Recently a discussion emerged on Twitter about the relative success of Indians in America and Indian Americans and the origins of that success. While Noah Smith pointed to their cultural and economic status to begin the conversation, W. Bradford Wilcox noted the stability of the marriages of Indian Americans. There are lots of directions one could go with this discussion, but one response to Wilcox’s Tweet captures I think a way of thinking that is important to engage because it is influential:
Guess which immigrant group was colonized by a Western hegemonic power that indoctrinated the culture into American ideals, literally preparing them for upward assimilation? Also, Indian marriages are functionalist in nature, and not subject to ephemeral underpinnings of “love”.
One could take this as an affront to cultural or individual pride. That is, the success of Indian Americans being reduced to simply Western culture and civilization diminishes what they have achieved on their own (I’ll get back to the issue of marriage specifically).
This is not the issue that I want to explore, though I will note it here. Rather, let’s entertain the ideas and presuppositions embedded in this sort of assertion, and its correspondence to reality.
You could say that this attitude, which reduces non-Western peoples and societies as outcomes of Western history, is marginal. But the person who expressed the opinions is a graduate student in sociology, and this viewpoint does suffuse the assumptions of many educated Americans “in the know”, albeit less nakedly and brusquely expressed. Less enlightened Americans probably believe that Indian immigrants are just smart and well-educated (this is true), and that is the reason for their success (again, true). But those who are “in the know” “understand” that these sorts of reductive characteristics are outcomes of a particular historical process, and it is that historical process to which Indian American success redounds (“Well actually, British colonialism imparted bourgeois values to native allies in western India, and that’s why they succeed in the United States”).
Though I am not Indian American, I am obviously Indian American adjacent. Arriving in the United States just before elementary school, and growing up with parents raised abroad, I have a visceral understanding of intercultural dynamics which is probably not available to professional anthropologists. I am aware of elements of South Asian culture which are very different from American culture, and so am always curious about the new pattern of some Westerners to reducing South Asian culture as simply a postcolonial reaction to Western hegemony.
Obviously, on some level, the impact of that hegemony is hard to deny. Though Macaulay’s aspiration of creating “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” did not occur to full completion, the British period had a strong impact on the outlook and viewpoint of South Asian elites. Even those who were anti-colonial and anti-Western in orientation often reacted to European influence and domination. Their own nativist response would be incomprehensible without the British Other.
There is also the reality that for some aspects of culture native peoples may assert a deep and indigenous origin for practices and values, even if it is hard to imagine a particular phenomenon without European influence. A simple illustration of this is the popularity of drinking tea across the subcontinent, which arose through British commercial propaganda. Modern South Asians may not be aware of the origin of this deeply embedded aspect of their lives and assume it’s indigenous in a very deep manner.
A more subtle and rich illustration of this tendency is the Buddhist revival of 19th-century Sri Lanka. The peoples of this island have been Buddhist for a very long time, and have interacted with the Theravada societies of Southeast Asia for a thousand years. But, in the 19th-century Buddhism reformed itself in the face of Christian proselytization. Some Westerners, sympathetic to Buddhism (e.g., Henry Steel Olcott), were critical in buttressing the intellectual armamentarium of the local population. In the process, they may have influenced the self-conception of elite Sri Lankan Buddhists to perceive their religion as rationalist in a manner that was shaped by the post-Protestant Enlightenment and its critiques of Christianity. In this framework, Sri Lankan Buddhism can be thought of as fundamentally indigenous, but the movements of the last few centuries are impossible to understand without awareness of European influence, even if native Sri Lankans themselves now perceive these elements as deeply primal (i.e., the rationalist and less supernatural Buddhism is the “true Buddhism”).
Moving to the mainland of the Indian subcontinent, again it is not deniable that European colonial hegemony had a strong impact on the society. Consider that defining element of Indian civilization, caste. Some scholars have made a strong case that British systematic rationalization of governance and taxonomic anthropology of native peoples was critical in the crystallization of the caste-jati system (in particular, the 1871 Census of India). Yet genetics casts strong doubt on this claim as being the only explanation, as many jatis and broader caste groups, exhibit patterns of endogamy and relatedness which indicate the genealogical depth that is 1,000 years or more. As it happens, al-Biruni’s observations of India 1,000 years ago outlines a social structure which is broadly consonant with what we perceive to be Indian today.
What does this have to do with Indian Americans? First, it is famously well known that Indian American migration to the United States has been highly selective, biased toward individuals with high levels of skill and education. Additionally, these people are not a representative cross-section of Indians themselves in regards to ethnicity and community. There are, for example, very few individuals of Dalit background in the United States. And, there is a preponderance of individuals of higher status communities. Using the framework above, one might say that communities that have internalized European mores, outlooks, and skills, have been advantaged and that this is why they have immigrated to the United States.
The problem is that this is clearly wrong. Some communities in South Asia have been literate for thousands of years. This is well known. The Muslims who arrived as an elite class after 1000 A.D. noted which communities were literate, and elevated them into service. Additionally, other Indian groups were inducted into military service. This is not to say that South Asian class, caste, and professional affiliations have been communally static for thousands of years, but neither was the portfolio of skills and preferences arbitrarily poured into the minds of some Indians as opposed to others. Some Indian groups were useful in particular places and times to various elite groups, whether Hindu, Muslim, or British, and that utility redounded to the long-term trajectory of that community (e.g., Parsis).
In the American context, there is an underrepresentation of people from groups which are the majority of Indians, the broad peasantry. Rather, various mercantile communities and service professional communities are overrepresented (though there are farmers from the Punjab who have moved to the Central Valley). Much of the accumulated human capital in many of these groups predates the arrival of Europeans.
How a group of people reacts to new stimuli varies. The Indian Diaspora is highly skewed toward people from Gujurat and Punjab. In contrast, there are far fewer people in the United States from the upper and middle Gangetic plains, the civilizational heart of India (a fair number of peasants from these localities did migrate to Trinidad, Mauritius, and Fiji). The literate elites and landowners the Gangetic plain have not reacted to the legacy of European colonialism and globalization in the same manner as the literate elites and landowners of Gujarat. Some of this is happenstance, but some of it is probably the reality that Gujarat has long been integrated into the Indian Ocean trade networks, which even predates Islam.
This sort of analysis need not be restricted to South Asia. When Europeans encountered the Japanese in the 16th-century they were struck by their industry and ability to imitate and perfect new technologies. The isolation imposed by the Tokugawa in the early 17th-century dampened this perception for centuries, but after the reopening of Japan in the 19th-century the same underlying parameters came to the fore. The Japanese remained distinct, but also assimilated many Western techniques and social structures.
In this globalized world roiled by economic change and characterized by migration, there is a temptation to fall into the trap of simplistic theorizing. We must avoid that temptation if we are to understand the true shape of a thing, rather than the fictions one could spin-out from our theories and preconceptions.
Going back to the starting point of his post: the strong economic performance and robust families of Indian Americans is not just a function of hegemonic Western values. These people are not simply persons Indian in blood and color, but white in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect, though there is something of that, especially by generation 1.5 and above. But the entrepreneurial aspect of some Guju communities, to give an example, illustrates that folkways derived from the South Asian context have been transmitted to the United States. The “joint-family” is quintessentially Indian, and though it is not common among Indian Americans, it likely casts a shadow on Indian American family life (additionally, divorce is very taboo for many Hindus). Most Indian Americans today are immigrants, raised abroad, and their orientation and mores are fundamentally distinct from the native-born and native-raised.
Of course, assimilation happens. But even that is contingent. The America that the children of Indian Americans are growing up in is highly polarized and post-Christian. This has some downstream consequences for how 21st-century immigrants and their children view themselves in the body politic.