Indian American, South Asian American, or simply American?

Indian Americans

Diaspora conflicted about self-identity with some rooted in India and others favoring a nonhyphenated ‘American’ identity.

The over four million strong Indian American community, the second-largest immigrant group in the United States, seems somewhat conflicted about its collective identity, according to the latest Indian American Attitudes Survey (IAAS).

“The official classification and self-identities of the Indian American community have posed a conundrum for more than a century, from ‘Hindoo’ to ‘Asian’ to ‘South Asian’ to ‘Asian Indian’ to ‘Indian American’ to ‘American,’” notes the survey released Wednesday.

Indeed, even the use of the term ‘Indian American’ is contested, as some members of the diaspora prefer the term ‘South Asian American,’ which signifies solidarity with other groups hailing from the subcontinent, it says.

Still others reject hyphenation entirely, preferring to be known simply as ‘American.’

Read: Indian American community’s bonds tested over religion, politics: survey (June 9, 2021)

For instance, the survey noted, former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal declared in 2015, “I do not believe in hyphenated Americans. . . . My dad and mom told my brother and me that we came to America to be Americans. Not Indian-Americans, simply Americans.”

Around the same time, Nina Davuluri, who was crowned Miss America 2014, remarked, “The fact that I am rooted in Indian culture helped me win [the] Miss America pageant.”

The survey by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace with with the research and analytics firm YouGov is based on a poll of 1,200 Indian Americans — including citizens, Green Card holders and Non-Resident Indians — in September 2020.

“Today, Indian Americans are a mosaic of recent arrivals and long-term residents,” the survey noted. “While the majorityare immigrants, a rising share is born and raised in the United States.”

“Many Indian immigrants might have brought with them identities rooted in their ancestral homeland, while others have eschewed them in favor of a nonhyphenated ‘American’ identity, it says.

And despite the overall professional, educational, and financial success many Indian Americans enjoy, this has not inoculated them from the forces of discrimination, polarization, and contestation over questions of belonging and identity, it says.

Read: US-India relations don’t animate Indian Americans much: Survey (October 16, 2020)

How do Indian Americans perceive their own ethnic identity? How do they respond to the dual impulses of assimilation and integration? And how might their self-conception influence the composition of their social networks?

Posing these questions, the survey noted that as the profile of the Indian American community has grown, so too has its economic, political, and social influence.

As affirmation of the growing influence of the Indian American diaspora, the survey recalled President Joe Biden’s phone call in March 2021 with Swati Mohan, an Indian-origin scientist charged with overseeing the highly anticipated landing of the Perseverance Mars rover for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

“It’s amazing. Indian—of descent—Americans are taking over the country: you, my vice president [Kamala Harris, whose mother was born in India], my speechwriter, Vinay [Indian American Vinay Reddy]. . . . You guys are incredible.”

Major findings:

Indian Americans exhibit very high rates of marriage within their community.

While eight out of ten respondents have a spouse or partner of Indian origin, US-born Indian Americans are four times more likely to have a spouse or partner who is of Indian origin but was born in the United States.

Religion plays a central role in the lives of Indian Americans but religious practice varies.

While nearly three-quarters of Indian Americans state that religion plays an important role in their lives, religious practice is less pronounced.

Forty percent of respondents pray at least once a day and 27 percent attend religious services at least once a week.

Roughly half of all Hindu Indian Americans identify with a caste group. Foreign-born respondents are significantly more likely than US-born respondents to espouse a caste identity.

Read: Kamala Harris, Trump-Modi bonhomie factors unlikely to sway Indian Americans: Survey (October 14, 2020)

The overwhelming majority of Hindus with a caste identity—more than eight in ten—self-identify as belonging to the category of General or upper caste.

“Indian American” itself is a contested identity. While Indian American is a commonly used shorthand to describe people of Indian origin, it is not universally embraced.

Only four in ten respondents believe that “Indian American” is the term that best captures their background.

Civic and political engagement varies considerably by one’s citizenship status.

Across nearly all metrics of civic and political participation, US-born citizens report the highest levels of engagement, followed by foreign-born US citizens, with non-citizens trailing behind.

Indian Americans’ social communities are heavily populated by other people of Indian origin.

Indian Americans—especially members of the first generation—tend to socialize with other Indian Americans.

Internally, the social networks of Indian Americans are more homogenous in terms of religion than either Indian region (state) of origin or caste.

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