Find Posts By Topic

The Evolving History of Labels for South Asian Identities in the US

In celebration of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, we invited Tasveer, an art and advocacy organization created by and for South Asians, to share the story of their organization and curate a series of individual stories from their community. Read the full Tasveer series and be sure to check out all of our AANHPI Heritage Month stories.

The Evolving History of Labels for South Asian Identities in the US

By Olympia Bhatt

My arrival in this country came at a time when the lack of decorum in political discourse was at its pinnacle along with some deep-rooted xenophobia that was playing out in American politics. America had elected a president who received the lesser number of votes, which sounds illogical because anywhere else in the world it would be called what it is: undemocratic.

Every weeknight the Late Night Shows would groan and moan about what the unfiltered “leader of the free world” had tweeted. As I flipped between Seth Myers and Stephen Colbert, I remember thinking, all that mattered at the end of the day, was who was the better showman. In this case, it was definitely the President because he had everyone’s attention. It felt like a silly game of one-upmanship with neither side ready to give up and the temperature rising unnecessarily – which was not very comforting for an immigrant like me.

What probably alleviated my anxiety was that I knew I was going to be in Seattle, a city that seemed strangely familiar. The Emerald City, the home of grunge and the familiar tones of Soundgarden, Nirvana, and TV’s very own radio talk show hosts, Frasier and Niles, and their beloved Cafe Nervosa. The silver lining to it all: it was home to tech corporations, which meant brown folks like me did not stand out like a wolverine in the Cascades.

What I wasn’t ready for, and something which I am still learning, were the labels that followed. The one question, omnipresent in all official paperwork, was the one that asked about my racial identity, a default setting that could not be customized. There was only one correct answer in my mind but here it was a multiple choice. Then someone told me what the question actually means. Race is to America what caste is to India. In other words, there is no escaping.

This whole question got me thinking. I knew the phrase “South Asia” is a reclaimed epithet that brings together the many South Asian identities, not only from the Indian subcontinent but also from other parts of the world. The latter refers to those communities from the Indian subcontinent who traveled to different parts of the world with colonial rule as early as the mid-nineteenth century. Whether you were a shopkeeper in an African colony or an indentured laborer working in the sugarcane fields of Jamaica, these were the kinds of migrations that were known. These stories never seemed to include America.

I was curious to learn about migration stories related to the US and specifically, the labels given to my antecedents during immigration checks over a century ago. I wanted to understand why these labels were used and what it meant for people to live with identities that contradicted the idea of the ideal American citizen being a free white person. Gaining a historical perspective would alleviate my concerns regarding the prevalent racial rhetoric in this country.

The Presence of the “Dusky Orientalist”

The immigrants from the Indian subcontinent who first arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century were called anything but Indian. That term, at the time, had completely different racial connotations and was used to misrepresent the Indigenous American communities. The disconnect of the term used by Americans from the reality of India is the same when it is followed by the two words, Pale Ale. Indians had nothing to do with either.

“Dusky orientals” became the term of recognition for the Sikh men who came to work in the lumber mills and farms on the Pacific coast. This was to distinguish them from the other preceding “orientals” viz, Chinese and Japanese who constructed the American railroad. “Have we a Dusky Peril? Hindu Hordes Invading the State” read one headline in the Puget Sound American in 1906, specifically referencing a few hundred men employed in the lumber mills of Bellingham. In 1907, the number of South Asians in America was 1,072, the same year the Bellingham riots took place. Members of the Asiatic Exclusion League targeted Sikh workers in the city and forced them to flee town.

The term Hindu/Hindoo was often associated with these migrants, a reference to both their religion and the region, Hindustan where they came from. The turban on their head became another signifier of their “dusky oriental” identity that made them easily recognizable as a Hindu or a “Mohammedan,” the antiquated term for Muslim.

Migrant workers were not the only ones coming to America. A small number of Bengali and Punjabi intellectuals were also fleeing political persecution for their anti-British political activities to find safe haven in anti-monarchic America. One such migrant was Bhagat Singh Thind (1892-1967), whose 1923 Supreme Court decision in the United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind took the racial categorization of South Asian migrants into the court of law.

What is interesting about this decision is how the semantics of race played out for Thind in court. The Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, made it harder for immigrants from South Asia to become naturalized citizens.

Thind’s American citizenship was challenged in the Supreme Court because of his political affiliations with the anti-British Ghadr Party. When he took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, he thought he had the nineteenth-century scientific discourse on his side. At the time, a white person was synonymous with Caucasians, and based on the anthropological studies of this period, Asian Indians were also considered Caucasians. So by syllogistic logic, Thind was also a white person who had every right to be a U.S. citizen.

The presiding judge, a naturalized Englishman named George Sutherland had something else in mind. The gist of his argument acknowledged only the shared ancestry between the whites and Asian Indians as Thind’s appearance was too dark to be called white. According to Sutherland, the words “free white person” were “words of common speech and not of scientific origins.”

This visual veneer of racial identification makes it such a performative feature of American life. That’s why passing is so uniquely American. These histories are devastating to read knowing the social and legal ostracization these earliest immigrants faced. Reading the names of different races listed in a federal application form does indicate the progress that’s been made and how the discourse around race has become more inclusive. The terms of racial identification too are evolving which indicates each community’s vibrant consciousness and awareness about their presence in American life.

As for me, I am better informed of the need for this exercise. I am more open to answering this question. I am also waiting for the day when these labels have fulfilled their purpose for all. What does that mean exactly? I am still figuring it out.

Source: SAADA. (2021). Our stories: An introduction to South Asian America. Philadelphia, PA: South Asian American Digital Archive.

photograph of South Asian woman with dark curly hair. She is wearing a yellow blouse and smiling at the camera.
Olympia Bhatt is a recent transplant to Seattle who is figuring out the provincial charms of Pacific Northwest life. She works as the Marketing and Communications Lead at Tasveer.  

This piece was commissioned by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. The opinions expressed and information contained herein do not necessarily reflect the policies, plans, beliefs, conclusions, or ideas of the City of Seattle.