On October 15, Vikram Pandit, the chief executive of Citibank, was fired from his position. A native of Nagpur, Pandit had a degree from another elite university, Columbia. Neha Thirani, in a New York Times blog, wrote that Pandit “was one of India’s shining overseas corporate success stories, part of a growing group of executives of Indian birth or ancestry who have led American institutions in recent years”.
While there are considerable differences between Gupta and Pandit, they had one thing in common. Both had relentlessly pursued the so-called American dream by aspiring to be “model minority” immigrants. Since 1965, there have been waves of upper-and middle-class Indian immigrants who believe that the best way to be assimilated into American society is to adopt the narrative of the model minority. So what does it mean to be one?
In my book, American Karma: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Indian Diaspora, I outline four important facets of the model minority myth. First, Indian immigrants believe that they are talented, that they work hard and have made it in America solely on merit. The idea here is that through hard work and cultural values, model or “good” minority communities can rise above their difficult circumstances. Consequently, minority communities that may not have a plethora of success stories are seen as lazy, lacking in the right cultural values, not naturally bright, and enjoying the benefits of welfare. Many Indians in America neglect to acknowledge that back home they were part of an educated middle class, that they were cherry-picked by the state to gain entry in the US. They furthered their advantages by acquiring a world-class education subsidised by scholarships. This propelled them into well-paying white collar jobs, which brought other symbols of success, such as fancy cars and palatial houses. Educated, professional Indian immigrants have a different economic and educational starting point than many other low-income minorities in the US. It is unfair to compare the achievements of a small group of elite professionals with the educational and economic attainments of other underrepresented minority groups who have been oppressed and marginalised for centuries.
Second, the model minority myth perpetuates the idea that all Indians, irrespective of their individual aptitude and social origins, have it in their cultural DNA to become highly accomplished professionals. What is not recognised by the larger Indian “middle class” diaspora is that there are thousands of other Indian immigrants in the US making a living as janitors, cab drivers and undocumented workers in Indian restaurants.
Third, Indian immigrants who buy into the model minority myth tend to espouse a narrow notion of success and achievement, typically associating it with becoming doctors, lawyers, software engineers and management professionals. This limited notion of success is transmitted to their children, who are pushed to compete for admission to brand-name Ivy League schools and expected to follow their parents’ “model” professions. Fourth, adopting the model minority myth also implies being silent about the experiences of colour, class and sexuality. In spite of their economic success, professionals from the Indian diaspora experience varying levels of racism and discrimination in their workplace and their suburban communities. The skin colour, clothes, food, the gods and goddesses and the “thick accents” of professional Indians invite racial attacks. The Indian migrants I interviewed for my study spoke about their encounters with racism, but then rationalised them with reasons like “every culture discriminates”, “look, Indians are racists as well,” and “it is human nature to marginalise others,” and “Europe is worse.” Following the model minority myth also means shunning political alliances with other “unmodel” minorities. Instead, Indians often seek alliances with the dominant white, upper-class majority.
We should not ask questions about how exemplary “model minorities” such as Gupta and Pandit descended from their corporate perches. We should ask deeper questions about the psychic, moral and political costs of following the model minority path. Why did Indians in India and in the US, with such collective frenzied devotion, hold up people like Gupta and Pandit as icons and symbols of success?
Undoubtedly, their stories are about greed and an unceasing desire to make money, but they are also stories of a catastrophic moral failure. These men felt that the only way to belong in the US was to succeed at all costs: to practice an extreme version of the model minority discourse. It is ironic that they will now have to live with the reputation of being un-model citizens, reminding us that we need to create alternative definitions of success, happiness and belonging in the Indian immigrant community.
The writer is chair and professor of human development at Connecticut College, US, firstname.lastname@example.org