- Outsider Orbits: Disavowal and Dissent in the United States
Over the past year, I had been thinking about what it meant to be a queer South Asian immigrant in the United States. I would become eligible for citizenship in the coming year. I thought about how it would not come soon enough for me to register as a voter. I thought about how at the juncture of my 17th year in the United States, I was just as much non-American as I was non-Indian, having left my country at the age of 17. I thought about how I hadn’t, ever, and couldn’t now, vote even there.
As the presidential election unfolded, I thought about how badly I wanted my vote, and how my vote against xenophobia would also mean a vote against the Hindu nationalist rhetoric of ethnic and religious supremacy that informs the current political climate in India and a small but influential segment of the Indian diaspora in the United States. My vote would mean one more step towards realigning Indian American relationality as oppositional to whiteness, not as a chamcha, with a sycophantic longing for approval from whiteness, but becoming minoritarian and racialized alongside other communities of color. W. E. B. Du Bois once lamented, “India has also had temptation to stand apart from the darker peoples and seek her affinities among whites. She has long wished to regard herself as Aryan, rather than ‘colored’ and to think of herself as much nearer physically and spiritually to Germany and England than to Africa, China or the South Seas. And yet, the history of the modern world shows [End Page 100] the futility of this thought.”1 Maria Lugones takes up the illumination of what Du Bois names “the history of the modern world” as coloniality itself; a condition of subjectivity that frames indigenous people, black people, queer people, and women as already outside the realm of the human, and consequently outside the realm of citizenship. Operating within the constructs of coloniality involves a process of legitimizing one’s humanity/citizenship against the nonhumanity/noncitizenship of others.2 It is no surprise then that anti-black, anti-migrant, and homophobic sensibilities inform orientations towards citizenship within many communities of color.
Take, for instance, recent public discourse around the most visible elements of South Asian American involvement in U.S. politics and diasporic perspectives on what it means to be desi (South Asian) in neoliberal frameworks of citizenship. From Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal to the “Indian-Americans for Trump 2016” PAC, the emergent visibility of South Asia in U.S. politics has taken a decidedly conservative turn in reframing this diasporic community as a model minority at the expense of other brown bodies. The South Asian orientation towards whiteness that Du Bois bemoaned, has not fully been revised, manifesting as anti-Muslim and pro-Trump sentiment in Hindu nationalist India and the diaspora. In a recent essay, anthropologist Stanley Thangaraj describes an October 2016 fundraiser for the Trump campaign organized by the Republican Hindu Coalition in New Jersey.
The event combined Bollywood dance performances with the discourse of the “global war on terror” to showcase Hindu Americans as the “good” south Asian American community in opposition to the dangerous Muslims. The audience members arrived and had a seat on chairs adorned with signs saying “Trump for Hindu Americans” and “Trump Great for India.” During one particular skit, when the Hindu characters are attacked by terrorist caricatures (read as Muslim), US “soldiers” (Hindu Americans dressed in combat gear) show up to rescue them with the Stars and Stripes flying the background. Soon thereafter the US national anthem is played.3
Images from this event also showcase placards that promised “Faster Greencards under Trump” and “Make India Great Again,” giving a face to the tenuous promises of riches of the Modi–Trump coalition, which stem from the Islamophobic definitions of citizenship by two powerful nation-states. This discursive and political theatre of loyalty between the two countries is not without its detractors, however, it remains just outside the reach of criticism in order to operate, often to the detriment of its adherents. Increasing...