A man approaches the microphone. Shouts of approval ring through the audience as he rhythmically speaks against the police brutality that terrorizes his black community. A woman follows, unapologetically addressing the hypocrisy of a feminist movement that often leaves out her Latina women. I’m captivated by these slam poets because, as the daughter of first-generation Indian immigrants, I also understand the weight of living as a person of color in the United States.
Still, I’m limited from fully engaging with the powerfully truthful words, because there is an enormous scarcity of my people in slam poetry and in the entire discussion of race.
Indian Americans, and more largely Asian Americans, seem to disappear when conversations of race, discrimination and culture occur. Our voices simply do not exist. We even attack our brothers and sisters of color when they make any claim to an unjust system. While strange, this phenomenon is no mystery; it occurs all too often because of the model minority myth.
Indian Americans are known as part of the “model minority.” This means that we’re seen as people who have successfully achieved the American dream – after all, we have perfect grades, great jobs, good economic prospects and good family values. We’re then used as an example for other minority groups to live up to.
Though it seems like having these “positive” stereotypes are wonderful, they gloss over and enforce deep struggles and differences within the Indian-American community. These struggles include immigration difficulties, racial discrimination, extreme academic pressures and strong mental health taboos, which have proven to result in personal and social isolation, depression and suicide. In fact, Indian Americans have some of the highest statistics for suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts and depression rates in the United States, and among the least access to culturally competent mental health resources.
Stereotypes of perfection, combined with the majority’s radicalized fears regarding a “terrorist image,” lead to a life of overwhelming assimilation and exclusion for Indian Americans. We try to be included by killing our culture, while fitting into someone else’s cultural expectations for us. We constantly try to be perfect, while pretending that our perfection will eventually allow us to “be white.” But, we’re still brown, dirty and other. We still don’t fit the mold we were taught to be our entire lives, and when we try to speak out against this, we’re viewed as outside complainers who don’t quite understand racism.
This is how the model minority myth holds itself up: we pit ourselves against other minorities and pretend that we’re accepted when, in reality, we’re as deeply wounded by this society as our fellow families of color.
The truth is that all people of color are fighting against the same unjust system. In education, the expectation that Indian-American kids will overperform causes a pressure that often leads to feelings of immense failure, mental health complications in communities that severely lack mental health resources and sometimes, literal death.
On the other hand, the expectation that Latino and black kids will underperform causes a pressure that often leads to dropping out, cycles of poverty, violence and sometimes, literal death. The only students then, who truly get to perform — who get to be who they want to be — are majority students.
I don’t think the solution to this is for me to become a slam poet. But, I do have to honestly speak out about my experiences in my skin so that my people’s voices don’t remain silent and so that my community begins to bridge gaps across minority cultures. I intend to continue to fight for racial reconciliation in this country because I am included in this story of race.