The ‘model minority’ in the middle no more?

The ‘model minority’ in the middle no more?

Indian Americans used to be sheltered from America’s racial storm — but then came Trump and COVID-19

By Vidya Krishnan

In 1851, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote about the “porcupine dilemma,” a parable about a company of porcupines that want to be close to one another to help them survive the bitter winter. But when they get close, they hurt each other with their prickly quills, so they separate. On and on they move in this infinite cycle, a perfect metaphor for the eternal human dilemma: If you get close, you’ll get hurt.

It also perfectly captures the bind of America’s racial and ethnic groups — at home but without belonging.

The past few years of unrelenting stories of racial injustice, gun violence, and rising anti-Asian xenophobia as the novel coronavirus and paranoia swept through the world has brought the problem of race to the doorstep of one of America’s “model minorities”: Indian immigrants.

The Indian diaspora has lived in a middle space: better off than poorer refugees, immigrants, and historically oppressed groups but never equal. Existence between equality and inequality has had its benefits: lost in the binary that is White and Black politics, while inequality allows wealthy Indian immigrant families to wall themselves off in suburbs, often in neighborhoods where they are in the majority. This position puts some distance between them and “tennis match” politics, keeping second-generation immigrants removed from the storm center of racial trouble.

All of this, of course, changed due to two things: the Trump era and the coronavirus pandemic. In May 2020, as antiracism protests broke out after the death of George Floyd, a Black man murdered in Minneapolis police custody, many Indian American families sat down for The Talk. This phrase usually refers to the conversation generations of Black families have had with children in preparing them for the realities of navigating life in a color-conscious nation.

The Indian American version of The Talk has similar warnings: Avoid certain neighborhoods, don’t talk back, follow the rules, be courteous, and, most important, never interfere in or escalate the “tennis match,” the caustic back-and-forth of political discourse. While many Indian American families simply ignore the conversation or encourage silence until it is forced, many are now learning to talk about race. Parents I’ve spoken with point out that while they encourage caution, they do not endorse cowardice, especially as migrants.

But no amount of wealth can keep communities safe from dangerous attitudes in a system that privileges a portion of the population over others. 

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