In the week after liberals clutched their organically grown pearls that our president would (openly) call the first black republic a “shithole,” many immigrants jumped on Twitter to quip about the shithole countries they come from. But immigrants come from various kinds of shitholes, some more palatable to white America than others. Ajit Pai and I come from the same one.
Ajit Pai, Federal Communications Commission chairman, caused waves in his effort to repeal net neutrality; an open internet, besides being a democratizing force, is an essential tool to fighting authoritarianism and mass surveillance.
But he also caught my attention because Ajit Pai is a Konkani Gaud Saraswat Brahmin—and I am, too. In late 2016, I retired an oral history project on Konkani-speaking Brahmins because I mostly recorded versions of the same fabulous origin story, more legend than history—that we were “pure” light-skinned Brahmins of the north, who traveled to southwestern India after the Saraswati River “went underground.”
I heard stories of how we Konkani GSBs were very good at math, and often became bankers or teachers. How I, the interviewer, must be some sort of black sheep (I nearly failed calculus). Most personal histories I recorded were deterministic, with storytellers ascribing their traits or life stories to their birth and caste. Brahmins are hardly an underprivileged minority—and neither are Indian Americans.
Unlike the Bobby Jindal model of assimilation—pretending you’re not a minority—Pai’s relationship to his heritage is more vocal. Being Konkani or amchigele seems to be a point of pride for Pai. He’s wished people a happy ugaddi (new year), toasting his Twitter followers with the Konkani sweet ubbati. He tweeted about the last Konkani newspaper’s demise. He evidently understands but does not speak our mother tongue well—twins! He responded to his distant relative’s tweets with generic glee about Konkani support.
Pai also always acknowledges his gratitude to the U.S.—“only in America” was his family “given the opportunity to dream big.” He takes pride in his immigrant journey—at an address to the U.S. Indian Business Council last March, he congratulated himself for his success: “Here I am, the grandson of a spare auto parts salesman and a file clerk, tapped by the president of the United States to be the nation’s chief communications regulator.” He lauded Indian-American career exceptionalism, noting that many tech companies have Indian CEOs, and that nearly a quarter of Bay Area startups are founded by an Indian.
Pai peddles a story of Indian-American exceptionalism. Dino Teppara, a Republican lawyer, described Pai as the classic immigrant model and one of the greatest Indian Americans, telling India Abroad that Pai’s “exceptional background” is “proof enough that Pai has worked hard to reach the position he commands today.”
Pai’s exceptional background, I’m guessing, is his assimilated pedigree as a Konkani Brahmin born to doctor parents, his multiple Ivy League degrees and his white wife. Pai, who told the same business council the moving story of his parents arriving in the U.S. with a radio and $10 in their pocket—“the American dream manifest”—conveniently leaves out their medical education and Brahmin privilege.
This is how the model-minority story operates: It leaves out details of structural privilege and access to resources while prioritizing narratives of white-approved success.
Here lies the crux of the problem with Ajit Pai: Pai is quick to call out racism when he’s on the receiving end of it, but when it is his turn to enact racist and classist regulation on the country, he enthusiastically (and to the tune of the Harlem Shake) will rise to the occasion. He is excited to privatize our communications—especially for poor people, when he ended subsidized broadband.
His posturing as a minority—especially evident when he talked about growing up underrepresented by the media with just The Simpsons’ Apu—is a convenient diversionary tactic from his very real aspiration toward the model-minority ideal. As Meenasarani Linde Murugan notes in her review of The Problem With Apu, ending net neutrality would prevent black and brown creators in the mold of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and Brown Girls from having the wide audiences that they did.
Ajit Pai is not unique in his assimilation and ascendance to political power—the model minority was solidified through political pathways. Early Asian-American politicians paved the way, hawking a post-racial fantasy of America while masking its imperialism.
Now we have Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was mocked so thoroughly when he moved to stop talking about “hyphenated” Americans, he inspired a hashtag: #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite. Meanwhile, he has been waging his own war on drugs in the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country and attempting to run for president.
Preet Bharara, momentarily celebrated for being fired by Donald Trump, is known for targeting vulnerable populations in New York, especially for the Bronx 120. In April 2016, Bharara indicted 120 young men in the largest “gang” raid in New York history, one that also resulted in a man being chased off a roof to his death. It is no accident that U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit led this raid.
Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is known for attacking Medicaid, disproportionately affecting people of color. Elaine Chao, U.S. secretary of transportation, is a banker-turned-politician who comes from an impossibly wealthy family and is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Indra Nooyi, Pepsi CEO and very rich person, was an advisory member of the Strategic and Policy forum that Trump disbanded after the group “became a distraction.”
Nikki Haley, a chameleon politico and current United Nations ambassador, has flip-flopped on her stance against Confederate flags and Trump’s behavior. Haley, like Pai, revisits her childhood growing up as a nonblack minority in the U.S. Haley and her sister entered a child beauty pageant in South Carolina, where traditionally a black and white queen were crowned. They were disqualified. Haley, who was governor of South Carolina for two terms, signed a racist voter-ID law and desperately fought marriage equality.
Of course, there are South Asians on the other side of the aisle—the most prominent, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), has been critiqued for her pro-prison and anti-sex-worker stance.
Fighting the “model-minority myth” has become something of an internal battle cry in Asian-American activist spaces. The myth is a wedge between black and Asian communities from which Asian Americans have long benefited. Asian Americans have more opportunities because the model-minority stereotype decreased racism toward Asian communities in a complicated interaction of geopolitics, the Cold War and the civil rights movement. (The latter precipitated the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which temporarily ended national-origin quotas.)
Of course, it’s not true—it would be absurd to assume that all Asians are smart, wealthy and obedient. There’s no gene for that, reserved for the “right” kind of Asian country. Resistance against the model-minority stereotype is rooted in efforts to rectify the divisiveness it causes among peoples of color, and to shine light on the socioeconomic pain of an impossibly diverse group of people lumped together as “Asian.”
When one minority is held up as a model, it is because another minority is being tacitly criticized: “If Asians can do it, why can’t you?” By the ’50s and ’60s, the idea of the model minority had taken root in the U.S. (pdf), with newspapers glorifying them as the hardworking, “good” kind of citizen. Asians, who were once paid like black people, started to earn white pay between 1940 and 1970—likely because of this shift in attitude.
According to Ellen Wu, embracing Asian Americans “provided a powerful means for the United States to proclaim itself a racial democracy and thereby credentialed to assume the leadership of the free world.” The very story of the Asian-American dream is propaganda.
That’s the essence of the model-minority ideal: that if you “follow the rules” of supremacy, you will overcome. It’s a demonstration of value, and value is in the eyes of the powerful beholder: the white man. It’s a race-tinged twist on the Protestant work ethic that has all of us grinding 9-to-7 (let’s be honest) every day, yoking our worth to our output, our existence to our oppressors.
If you lean into whiteness, if whiteness washes over you and claims you as one of its own, it’s hard to extricate yourself from your oppressor. It’s entirely probable that over decades of political brainwashing, quiet survival and increasing rewards for keeping up the ruse, the model minority has become a reality. By opting out of anti-racist politics and opting into classist hierarchy, the Asian-American model minority is far from a myth, and more of an aspiration. And to achieve this goal, you must lean in harder than white people have to. You go after other minorities to prove difference, to demonstrate a visible hierarchy.
Asian America, touted as a monoculture, is as divided as it is diverse. While we have ICE detaining immigrant activist Ravi Ragbir and Vanderbilt University suspending Dr. Eugene Gu for kneeling in support of Black Lives Matter in a picture, the pursuit of power in white America seems to attract key model minorities like Ajit Pai.
Similar to how patriarchy needs women to uphold it, white supremacy utilizes minorities to oppress one another. The model minority becomes a unique tool of supremacy: a minion, a humble servant, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Or, in this case, skin.