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.


Van­dana Pawa

Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2015

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