Saira Rao is an exemplar of her generation, a famous and somewhat notorious Indian-American woman among the ‘very online’ set. An erstwhile Democratic politician two years ago, by the start of the year Rao had become an anti-racist activist best known for regularly trending on Twitter and charging white women $2,500 to harangue them on matters of race over dinner and drinks. Rao is also co-author of the forthcoming White Women: Everything You Already Know about Your Own Racism and How to Get Better, after securing a deal with major publishing house Penguin Random House.
She is very good at what she does. But, then, making money runs in Rao’s family — as it does with many Indian activists in the United States, who have become leaders in the battle against ‘white supremacy’.
Though it is true that in many ways Rao is atypical, and almost a caricature of the sort of activist found on social media, she reflects important visible strands of the Indian-American experience. The daughter of upper-caste southern Indian immigrants to the United States, her parents were doctors, which is not exceptional since nearly one out of every 20 doctors in the United States is of Indian origin, and somewhere in the region of one in 20 Indian Americans has a medical degree.
Not surprisingly, the median Indian-American household income is nearly twice that of white Americans, and as well as medicine many others are in prestigious, highly-paid industry — including Sara Rao’s husband, who works in finance and private equity.
Across the English-speaking world, and in particular the United States, people of Indian origin, and South Asians more broadly, are becoming more culturally influential. This is quite a turnaround; in the 1980s the most prominent person of South Asian origin depicted in American pop culture was Ben Jabituya in the Short Circuit sequel, played by Fisher Stevens, a white actor. Today, in contrast, there is an embarrassment of riches: comedians such as Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling; politicians such as Kamala Harris and Nikki Haley; television doctors such as Sanjay Gupta.
Though there are many examples of Indian Americans on the political Right, namely Haley, Ajit Pai or Seema Verma in the Trump administration, most of the public figures today are Democrats. Pramila Jayapal is a hard-left member of the Democratic Party representing a district in Washington state; though her colleague Ro Khanna represents Silicon Valley, and began his career as a member of the pro-business faction of the party, he also co-chaired Bernie Sanders’s recent campaign for President; Sanders’s campaign manager was Faiz Shakir, a Pakistani-American. Indian-American adjacent, as it were.
The Center for American Progress, the major Democrat-leaning think-tank in Washington, D.C., is led by an Indian-American, Neera Tanden, while Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s long-time influential chief of staff was Saikat Chakrabarti, who left to head Left-wing pressure groups in the party.
This lopsided representation among political elites is reflected in voting patterns: in 2016 just 16% of Indian-Americans voted for Donald Trump, even though they are on average economically advanced and have high educational attainment. In the private sector, and unlike East Asians, people of South Asian origin are not underrepresented in managerial positions.
There is a reason that many are wont to call Indians the “new Jews,” a culturally prominent ethnic group overrepresented in academia, media and business, and who tend to be socially liberal and Democrat-voting.
This liberalism extends to attitudes on race. Bracketed as “Asians,” Indian-Americans are subject to the same discrimination in selective higher education as other Asians, but on the whole have not led opposition to the practice — which is largely the result of attempts to increase African-American representation on campus.
Black Americans have a very distinctive identity on the US landscape, as do Native Americans. Though the Latino/Hispanic category was only created in 1970, it alludes to a sharply delimited group of people with origins in Central and South America. But as brown-skinned people who are Asian-Americans, Indians occupy a grey zone in America’s racial taxonomy, categorised in the same bracket as Chinese, Koreans and Japanese. This has often led to some perverse scenarios within the country’s complex racial politics and its hierarchy of oppression.
Saira Rao grew up in wealthy Richmond, Virginia, and went to the elite University of Virginia, then New York University law school, and even wrote a novel published in 2007 while she was clerking for a judge. By all rights, she is the child of modest privilege, with little to distinguish her from her upper-middle-class peers.
But Rao, like many Indian-Americans, is also a scion of centuries of privilege in India. Private survey research indicates that 25% of Indian-Americans are Brahmin, the highest caste in Hindu society — who comprise less than 5% of people back at home. Virtually no Indian-Americans are Dalits, who in India are 15% of the population, and today receive affirmative action due to centuries of oppression.
Compared to class differences in western countries, caste barriers in India are enormous and ingrained, and genetic studies indicate that they go back 1,500 years. To the Indian-American upper-middle-class privilege is bestowed as a family heirloom, far older and more ingrained than the white variety.
But in 21st-century America we do not talk much about class. We talk about race. When “black and brown” is used as an incantation it is not surprising that many young Indians are attracted to the idea that they, too, are among the wretched of the earth.
So you see young people of a bronze shade with names such as Iyer, Mukherjee and Tripathi, claiming for themselves the centuries of oppression and trauma of others, American history adopted and co-opted. They decry white supremacy which confirmed upon their ancestors’ their ancient ritual purity during the colonial period — for the forefathers of these Iyers, Mukherjees and Tripathis were the rural landowners of British India; they were the Indians who manned the colonial civil service. But before that, their privileges went back centuries, long before the United States existed and indeed even before England or France emerged.
American history is unique, and its own “caste system” is racially inflected into a bipolar framework: black or white. Only in the past few decades have terms such as “people of colour” allowed for the assimilation of other minorities, whether it be Latino, Native American or Asian. But while black Americans have a particular history, other minorities are diverse in their experiences. What does an Asian-American child of Hmong refugees have in common with the Asian-American child of Indian doctors? And yet both grow up in a world defined by slavery, the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Young Indian-Americans can easily identify themselves as people of colour, because in the American social landscape what matters is their brown complexion, not thousands of years of hereditary caste privilege. And while America has a rich textured vocabulary to talk about race, it has little in the way of discussion on the matter of class. Indian-American professionals can neglect their own privilege while highlighting their racial disadvantage because that is how the American cultural system is set up.
It is a system that benefits them on many levels, since as well-prepared meritocrats they are equipped and conditioned to optimise any advantages and arbitrage away inefficiencies. It is natural that the language of systemic racism designed for the black American experience can easily be leveraged by verbally-gifted members of the professional-managerial class who happen to have brown skin.
Saira Rao is a lawyer; her stock and trade are words. Though among Indian-Americans it is widely debated whether she is sincere or an opportunist, the fact is that an American system emphasising racial identity in a Manichaean conflict between whites and people of colour will naturally create strong incentives for some to exploit it.
Upper-caste Indian-Americans who descend from centuries of privilege, and grow up in American suburban comfort, do not need to face up to the consideration of class, because American culture as a whole does not engage economic inequality forthrightly and directly. As long as it focuses only on social ills with a racial origin, and sees the world in such black and white terms, then people with hundreds of years of privilege behind them will continue to lead the wretched of the earth.