Double Consciousness of the South Asian Identity

Every time I am asked “what are you” or “where are you from” I don’t really put much thought into it anymore. I have come to realize that my answer doesn’t really matter because regardless of what I tell you, I will continue to be what you want me to be—a manifestation of the image that you have been fed of my people, my culture, my history, no matter how twisted that image may be.

When I came across the concept of “double consciousness” coined by W.E.B. Du Bois, I found a connection in the way that I felt I was  perceived by others and the way that Du Bois explained this idea. In his 1903 work “The Souls of Black Folk” Du Bois defined his double consciousness as “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” He goes on further to apply this concept to what it meant to be Black in America by saying:

“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife–this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American.”

Double consciousness is the constant feeling of in between-ness and it is the feeling of straddling multiple borders at once. It is not knowing where your body fits in either place that you call home and not knowing how to respond to the way these homes will exploit you. Du Bois presented this term originally in the realm of being African American during the early 1900s, and the idea has grown into something that is applied to the experience of living in diasporic spaces as a whole, as well as the feeling of otherness. How can one be multiple identities at once? And how can one do so authentically when they are constantly seeing themselves through the eyes of those who exploit them?

White supremacy is the idea that whiteness is superior to other attributes and characteristics of a person’s identity. It serves as a construct that perpetuates the social, political, and economic oppression of all those who are not white. Whiteness has its own view of the other; as the global west has its own view of the global south and east. When I tell whiteness that my family is Indian, whiteness projects it’s own view of India onto me. When whiteness thinks of India, it sees colors thrown in the air, elephant gods, cows being worshipped on the street, Bollywood dances, and impoverished children living on the streets. When whiteness thinks of India, it thinks of “Eat, Pray, Love” and soul searching in the nostalgic backwardness of a third world country while trying to avoid food poisoning. When whiteness thinks of India, it dehumanizes Indians. Examples of these projected views can be found easily in popular culture—Major Lazer’s music video for “Lean On,” Iggy Azalea’s music video for “Bounce,” the entirety of the short-lived NBC sitcom “Outsourced,” and Coldplay’s music video for “Hymn for a Weekend.” When I see all of these modern representations of South Asia in the media I find myself wondering: how this is still the narrative? How is it that South Asia continues to be bastardized and depicted as a mystical dreamland sprinkled with slumdogs covered in colored powder that are existing only to be consumed by whiteness? The discussion surrounding these examples is often one of appropriation but it is important to go beyond that—this is an issue of colonization, Orientalism, and capitalism.

The relationship that colonizers had within South Asia can be seen as one that allowed them power and hegemony over the region. The legacy that colonialism left in South Asia is reminiscent of the way that the colonizers worked to ensure that whiteness could continue dominating and restructure the region in ways that benefited whiteness most. This is how the colonizer ruled over “the Orient,” a term often used in the context of Asia and the Middle East, meaning the East in relation to Europe. Historically, western discourse surrounding “the Orient” could be seen as parallel with the discourse surrounding the criminals, the “mentally insane,” and the impoverished of Europe. Because of this, over time usage of the word “oriental” to describe a person or group of people has been challenged greatly by Asian Americans due to it’s loaded history. “The Orient” has always been looked through instead of seen or understood and analyzed as a problem meant to be solved instead of as a region of diverse peoples. Westerners could always go back home and tell everyone just how stereotypically Oriental “the Orient” really was. Perhaps this history of Orientalism lends to the continued representation of South Asia as exotic and mystical.

The colonial legacy perpetuates structural violence of poverty, caste, and hindu supremacy that were created during British rule and these structures can still be clearly seen in South Asia today. 2013 Census data from India showed that over 65 million people were living in slums, which are defined by the survey as “residential areas where dwellings are unfit for human habitation because they are dilapidated, cramped, poorly ventilated, unclean, or any combination of these factors which are detrimental to the safety and health.” Many of the slums existing in India today were created because of forceful urbanization brought on by colonialism. The British colonial government expelled poor natives of colonial settlements and when these natives built their own settlements, the government invested nothing to the sanitation or infrastructure of these areas. These slums continue to exist because of the structures of class and caste from which the colonizers capitalized. Additionally, tens of thousands have been killed in South Asia due to Hindu-Muslim communal violence since the violent partition of India and Pakistan on a religious basis. This violence exists in the way that it does today due to the violent and polarizing policies put in place by colonizers. So when the west continues to be fascinated by India’s slums and poverty as well as Hindu iconography and traditions, it dehumanizes Brown bodies while perpetuating the violence that South Asia has faced for hundreds of years at the hand of Orientalists and colonizers.

When I am asked “what are you” or “where are you from” I know that my answer doesn’t matter and the reason for that is deeply rooted in the history of exploitation of Black and Brown bodies.  W.E.B. Du Bois explained through double consciousness what it means to be looked at as an “other” in your own home and be expected to perform the identity that is placed upon you by a white, western gaze. For years my Brownness existed in a way that was comfortable for those around me—it was an identity that I didn’t speak of until it was spoken to. I danced along to the Pussycat Dolls’ version of the song Jai Ho when everyone around me was suddenly into Bollywood. I chuckled along with the snide comments from my peers about getting an arranged marriage after returning from a winter break spent in India. I’m sure many of my Black and Brown peers living in the diaspora have felt forced to whitewash their own identities in similar ways. Though at this point in my life I have embraced my ethnic identity, I am still working hard to learn how to navigate living authentically in this Brown body without having my various identities working against me. The long history of exploitation makes it hard for me to believe that this space will become easier to navigate in the near future, but with generational shifts and continued personal reclamation of Black and Brown bodies I am hopeful that it will be one day. In the meantime, to the Major Lazers, Iggy Azaleas, and Coldplays of the world—South Asia is not your mystical dreamland. My people do not exist for your consumption.

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Vandana Pawa

Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2015

The Young Leaders Institute 2015 is sponsored by:

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