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June 23, 2004

Is the day of the desi over before it began?

The The Indian American Society for Political Awareness states that "their mission is to increase political awareness in the Indian American community and encourage participation by the Indian American community in the American democracy." Over the past year I've had a friendly correspondence with other young South Asian Americans (as I am technically a "Bangladeshi American," not an Indian American) about the issue of the coalescence of desi identity. Recently I stumbled on to this article which chronicles interracial relationships among "Asian Americans." For Asian Indians, 5.8% of men are married to white females, while 4.0% of women are married to white males. But, when you extract U.S. born and 1.5 generation (born abroad, raised in the U.S., like me) Asian Indians out of these numbers, you note that 34.9% of men are married to white women and 27% of women are married to white men. When you look at the percentage of U.S. Born + 1.5 generation Asian Indians out of their total population, a little over 10%, it is important to note how new this group is (qualitatively documented in the historical literature). Almost all the U.S. born Asian Indians are probably 1st generation, rather than later generations for whom the immigrant experience is more distant. So, I find it surprising (and personally positive) that Asian Indians are demographically integrating with the general American population so quickly. The contrasts and comparisons with older and more generationally heterogeneous Asian American communities such as the Chinese or Japanese is surprising. For example, over 3/4 of Japanese Americans are U.S. born or 1.5 generation, with many in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th generations after the first native-born cohort, and their intermarriage rate with whites is 20.3% and 42.3% for men and women respectively [1]. This indicates a fair amount of demographic integration, but the first Asian Indian generations are in the same statistical ball-park as Japanese who have been resident in the United States for 100 years!

Update below: control-f "Updated point"!

Update II: addendum below

What could account for this? First, I would like to offer a dissent from the position that the data on Asian Indians is illustrative of any general trend. Last I talked to him about this topic, Vinod pointed out that the data was from the 2000 Census, and assuming that the mean age of marriage of young Asian Indians of this age cohort is somewhere in the mid-20s to 30s, these are the children of the "first wave" immigrants of the 1960s and 1970s. The "first wave" was top-heavy with medical doctors and those with advanced degrees in the sciences. They arrived at a time when Asian Indians were a neglible demographic presence, and no large communities of South Asians existed in the United States (excluding the peculiar quasi-Sikhs of the Central Valley who generally assimilated to their mother's Mexican culture). Demographically isolated, and not able to communicate with the homeland through cheap calling cards, flights and information technology, they had no choice but to integrate with their surroundings.

The waves of immigration of Asian Indians that came in the 1980s and 1990s were more working class, and they were able to settle in commmunities that offered an Asian Indian milieu, often in and around the greater New York City area. Unlike the "first wave," they did not have to integrate beyond learning enough English to get by if they so chose. Their children likely did not show up in the 2000 Census statistics, as they wouldn't be old enough. I know little about this generation, but I can say from personal experience, that my younger siblings, who are in their early teens, are in some salient ways, more South Asian in their identity than my brother or I, who grew up amongst Irish and Italian American kids in upstate New York or in Mormon eastern Imbler. Because, on average, their parents have less education than the "first wave," it seems plausible that a larger portion of the children of the "second" wave will not pursue higher education, and so immerse themselves in an environment where they are pulled away from a South Asian identity (unless they go to study engineering at Stanford!). The possible lower earning power and educational attainment of the children of the "second wave" will make them less attractive as partners for mainstream native-born Americans. And of course, there will be the statistically reality that there are likely to be more South Asian partners on the market than there were for the children of the late 60s to early 80s [2].

But, let's ignore the very real possibility that this enormous spike in intermarriage in one generation is a fluke. What could account for it? Here are a few possible factors:


  • South Asians settled in the United after the anti-miscegenation laws were struck down, so they have no memory of having to find partners only with their own group (the ones who came in the early 20th century to California did have to marry Mexicans since white women were off limits). The South Asian community might not have the psychological constraint of tales of men who were lynched for having affairs with whites.
  • The effective number of marriageable South Asians is far smaller than the generic group would indicate. By this, I mean that there is a fair amount of ethnic substructure within the Asian Indian classification. Inter-marriage across regions, caste and religion might encounter so much resistance that the number of eligible South Asians (in the eyes of their parents) for marriage is so low that transgressing parental expectations and marrying whites seems a trivial step. This might be especially important before the 1980s, when South Asian political awareness was minimal, and the formation of a common identity only in its first stages.
  • As average years of schooling increase in a given population, the saliency of ethnic markers for assortive mating diminishes, while professional and intellectual commonalities come to the fore. Basically, since the parents of the first 1st and 1.5 generation tended to be academically exceptional, their children are as well, and individuals who tend to be highly intellectualized are less likely to adhere to "traditional" norms and values in the American context, which extends to marriage partners. This especially applies in a situation where the norms and values espoused by the parents conflicts with those of the general culture, as is common among South Asians.
  • Human biodiversity might play a role as well. Before 1980, South Asians were placed in the "white" category, like Middle Easterners are today. Though very few South Asians can "pass" as white, they generally tend to exhibit a "Caucasoid" phenotype. One thing to note about the South Asian marriage statistics is that there is a relative balance between male and female outmarriage, with a slight skew toward males outmarrying. This is the reverse of most Asian American groups-I suspect even taking into account the large numbers of "military brides" spawned by U.S. military presence and involvement along the Pacific Rim. Perhaps South Asians exhibit the sexual cues and signals attractive to white Americans through their look and behavior more easily than other Asian groups, whether the reasons be cultural or biological (a gay male friend of mine though tells me South Asian men tend to have rather small penises). The variable could be prosaic, for example, South Asians might be more outgoing than other Asian Americans, or South Asian males might on average be somewhat taller (here is where population substructure comes in, many Pakistanis I have met are as tall as the white American mean, even though they grew up in Pakistan), etc.
  • Updated point: I just realized, South Asians come to the United States with a beauty ideal highly skewed toward the fair and Caucasoid. Perhaps South Asian males (and to a lesser extent females) pair up with whites because they view whites as a physical ideal, in preference to other South Asians. Also, one could suppose that beauty ideals are determined by the group in which you socialize, and the early wave children woud likely have socialized with mostly whites. One possible prediction of this fixation on a putative white beauty ideal should be that white partners might be somewhat substandard in many other respects, their white appearance being enough currency to win them a well educated South Asian mate (more well educated and affluent than they could otherwise get). I say this because a Korean friend of mine told me that Korean males who marry white females tend to "marry down" in everything but race (comparison to what they could get if they stayed Asian). I haven't seen enough white-South Asian couples recently to evaluate this generalization (though honestly, I suspect that F.O.B.s would be more prone to this than American born South Asians where are less stuck on the "fair and lovely" ideal).


My personal opinion is that intermarriage is good. I don't want to see the formation of a desi ethnic group which spawns its own political class. There are benefits to be sure, but I believe that there are costs as well. South Asians often speak of emulating the "Jewish model" in American society, but I think this is a fallacious analogy. Jews, whether secular or Reform or Chasidic, are one coherent ethnic group. South Asians are very diverse. Jews exhibit far more phenotypic overlap with the white American population, and they are overall far less "exotic" than South Asians, so I suspect they naturally elicit less resentment and opposition to their group mobilization than South Asian Americans would. Finally, Jews have won many of the big battles that estabish general human rights in the United States (along with blacks). I don't see a pressing need for another identity group (I agree with Manish that Hindu religious values tend to get shat on in America, but that is a function of Hinduisms deviation from Abrahamic norms, and time will close this chasm as more educated Americans experiment with Hindu-tinged sects).

There are of course other, non-political reasons for the emergence of South Asian identity. Personal ease and comfort, "being among your own," is a reason given by some. Today, all South Asians, no matter their accent or cadence, their educational qualifications or income, tend to be touched by the aura of exoticism when dealing with non-South Asians. Some South Asians believe a common desi identity and community serves as a refuge from the mild alienation of white American society. This sort of perspective is contingent on one's personality. I have never had these issues because I have always stood out in whatever context I have situated myself in, non-brown or brown. From a selfish perspective, all someone like me would gain from the emergence of a desi identity is extra baggage on top of the exoticism that already exists. I am highly alienated from my natal religion, have little racial feeling, and tend to empathize more with those who share my intellectual mind-set than an affinal cultural or genetic lineage (the cultural affinity is only apparent based on my physical appearence, I find much more of value in Polybius than Kautilya, more wisdom in Confucius than the Buddha. As for the genetic element, the high degree of variance in phenotype among South Asians undermines this to some extent). Also, integrated over generations, the creation of a desi identity will likely retard the diminishment of the aura of exoticism that many South Asian youth wish to flee from. Creating a subcultures seals one off from the negatives of the surrounding culture, but diminishes the exchange of ideas and blood that brings the two groups together, so I appeal to my fellow South Asian youth to think of their mongrel grand-children when they feel a bit out of place. Finally, one thing that is certain, the lack of intermarriage between South Asians and other Asian American groups shows to me that as the years pass by, South Asians will probably withdraw from the umbrella of Asian American interest groups. The "Asian American" group is a fiction, the real clusters of East, Southeast and Southeast Asians stitched together by a political elite that is self-interested in attempting to maximize their numbers.

Addendum: According to this report, 13% of couples with a South Asian in it are "mixed" in Canada. This is higher than the total for the United States (that is, all generations & immigration cohorts lumped together). As far as the UK goes, this claims that "inter-racial relationships were flourishing with a fifth of Asian men and 10% of Asian women opting for a white partner" (source study, circa 1997). Asian in this context is usually South Asian.

[1] I use Japanese Americans because I suspect that this group is less prone to having the male-female imbalance of intermarriage be exaggerated by "war brides," though this surely is a factor as the United States did occupy Japan after World War II.

[2] Manish seemed to find the high intermarriage rates implausible. I pointed out this might be a function of his residence in a large urban area with a critical mass of South Asians, where there are many options as far as partners goes. In may rural areas, one is often the only brown face for miles (I speak from experience), and celibacy does not appeal to many. So you could have a tendency for most of the majority of urban South Asian youth to marry within their own ethnic group, while over 95% of the minority who live in small towns might marry non-South Asians.

Posted by razib at 07:17 PM