American Orientalism

American Orientalism

From the late nineteenth century to our post-9/11 era, Americans have imagined South Asians simultaneously as exotic and barbaric, magical and menacing—to the detriment of those immigrants who are already most vulnerable.

Poster for 1914 Barnum & Bailey circus (John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art Tibbals Collection)

One day in early October 2001, three weeks after the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Ansar Mahmood was out delivering pizzas in the town where he lived and worked in the Hudson River Valley, north of New York City. Mahmood was a green-card-holding immigrant from Pakistan. He had recently written to his sister back home about how beautiful the valley was, and he wanted to send her a picture. That day, as the sun began to set, he pulled over at a scenic spot and asked two men who were nearby to take a picture of him against the backdrop of the serene river and colorful fall foliage. In an interview with author and activist Irum Shiekh, Mahmood remembered receiving a call from his boss soon afterward; police were at the pizzeria and wanted to speak to him. Unknown to Mahmood, the area where he had earlier taken a photo was close to a water treatment plant. Someone had called the police to report that a suspicious-looking man had been there, taking photos of the plant. Mahmood would spend most of the next three and a half years incarcerated in detention centers with other South Asian and Muslim men, and in and out of courts fighting for his release. While authorities found no evidence to support terrorism charges against Mahmood, they prosecuted him for helping two friends from Pakistan, who—again, unknown to him—had stayed in the United States after their visas expired.

Ansar Mahmood was one of countless Sikh, Muslim, and “Muslim-looking” immigrants and citizens who bore the weight of the backlash that unfolded across the United States following the 9/11 attacks. In schools, Muslim and South Asian American children and youth were harassed and bullied. The FBI and local police agencies put an unknown number of Muslim Americans under surveillance, monitoring email and phone communications and social media activity, and infiltrated Muslim communities and places of worship. Thousands of men and women who were deemed “suspicious” by authorities or citizens or who were found to have minor immigration infractions were arrested, detained, and deported. Others, such as Balbir Singh Sodhi, Waqar Hasan, Vasudev Patel, and Sukhvir Singh were murdered by self-styled “patriots” in the gas stations or convenience stores where they worked. In the American media, images of Muslim terrorists—including, increasingly, men and women from Pakistan—multiplied: in Hollywood films, on television, on the news, in popular video games, and in the rhetoric of anti-Muslim commentators and politicians.

In March 2004, as Ansar Mahmood sat in a federal penitentiary in upstate New York awaiting “deportation for life” back to Pakistan, Newsweek published an article entitled “American Masala.” The piece was prompted by the arrival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lavish, Bollywood-inspired musical Bombay Dreams on Broadway. Newsweek declared that “[t]he timing couldn’t be better,” asserting that the musical, “which tells the story of a young man from the slums who rises to film stardom,” was “an apt metaphor for the growing visibility of a new generation of South Asians in the United States . . . who are making their mark everywhere from Hollywood to Wall Street.” The article cited South Asian American bankers, politicians, CEOs and entertainment executives, alongside authors, actors, and film directors. It pointed to the high profile of South Asians in Silicon Valley and the most elite U.S. colleges and universities, and noted that the median income of an Indian American family was 65 percent above the national average. While briefly acknowledging that this did not tell the entire South Asian American story, the article was upbeat as it pointed to “chai at Starbucks,” Punjabi bhangra music on HBO’s The Sopranos, South Asian fashions “at Barney’s in Beverley Hills,” and “yoga studios on every corner.”

A week later, Time Out New York published a first-of-its-kind South Asian-themed special issue, also prompted by the opening of Bombay Dreams. Time Out presented a larger and more varied group of South Asian American musicians, artists, and writers than Newsweek and explicitly mentioned the post–9/11 backlash that some members of the community were experiencing. Still, the glitter and excitement of Bollywood seemed to overwhelm the issue’s portrait of “South Asian New York.” The colorful cover of Time Out featured Bombay Dreams’ two female leads in bouffant hairdos, bindis, and flapper-style mini dresses next to the bold heading: “Spice Girls.”

The contrast was stark. One group of South Asians had become objects of fear and derision and targets of immigration enforcement and extra-legal violence. Another group of South Asians was being heralded for their social, economic, and cultural contributions to the United States. The aftermath of 9/11 had brought into relief a deep set of divisions within the South Asian American community. In some ways, these years called into question the very utility of “South Asian” as an identity marking the common experiences of Americans with roots in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka­. These were nations that shared colonial histories as different parts of British India and Ceylon, but they were now divided by military, religious, and ethnic conflicts on the subcontinent, and their diasporic communities had significantly different levels of power, income, and influence in the United States.

Initially, South Asian Americans of every class, nationality, and religious background seemed to share equally the fears and dangers of the post–9/11 backlash—of government profiling and individual acts of violence. This is a moment historian Vijay Prashad has recently described as “the day our probation ended.” But by 2004, divisions began to emerge—between Indians on one side and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis on the other; Hindus on one side and Muslims and Sikhs on the other; established, middle- and upper-class immigrants on one side and recent, working-class immigrants on the other. These divides occurred in part because some South Asians actively sought to distinguish and distance themselves from others. But at a deeper level, the divisions were the result of U.S. government policies that singled out specific South Asian groups (such as the NSEERS program, which required the registration of male noncitizens from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan), and by the onslaught of media that demonized men with beards and turbans and women with hijabs. By the time Bombay Dreams opened, the complexities that lay beneath the surface of “South Asian” identity were flattened into a powerful binary; South Asian Americans were either model minorities or national threats.

But this was not merely a post–9/11 phenomenon. In fact, the division between the feared and the desired, the denigrated and the celebrated, has been a defining feature of South Asian racialization in the United States for over one hundred years. Since the late nineteenth century when travelers and migrants first began arriving in significant numbers from British India, Americans have imagined South Asians simultaneously as exotic and barbaric, as magical and menacing, as beneficial and perilous. And for decades, federal immigration laws and popular culture have worked together to make these distinctions, to distinguish desirable from undesirable South Asians.

The negative impact of these distinctions is not shared evenly. Today, such differentiations have their greatest effect on those who are already most vulnerable—most surveilled and policed—in our communities: the poor and the working class, recent and undocumented immigrants, women with dependent immigration status, Muslim and Sikh women and men. In the thirteen years since 9/11, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and acts of anti-South Asian, anti-Sikh, and anti-Muslim violence have remained consistently high, and they show little sign of abating. Given such stakes, it is important that we understand the longer history of denigration and celebration—of phobias and philias—that has defined the experiences of South Asians in the United States.

Fear and Exclusion

On an early September night in 1907, fifteen hundred white lumber mill workers set off on a rampage against Indian immigrants in the coastal town of Bellingham, Washington. The Indians, also mill workers, were predominantly from Punjab; most were turbaned Sikh men. The rioters saw the Indians as aliens, outsiders, and racial inferiors who were taking away American jobs, jobs that should go to white men. As they made their way across Bellingham, the mob, according to historian Joan Jensen,

swept down to the waterfront . . . where many of the Indians lived. Battering down the doors, the mob . . . pocketed money and jewelry, and dragged Indians from their beds . . . Those who did not move fast enough were beaten . . . Fifty men stormed the surrounding mills, pulled Indians from their bunks and began to burn the bunkhouses.

By the end of the night, two hundred Indian men, beaten and bruised, had been rounded up like cattle into Bellingham’s City Hall. Over the next days, most of the Indians chose to leave Bellingham, and the United States, in search of work in British Columbia. Local white residents cheered as their train rolled out of the station.

An article from the September 16, 1906 Puget Sound American describing recent “Hindu” immigration to Bellingham, Washington. Courtesy of the South Asian American Digital Archive.

It is not well known among Americans today that immigrants from British colonial “India”—that is, from present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—were entering the United States alongside the Irish, Italians, Greeks, Germans, Poles, Russians, and other Europeans during the “golden age” of immigration between the 1890s and 1920s. It is also not well known that, though their numbers were small, these Indian or “Hindu” migrants (“Hindu” being a racial term applied to all South Asians) figured prominently in the public outcry for restrictions on immigration. Members and supporters of the West Coast-based Asiatic Exclusion League were the first to promote the idea that a nefarious horde of “Hindus” was about to swamp the United States. But their discourse became national in scope, and came to include claims that thousands of Indian and Chinese seamen (the former, primarily Muslims from present-day Bangladesh) were jumping ship, smuggling drugs, and engaging in human trafficking through northeastern ports. In the opening decades of the twentieth century, in newspapers, public speeches, and congressional testimony, Indian immigrants were portrayed as a looming threat to the United States. Alongside other Asian laborers, Indians were viewed in much the same way that immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Haiti, and elsewhere south of the U.S. border have been in recent years.

At the same time, as historian Seema Sohi has argued, Indians occupied a unique place in the broader anti-Asian rhetoric of the early twentieth century. Because Indian nationalist exiles had been using what they believed to be the safety of U.S. soil to plan and coordinate anti-colonial activities against the British, they became a focus of the state’s broad efforts to quell political radicalism in the 1910s. While West Coast labor leaders warned of a “Tide of Turbans” sweeping in from the Pacific to take away American workers’ jobs, congressional advocates for exclusion warned that Indian immigrants were promoting subversion, Bolshevism, and anarchism, and were a threat to national security. In 1917 British, Canadian, and U.S. officials collaborated to round up dozens of Indian men for conspiring to smuggle arms through the United States to overthrow British rule on the subcontinent. Their San Francisco trial was not only front-page news across the country but became the most expensive federal trial up to that point in American history.

The anti-Indian agitation that began with the 1907 Bellingham riots came to a kind of culmination by 1917. In early February—a month before the first arrests in the “Hindu-German Conspiracy” case—Congress passed a sweeping Immigration Act. The Act capped off thirty-five years of increasingly restrictive anti-Asian immigration laws that had begun with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The 1917 law’s key provision broadened the scope of exclusion; it prohibited all labor immigration from what it defined as the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” a huge swath of territory that stretched from Afghanistan and the eastern Arabian peninsula in the West to China and the Southeast Asian archipelago in the East. While immigration had become more and more difficult for Indian workers in preceding years, crossing the U.S. border was now a criminal act. Indians who were already in the country faced other restrictions: laws forbidding them from owning property and, in 1923, a Supreme Court decision that rendered them ineligible from becoming U.S. citizens. The early twentieth century is often trumpeted as the moment in which the United States truly became a “nation of immigrants.” For the vast majority of people from what is now known as South Asia, it was the moment in which the United States became a nation of immigrant exclusion.

“Incredible India”

What is striking about the events described above is that they unfolded amid what was also the first widespread American fashion for goods, entertainment, and spirituality from India and “the Orient.” In recent years, scholars such as Kristin Hoganson, Holly Edwards, and John K.W. Tchen have given us a rich portrait of this era. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Orientalist ideas about a mysterious, mystical, and alluring East—ideas for the most part rooted in the art, literature, and material spoils of European colonial encounters—had traveled across the Atlantic, circulating among the United States’ political, economic, and cultural elites. Following their counterparts in London and Paris, the upper classes of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago outfitted their homes with porcelain from China and Japan; textiles, embroidery, and brass work from India; and rugs from Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

Then, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, “Oriental goods” and the ideas, images, and desires they evoked, spread across class lines and to every corner of the country. The United States was rapidly transforming into a nation of factories and department stores, of consumerism and entertainment spectacles. Working- and middle-class Americans not only had more disposable income than ever before, but, in the words of cultural historian William Leach, they were now surrounded by “a new powerful universe of consumer enticements.”

There was something about Western fantasies of India and “the East” that thrived in this new mass consumer culture. American marketers could use ideas and images of “India”—largely blurred together with the Middle East and North Africa—to make their goods and entertainments more alluring. Consuming goods, reading stories, watching performances, and witnessing “natives” from “the East” gave ordinary Americans access to something that was simultaneously exotic and sophisticated. Silks, perfumes, rugs, and hookahs, along with yoga, mystic philosophies, and tales of far off colonies, deserts, and jungles, all connected Americans to a world they imagined as adventurous, magical, spiritual, free from constraints, and ripe with possibility for refashioning themselves and their relation to the world.

At the same time, it cannot have been a coincidence that Americans were drawn to the British colonial experience in India at this very moment—when, after completing its colonial expansion across North America and taking control of new territories in the Spanish American War, the United States had become a rising global power in its own right. There was, in other words, something else significant about the idea of “India.” Britain’s rule over India—and all the goods, images, and “knowledge” it implied—symbolized imperial power itself. For Americans, to own the goods and consume the stories associated with British colonial rule on the subcontinent gave them a sense of their own increasing imperial knowledge and power.

At the turn of the twentieth century, “India” seemed to be everywhere in U.S. consumer culture. One of the earliest Orientalist fantasy images to enter into American mass culture was that of a maharajah, sultan, or amir smoking a hookah, surrounded by dancing harem girls. Earlier in the nineteenth century, this image had been the subject of British, French, and American Orientalist paintings. By the turn of the twentieth century, scenes of Oriental harems and palaces turned up in advertisements, on picture postcards, and on the covers of Tin Pan Alley sheet music. The sexualized figure of the Eastern dancing girl appeared in spaces of high and low culture alike. The dancer “Little Egypt” became a national sensation after performing at the Chicago World’s Fair. Isadora Duncan performed her adaptation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam barefoot and in flowing robes for the elite women of Newport, Rhode Island. Ruth St. Denis danced in Indian “nautch” style, in a sari and gold jewelry on a Broadway stage, while “Oriental dancers” of various backgrounds performed in the nation’s brothels and burlesques.

In the meantime, in what Edwards has described as “the most sustained campaign to capitalize on oriental motifs,” American tobacco companies made the imagery of harems, hookahs, and palaces central to the marketing of a wide range of their products: Mecca, Camel, Fatima, Omar, and Mogul cigarettes, Hindoo pipe tobacco, Royal Bengal cigars. One 1915 advertisement for Mogul Cigarettes showed the silhouette of a cigarette-smoking, turbaned Mughal emperor, reposing on a pillow under the Saracen arches of his palace as he watches a curvaceous dancing girl; nearby, two musicians play, an attendant waves a fan above him, a servant approaches with a steaming teapot (drawn to evoke Aladdin’s magic lamp), and a male guard stands by, wielding a scimitar-shaped sword. The popularity of such imagery among American men suggests a kind of imperial envy; a fantasy in which they could step into the imagined world of the British empire, supplant the maharajahs and amirs of that world, and take possession of their riches as well as their sexually adventurous, compliant young “nautch girls.”

The same fantasy world connected American women to a different sexual imaginary. Middle-class white women encountered notions of Oriental princes, palaces, and harems in the rapidly expanding realm of popular fashion and home décor. As elite suffragists challenged political exclusion and the varied confines and restrictions of Victorian womanhood, U.S. women’s magazines and department stores marketed—and middle-class women increasingly bought—the ornate flowing silks and cottons, perfumes and interior furnishings associated with “nautch” dancers, harem “maidens” and their imagined worlds. As Hoganson, Gina Marchetti and others have argued, wearing and displaying Eastern fabrics, jewelry, and decorative items became ways for the American “new woman” to stake a claim to independence, sophistication, and ultimately, a liberated, post-Victorian sexuality.

If turn-of-the-century Americans were drawn to the sensuality of the harem, they were equally drawn to the spirituality of yoga and Hindu philosophy. The most prominent emissaries of Hindu thought from this period were the Vedantist Swamis Vivekananda and Abhedananda, whose lectures in the United States were widely covered in the press as they themselves filled public halls from New York to San Francisco. Today the Vedantists are most well-remembered for the following they developed among urban elites, but Vedantism perhaps had its greatest impact in other social realms. In 1898 a local Nebraskan paper that printed one of Abhedananda’s lectures described him as a bearer of ancient occult powers and presented his lecture as a rare revelation of the “secrets” and “marvelous psychic powers” of “Hindu sages.” It was in this vein—as a corpus of ancient Hindu secrets that promised self-improvement, self-empowerment, and occult power—that Vedantism spread widely across the U.S. popular consciousness.

This was in no small measure due to the efforts of William Walker Atkinson, a former lawyer from Chicago who founded a mail-order book business, the Yogi Publication Society. Under a series of “Indian” pseudonyms—Yogi Ramacharaka, Swami Panchadasi, Swami Bhakta Vishita—Atkinson wrote and sold an astonishing number of books on “Yogi Science” and “Oriental Occultism.” Atkinson appears to have operated like a one-man production line, taking the books and lectures of the Vedantists, reworking them to appeal to the desires and sensibilities of the American mass market, and then branding them with “East Indian” names for authenticity.

In this process, Atkinson often turned Vedantist ideas on their heads, presenting them as principles for achieving the most worldly of goals. In one text, for example, Atkinson (as Ramacharaka) explains a key idea of karma yoga—selfless work toward the betterment of the world—by citing an American “captain of industry” who declared “I cannot help but feeling . . . that the things I do are done for some other people, possibly the race . . . I get no special pleasure from my money, although I feel a keen interest in the game of making it.” Atkinson’s approach provided a blueprint for any number of Americans, up to the New Age and yoga entrepreneurs of the present day, who have sold South Asian philosophical and religious ideas as avenues to individual power and success. In this sense, Atkinson differed little from the American tobacco companies of his era—he too turned notions of an exotic “East” into profit in the West.

It was through circuses and exhibitions, however, that fantasies of India appear to have reached the widest audience and reaped the greatest returns. In many ways, “Oriental” empires in the Western imagination—with their lavish displays of wealth and color, their air of the magical and the mystical—were tailor-made for turn-of-the-century American showmen, who sought to draw in audiences and outdo competitors with their offerings of dazzle, wonder, and pageantry. Between the 1890s and 1910s, Indian and “Oriental” themes, stories, and visual tableaux multiplied across the many forms of American mass entertainment, from New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parades, to Coney Island, to Barnum & Bailey’s circuses and the Wild West shows of Buffalo and Pawnee Bill.

According to curator and historian Jennifer Lemmer Posey, during this era American circuses began to open each performance by staging a large-scale themed procession. These spectacles often centered on the world’s great empires, and “Oriental” and British colonial themes became some of the most common. Barnum & Bailey staged Oriental India in 1896, The Mahdi, or for the Victoria Cross in 1897, and The Wizard Prince of Arabia, an “Indo-Arabic Spectacle,” in 1914. The poster for the latter was bright and lavish, featuring elephants, camels, musicians, dancing women, and bearded, turbaned men stretching to the horizon. Bold headlines promised audiences “1250 Actors and Actresses, 300 Dancing Girls . . . and 250 Singers in Weird Oriental Choruses.” Audiences in every corner of the United States were drawn to such spectacles; for most Americans, these were probably the most immediate encounters with “India” and “Indians” that they had ever had.

Desirable and Undesirable Brownness

Between 1904 and 1917, while working-class and expatriate Indians were targeted in acts of xenophobic violence, denounced as economic and political threats and marked for exclusion, white Americans continued to fantasize about exotic “India,” which provided a seemingly endless supply of material for consumption. However, then as now, xenophobia and Indophilia were not simply contradictory attitudes that played out in two separate social spheres—that is, South Asians were not simply denigrated in political debates over immigration restriction while they were simultaneously celebrated in popular culture. Instead, each sphere generated its own set of distinctions between who was desirable and who was not, and each set of distinctions reinforced the other.

The anti-Asian immigration laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are commonly known as “exclusion acts” and the years that they were in effect as the “exclusion era.” However, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1885 Alien Contract Labor Law, and the 1917 Immigration Act were never straightforward acts of Asian exclusion, nor was the 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration Act—the law that is credited with ending the exclusion era—an act that fully “opened the door” to Asian immigration. All four of these Acts—in effect and in intent—helped define who within Asian populations was welcome and who was not.

In crafting the restrictions of the 1882, 1885, and 1917 Acts, U.S. lawmakers delineated specific categories of Asians who were, in fact, legally permitted to enter the United States, to be educated here, and to work. These “provisos” that were tacked onto the exclusion laws, in different combinations and at different times, permitted entry of: merchants, students, the servants of traveling royalty and foreign government officials, “professional actors, artists, lecturers, or singers,” workers with specialized skills not available in the United States, “government officers, ministers . . . missionaries, lawyers, physicians, chemists, civil engineers, . . . authors,” as well as nurses and “persons belonging to any recognized learned profession.” Although the number of South Asian immigrants entering under these exemptions was small, the so-called exclusion laws introduced a logic that certain South Asians were admissible—or desirable—because of their class, education, and profession. This was ultimately the logic enshrined in the “occupational preferences” provisions of the 1965 Immigration Act; the legislation brought thousands of South Asian doctors, engineers, and other professionals to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, while keeping working-class migration to a minimum.

In mass culture, distinctions between the desirable and undesirable South Asian largely came in the form of specific “positive” and “negative” representations; if the prince or swami was an object of fascination and even admiration, the laborer, servant or “lascar” seaman was an object of ridicule (a heavily accented, solicitous buffoon) or inspired suspicion and fear. These images were plentiful, for example, in turn-of-the-century news stories describing the Muslim ship workers from the subcontinent who were a growing presence in U.S. ports. A 1910 article in the Los Angeles Times was typical; the writer described the ship’s Punjabi engine crew as “both striking and mysterious. They [have] hooked noses and piercing black eyes that seem to stab you to the backbone when they turn to look you over.” In other media, including adventure stories in popular magazines and early silent films, the same maharajahs and amirs whose images were used to sell tobacco were presented as villainous enslavers of white women, while the same Oriental dancing girls who were objects of desire for American men were portrayed as devious and ready to ensnare them.

The fact that such racial representations could be slippery, contradictory, and malleable is perhaps unsurprising. But the images of East Indians that circulated in turn-of-the-century mass culture set up another, more significant distinction—not between the (desirable) wise swami and the (undesirable) malicious lascar, but between the (desirable) imaginary Indian and the (undesirable) Indian immigrant. To put it differently: in the realm of culture, Indians were desirable to the extent that they lived up to American expectations of India. The fantasies became the standard up to which real people were held.

Dance historian Priya Srinivasan provides a case in point in her account of the first performance by a troupe of actual Indian “nautch” dancers in New York City. Before the troupe arrived in 1880, any number of images of Eastern dancing girls had been produced by Western writers, painters, performers, and advertisers—usually slim, fair-skinned women in sheer, flowing fabrics. When American audiences were faced with the difference between these imagined “Oriental maidens” and real Indian women performing on a New York stage, the Indian women were swiftly denigrated and dismissed. “[A]udiences were shocked by the color of the dancers’ skin,” and disappointed by their “lack of eroticism.” One reviewer described the troupe’s dances as “exceedingly grotesque,” while another asserted that “the order of intellectual development to which they belong is apparently not high.”

Acceptability Politics

As Srinivasan argues, American Orientalism is too often seen as a “positive” set of ideas about “the East” that, while shallow and stereotypical, does little damage beyond justifying Western appropriation of Eastern “cultures.” White Americans’ embrace of yoga, bindis, belly dancing, and henna “tattoos,” or their celebration of immigrant “success” (praising South Asians for being naturally smart, spiritual, or hard-working) is seen, in other words, as a kind of “benign” racism. But Orientalism is a double-edged set of ideas, standards, and expectations. In the realms of both immigration law and popular culture, the desired and the denigrated have always been inextricably linked; they are defined in relation to one another, with a line drawn between them. If South Asian Americans cannot prove that we belong on one side of the line, then we fall on the other.

Today, “desirable” South Asian Americans are defined in much the same way as they were at the turn of the twentieth century. Those who are most celebrated (in mainstream venues as well as community-based media) look almost identical to those who were singled out for admission to the United States a century ago when the majority was excluded: the “actors, artists, lecturers, singers, lawyers, physicians, civil engineers, authors” who were allowed entry by the “provisos” of the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone Act. At the same time, South Asians who can provide white Americans with access to the East of their imaginings—the self-help gurus who bestow ancient wisdom, the chefs who reveal the secrets of spice, the performers who give their audiences a taste of the exotic, or the ethnic organizations whose colorful yearly parades add to the multicultural mix of America—are lauded, too.

In many ways, today’s “undesirable” South Asians are also defined in terms similar to those of a hundred years ago. Like Ansar Mahmood and the workers of Bellingham, those who bore the brunt of special registrations, FBI raids, detentions, and deportations in the years since 9/11, and those most targeted in acts of xenophobic violence, have been recent working-class immigrants—taxi drivers, convenience store clerks, shop workers, gas station attendants—and those who displayed outward markers of their ethnicity and faith. What we now know as the “Islamophobia industry”—the commentators, politicians, church and white supremacist groups, and the think tanks and policy organizations that produce a constant flow of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric—functions much as the Asiatic Exclusion League once did; they trade in the same sorts of fear-mongering and violence.

Yet, we live in a different time. The United States no longer receives its notions about South Asia and “the East” second-hand from imperial Britain. The U.S. military is engaged in its own imperial pursuits stretching from Iraq and Yemen to Afghanistan and Pakistan, while record numbers of Americans travel to India and Nepal each year as spiritual and “wellness” tourists. These entanglements supply Americans with a steady stream of images of a simultaneously threatening and exotic twenty-first century “Orient.” At home, the power and resources of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant groups continue to grow, as does the consumption of “Eastern” cultural commodities by average Americans. Meanwhile, South Asian, Arab, and immigrant Muslim Americans now number in the millions in this country, and as wars and other conflicts rage in our countries of origin, we face the fallout on our doorsteps.

Since 9/11, in other words, the dividing line between the celebrated and the denigrated has sharpened, and the stakes of being on one side or the other, heightened. But South Asian American history shows us that it is not enough merely to prove that we belong on the “acceptable” side of the dividing line. Such an approach does nothing more than strengthen the racial ideas that have defined and limited us as a group since the early 1900s. If we value justice more than mere assimilation, we must join the growing number of immigrant rights, African American, Sikh, and Muslim American activists and critics, who are no longer focused on moving our communities from unacceptable to acceptable, but are instead challenging the terms of our acceptability.


Vivek Bald is a scholar and filmmaker whose work focuses on histories of South Asian migration and diaspora. He is editor, with Miabi Chatterji, Sujani Reddy, and Manu Vimalassery, of the collection The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of US Power and author of Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America and is currently working on his second book, The Rise and Fall of ‘Prince’ Ranji Smile: Fantasies of India at the Dawn of the American Century. He teaches media studies and writing at MIT.


Seven Coffee Roasters [Advertisement]