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Race & Gender in South Asian American Collegiate Organizing Spaces

How can we learn from POC communities before our anxieties irreparably break us?


My reflection works through a gender binary, but this is contrary to the reality that gender and sexuality are fluid and that homophobia remains disturbingly prevalent amongst Desi people. The work of KhushDC, SALGA, and Trikone, as well as online spaces like Subtle Queer Curry Traits and Subtle Queer Curry Dating, is incredibly important and necessary, particularly as they are largely volunteer-led/managed with extensive emotional labor and care.

As the Vice President of University chapters of MannMukti (a South Asian mental health nonprofit), I recently served as a panelist on the Intersectionality panel at the South Asian Youth Initiative at Yale University. I also just finished reading “Good Girls Marry Doctors” edited by Piyali Bhattacharya, an anthology of diaspora Desi women’s stories of daughterhood. They’ve serendipitously aligned to force me to ponder the lack of public discourse on the interplay of gender dynamics in South Asian American collegiate organizing spaces, which in this moment of Me Too and in the aftermath of the remaining ambiguous response to the allegations against Aziz Ansari. 

The lens of intersectionality sheds light on how an individual’s positionality is the totality of their identities, but with political spaces of praxis for South Asian Americans being quite young, disparate, and frequently digital, we have deferred asking if existing gender-based tensions be resolved because our focus is already shared by evolving identity politics, transnational activism, and developing the language to articulate our particular experiences with oppression. 

My tentative answers are far from comprehensive - ethnographic research on American-born Desis has been done by several scholars to give academic structural analysis for why and how our population and its subgroups look, act, and aspire. It’s especially difficult to convey the urgency of such a conversation when the consequences of permitting the status quo seem distant or unlikely. But I’m hoping to unfurl my personal experiences and observations, informed by conversations and challenging situations, to content that mentoring and relationship-based strategies which promote social and emotional learning can be the first step to dissolving the high stakes that patriarchy has developed for our community.

To start, there are amusing (if superficial and redundant) Desi Twitter accounts with “hot takes” on the typical behavior of brown guys and brown girls. More in-depth stories of heartbreak are detailed in safe-space Facebook groups like Little Brown Diary and Subtle Curry Girl Traits, contrasting with the robustly politically incorrect Subtle Curry Traits (SCT) meme group and Subtle Curry Dating (SCD) matchmaking hub. It’s worth noting that the latter two groups were formed in response to the colorism and brown-phobic spaces of Subtle Asian Traits and Subtle Asian Dating. Nonetheless, the Twitter screenshots, memes, and the anonymous urgent pleas for guidance in women’s groups show the frustrations of Desi youth.

Brown guys feel that brown girls are pushy, fickle, and often “too woke” - these girls can’t take jokes about anything anymore. Attempts for deeper unpacking tend to be fruitless in SCT and SCD - people want to react to posts and tag their friends in the comments, not engage in dialogue about how dividing Desis along the line of gender does too much to aid to white supremacy and neocolonial forces. But truthfully, this conversation isn’t happening much in South Asian American spaces either, because the number of cisgender-heterosexual (cishet) men is significantly (and not really surprisingly) outweighed by the membership and leadership of cis-het women and queer folks. Nonetheless, the sentiments and biases prevalent as expressed in the aforementioned forums are present.

In observing the obstacles faced by of Black and Latinx organizers, I learned about the duality of internal discord with external resilience and unity. Simply put, many women avoided administrative means of accountability when men hurt, disrespected, or violated them (physically, emotionally, socially) because community-led investigations provided other avenues of retribution. Why do so? The opportunity of higher education and the responsibilities of men of color in their families, combined with a distrust of personnel at predominantly White institutions, was enough to dissuade these women of possibly taking away men’s degrees and possibilities for upward mobility.

Elements of cultural collectivism, an understanding of the criminalization and societally presumed hyper-sexuality of men of color, and a belief in communities’ existing tools for restorative justice varyingly inform this reality. But the outcomes are rarely palatable - college is still a place for seeking resume-focused leadership titles, which means that decisions are shaped by personal petty politics and performative action that situates “justice” as antithetical to healing. 

Desi organizing spaces have not achieved enough clarity in focus and stability to grapple with the question of what we would do in such a circumstance. But to me, there is something else that must be addressed first: How can we learn from other communities of color to be proactive in healing these anxieties before they manifest into something that irreparably breaks us?

I think one of these avenues is doing the hard work of thinking about how to best achieve long term goals instead of reacting with short term solutions. We need to get uncomfortable by first delving into the reality that South Asians are not a monolith - urbanity and suburbia generate different understandings of access, power and privilege, particularly when coupled with class status.

Furthermore, some experiences are normalized as the universal South Asian experience (college-degree holding parents, Hindu, upper caste, light-skinned, North Indian). Desi collegiate organizing spaces, if read as neoliberal opportunities for professional development and networking with administrators (depicted cleverly in Netflix’s TV show “Dear White People”), are often thus predetermined to be run by those with more financial and social capital, and South Asian communities at large are run by white-adjacent apolitical and material-based programming (think “Bollywood Mixer” rather than “The Surveillance of Brown Bodies Post-9/11”). 

This all matters. 

If intracommunity models of kangaroo courts alongside demonstrative shows of strength and unity at protests are taken as the only option to respond to gender dynamics in South Asian organizing spaces, sustainable collectives for intellectual and action-based work will not survive. This is why I believe that conscientious mentorship is something that has not yet explicitly been used as a means of community development. From supporting MannMukti executive boards, comparing notes with other alumni, and processing my time with Cornell’s South Asian Council, the trust and capacity building that is facilitated by mentorship has succeeded in challenging silos that are created by nationality and faith-specific clubs, as well as the traditional performance group centers of South Asian social life.

Heterogenous pairings in regards to gender and/or faith necessitate grappling with our differences, in spite of the starting point of shared Desi-ness.

It creates a semi-permeable border between personal, academic, and professional within the confines of a safe and nonjudgemental place. For South Asians especially, after not being considered Asian enough for pan-Asian opportunities and the norm in higher education of excluding Asians as a whole as needing additional socio-emotional support, mentors who can empathize with cultural nuances and provide intentional support makes it a unique route of resolution.

Admittedly, the possibilities are hard to imagine because using strategic mentorship as a connected means of bridging across intracommunity differences hasn’t been tried in our community yet. But the lack thereof is exacerbating the intense competition, high pressure on individualism, and fans the growing flame of resentment that many Asians hold for communities of color who benefit from diversity and inclusion frameworks and resources.

Looking to the young women who are similarly committed to social justice work, we cannot operate on the premise that we will make change by just raising our sons differently. We need to reject the corporatization of volunteerism and hold each other close, simply because it’s right and crucial in a country that’s looking to keep us quiet and compliant. We need to create bonds that are rooted in a genuine desire to see one another succeed, to find home in one another as our first to our motherlands disintegrate in the coming generations. And if the origin of many of these calls to action in the post-grad world is of collegiate organizing spaces, than it is critical we act with the goal of resilience in mind, which demands a concerted effort to repair the centuries of damage to men and women’s mutual trust of one another, especially with our subcontinental baggage.

Without it, we permit another obstacle to South Asian American cohesion in the face of a current xenophobic reality and uncertain future.

Main artwork produced by South Asian Today's designer, Sahana Arun, @thegigglypufff

About the author

Shivani is a Cornell alumna and budding South Asian American racial and immigrant rights advocate. She is a member of the New York City Chapter of National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum and serves on the executive committee of MannMukti, a South Asian mental health nonprofit, as the Vice President of University Chapters.

Instagram:  @abrowngirlrising / Tweets: @browngirlrising

 


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