Meet the South Asian Diaspora Preserving their Unique Asian American History 

Meet four cultural organizations and collectives preserving their unique South Asian American histories while contributing to a new American nation.

The impact of terms like ‘Asian American’ and ‘Model Minority Myth’

The term Asian American was coined during the late 1960s as a way to capture a pan-Asian identity — one that encapsulated the collective power of people of Asian origin and a shared history of racism, imperialism and immigration.

According to NBC News, the term traces back to 1968, where students at UC Berkeley were inspired by the Black Power Movement and protests against the Vietnam War.

Just two years earlier, in 1966, UC Berkeley sociology professor William Petersen wrote a piece in the New York Times hailing the Japanese American community as an American “success” story for their ability to assimilate into mainstream American culture despite the discrimination and injustices they faced.

Watch “Asian Americans,” a five-hour film series that delivers a bold, fresh perspective on the history of the fastest-growing demographic in the country today. Stream now.

Petersen’s piece set the groundwork for the creation of the model minority myth — the stereotype that characterized Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding group, one that served as the aspirational standard for minority communities amid the growing civil rights movement. In the years to come, the idea of Asian Americans as model minorities would become a part of the larger American consciousness, frequently featured in mainstream American press from outlets like Newsweek, the New Republic, Fortune, Parade and Time.

Despite the identity’s ability to garner mainstream attention and fuel political organizing, the fashioning of a pan-Asian ethnic identity also contributes to a flattening of various ethnicities into a monolithic group. This, in addition to the model minority myth, erases the multiplicities of Asian identity: from histories of racism and resistance to contemporary struggles.

Demonstrators hold signs that read "Stop genocide in India"
Bay Area demonstrators at Equality Lab’s national day of action to stop the Citizen Amendment Act in India. January 2020. | Equality Labs

One such affected group was the South Asian American community, whose struggles include caste oppression within the South Asian community and navigating a post 9/11 America, where the Brown body was especially racialized in the U.S.

The “War on Terror” declared by the Bush administration released levels of discrimination and subjugation unseen before this time. Suddenly, an entire community, itself rich with diverse religions and histories, was determined violent and worthy of suspicion. Mosques became frequent targets for surveillance. Members of the Sikh community endured rampant discrimination as their turbans were conflated with a distorted vision of a violent Islam.

Hate crimes reached an all-time high, and South Asian immigrants were collectively deemed as threats.

Nearly 20 years later, this community is still reeling from years of systemic marginalization and violence. After the 2016 election, hate crimes spiked as they did in 2001 as the Trump administration continues to perpetuate the tired trope of the dangerous Brown body.

Yet this community is not simply a passive receiver. Several groups have taken it upon themselves to preserve and write their own histories.

Meet four South Asian American cultural organizations and collectives that seek to subvert prevailing stereotypes by preserving their unique histories. All while contributing to a new American nation.

Discostan

Discostan — the land of disco — is an imaginary migratory homeland.

A woman deejays at a party
A Discostan Party. | Labkhand Olfatmanesh.

Known for its monthly parties in Los Angeles, Discostan has grown as more than just a dance party since its start in 2010. It intersects social practice, community engagement and performance art, growing into a space for community and collaboration not just from South Asia but also the larger interconnected diaspora of the SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa) region — a transnational aspect that is critical when considering the shared pre- and post-colonial cultural history.

This transnational aspect is critical for Arshia Haq, Discostan’s creator, noting the shared pre- and post-colonial cultural history of its SWANA audience.

Black and white photo of a woman standing holding a vinyl record
Arshiq Haq, creator of Discostan. | Sinziana Velicescu

“In the SWANA region, we carry the impact of shared colonial legacies. But even before that, we had a history of exchange between our regions. Pearl traders from Yemen would come to Hyderabad, my birth city, to trade their luminous gems. Later, railroad workers from the subcontinent went to Egypt to build out the railroads during the British reign. There are hundreds of stories like this,” she says.

Haq describes Discostan as one of the first club spaces to publicly articulate this identity in a post 9/11 America, noting that the idea of the homeland held new resonance amid the racialization of certain identities around the world, including that of the Indian Muslim.

“I think in its very conception Discostan is a radical space in making visible and audible the Brown body at a time when we are pushed into various forms of censorship, whether by the world around us or by ourselves,” she says. “There is still something radical about playing Afghan, Pakistani, Iraqi music and visuals at full volume in the middle of downtown Los Angeles in a public venue on a Saturday night.”

Beyond the club, the spirit of Discostan has spilled into the streets via performance art (such as last year’s “Ajnabi Milan” performance, radio shows, long-form podcasts on unknown pieces of SWANA music history and a record label launching later this year.

Born in Hyderabad, India, Arshia moved to the U.S. when she was five. Discostan started as her organic love letter to her origin story as an immigrant from India in the ‘80s, “weaving together of past, present and future landscapes as a map of survival and a dynamic and ongoing relationship to identity.”

Buying cassette tapes is among her earliest memories while on trips back to Hyderabad. Music and media became the site through which she explored nostalgia, identity and the idea of “homeland.”

Over the past decade, Discostan has expanded to serve as a collective space for visual, performance and sound artists to collaboratively envision the space, becoming a laboratory for experimentation and expression for cultural and spiritual traditions.

“When you’re in that liminal club space, you have a kind of freedom that you just don’t have in the institution,” Haq says. “Ultimately it’s a space by us, for us.”

SAADA

SAADA began in 2008 with the recognition that stories from the South Asian community were not being systematically collected — in addition to historically remaining on the fringes of traditional archives, museums and other heritage institutions.

Black and white photo of a woman speaking into a microphone with her left hand raised holding a piece of paper
SAADA board member Ayshea Khan speaks at a SAADA event at the Newberry Library in Chicago. November 21, 2019. | Tizarat Kaur Gill.

Samip Mallick, Co-Founder and Executive Director of SAADA, conceived of the idea of a digital archive while in college. The son of Indian immigrants who came to the U.S. in the late 1960s, he became especially interested in the history of South Asians in the U.S.

“I was shocked to learn that South Asians had started immigrating to the U.S. in larger numbers beginning in the late 1800s, that the Supreme Court barred South Asians from becoming American citizens in 1923 and that in 1956 a South Asian immigrant was elected to U.S Congress. I wondered why these histories weren’t reflected in my textbooks or taught in any classes I had taken,” Mallick says.

SAADA’s collections, which now contain more than 3,700 items, are the largest publicly accessible South Asian American archive. This includes rare photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, oral history interviews, videos, digital materials and other ephemera dating from the late 1800s.

Just as archives preserve stories from yesterday for our benefit today, SAADA also preserves stories from the present for tomorrow’s understanding. Their First Days Project asks immigrants and refugees to share stories about their very first moments of arrival in the United States. Their Road Trips Project, inspired by the tragic 2017 murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla who was told to “go back” to his country right before he was killed in a Kansas bar, explores what it means to feel safe in the country that you were perhaps born in or chose to make your home.

Amid the undoubtedly historic COVID-19 pandemic, SAADA has launched Letters from 6’ Away, asking community members to write themselves a letter one year in the future with the personal memories, lessons and revelations from today to document South Asian American experiences during the pandemic.

“If it were not for our communities standing up for ourselves and advocating for our place in the American story, our voices would continue to be hidden, or perhaps even lost entirely,” says Mallick.

“Despite the misrepresentation of our community, South Asian Americans have always been engaged in shaping and making America what it is today. From the revolutionary Ghadar Party, to our decades-long struggle for citizenship, South Asian Americans have long fought for inclusion,” he says. “And, whether it’s been through supporting the Civil Rights Movement, allyship with Black Lives Matter, or challenging racist Islamophobia today, our community’s story is full of narratives of those pushing back against injustice and advocating for the most marginalized.”

Equality Labs

Equality Labs began in 2015 to fight against caste apartheid, religious extremism and gender-based violence.

Illustration featuring people holding a sign that reads "EQUALITY LABS"
Equality Labs Logo | Courtesy of Equality Labs

Among the first organizations to explore what it meant to be South Asian American, Equality Labs looks to center those marginalized within the South Asian community due to caste, religion and gender.

This informed the organization’s diverse set of tools: grassroots organizing, research and socially-engaged art. The organization relies heavily on artists and media makers, seeing visual culture as an important aspect of imagination and identity. One such project is Dalit History Month, an annual observance of Dalits, also known as “Untouchables,” members of the lowest social group in the Hindu caste system. Dalit History Month is celebrated all over the world by followers of B.R Ambedkar, a Dalit leader who transformed the lives of caste-oppressed people in India and around the world through his work in philosophy, economics, education and democracy. Equality Labs calls itself an Ambedkarite organization, meaning they organize and practice in the legacy of B.R. Ambedkar, whose mission was to educate, agitate and organize, while uplifting the vision of caste annihilation and social equity. Ambedkar provided a concrete vision of centering caste oppressed communities — a central practice for Equality Labs — inspiring people to work within a caste abolitionist framework, which centers caste in the analysis around social justice to challenge dominant narratives.

The legacy of Asian American resistance has also largely informed Equality Lab’s intersectional approach to activism.

“We understand ‘Asian American’ to be a broad and infinite category through which we strive to build the kind of connections that can drive us towards liberation. There are so many intersections of shared struggle against colonialism and imperialism: Chinese migrants who came to work on American railroads came at the same time many Indo-Caribbeans arrived to become indentured servants in European colonies. Japanese and Indian soldiers were collateral damage during World War II, a war largely perpetuated by the U.S. and Europe,” says Sharmin Hossain, political director of Equality Labs.

Digital security became a growing component of the organization’s work as they realized the impacts of digital violence, targeted attacks and threats that impacted the ability to organize.

Currently, COVID-19 has magnified these connections. As “Yellow Peril” and Islamophobia are on the rise — both driven by disinformation online — Equality Labs has focused on addressing hate speech online.

“Our COVID-19 data tracking has documented an alarming rise of COVID-related Islamophobia and hate crimes.  Viral hashtags like #CoronaJihad have been trending to associate Muslims with spreading the virus. #CoronaJihad was formulated as part of an ongoing and relentless campaign of dehumanization by Hindu Nationalists against Indian Muslims and other caste oppressed faiths,” says Hossain. “In our CoronaJihad report set to release next week, we urge social media platforms, healthcare providers, the World Health Organization, governments and the public to respond quickly to these findings of COVID-19 Islamophobia.”

Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour

In Berkeley, South Asian couple Anirvan Chatterjee and Barnali Ghosh hold a monthly walking tour that visits original sites and shares stories and the secret history of four generations of immigrant freedom fighters, feminists and more.

The tour began in the summer of 2012, when Chatterjee and Ghosh, two longtime Bay Area activists, had amassed multiple stories of South Asian American resistance in Berkeley through engaging with older community members and activists.

“I think for especially young people who are growing up here, whose parents don’t necessarily know the stories of the hundred-plus years of activism that we have here, there’s a certain pressure to sort of conform and be the doctor, that engineer and not necessarily the activist,” Ghosh notes.

“South Asians from colonized countries wouldn’t be where we are without our freedom fighters — we wouldn’t have independence. So that kind of organizing is a part of our history. But somehow, we lose that connection,” she says. “There’s nothing necessarily visible in the streets of Berkeley that tell you that we’ve been here for 100 years. We knew that we had to create that space for ourselves — we wanted to change the relationship of the participants to the city of Berkeley.”

The walking tour shares these histories with a wider community to inform and inspire new activism. Stories are compiled through community oral storytelling, digital archives like SAADA, as well as through independent research and reading.

Ghosh, who works in architecture, notes the idea of placemaking in the creation of cities; how to create a sense of belonging for the people. She describes the walking tour as “temporal placemaking.”

Illustration of a man in a suit wearing a white turban
Kartar Singh Sarabha | Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

During the tour, one is transported to a different time as Anirvan uses elements of theater in the various historic sites, enacting the words of individuals such as Kartar Singh Sarabha, a key leader in the Ghadar Party whose activism was largely informed during his time at UC Berkeley. The goal of the tour is to add a South Asian layer to the city of Berkeley, fueling a deeper connection of belonging for the tour’s largely South Asian participants.

The goal is to be a gateway into deeper engagement — whether that’s further reading or providing a vision of activism they can participate in.

“I think over and over, we’re reminded that these stories are not just history. They are actually what we need to survive in the future,” says Ghosh. “I think many of us are continuously looking back at these stories for the lessons, for tactics and for tools to ensure that our community continues to survive and to learn from the mistakes that folks before us have made.”

Stream all episodes of “Asian Americans.” Click to watch part one, part two and the finale.