Yashoda with Krishna, Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906), Unknown Date, Current Location: Kowdiar Palace, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala

A Letter To Concerned Hindu Indian American Parents

February 29, 2020

Dearest concerned Hindu Indian American parent,

I hear stories of anguish that your American-born children have suddenly turned against you — worse, against Hinduism itself — after spending a semester or two in college. They are making stunning accusations about you and about Hinduism that leave you speechless. Afraid. Where did this come from? The colleges are corrupted, you commiserate with other Hindu parents; the South Asian studies and Indology departments are filled with professors peddling anti-Hindu half-truths. And, of course, all around us, every kind of media — social media, news media, entertainment media — proclaims horrible and degrading things about Hinduism to your neighbors and coworkers. Politicians and entertainers repeat these messages — that India has become a dangerous, Islamophobic place because of Hindu nationalism. All of these concerns and critiques are valid; these are realities we have to face (and battle) as Hindu Americans.

But you thought that because you had raised your children in Hindu homes, immersed in bhakti and itihasa, with weekly Bala Vihar classes and annual trips to India, that the sincerity of your offering would inoculate them from taking any of those lies seriously.

You never thought they would turn on Hinduism. On you.

You were wrong.

Perhaps you immigrated here from India to pursue your own studies, to follow career opportunities. Perhaps you had dreams of giving your children a world-class education. You were thrilled when your children succeeded academically and got into well-respected colleges. You had raised them with good values, steeped in Sanatana Dharma, and sent them off to pursue their higher education with a contented sigh. After all, what else does a parent want other than for their children to thrive?

But, dear Hindu Indian American parents, if you were not paying close attention, you might have missed some crucial details. I understand how easily that could happen, especially if you were not educated here. The American school is not simply committed to teaching skills and knowledge. From the start, the goal of American education has been to develop upstanding American citizens. A hundred years ago, that meant ridding (brown and black and Italian and Russian and Jewish ) immigrant children of any connection to their motherland; stripping indigenous children of their indigeneity; and pathologizing black children through “special education”.

“In 1903 a reporter, Adele Marie Shaw, visited twenty-five New York schools to see how the system was coping with its task of converting “a daily arriving city-full of Russians, Turks, Austro-Hungarians, Sicilians, Greeks, Arabs, into good Americans. ‘I chose New York City…,’ she wrote, ‘because New York’s problem is so difficult that once solved it would shed a calcium light upon the problems of other places.’ She witness an outward homogenization of ethnic newcomers. In a classroom near the Brooklyn Bridge built for twenty pupils she saw sixty-five children of many nationalities. When she first visited, two Cubans had just arrived in the class; they eagerly imitated the other children. ‘I saw the small class a few days later,’ she said ‘and the two were already melted into the rank and file and were losing the distinctly foreign look.’ Like the other children, they soon ‘begin to be ashamed of their beautiful Spanish name, and will revise its spelling in deference of their friends’ linguistic limitations.’” ( Tyack, D. B. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.)

Through the tireless efforts of educational activists, the ways in which the ideal American citizen is imagined has become far more inclusive and sophisticated.

The K-12 educations that your children received were perhaps in some of the “best” schools in the country. These schools where your children thrived, they were not just equipping them with numeracy and literacy, to eventually be highly-skilled, highly-sought after professionals. These modern, high-quality American schools were teaching them about enslavement and Jim Crowe and mass incarceration. Perhaps they learned about the school-to-prison pipeline. They were learning that this land is stolen land, taken from the indigenous people by lies and brute force by the U.S. government. They likely learned about the suffragist movement, issues with how the movement was represented; maybe, if they were at a really progressive school, they learned to critique white feminism, or why the Black Lives Matter movement is so profoundly brilliant and vital as a modern reinvention of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, this time in direct response to police brutality, and why it is important that it emerged from queer black female artists. Maybe they talked about the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese American Internment Camps during World War II. They learned how American meritocracy is a myth that perpetuates systemic inequity, and what it means to be anti-racist.

My children learned all of these things before they even started high school.

Your children may have learned from you what it meant to be a Hindu in America. But if the vision of Sanatana Dharma you offered them at home did not explicitly extend to your adopted nation (their birth nation), then they did not learn from you what it means to be a virtuous (and not just successful) Hindu American citizen.

When Hindu Indian American children go off to college, and end up despising their Hindu roots and making accusations at their parents, it is probably not just because their heads have suddenly been filled with half-truths. Ironically, it is also because they have a deep longing to be good people, to be virtuous members of society. You may critique constructions of “wokeness” until you are blue in the face (and you are probably correct), but it still holds that the motivation to be woke is the longing to be a good member of society. If their conceptualization of Sanatana Dharma is that it only means standing up for and preserving Hinduism and not that it also means doing what is right in (American) society for all people, they will naturally question it. If they don’t understand how it fits into (and doesn’t fit into) anti-oppressive theories and activism in the United States, they will likely end up gravitating towards organizations like Sadhana. These organizations seem like a response to their longing, but simply give Sanskrit names to Western critical theories and turn that gaze back on to Hindu society. (This is not to say that Hindu society does not need a thorough critical self-examination. More on that later.)

I say all of this with a great deal of respect. One of my first lessons as a new mother was to drop any judgements about other parents. I have no idea what it’s like to move across the world and raise your children in a system that you have not experienced yourself. I am raising third-generation Hindu Americans; I grew up here and have spent nearly two decades working in education. My father moved here in 1966, part of the first “brain drain” wave of immigration from India, during what is popularly recognized as the tail end the Civil Rights Movement. I understand that the subsequent waves of Hindu Indian immigrants entered a very different American zeitgeist. The Hindu American diaspora is complex, and I don’t pretend to be an expert or seek to be a diagnostician.

Let me be clear, I am not here to reprimand you or blame you for the phenomenon of ancestral detachment I described. The American educational system has a long history (and tendency) of sparking ancestral detachment, whether or not it is intended. My goal is to perhaps shed some light on how or where Hindu parents can interrupt that process. My hope is to simply offer a few illustrative observations and perhaps provoke some introspection. This is not an exhaustive analysis. That would be…well…exhausting.

Many Hindus are angry about the inappropriate and even manipulative application of Western lenses and analyses onto India and Hinduism. Some of us see how secularism, minority, and white feminism have been (intentionally) misapplied and weaponized against Hinduism and Hindus in India. While some Hindus simply snarl at the terms themselves, a sophisticated critical analysis of the Western gaze sits alongside the name-calling. Namely, these lenses are not universal and it is harmful to treat them as such. What gets lost in frustration, however, is that while these Western critical lenses are not universally valid, it is also harmful to discard them as completely invalid within their own contexts. In other words, these critical theories (e.g. feminism, critical race theory) are not universally valid or universally invalid. Particularly, if you are living in the West, it is incumbent upon you to understand the local historical contexts from which those relevant lenses emerged, especially if you want to critique and refine them in locally relevant ways. Moreover, if you don’t acknowledge that these concepts have a different (and important) local meaning in the West, and consider (and discard) them wholly because of their abusive relationship to Hinduism, to Americans, you will appear to (and may actively) be undermining and disparaging important discourse and action on local human and civil rights.

Similarly, it is important to recognize and incorporate the local conditions and contexts and histories that inform sociopolitical issues. A couple of illustrative examples.

Immigration. Indians become frustrated when Americans don’t sufficiently recognize and name the real security issues and threats in South Asia, even as they diagnose India as the problem. Similarly, if you are not familiar with America’s War on Drugs or her related interference with governments in Latin America, and how the US chronically creates political instability in the region forcing immigration to the United States, and you don’t incorporate those factors into your analysis of “illegal immigration” in the US, then you are guilty of the same mistake. Only, you live here, you’re not simply diagnosing it from a distance.

Affirmative action. Affirmative action in the United States is a) not the same thing as caste-based quotas in Indian schools and b) not taking spots away from more-deserving (Indian American) applicants and giving them to less- deserving ones on the basis of race. Affirmative action acknowledges that the playing field is not level, that it is systemically and structurally biased. Read on about model minority to understand this further.

I remember watching Ava Duvernay’s documentary, 13th, with my parents.

As soon as it ended, when it felt right to break the silence, my father’s first comment was, “I never knew. If I had known that I would be used to push other people down, I would never have come to this country.” I highly recommend watching 13th, if you haven’t already. And then watch it a few more times, maybe even with some of your Hindu friends. Don’t be satisfied until you have a deep understanding of how racial triangulation works.

Diagram explaining Claire Jean Kim’s theory of racial triangulation (Courtesy WikiCommons)

Model minority is not a compliment. It is not evidence that we (Hindu Americans) “belong” in the United States, or that we are well-assimilated, productive members of society. Remember that (Hindu) Indian Americans are literally an engineered population of professionals, curated by immigration laws. The construction of Asian Americans as model minority citizens came in the middle of the 20th century, as the optics of the Civil Rights Movement made America’s domestic racial discrimination policies impossible to ignore. Up until that time, Asian Americans were also subject to systemic discrimination, and were obviously advocating for themselves. The advancement of certain Asian American groups over other minority groups was not an intended outcome, but it did serve the ends of the racially dominant group. By allowing certain Asian Americans some success — it allowed White America to appear is if it was, indeed, a meritocracy. By parading the success of this select group of non-white people, it blamed the other minoritized groups for their lack of success, papering over the systemic obstacles that were still in their way. In other words, “If this group of non-white people can be successful, your failure to be successful is clearly your fault.”

At the same time, Asian Americans (including Hindus) would never be able to shake their perpetual foreigner status — this was a way of keeping both their success and their belongingness contained. This is why, even to this day, no matter how many generations deep your roots are in the United States, Asian Americans are asked where they are from. This is not a coincidence and it isn’t simply an innocent curiosity: it is a deeply baked-in notion to keep us in our place. And our model minority status is a weapon to keep other minorities in their place.

This is why, when Hindu Americans boast of our achievements in and contributions to the US, try to prove our belongingness by showing our achievements like some kind of American society membership card, attribute our achievements solely to our hard work, and/or cry out that affirmative action is unfair, we are literally feeding into the weaponizing mechanism that makes other minority groups detest us and helps sustain systemic racism. We are fueling the notion that Hinduism was designed to oppress other people and that Hindus are oppressive people.

If we don’t educate ourselves about the game, we are simply pawns in it, and our uninformed actions will only make things worse, for us, and more importantly, for those who are systemically far more disadvantaged than we are.

  • Watch 13th. Watch it with your children. Did I mention that already?
  • Find out what your children are learning in school and learn alongside them. U.S. history may not feel like your history, but it became yours when you immigrated here. Just as you want your children to feel connected to Indian and Hindu history, it makes a difference for them to know that you are as invested in their birthplace.
  • Be open to learning at least a little about Western critical theories. Don’t dismiss them wholesale.
  • Being a critical media consumer isn’t black and white. Be open to nuanced views about Western news sources that are demonstrably anti-Hindu when it comes to other issues. For instance, your children may have learned that The New York Times and The Washington Post were instrumental in publishing The Pentagon Papers and revealing the false premise behind the Vietnam War. If you dismiss those journals outright, your children will read you in a certain way.
  • Be willing to engage vulnerably in uncomfortable conversations about Hindu society. Stating that “colonizers did it to us” or “it wasn’t always this way” doesn’t make the problems go away. You may not have the answers but showing an open commitment to acknowledging the problems and envisioning and taking action towards solving them matters.
  • Become more aware of your reverse universalisms and reverse conflations. Unpack these. Ask your children to help you unpack them.
  • Work with your children to develop a Hindu American practice of Sanatana Dharma that is more than verbal or philosophical.
  • Stop connecting your vote for Donald Trump with your responsibility to protect Sanatana Dharma. The more you do this, the more our children will be driven away. It may be a political choice you are making, but calling people who don’t make that choice enemies of Hinduism or unsensible is only going to further rip the fabric of Hindu American society. Donald Trump is a statutory rapist who has separated refugee babies and children from their parents and is keeping them in inhumane conditions in cages at the border. He is anti-environmentalist. He is a racist who used his resources to wage a campaign against five innocent youth of color in NYC that led to their incarceration. (Watch When They See Us ). At the same time, the candidates your children may be supporting are likely regurgitating the Western media propaganda about India and Hinduism and erasing Hindu persecution. It’s not easy. What I do offer here is this: a conversation about why the current elections pose a moral dilemma rather than presenting it as a moral certitude. Allow for the dilemma to remain troubled rather than needing to rush to a tidy and comfortable solution by citing scriptures. Your children are more likely to meet you and try to understand you in that troubled space than on “your side”.

When they see us is the awareness I’d like to leave you with for now. When our American-born, American-educated children see us — their Hindu parents, their Hindu community, Hinduism — they are probably considering us within the larger framework of living and being and acting in American society before anything else. They are susceptible to the allure of American exceptionalism in its juicy social justice iteration — that American problems are universal and American solutions are equally universal. Our children are also increasingly brilliant, engaging in sophisticated thinking that far surpasses what I was doing in college back in the 1900s. It is no easy task to keep up with all of this. Raising Hindu children in the United States is an epic endeavor, in large part because the information coming at them from all sides might leave them feeling like they are caught in a moral dilemma — to be Hindu or to be a good person. We cannot simply wish that false dichotomy away; we have to do the hard work, in more than just words.

Let’s do it together.

Mother, scholar, educator, community member, friend, meditator, musician, and writer.

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