Tag Archives: asian-american

Some notes on imperialism and Black-Desi solidarity

In the aftermath of the grisly police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, there has been a lot of renewed discussion and debate in progressive Asian American circles about how to understand and argue our position relative to Black America.  I particularly liked this piece from several months ago, specific to South Asian and Desi Americans, that talks about the strategy of “selfish solidarity” that builds on radical critiques of the concept of “allyship”.

However, there has been little to no discussion about the global nature of white supremacy, and the way it is produced through global capitalism and imperialism.  This is likely a consequence of Asian American being preoccupied with domestic matters (a reflection of American politics and society as a whole).  This is unfortunate, because it is only when we take a step back and look at the global setting that basis for Black-Asian solidarity becomes clear.  This is particularly true if we look specifically at Black-Desi/South Asian solidarity.  Here are some scattered observations and thoughts:

  • The ongoing militarization of American police departments–disproportionately felt by working-class Black neighborhoods–is a direct consequence of the central position of the military-industrial complex in the US economy, and the ongoing War on Terror, which has had a devastating impact on communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The violent paramilitary forces in control of Afghanistan’s Khost province, and the predatory police department in control of Ferguson, are two expressions of the same system.
  • America’s massive surveillance apparatus, used abroad for things like the drone war in Pakistan, is also used at home to support its racialized and militarized War on Drugs
  • The CIA has played an integral role in destabilizing both South-West Asia and many urban Black communities.  America’s war in Afghanistan during the 1980s saw billions poured into the stabilization of General Zia’s dictatorship in Pakistan, and the entrenchment of a powerful Islamist deep state and the general entrenchment of fundamentalism in both Pakistani and Afghan society.  At the same time, the CIA helped set up supply chains for drug cartels to smuggle cocaine into US markets, as a way to fund right-wing terrorist groups fighting the revolutionary leftist government in Nicaragua; this exacerbated the crack epidemic that devastated many Black communities during the late ’80s and early ’90s, and created the rationale for escalating the War on Drugs and accompanying police violence
  • There is a rich history of Black-Desi anti-imperialist solidarity, particularly in the early 20th century, that can and should be used to build contemporary movements
  • There is potential in exploring the economic dimensions of imperialism and the linked impacts on Black and South Asian peoples, given the inverted relationship between the deindustrialization of American cities like Detroit, and investments into sweatshops in countries like India and Bangladesh

All in all, there are a lot of arguments to be made that South Asian American and Black American political movements are fundamentally fighting against the same systems.  But this is only apparent if we “globalize” the perspectives of America’s racial dynamics, and situate domestic problems within their international context.

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The corporate production of Indian-Americans in the Indian tech sector

At this point, the cringey and over-hashed stereotype of the Indian call center worker who, despite a thick accent, pretends to be from somewhere in the American Midwest, is well ingrained into popular consciousness.

Yet, few seem to be interested in the underlying social and economic dynamics behind why workers in Asia laboring in outsourced/offshored industries routinely pretend to be American or British in the first place.  In fact, this is all part of an explicit and planned process by multinationals in order to better enable these workers to deal with Western clients and Western sensibilities, that extends past simple accents.  From Shehzad Nadeems’s Dead Ringers: How Outsourcing Is Changing the Way Indians Understand Themselves (2011):

The demand for globalized speech has led to the creation of specialized institutes for accent “neutralization”…To sensitize trainees to the subtleties of American culture, they sit for viewings of popular movies, such as American PieIndependence Day, and JFK…The trainers even show videos of pet shows to convey Americans’ intense fondness for pets–so that they can understand that to an American, “a cat is like his baby” (57).

The assumed need for this kind of cultural training stems from the nature of the work of the tech service industry.

As opposed to physical labor, service work involves “emotional labor,” wherein workers are called on to amiably display a particular emotional repertoire.  In call centers, these management technologies penetrate to the very core of your identity.  During training sessions, employees are told that the customer can see their smile and sense their mood through their voice.  Workers must be able to “pass” as American or British.  Maintaining your composure in the face of sometimes racist abuse by irate customers is simply part of the job. (58)

Perhaps most intriguingly, many workers are quite keen on Westernizing their own identities, even outside the workplace.

In describing the problematic aspects of labor practices in call centers, the question that often goes unconsidered is why workers are mostly indifferent, sometimes exultant, about their apparent cultural alienation.  Where some see tight control over emotions and personality…many workers see the freedom to create an identity.  Even when companies try to relinquish the practice of using pseudonyms, workers are often reluctant to let their fictive personalities go.  One small company in Bangalore, for example, reached a compromise with its employees.  They may take a Western first name but they must keep their given surname.  “Thus we now have Britney Gupta”, says an executive, rubbing the bridge of his nose with bemusement.

It is well-worth noting that this is all a fascinating inversion of the traditional “culture clash” that defines much of the Asian-American experience.  Instead of the children of immigrants grappling with growing up in the US while trying to situate their family’s cultural background, here we have global capital essentially producing this experience via the needs of the workplace.  Indian-Americans who have never set foot in America.

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