Intra-Ethnic Othering and ‘Being’ South Asian – Anushka Chaudhuri

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Intra-Ethnic Othering and ‘Being’ South Asian – Anushka Chaudhuri

It was a lazy September afternoon in 2018. The weather was dull, the skies were grey. Our moods reflected this – a kind of pathetic fallacy. The three of us were sitting in the narrow corridor in one of our houses; our backs being warmed up against the radiator. It was a big and old house with high ceilings – typical of privately rented student accommodation – so it was always a little bit cold. A blessing in the warm summers, I imagine. Relocating to the worn leather sofa downstairs, we discussed social expectations, wants and ‘unwants’ in life as first and second-generation British South Asian women: careers, marriage, the possibility of children and whether religion held any place in this hypothetical future.

Our friendship was a safe space – a place to earnestly discuss our thoughts and cultivate joy. Perhaps the metaphorical space was deemed as too safe, however, as it evidently paved way for ‘intra-ethnic othering’ – labelling and treating individuals of the same ethnic or cultural group as intrinsically different, alluding to their inferiority (Pyke and Dang, 2003; Powell and Menendian, 2017). Therefore, when I expressed, as a first-generation migrant, that I felt more Indian than British, my friend’s words cut me:

“I feel more British than Indian, but more Indian than you…”.

The first few months after my friend nonchalantly told me this, I was distressed. It was all I could think about during some autumnal nights. I was born in India and all of my family live there. So, how can a British-born Indian be more Indian than me – someone actually from India? But I recognised that my immediate thoughts pertained to the same mode of comparison and othering. Identities are relative. Whilst we may identify with particular labels and present ourselves accordingly, our identities are interpreted by other individuals, and it is ultimately their perception that influences their behaviour towards us. Therefore, I came to realise that my friend’s comment was not a reflection of her, but of the diasporic struggle and insecurity in navigating one’s own identity within various communities and cultures in Britain. I began to think about why she might have proclaimed such a thing in the first place.

Living in Britain, away from the ethnic or cultural homeland in South Asia, identity is commonly navigated through forming communities on the basis of shared culture and often amplified through language, politics and religion. Listening to folklore and family histories is another way in which culture and identity are inherited generationally. Yet why is it that, even where there is commonality of ethnic and cultural identity, othering is rife? This sense of ‘being’ more or less – never enough – and having your identity policed by others is prevalent within all communities, but appears to be magnified amongst South Asians.

South Asian communities often uphold the log kya kahenge (‘what will people say?’) mentality – an informal mechanism of social control that prioritises societal norms and opinions over the individual by emphasising conformity and shame, to regulate identity and behaviour (Ali, 2019). Intra-ethnic othering often accentuates this cultural gatekeeping as ‘other’ South Asians are policed, being deemed as different and non-belonging, and consequently marginalised. Our understandings of what it means to ‘be’Indian are informed by longstanding emphasis placed upon cultural practice and engagement with the community, and fortified by our experiences. But there are other numerous aspects to ‘Indianness’ – regional identity, language, media, food and politics to name a few. So, how can the extent to which we are perceived as ‘being’ Indian be policed through cultural practice and community engagement – especially when the prevalence of intra-ethnic othering can inhibit this through marginalisation? When individuals challenge our understandings of Indianness that we have been socialised to believe, we deem them as ‘Other’. And, I say ‘our’ or ‘we’ because whether or not you and I participate in this behaviour, we are, to an extent, complicit until we actively challenge this within our communities.

A close friend suggested that my friend’s diasporic romanticisation of an old and now non-existent – or perhaps entirely imagined – India (see Rushdie, 1991) might have been at odds with meeting someone of the same age who hailed from contemporary India. Regardless, I did not ask what my friend meant when she felt “more Indian” than me or why she said it. So – perhaps a misinterpretation – I am assuming that her perception was informed by her active engagement within her local cultural community and her observation of my lack of this, as that appeared to be one of our overt differences. Being culturally or religiously (non)practising does not make someone more or less Indian. But this reflects the reality of many first-generation migrants: a lack of community. Even if well-integrated, lack of involvement with the cultural community – due to othering and marginalisation; general minoritisation in Britain; or migrating without wider family – can spur feelings of social isolation and loneliness, which have been reported widely among first-generation migrants (see ten Kate, et al., 2020).

Therefore, being part of the British South Asian diaspora is hard enough due to our racialised minoritisation. But, arising from competition within (racial) capitalism and pressure to conform to societal norms – whilst trying to navigate cultures and communities – intra-ethnic othering further complicates identity as an arguable manifestation of this toxicity (see Robinson, 1983).

All of this othering and cultural gatekeeping begs the question “why?”. Cultures and communities are over time evolving with flows of individuals, ideologies and capital. They are socially constructed and, although important to certain aspects of identity, they are arbitrary (see Castles, 2000; Anderson, 1983). Communities premised upon cultural identities are communities in nothing more than name. Our experiences as unique individuals sometimes unify and divide us; whether that is influenced by intersections of caste, class, religion, gender, complexion, regional identity, or migrant status, for example (Crenshaw, 1989). As diaspora, why are we trying to retain ideas of cultural authenticity and the impenetrability of community by reproducing societal norms that are rooted in social control and leave no room for individualism and personal needs, through intra-ethnic othering? Why are we reproducing restrictive notions of South Asian identity by ‘being’ more of thisand less of that, when we are actively shaping our own identities in line with our own experiences within life in (multicultural) Britain and on this globalising planet?

Intra-ethnic othering – just one manifestation of capitalist competition and identity-based insecurity – truly reflects the instability of communities predicated merely upon shared cultural identity and of cultural gatekeeping. Whilst my friend’s comment had temporarily caused some unease, it really just made me assess the ways in which diasporas treat one another in an attempt to attain a greater semblance of balance, belonging and ‘being’ as minorities within Britain. When we complain of marginalisation and othering, we look beyond our own doorstep and delegate blame to more privileged groups in their oppression of us, but we seldom introspect about our treatment of people from even our own culture.

By Anushka Chaudhuri 

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