think about social points that may be problematic concerning the party though I don't assume anything, the party looks like it's a success. I do not know any details concerning the proceeds of the film. Yet, in a situation no one is being disrespectful and/or making a profit from a different culture while crediting a particular culture at an event, open to any, from an aspect of a culture, with invitations out to members of all ethnic groups, is it problematic?
Will Critical Race Theorists be in proper spaces to properly guide students concerning anthropological-cultural relations? Will individuals be able to civilly communicate beyond cultural economic-political understandings toward resolves benefitial toward future generations without bias? Individuals may be doing so already. Still, nurturing properly is lifelong. Realistically, there are a lot of individuals that are like the bus driver that kicks the trouble making kids off the bus in The Long Walk Home (1990). It's nice to get to one's destination(s) without any problems. It's the responsibility of each individual to check individuals nearest first about the potentially problematic as well as the good especially in tandem with social relations (which do not just concern race). If there's no one near to properly nurture, one must be willing to learn, and listen-- self-responsiblity, and self-nurturing are very important: both need proper tending to be done well.
An excellent analysis of the role South Asians play in upholding anti-blackness and American Imperialist values. The chapters on anti-blackness, crafting an "authentic" cultural experience as a desi in the US, and Yankee Hindutva were the chapters I found to be most interesting.
There were so many small things mentioned in the book that I had noticed or thought about but was never able to properly articulate, such as "reverse-assimilation"- the rediscovery of desi identity and belonging in college after previously shunning it, or how the parameters of being a successful desi lie less in one's actual experience on the Indian subcontinent but more so how well one upholds capitalist and Imperialist values submissively.
As a second generation Bangladeshi American who’s always not been able to understand why so much racism exists within the South Asian American community, this book was a total eye opener. The contradictions to create these racist ideas of the “brown” community in America towards African Americans was shown, and I am glad to say that Prashad helped me understand this. From time to time the book felt a bit cyclical and jagged at times, but overall drove the main idea home very well.
Would definitely recommend, especially to other South Asian Americans, The Karma of Brown Folk does a great job at explaining such a complex topic.
I've never read a book that so accurately captures the niche that is the Indian American experience. I love how Prashad connected all race and class struggles and discussed how white supremacy tries to divide them. I especially appreciate the empathy he has for those of us who grew up here as Americans, with VERY INDIAN parents and how we have unique issues to deal with by having to navigate very different worlds.
i found it kind of hard to get through, the author was a bit repetitive at times and i wished for some less academic/concise writing. overall, learned a good amount of info and appreciated the arguments.
A self-aware, comprehensive critique of the South Asian American experience. Each chapter is meticulously researched, resurfacing golden nuggets of South Asian history that have led me on many a rabbit hole. I would recommend this to any of my South Asian American peers. 4.5 star.
Very strong analysis of the social and political aspects of being South Asian in America and what that means for current and next generations. Prashad presents the way aspects of cultural appropriation and political oppression intertwine and how communities of color must work together in solidarity to progress the freedoms and equality of all. This is strongest in the last chapter and also reminds me of a recent keynote speech I heard presented by Jeff Chang. at a CAA event. I must have gotten this book during college for one of my Asian American studies classes or maybe as part of my research for my senior thesis.
Oh, yes, he also rips on Deepak Chopra. I can see the argument, but I am also a practitioner of what Deepak shares with the world, in the form of meditations and wisdom. I understand that in order to be able to consume what Deepak offers, you must be at a certain level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. You must be beyond the Physiological and Safety needs and the people Prashad focuses on are still at those levels due to systematic and institutionalized racism. These people cannot have the space in their lives for what Deepak shares and they require more than self-help to lift them up from what has oppressed them for generations in the U.S. In that sense, I see that Deepak is pandering to only a certain audience who has the affluence and means already to appreciate/appropriate what they have. Again, however, I am privileged enough to have the space for self-actualization and I see Deepak's work as valuable. I hope that those of us who do have this space will participate in our communities to uplift those who are not yet there.
"Migration allows communities to selectively appropriate traditions and customs. The weight of previous generations continues to weigh heavily on the minds and practices of the migrants, but territorial separation makes some customs impossible and others inadequate to the new location...They negotiated customs within the new landscape. By the time Sohan Singh met the immigration officer, his encounters with progressive movements in Punjab had already taught him to judge cultural practices and choose from them. In America the act of choosing was a necessity." pg. 127-28
"Despite their virtuoso cultural literacy, many young people go in search of their culture as a trait, and they turn to those aspects proffered by orientalist educational institutions, by their untutored parents, and by rapacious groups...These various agencies are unable to introduce the next generation to the complexity of their situation, to the difficulties inherent in their pastiche cultural location. To do that one must go in search of other traditions, such as the histories of struggle that allow us to tend to our current contradictions rather than those histories of 'culture' that force us to slither into inappropriate molds. The latter tradition dovetails with the politics of identity, whose only tactic appears to be a false search for coherence." pg. 131-32
"Without a theory of structural racism and without an appreciation for the history of U.S. blacks (whose struggles produced the limited freedoms we, as migrants, enjoy in the United States), there is every indication that the migrant tunes in to a benign form of racism: an adoption of stereotypes rather than a compassionate look at the enduring forms of racism...There is no false innocence in structural racism, since it refers to the historical appropriation of values and the monopolization of power by an elite that is wedded to class privilege and to white supremacy. pg. 164
"The problem with a movement based on experience is that it might not be able to create solidarities across groups with different experiences; solidarity is in some cases better crafted through a moral and ideological linkage than an experiential one. The tragedy of experiential or identity politics in its narrow sense, is that it pushes a person or group not toward identification with the struggles of others but toward and exclusive concern with the identity of oneself and one's group. Rather than being informed of other's struggles and open to other's concerns, such groups claim particular knowledges and actions, some of which may be detrimental to other oppressed groups." pg. 193
Prashad packs so much into this book and delivers incredible arguments with language that is both readable and powerful. This book lays a revolutionary groundwork for Asian activists working to tackle anti-Black racism and in solidarity with other people of color.
"D'Souza's racism is premised upon a faulty analysis of Asian success in America. Those attainments are not caused by natural or cultural selection; rather, they are the result of state whereby the U.S. state, through the special-skills provisions in the 1965 Immigration Act, fundamentally reconfigured the demography of South Asian America."
"...I am to be the perpetual solution to what is seen as the crisis of black America. I am to be a weapon in the war against black America. Meanwhile, white America can take its seat, comfortable in its liberal principles, surrounded by state-selected Asians, certain that the culpability for black poverty and oppression must be laid at the door of black America. How does it feel to be a solution?"
"To be both visible (as a threat) and invisible (as a person) is a strain disproportionately borne by black America."
"And whatever good social change emerged from the social struggles of the 1960s came as a result not of benevolence but of the unyielding passion of the oppressed, who fought to keep this racist polity even an iota honest."
"The poor cease to be human with the capacity to struggle and to aspire, they appear as contended people willing to sacrifice their material well-being for the spiritual happiness the bourgeois tourist wants them to enjoy. If the poor are unhappy, it ruins the tour as well as the image of the spiritual East...Capitalism and New Age orientalism embrace each other."
"'As an Asian or African,' an Iranian intellectual complained, 'I am supposed to preserve my manners, culture, music, religion and so forth untouched, like an unearthed relic, so that the gentlemen can find and excavate them, so they can display them in a museum and say, 'Yes, another example of primitive life.' Desi schoolchildren encounter this 'encyclopedic' notion of culture, as an inert set of artifacts that can be saved and preserved, when their teachers ask them to wear 'Indian clothes' to school as part of show-and-tell. Consumerism seems to be the main drive for this kind of multiculturalism, with all that is seen as 'fun' adopted while all that is deemed to be 'fundamentalist' is abjured. The hijab and falafel are welcome, but the 'Arab-type' is to be feared. 'There is difference and there is power,' June Jordan noted, 'and who holds power shall decide the meaning of difference.'"
"The divide between 'India' and 'America' makes dissent impossible if youth want to retain their desiness. Can one be a desi rebel and transform family life as a desi? In the end [after much soul searching] you realize that you are neither Indian nor American,' says Vindu Goel, 'you are simply yoursself, an amalgam of cultural contradictions.'"
"The desire to posit some kind of high culture before the eyes of white supremacy is nothing new for desi peoples in diaspora....There is also something pathetic in this tendency to celebrate only those who succeed in terms set by white supremacy. Only if desis appear in the New York Times or on CNN do we consider them admirable...To take pride in these figures is a hallmark of the desire to say to someone, 'I am worthy, I am worthy, respect me.' Those who are successes in other value frameworks but are not so recognized rarely find themselves felicitated or held up as role models for the children."
"The state may want to be impartial and may indeed see itself as impartial, but it cannot be impartial if the social relations that found it are partial. Its actions must impact upon the partiality of civil society, so that its laws cannot be 'color-blind,' 'gender-blind,' or 'class-blind.' To act upon inequality with equality is to allow unequalness to persist."
"More must be written about these groups [Southall Black Sisters, Center for Third World Organizing groups], which are drawing in young desis and training them to fight for social justice rather than for narrow identity interests (which, as the model minority stereotype shows, often leads to antiblack politics)."
The Karma of Brown Folk announces itself as a response to WEB Dubois’s classic The Souls of Black Folk . If DuBois examined the psychological implications of material conditions that named Black Americans a “problem,” Prashad examines the psychological implications of material conditions that render South Asians as a “solution.” He contends that South Asians are used as a “weapon” against the Black community. The capital wealth and skills of post-1965 immigrants are employed as an implicit indictment of Black poverty. The first part of the book examines the image of South Asians through American history from Thoreau to New Age Orientalism. The author pays particular attention to the ways in which U.S. traditions of Orientalism can be seen as separate or distinct from European traditions. The second part of the book presents itself as a cultural intervention. It proclaims South Asian identity as revolutionary and critiques the image of Desi-ness as socially conservative. "The construction of the desi as essentially docile ignores the deep roots of radicalism, both in the subcontinental past and in the United States" (186). Throughout both sections the material conditions that frame and shape cultural contradictions are highlighted. The book celebrates the possibilities for resistance in the South Asian community in the US as well as the potential for cross-racial solidarity in struggles for justice: "Solidarity is a desire, a promise, an aspiration. It speaks to our wish for a kind of unity, one hat does not exist now but that we want to produce" (197). This is to say that in its final pages the book considers contemporary struggles (taxi drivers in NYC) as a "pedagogy of hope" (203).
The book starts off by setting up a problematic framework in the first chapter: American orientalism is qualitatively different from European orientalism. The problem is the book never comes close to proving it. Hence, the rest of the book just devolves into anecdotes and polemics masquerading as analysis. There is even a chapter where personal jealousies are used as an explanation of socio-cultural phenomenon.
I've got a big old intellectual crush on Vijay Prashad; I've read (skimmed) both Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting and The Darker Nations, both for my thesis. This book is a response to DuBois's 'Souls of Black Folks', an exploration of the racial identity and historical role of South Asian Americans. Some of his arguments I have trouble following, but as a whole (so far) this book is totally kickass, and incredibly informative.